MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Just ahead, it's early fall and, as we've been talking about, the presidential campaigns are now in full swing and it's also the beginning of school, so we decided to give you a crash course on education policy and who stands for what. That's in a minute.
But, first, we turn to Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality and, in this election season, there's been a lot of talk about religious voting blocks and which way they might go. But, when it comes to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon church, you might think that that is not a very interesting question. The church is officially nonpartisan.
But, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 65 percent of Mormons either vote Republican or lean Republican and, on top of that, for the first time, a member of the church is at the top of the Republican ticket.
But our next guests say if you think Mormon and Republican are one and the same, they ask you to think again. They are part of what they see as a growing contingent of Mormon Democrats.
Joining us are Crystal Young-Otterstrom. She is the state chair of LDS Dems. That's an official caucus of the Utah State Democratic Party. Darron Smith is a professor in the health sciences program at A.T. Still University in Arizona. He's also the co-editor of the book "Black and Mormon." And also with us, Boyd Petersen. He is a professor of Mormon studies at Utah Valley University and they're all with us now.
Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.
CRYSTAL YOUNG-OTTERSTROM: Thanks for having us.
DARRON SMITH: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: You know, first of all, I think we should say that there are prominent members of the LDS Church in prominent public positions who are Democrats, like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. So I wanted to ask, why is it that the LDS Church is so strongly identified with conservative Republican politics? And, Professor Petersen, I'll start you on that because you've told us that, when you were growing up, there was more political diversity among Mormons. So how did it happen that the church has become so closely identified with the Republican Party?
BOYD PETERSEN: When I was a child in Utah, our governor was Calvin Rampton, then we had Scott Matheson, both Democrats. Frank Moss was one of our senators. He was a Democrat. Gunn McKay was our congressman. All of these people were Mormon Democrats. And Utah was a kind of swing state for years and years. Utah voted Democrat as often as it voted Republican, if not more so.
So it's interesting that we've become so closely identified to the Republican Party. I think a lot of that has to do with the social issues that have come to the floor recently that have been so divisive from the women's rights movement of the '70s on through abortion and now gay marriage. I think those kinds of issues have polarized the electorate and the two parties in ways that have kind of influenced the way the church members have seen it.
MARTIN: Crystal Young-Otterstrom, this week, the LDS Dems had its first national gathering in Charlotte. What was the turnout like and what was the atmosphere like?
YOUNG-OTTERSTROM: Well, we had a little over 200 people and we're just really excited to get together and to say to the rest of our fellow Latter-day Saint voters that you're welcome here in the Democratic Party, that you can belong here, that your values align.
And we like to say that we're a big tent, not just in Utah, but nationally. You know, if you are a social liberal, great. If you're not a social liberal, great. You're welcome in LDS Democrats and so don't let those issues be a barrier between checking us out and looking at our candidates.
MARTIN: You know, on your fact sheet, you've got a statement there that the LDS Church has often repeated that, quote, "principles compatible with the gospel are found in the platforms of all major political parties and while the church does not endorse political candidates, platforms or parties members are urged to be full participants of political, governmental and community affairs." Where does that come from? And I have to say again, I think that that statement might be a surprise to many people.
YOUNG-OTTERSTROM: Well, it's certainly not a surprise to Mormons because we've been hearing our church leadership say that for years and years, especially more lately. I think there's been a lot of concern from the church about how, monolithically, one party we've become. It's not good for our national image to be all viewed as a certain way.
But people really ought to take a closer look at the issues. I'm a former Republican and I became a Democrat at BYU and it was because I didn't realize that the beliefs I already had were more in line with the Democratic Party rather than the Republican Party.
MARTIN: I'll come back to you and hear from you on that. So, Professor Smith, on the whole question of diversity, African-Americans represent a minority within the Mormon Church, but I think the African-American Mormons who many people have come to know through local politics do embrace more conservative politics. Is that true in your experience, as well? And if you don't mind my asking you, why do you identify as a Democrat?
SMITH: Well, I think it goes back to what the guests just said here formerly. I think I probably was a Republican here probably about 20 years ago. I - you know, I think that I wasn't really terribly sophisticated in terms of which party best represented my ideas, but I just sort of went along with the crowd and so because the majority of my friends and associates were Republican, I just sort of followed suit until I began to question and look into issues specific to what - the things that I champion and began to see an alignment between the Democratic Party and myself.
MARTIN: Give an example.
SMITH: You know, I was actually an aerobics instructor teaching at a place called the Anatomy Academy in Salt Lake City. It's kind of a catchy name. And, you know, I was kind of a new cat in the area and there was a brother in my class, i.e., African-American male, who would take my aerobics class, but I would never really say anything to him. And then, one day, he just kind of asked me. He says, hey, man, you know, you don't ever talk or anything like that. And I said, yeah. I'm kind of quiet, kind of shy. And he says, well, you know, I kind of took it that you kind of wasn't really feeling me. You know, I'm a black guy in this. We're isolated here. And I really thought about that for a moment. As it turns out, he was actually a professor at Utah who taught African-American history.
And so he opened me up to some issues that I just wasn't really aware of at all and, after I was exposed to really good literature, I think I began to see the light, so to speak, in terms of political affiliations, not to say that the Democrats always are necessarily looking out for the best interests of African-Americans. I think they often take us for granted, but nevertheless, the issues specific to mine seems to be represented in that party.
MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and, if you're just joining us, we're talking with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon church, who are Democrats. We're having a conversation during the Democratic National Convention and our guests are Professor Darron Smith. He's co-editor of the book, "Black and Mormon." Also with us, Professor of Mormon Studies Boyd Petersen and Crystal Young-Otterstrom of the group, LDS Dems. That's a group that's caucusing at the Democratic convention meeting in Charlotte this week.
You know, I'm thinking back to four years ago and reflecting that, for a lot of African-Americans, even those who did not share Barack Obama's politics, that was a very special moment. The opportunity to elect the first African-American president was very appealing to a lot of people. For each of you who's a member of the LDS Church, there is the opportunity to elect the first member of your church as President of the United States. And I wanted to ask you how you're grappling with that and maybe, Professor Petersen, how about if I start with you?
PETERSEN: You know, I think Mitt Romney would be a great man to have in my ward. I think he's a fine man. I have nothing against him, personally, but his politics are very different than mine. I think, in general, most people today don't tend to align so much with their churches as they often do with their political ideology. Catholics can vote for Kerry or they can vote for Bush. So I don't think that that's as big an issue any more. I wish Mitt Romney well, but I will be voting for the other guy this year.
MARTIN: Crystal, what about you?
YOUNG-OTTERSTROM: I am supporting the president. I do find it exciting that this is an election between really kind of two minorities, you know, a Mormon and an African-American. And it's so exciting that America is at that point where that can happen and maybe soon we'll have a woman in that mix, which would be very exciting.
But I agree with what Boyd said. I do think that Mitt Romney is a nice guy. He seems very friendly and earnest and he's led some great service as a bishop and estate president, but I - and while I am impressed with his record as Massachusetts governor and I like many of the things that he did while governor, I am disappointed in how he has completely repudiated that record and, to me, going back on something that you did and saying that's not you, I don't see the integrity in that. I don't see the backbone in that.
And so that speaks to me a lack of leadership, which is not what I want to see in my president.
MARTIN: Professor Darron Smith, what about you?
SMITH: Yeah. Well, the same thing is true. I mean, I think that, at the end of the day, we really should be voting our issues, but in reality, we actually vote our values. In terms of Mitt Romney, he seems to have a history of sort of waffling on issues or at least changing his tune. When he was governor, actually, in Massachusetts, to some extent, he had some of the same kinds of - I guess the Republicans use the word, flip-flop, but George Lakoff says don't think like an elephant, so I shouldn't have said that.
But, nevertheless, I'm not a big fan of Mitt Romney simply because his issues don't align with mine, whether he's Mormon or not.
MARTIN: Professor Boyd Petersen, could you go back a little bit to - you talked about the social issues, you know, feminism, abortion rights, marriage equality, things of that sort.
MARTIN: You know, the Democratic platform is pretty clear this year. It aligns itself in favor of choice on abortion, in favor of marriage equality. If you don't mind my asking, is that difficult for you to accept if that isn't where you are?
PETERSEN: You know, I think one of the problems we have - and I want to go back to what I said earlier - those social issues - I think there's a lot of moral issues in our nation, issues about environmental justice, social justice, war. But, during the '70s, issues associated with sexuality seemed to be coming to the floor and I think the thing that galvanized Mormons wasn't so much just that those issues came out, but that church leaders were speaking in similar language to the way Republican leaders were speaking about these issues.
And I think Democrats did a poor job of speaking to people of faith for a long time there. I think that hurt us, frankly, but, you know, personally, I find issues that I'm compatible with in both sides is more a matter of priorities and I am personally pro-life, but we know for a fact that one of the best ways to stop or lower abortions is to fight poverty and, if we really want to value life, we need to value the entire life. And so issues of social justice, I think, become very important.
You know, I might add, my own conversion to Mormonism came at the same time I realized I could be a good Democrat and a Mormon. In reading the Book of Mormon, there are some very strong passages that talk about caring for the poor and the needy and those issues were so important in the Book of Mormon and it really aligned with the Democratic Party.
MARTIN: I think all of you would agree that the candidacy of Mitt Romney, to this point, has brought new attention and interest in the LDS Church.
SMITH: Sure, absolutely.
MARTIN: OK. So the question then becomes - is that attention helpful or not? And the reason I'm asking is that, now, almost four years into the Obama presidency, there's been a new discussion around whether race issues have advanced or not in the course of this presidency.
You know, obviously, four years ago was a moment of tremendous pride for many people in this country, but four years later, now some are saying, well, you know, in a way, it's caused some real turmoil for people. Some people wonder, you know, whether in fact having an African-American in that position has been so upsetting for some people that it's actually set some things back.
So I just wanted to ask you about your reflections of that at this moment, you know, in our history, having a prominent member of your church be in such a prominent political position and all the conversations that are arising. How do you feel about that? Who would like to go first? Crystal, do you want to go first?
YOUNG-OTTERSTROM: If I could talk to the social thing really fast, I want to add to that.
YOUNG-OTTERSTROM: Because, I mean, in addition to this being the Mormon moment, it's shown the variety on social issues that many Mormons are starting to have today and we - you know, Mormons believe very strongly in the separation of church and state. We believe in the sanctity of the constitution. We talk about it being inspired and we talk about that importance of the separation of church and state because, otherwise, our religion wouldn't exist.
And I think that so many members of the church are Republican now, not so much because of those social issues, but because of the culture that's grown up around that. For, you know, Latter-day Saint voters who are afraid to look at Democrats for social issues, you know, they need to remember that you don't have to align with every issue to belong, but you also need to think about - should your religious positions define public policy?
And people should take a look at that marriage amendment and realize how wonderfully balanced it is, this marriage amendment to the Democratic platform because, while it endorses gay marriage on the civil level, it talks about the importance for religions to have their own right to define marriage themselves and they talk about marriage as a religious sacrament, that they should define themselves as religions and I just think that's wonderful that that language of marriage as a religious sacrament is going to be part of the national Democratic platform.
And so people ought to, you know, recognize we are pro-marriage, we are pro-family and we are excited about doing things that help families get to a better world, to get more self-reliance and that sort of a thing.
And so all this attention that Mitt Romney's candidacy has brought to Mormons and Mormonism and Mormon politics is, in my opinion, wonderful.
MARTIN: Professor Smith, what about you?
SMITH: Well, yeah. I agree. In terms of bringing attention to the church, I think it's brought some great attention to the church. I think it's brought it out of obscurity, to some extent, particularly when it pertains to race, my area, race, white racial attitudes. Are African-Americans and other blacks and folks of African descent within the faith treated any differently than they are outside the faith or would they be outside the faith? Are they experiencing discrimination, if you will, or race-based mistreatment in the faith?
And what I can say is that this - Mitt Romney's candidacy has brought attention to these issues. Has it brought it in a negative light in terms of what African-Americans and other black folks are saying about this? I don't think so. I think that black folks that belong to the church are committed, are very, very committed. So the things that I've been hearing in the blogosphere, for instance, has been actually quite positive.
Now, some of the things that I've heard from other Evangelically-based faiths about the church and about the issue with blacks being denied the priesthood back before '78 and so on and so forth, some of that has sort of circulated, but it hasn't really picked up on the - the media hasn't picked up on that. I think they're staying away from these sort of very polemical hot button issues that made the track from President Obama's candidacy - I mean, re-candidacy, in my opinion. So it's been a good thing, as far as I'm concerned.
MARTIN: Boyd Petersen, final word?
PETERSEN: Well, I think, you know, it's really helped in the national sphere to help people realize some of the prejudices they've had about Mormons and get rid of some of those stereotypes, but I think it's also helped us as a church to grow up, in a sense. We're a very young denomination. We've been around for just a few - you know, 100 and something years.
So this is forcing us to kind of take the national stage and I think we're engaging more than we ever have with the national and the world and I think that's very positive for us. I think we're really taking leaps and strides in terms of just becoming more grown up.
MARTIN: Boyd Petersen is a professor of Mormon studies at Utah Valley University. He joined us from the studios of KBYU in Provo, Utah. Darron Smith is a professor in the health sciences program at A.T. Still University in Arizona. He's also the co-editor of the book, "Black and Mormon." He joined us from KMUW in Wichita, Kansas. And Crystal Young-Otterstrom is the state chair of LDS Dems. That's an official caucus of Utah's State Democratic Party. She joined us from Charlotte, North Carolina, where the Democratic National Convention is meeting.
Thank you all so much for speaking with us.
YOUNG-OTTERSTROM: Thank you.
SMITH: Thank you.
PETERSEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.