LDS Democrats still trying to reconcile opposing values

In the Sept. 16 edition of the Deseret News was a commentary about Latter-day Saints in Utah who have joined the Democratic Party. So novel is this concept that they held a press conference during the Democratic National Convention to take their movement nationwide. In one year, they say they have 2,000 members of LDS Democrats here in Utah. To which I say, congratulations.

For several years I have admonished Utah Democrats to become more mainstream so that Utah might actually become a viable two-party state. Of course, my conservatism fits much better in Republican circles, but my policy world runs off of ideas, and ideas only get better when they’re debated from all angles. So I like the idea of a stronger Democratic Party in Utah. That said, I believe good public policy also requires the right ideas, and in that vein the notion of Latter-day Saints trying to defend Democratic Party policies on such issues as family, welfare, immigration, the environment and education is simply unbelievable.

On the other hand, it seems many of these LDS Democrats believe that they’ll be the ones shaping the Democratic Party around their more conservative, gospel-oriented views. The state chairwoman for their group proudly proclaims that LDS Democrats are the largest caucus within the state party, implying that their influence will be felt. Unfortunately, everything else she says in her op-ed belies any change in the very un-LDS political thinking among card-carrying Democrats.

She writes, “We believe that it is the Democratic Party that best meets our values: strengthening families, helping the poor reach self-reliance, compassionate immigration policies, being good stewards of the earth, protecting our sacred wondrous lands for future generations and making sure that every American child receives a quality education.”

Before I address that claim, I should preface my remarks by saying that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints remains politically neutral. The LDS Church encourages every member to be politically involved. It takes no sides when it comes to political parties. For me anyway, that’s a very clear position. But for emotionally dysfunctional LDS Democrats in Utah, that clear understanding is tantamount to an endorsement of Democratic Party politics. Here’s what it might look like in the mind of an LDS Democrat: My church didn’t say I couldn’t be a Democrat, so it’s OK to be a Democrat; and I still qualify for a temple recommend, so being a Democrat must be a worthy cause.

Of course, political neutrality says nothing about the value of a political party, nor does personal worthiness substantiate one’s politics. Being a faithful Latter-day Saint is apolitical in terms of partisan politics. Worthiness in the LDS Church doesn’t require any political affirmations – with one distant exception about loyalties to organizations opposed to the LDS Church. The truth is that worthiness in the LDS Church has nothing to do with which political party one belongs – notwithstanding the implications in the last phrase of the Deseret News op-ed: “[W]e are in harmony with our religion.”

In our church we take one another’s word that we’re worthy and faithful (i.e., that “we are in harmony with our religion.”). Fortunately, because we also embrace reason and enlightenment, Latter-day Saints have the capacity to think honestly about such things – and honestly, LDS Democrats have a difficult time defending the proposition that the Democratic Party, statewide or nationwide, is a reasonable home for the gospel-focused views of Latter-day Saints.

So back to the LDS Democrat’s affirmations.

“We believe that it is the Democratic Party that best meets our values.” I think the author means “her” values, because I’m pretty sure the Democratic Party doesn’t meet “my” values, and I’m a Latter-day Saint, so not “our” values.

For the author, those values include strengthening families. Technically, that’s not a value; it’s an objective. The value is in its substance. What does the author mean when she talks about families in the context of Democratic Party politics? We can only assume that as an LDS Democrat the author means an LDS view of family but because the Democrat view of family is so different than the LDS view, it’s hard to tell what this LDS Democrat means. We can assume (or give benefit of doubt) that the Democrat view of family includes the LDS view of family, to whatever degree, but how does the LDS view of family include the Democrat view of family?

The Democrat view of family has been expressed time and again – family means any people who love each other and make a commitment to each other. The LDS view of family means so much more but focuses primarily on family structure, not just family processes – a focus that is tantamount to political treason among Democrat faithful.

Another value (read: objective) the author states is “helping the poor reach self-reliance.” If any objective is shared among Latter-day Saints, this one is. But how is that objective executed within the Democratic Party? In 1936, we know that the LDS Church disagreed so vehemently with the Democratic Party over welfare policies that it created its own welfare plan. How do modern-day Democrats help the poor reach self-reliance? Perhaps someone might point to the 1996 welfare reform bill? But that was a Republican bill signed into law by Democrat President Bill Clinton – after the congressional Republican landslide victory of 1994. It would be more accurate to say that Democrat Clinton exercised a value of prudence more so than welfare reform – for which he’s to be congratulated.

The author mentions “compassionate immigration policies.”  Ironically, it has been conservative Republicans who passed the Utah solution to state-based comprehensive immigration reform. I know of only one LDS Democrat who championed this cause: State Sen. Luz Robles. She had it right, and yet she struggled even within her own legislative caucus to pick up support for “compassionate immigration policies.” Most of the other LDS Democrats toed the popular Democratic line: Immigration is a federal issue and states have no authority to act.

Next, the author cites environmental issues –  “being good stewards of the earth” and “protecting our sacred wondrous lands for future generations.” Again, no reasonable Latter-day Saint could dismiss the sentiment of those objectives. But what do those words really mean? The reality is that Latter-day Saints are conservationists, not preservationists. Equally true is that the strong preservationist current in Democratic circles is vented primarily through Green Party adherents (much like Tea Party or libertarian adherents inside Republican circles). That said, where are explanations about the direct relationship between gospel principles and practical public policies? It could be that some of these issues don’t have a direct relationship. For instance, how does sharing Utah water with Nevada impact the gospel of Jesus Christ, or vice versa? I haven’t heard a Republican draw that connection, but perhaps an LDS Democrat might, in defense of the environment. If so, I’d like to hear that argument.

Without any elaborations, these “values” are simply platitudes.

And lastly, the author affirms her conviction that “every American child receives a quality education.” Latter-day Saints, it is true, believe in education. But what does she mean by “quality education”? Does she mean innovation in education? Does she mean unique learning opportunities for every Utah child? Or does she mean whatever the Utah Teachers Association means by “quality education,” like more money?

Several years ago, during the voucher debate, I wrote a lengthy piece on the history of education reforms in Utah. I concluded that education reform in Utah has been a common and consistent characteristic and that reforms such as vouchers were anything but novel for Utahns. Interestingly, Utah Democrats berated me for implying that Latter-day Saints should support vouchers. Of course, I said no such thing. But it does beg a question for LDS Democrats: How will you be treated by the Democratic core when you say one day that Latter-day Saints don’t support, say, gay marriage?

My bigger point is this: Are LDS Democrats Latter-day Saints first and foremost, or Democrats first and foremost? That question will be a perpetual source of contention. That’s one reason why Utah Republicans don’t have an LDS Republicans caucus: It only causes needless contention.

But I get why LDS Democrats are trying to organize. They feel belittled. They feel they’re being accused of unworthiness in their faith, and they’re expressing these feelings on two tracks: (1) by announcing to the world that faithful Latter-day Saints can be modern Democrats, with all of the baggage that encompasses and (2) by announcing to Utah Democrats that there’s a price to pay if the party wants to undermine the natural affection most Latter-day Saints have for modern Republican ideals.

My feeling about modern LDS Democrats has been what it’s always been: They’re belittled for their politics for good reasons. While I understand how a faithful Latter-day Saint can be a modern Democrat (there are no worthiness standards based on political party affiliation), I don’t understand the intellectual or emotional quest for an identity as an LDS Democrat, or LDS libertarian or even an LDS Republican. So I settle on this: All of these folks are political first and LDS second.