WASHINGTON, November 9, 2014 – Jimmy Fallon observed last week on the Tonight Show, “Utah candidate Mia Love has become the first black Republican woman elected to Congress. … She’s also a Mormon. A black, female, Republican Mormon. Even unicorns are like, ‘not buying it.’”
What exactly aren’t they buying?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, or LDS) has a reputation for political conservatism. Utah is one of the reddest states in the country in presidential contests, as red as Massachusetts is blue. Many Mormons believe that the Constitution is divinely inspired, and LDS belief in American exceptionalism goes well beyond politics. This makes for a patriotic vision that incorporates God’s special regard for America as the nation uniquely suited for the restoration of the Gospel, a vision more comfortable for Republicans than for Democrats.
Not all devout LDS men and women are politically conservative, and some find that liberalism is a better fit for their religious values, but many Mormons emphasize individual responsibility and self-reliance, drawing a connection between that and conservative political views.
A Mormon female Republican is not newsworthy. Utah is full of them. The only remarkable element of Fallon’s formulation is “black.”
The Mormon church’s history with blacks is not a comfortable one. The founder and first president of the church, Joseph Smith, ordained Elijah Abel to the priesthood in 1836, the first black man to be made an Elder in the church. Early Mormons were often abolitionists, and Joseph Smith ran for the U.S. presidency on an anti-slavery platform in 1844, the year he was murdered.
Under Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, the church stopped ordaining black men to the priesthood and refused black members entry into its temples. Young was quoted by Wilford Woodruff, a later church president as saying, “Any man having one drop of the seed of Cane in him Cannot hold the priesthood … I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ. I know it is true & they know it. The Negro cannot hold one particle of Government.”
Young’s comments were never claimed as official doctrine, but they remained a common LDS belief for over a century. The ban on black ordination and temple ordinances was lifted only in 1978, by President Spencer W. Kimball, though there are well-regarded reports that earlier presidents had attempted and failed to forge consensus in the Quorum of the 12 Apostles to lift it earlier.
Now, 36 years later, the church has congregations in West Africa, as well as a growing number of black members and leaders in Brazil and the United States. As the church has attempted to make peace with its past, it has attempted to be truly racially inclusive. How successful it has been is a subject for a graduate thesis, but Mia Love is not an accident or an anomaly in the church; she is an increasingly important part of its future.
Love is not just a part of Mormonism’s future, but of the Republican future. A conservative, Republican black woman might strike some as fanciful as unicorns, but GOP hostility to blacks is a product of Democratic messaging more than of reality. Decades of residence on the Democratic plantation has left most black Americans as bad or worse off than their parents and grandparents. Race hustlers and poverty pimps like Jesse Jackson and Maxine Waters have grown wealthy, while black unemployment and imprisonment rates are obscenely high.
Democrats argue that black poverty is a result of GOP hostility, but black voters might reasonably ask, what have the affections of the Democrats done for us?
A new generation of black leaders has decided to give the GOP a try. These range from men like neurosurgeon Ben Carson and business CEO Herman Cain to Mia Love and Senator Tim Scott, the first black senator from a southern state since Reconstruction. Democrats deride Republicans for their lack of diversity, then dismiss black politicians as mere tokens, but conservative black leadership is a growing phenomenon, terrible for Democrats to contemplate.
As exotic to some people as a black, Mormon, conservative Republican representative is the Mormon Democrat. Casual observers might be forgiven for doubting that such people exist, and so convinced are some Mormons that God is a Republican, they refuse to believe that you can be a good Mormon and a dedicated Democrat.
Which brings us to Harry Reid.
Mark Paredes, an LDS bishop in California caused a fuss last week when he blogged that Harry Reid was unworthy to enter the temple because of his support for Democratic political stances. The church immediately distanced itself from Paredes’ comments. “Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are, of course, entitled to express their own political opinions,” said spokesman Dale Jones in a statement. “However, publishing such views while using a title of a church officer, even if only as a leader of a local congregation as in this case, is entirely inappropriate.”
If Democrats wish that Mia Love were as fanciful as unicorns, some Mormons wish that the same were true of Harry Reid. But in fact, Mormon beliefs make room for both. In addition to an emphasis on self-reliance, church teachings have also stressed the importance of community. We must take responsibility for our own welfare, but at the same time remember that we are part of a community that is there to support and lift each other up.
Some Mormons like to believe that their political values spring from their religious faith, but in fact their politics have often affected the way they see and practice their faith. A church seen as hostile to women supported one of the first equal rights amendments in the country in its state constitution. The prominence of women in the church has waxed and waned with political fashion. A people once marginalized as un-American became determined to be more American than anyone else. Dress and grooming standards emulating IBM executives were a response to politics, not newly canonized scripture.
The Mormon church is actually a much bigger tent with regard to race and political beliefs than members and foes alike imagine. Conservative Mormons might hate Harry Reid’s political stances, but there’s nothing un-Mormon about them. Liberal non-Mormons might see Mia Love’s appearance in the pastures of Utah politics as a brief intrusion of make-believe into real life, but she is part of Mormon reality.
Reid and Love aren’t unicorns; they’re Mormons. Mormons and non-Mormons alike will have to learn to deal with it.