What It's Like To Be A Mormon Democrat In Idaho

Nov 2, 2012

Travis Manning teaches high school English. He's running on the Democratic ticket for the Idaho Legislature: Caldwell's house seat 10 A.
Credit Rachel Cheney

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints make up about a quarter of Idaho’s population, and they’re watching Mitt Romney’s presidential bid on the edge of their seats. It’s the closest a Mormon has come to the presidency. But not all are voting for Romney.

A couple things before we go any further. I was raised Mormon. I served a mission for the church and remained active into my mid-twenties. Then about a decade ago I left.  I bear no animosity toward the LDS church or its members. Second, this is not a story about which political party Mormons should belong to. I just wanted to know what it’s like to be a Mormon and a Democrat in Idaho.

“It’s maybe a little challenging,” says Travis Manning: Mormon, Democrat, father of three, Caldwell resident, high school English teacher and wrestling coach. He’s taking time off from coaching to run for the Idaho Legislature, house seat 10 A.

It wasn’t long ago that Manning thought of himself as a Republican. “I donated to Mitt Romney’s campaign when he ran the first time,” he says.

Manning split with the GOP on education and environmental issues. He thinks Republicans want to let private companies play too large a role in public education, and he thinks environmental regulations are an important part of managing public lands. Eventually he realized he was a Democrat.

That makes him the odd man out a lot of the time. Because, according to The Pew Forum on Religion, the LDS church has the most politically conservative members of any of the country’s major religions. Only about a fifth of Mormons are Democrats or lean that way.

More than two thirds are Republicans or lean toward the GOP. Manning says his close friends at church don’t care about his politics, but some people find him puzzling and some don’t know.

“It was in a Sunday school class,” he says.  “And somebody made a snide comment about Democrats. A lot of people in my congregation know that I’m running so there was this kind of pregnant pause afterwards and people were like, uhhh.”

Manning says things like that are rare. From what he’s seen, the church has stuck to its policy of non-partisanship even though one of their own – Mitt Romney -  is running for president. He adds it happens the other way too. “Some Democrats can really rail on Mormons,” Manning says.

Richard Stallings acknowledges that Democrats do sometimes “rail on” Mormons. But he says it didn’t happen when he was chair of the state party in the mid-2000s.

Stallings is LDS and the last Democrat elected to congress from Idaho’s second district. He held that seat from the late 1980s through the early 90s. He agrees with Manning that it can be tough to be a Mormon Democrat. A few weeks ago he wrote an op-ed critical of Mitt Romney.

“I had a guy come up at church and get in my face, tell me that he wished they’d kick me out of the church. And that Romney’s sort of the Lord’s anointed,” Stallings says. “He was very loud and drew some attention. And it was a little embarrassing. Not because I care what he says about me, but just because here we’re in a church meeting and it’s supposed to be a spiritual atmosphere. But the bishop later called and apologized for this guy.”

A bishop leads a congregation. Stallings also agrees with Manning that the church, from headquarters in Salt Lake City down to local bishops, has stayed out of the election. But he says for years he’s dealt with a few church members who think his party and his faith are incompatible.

Richard Stallings taught at Ricks College, now BYU Idaho, from 1969 through 1984. He's pictured here in 2011 receiving an award from the school's alumni association.
Credit byuidaho.edu

That hasn’t always been the case according to Phillip Barlow. He’s a professor of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University. When the LDS church-dominated Utah territory became a state in 1896 Barlow says, Mormons did not like the Republican Party. “The Republicans had been the force behind anti-Mormon legislation and policy,” he says.

To gain statehood Utah had to prove it had a multi-party system. There are documented instances of the church asking members to register as Republicans. “In some locals Mormon leaders said look, for now we’ve got to get involved so you go this way and you go this way,” he says. “So there was a bit of assignment if you weren’t committed on your own principals.”

Barlow says it took a generation for Mormons to completely forgive the GOP. By around the 1930s Mormons were split about evenly between the two major parties.  It remained that way for decades. And Barlow says it made sense.

“You can find as many principles that are inherent in Mormonism, and Mormon history and in Mormon theology that would attach to the Democratic Party as you can to the Republican Party.”

On the Republican side there’s the Mormon belief in hard work and personal responsibility. Some went Democrat because of the church’s emphasis on care for the poor. Plus, he says, Mormons tend to have a high level of respect for institutions, like the government. But that fifty fifty party split came to end.

Barlow credits the social changes of the 60s for creating the Republican majority among Mormons. “Casual sex and casual drugs and disrespect for civil authority really veered the culture towards the political right,” he says.

Richard Stallings watched this change take place while teaching at church owned Ricks College, now BYU Idaho, in Rexburg.  To Barlow’s list he adds that Mormons weren’t ready for the civil rights movement. The church didn’t allow blacks to hold leadership positions until 1978.

Stallings says the Democrats lost Idaho Mormons for good at the 1972 convention. The new party platform, he says was too socially liberal.

“I remember people that came back and said we’re done. We’re going to become Republicans,” he says. “We had three or four prominent Rexburg Democrats that said we’re done, we won’t go back.”

Today Mormons are still largely loyal Republicans. Caldwell Democrat Travis Manning says even though people aren’t politicking for Mitt Romney at church, he can feel an undercurrent of excitement.

“This crazy, wild energy I think about the chances and opportunity for Mitt Romney to win,” he says. “There’s a part of me that wants to vote for Mitt Romney.” That’s because he thinks a Mormon president would be good for the church.

“It humanizes Mormons, we’re not crazy," explains Manning. "There’s been a lot of propaganda about Mormons. I think the Mormon Church has been misunderstood for decades.”

So I ask him, “Are you putting politics above God?”

Manning thinks for a moment and says,“I don’t think so. I’m still very active in my church. I still believe profoundly that Jesus is the Christ.  And hold true to the covenants and ordinances that I’ve made.”

Stallings on the other hand, isn’t tempted to vote for Romney. “Just because a person’s a member of the faith, doesn’t qualify him for the job,” he says.

This year, for the first time, the vast majority of Latter-day Saints in the U.S. will have the chance to cast ballots for a Mormon candidate for president. Of course most would vote for the Republican anyway. And Mormon culture professor Philip Barlow says there’s no evidence to suggest church members are moving away from the GOP.

Copyright 2012 Boise State Public Radio