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Morality and politics: The story of Utah’s Mormons in 2016


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SALT LAKE CITY (CNN) — Utah Republican State Sen. Dan Thatcher sees the 2016 election in dire terms.

“It’s like choosing between getting shot or poisoned,” he said in a back hall of the Utah State Capitol building. “We know that Hillary Clinton is the worst, most horrifying and certainly lethal poison known to man. If we vote for Hillary Clinton, we will die in excruciating agony.”

“With Donald Trump, we know we’re going to get shot. We just don’t know where.”

Less than one month out, Thatcher is undecided.

The struggle to accept Trump as the leader of the Republican Party is no more challenging anywhere in America than it is here, where roughly 60% of Utahns are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

For so many, Trump offends their moral compass. Hillary Clinton offends their political compass. They are each, at the same time, the worst person in the world.

“He represents the 1980s ethos of materialism and greed; he is vulgar,” said a high-ranking Republican staffer who requested anonymity because he works for many elected officials and didn’t want to be seen as speaking for them. “He’s filled with self-centered pride, which is modern-day idol worshiping.

“Everything he does is the antithesis of being Mormon.”

Institutions line up against Trump

Nowhere in the nation does voters’ distaste for both candidates feel as palpable. Voter registration tilts three-to-one in favor of Republicans. Still, the Salt Lake City Tribune endorsed Clinton.

Meanwhile, The Deseret News, a newspaper owned by the LDS church, called for Trump to drop out of the race, adding that it does “not believe Trump holds the ideals and values of this community.”

The church strongly denies that the paper’s op-ed is the official position of the institution, which remains neutral in political elections, but the message was clear: Mormons might want to think twice about the foul-mouthed real estate mogul.

Utah hasn’t voted a Democrat into the White House since 1964, and yet, the Democrat this year is tied for the lead here. Barely half of all voters say they’ll vote for either of the major party candidates.

The Kim Jong Un of American politics

A few miles up Route 15 in the quiet hills above the suburb of Bountiful, David Irvine is moving into his condo.

“Donald Trump strikes me as the Kim Jong Un of American politics,” the 73-year-old attorney said. “He’s volatile, he’s temperamental, he is not capable of controlling anger. In that position (president), those seem to me to be vital characteristics.”

Irvine looks like a sophomore-year political science professor. His bow tie suits him. He is a lifelong Republican and was once upon a time a county GOP chairman and state lawmaker.

For Irvine, morality trumps politics — so Clinton trumps Trump.

It’s not just Trump’s personality that irks the lifelong Utah resident, but the cornerstone position of Trump’s campaign — his hardline stance on immigration — is a belief that offends Irvine’s Mormon heritage.

“The history of Mormons in Utah is one of persecution, one of being hunted down,” he said. “That’s a long, tragic story.”

“There are a lot of people in Utah who are members of the Mormon faith, the Mormon Church, who are undocumented immigrants from who knows where. When Mr. Trump says, ‘Deport them all. Build a wall. Tear up families. Kick them out. They’re all criminals. They’re all rapists. They’re terrible, terrible people,’ that’s a really broad brush that I think most members of the Mormon Church, and many, many other faiths, find to be terribly, terribly offensive.”

Morality vs. politics

Who is to say whether moral judgments should take precedence over political ones, or vice-versa? It’s two faiths competing. Neither is remotely unimportant; neither can be dismissed.

“The church’s own scripture, and teachings from the church leaders would suggest that one of the things that’s paramount to consider when you are choosing a candidate is their morality — their personal morality — their level of honesty; that they need to be a good person, a good human being,” said Quin Monson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University in Provo.

Monson isn’t just a professor — he’s Mormon and has voted for Republicans his entire life, a streak that will end on November 8.

“Every time (Trump) chooses to interact publicly, he almost can’t help but interact in a way that I think many Mormons, if not most Mormons, would find troubling and antithetical or opposite of who they are, who they are at least taught to be,” he said.

Monson will vote for Clinton or for third-party candidate Evan McMullin, who is surging in the polls here, but who is on the ballot in less than a dozen states.

“I’m more confident than ever before that Donald Trump will lose Utah,” Monson said.

‘I am not electing an ecclesiastical leader’

Kathleen Anderson lives a bit further up in the Bountiful hills from David Irvine. A lifelong Republican as well, she’s the president of the Utah Federation of Republican Women.

Unlike Irvine, she has a Trump yard sign — a new one because the first was vandalized with spray paint.

Anderson’s family converted to the LDS church when she was seven years old, and she calls it “a good fit” for her. She’s more forgiving of Trump’s style and moral compass than other Mormons.

“Donald Trump probably does not espouse all of my values,” she said. “However, I am not electing an ecclesiastical leader at this point. I’m electing a leader for this country who can write policies that have gone astray.”

Anderson knows other members of her faith are morally repulsed by Trump.

“Some people might find him vulgar, offensive, greedy. Many other qualities that are reprehensible.”

But, she said, “I think to hold everyone to the same standard is incorrect and unfair. I was most likely raised with a different set of values than Donald Trump was.”

“When we make a mistake, we very much want other people to grant us mercy, or grace, or forgiveness,” Anderson said. “When they do, we are so appreciative of that. Yet, it is so easy, it appears, for people to not extend that same grace or mercy, or forgiveness, to someone else who has made a mistake. Rather, we pass this judgment, and I don’t think that judgment is always fair.”

The agony

Back at the state capitol, Thatcher sounds like he is already in excruciating agony.

“Voting for Hillary Clinton, to my mind, is morally repugnant,” he said. “Voting for Donald Trump, in my mind, is morally repugnant. And I am still not sure which one’s worse.”

But will Trump hold off Clinton and win?

“50-50,” he said.