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Idaho has dozens of Latter-day Saint church members in the Legislature. How has faith guided politics?

Faith

BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Every time Wendy Horman is in Washington, D.C., she visits two places. One is the Library of Congress, because the five-term Republican state lawmaker once dreamed of becoming a librarian. The other is the National Archives Museum, where she pays respect to the U.S. Constitution.

The document itself is closely guarded, Horman told the Idaho Statesman, and so are the principles it ascribes. The Idaho Falls representative, like other Latter-day Saints, believes that God inspired America’s supreme law.

“We go to great lengths to preserve and protect the physical document,” Horman said by phone. “I think many good citizens believe the same thing of the principles. We go to great lengths to preserve and protect those constitutional principles, whether we are religious or not.”

Horman is one of at least 30 members of the Idaho Legislature — nearly all Republicans — who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or have affiliations with church institutions, such as Brigham Young University, according to public statements reviewed by the Statesman.

Next year, Idaho’s new lieutenant governor, Scott Bedke, and attorney general, Raúl Labrador, will be church members, as well. Two Idaho congressional delegates — Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Mike Simpson — also belong to the church.

Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, on abortion and prayer in public schools, among others, have weakened what Thomas Jefferson called the “wall of separation” between church and state, rekindling debate about the influence of religion in politics. As Idaho’s most widespread Christian denomination and a common denomination among lawmakers, Latter-day Saints carry significant weight in Idaho politics.

In interviews with the Statesman, elected officials who are Latter-day Saints said their religion only narrowly influences their political work, including on moral issues, like abortion and religious freedom.

But the church has explicit policies around contemporary political issues, and a deeper religious tradition places Christians at the forefront of legal arguments.

HOW DOES THE CHURCH INFLUENCE POLICY?

Unlike some other Christian denominations, Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons, typically don’t discuss politics while they worship on Sundays. And it’s a common misconception that Latter-day Saint politicians take direction from the church, said C. Scott Grow, a Republican state senator from Eagle.

Before his appointment to the Idaho Legislature, Grow was a general authority for the church, a title appointed by church presidents following divine revelation. An accountant by trade, Grow audited church finances and traveled the globe, teaching, for 13 years. He retains an emeritus title.

During his two terms in the Idaho Senate — going on three, after he won reelection this month — the church has never dictated his work in government, Grow said.

“They’ve never told me how to vote on anything,” he told the Statesman by phone.

The church picks sides on “moral” issues, Grow said, but the church does not tell members which political party or policies to support. Grow said religion influences policies that deal with “moral turpitude.”

“My faith is always involved in determining what I feel Jesus Christ would have us do in those circumstances, based on the laws and teachings that we find in the New Testament,” he said.

But the line between what is moral and what is political can be fuzzy. In 1972, the Idaho Legislature ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, a constitutional amendment that would guarantee equal rights under the law regardless of sex. Then, Latter-day Saint leaders — after remaining on the sidelines during the civil rights movement — mobilized church members against the amendment, and in 1977, the Legislature rescinded its previous ratification.

Latter-day Saint officials declared the amendment “a ‘moral’ rather than a ‘political’ issue, compelling church involvement,” wrote Jill Gill, a historian at Boise State University, in a 2014 essay tracing religion and politics in Idaho.

Today, the church provides instructions — backed by scripture — on social and cultural issues that its members may navigate. Some of those issues pervade Idaho politics.

Church policy opposes same-sex marriage and advises that gay members should not act on their sexual impulses. Last week, however, the church announced support for federal legislation boosting protection for same-sex marriage.

In a statement, church leaders said their policy on same-sex marriage would not change, but they’re “grateful” the bill includes “appropriate religious freedom protections while respecting the law and preserving the rights of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.”

Another church policy urges compassion for transgender members, but church leaders “counsel against” gender reassignment surgery and warn it could be cause for membership restrictions. Church policy also advises that parents “have primary responsibility for the sex education of their children.”

This year, the Idaho House passed a bill to hold librarians criminally liable for children obtaining “harmful” materials, defined in part to contain “nudity” or “sexual conduct.” Rep. Barbara Ehardt, a Latter-day Saint Republican from Idaho Falls, emphatically supported the measure. She previously sponsored a bill that barred transgender women and girls from participating in female school sports.

“In a constitutional republic, religion and morality matter,” Ehardt said during a March debate on the library bill. Idaho must have some standards, she added. “This is a time to take courage, stand up and say, ‘No.’”

Whether lawmakers craft policy based on their religious beliefs is an individual choice, said Rep. Chad Christensen, R-Iona. Christensen also supported the library bill along with the transgender athlete bill and a 2020 bill that blocked transgender people from changing the gender on their birth certificates.

“When I first campaigned in 2018, I made it pretty clear to my constituents that God was important to me,” Christensen told the Statesman by phone. “I seek his help and counsel and guidance on how to vote, how to legislate and how to address issues.”

CONSTITUTIONAL INTERPRETATIONS JUSTIFY ABORTION BANS

On Easter Sunday, 2021, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held its General Conference, a twice-annual meeting of church members in Salt Lake City. During his ceremonial speech, Church President Dallin H. Oaks didn’t discuss Jesus Christ’s resurrection, which Easter commemorates for Christians, but instead talked about the Constitution.

The legal charter is “of special concern” for Latter-day Saints throughout the world, Oaks said, “because God revealed that he established it for the rights and protection of all flesh.”

The idea that God inspired the Constitution is not unique to Latter-day Saints, but for the American-born religion, it’s not just a political statement — it’s canon. In the Doctrine and Covenants, a set of scriptures believed to be revealed by God, church founder Joseph Smith twice mentions God’s role in crafting the Constitution.

According to Oaks, the Constitution’s divine principles include its protections for individual rights, such as free speech and free exercise of religion. Also inspired was the framers’ mandate to separate power between branches of government and delegate authority to states, Oaks said.

The foundation of these principles is a church doctrine known as “moral agency,” the right to make choices and act for oneself, Oaks said.

Similar language has surfaced in Idaho political debates. On March 18, 2020, Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, argued that outlawing abortion would preserve the “agency for all of the human beings who are concerned.”

The 2020 law — which was triggered in June — makes it a crime to perform an abortion at any stage of pregnancy, though it provides legal defenses for aborting a pregnancy caused by rape or incest or that puts the mother’s life at risk.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ stance on abortion provides additional exceptions for when the health of the mother is “in serious jeopardy,” and when the fetus will not survive beyond birth. The Idaho law compromised with lawmakers who advocated for no exceptions.

This year, Idaho Republicans passed another anti-abortion bill that allows family members of a fetus to sue abortion providers for monetary damages. Grow, who believes the Constitution was divinely inspired, said he co-sponsored the legislation because it protected constitutional rights to life and liberty for unborn children.

“I gave that a lot of prayer and thought before I committed to do that,” he told the Statesman. “The Constitution is divinely inspired and gives us a framework to have righteous government … if we will live in accordance with its principles.”

Christensen — a two-term lawmaker with ties to the militia movement — said that his faith leads him to oppose abortion. It’s also why last year he tried to impeach Idaho Gov. Brad Little. Christensen railed against Little for directing churches to close early in the coronavirus pandemic and accused the governor of unconstitutionally abusing his power when he repeatedly renewed an emergency declaration.

“God gave us rights, and those rights are protected by the Constitution,” Christensen said. “God gave us free agency to choose between right and wrong, without force.”

Benjamin Park, a historian of religion, culture and politics at Sam Houston State University, has written several books on American history and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a phone interview with the Statesman, Park said that declaring the Constitution ordained by God provides an opportunity to “expand your agenda.”

You can then claim other things, like the nature of the family, gender roles and social hierarchy, are also prescribed by God, Park said. “Claiming that the Constitution is divinely inspired gives you cover to blend your religious and secular politics together.”

IS RELIGION INTERMINGLING WITH GOVERNMENT?

Last year, Pew Research Center conducted a survey to gauge Americans’ views on the relationship between church and state. The survey found that nearly one in five Americans believe the Constitution is divinely inspired. (Latter-day Saints make up less than 2% of U.S. adults.)

Among those who said they hold that belief, more than two in three said they would support proposals “intermingling … religion and government,” from the federal government advocating Christian values to public school teachers leading prayers, according to Pew’s report.

Ironically, when the Constitution was ratified in 1789, religious critics denounced it for being too secular, Park said. There have been several unsuccessful attempts to add the word “God” to the document.

“There’s always been in American religious culture an attempt to sanctify the Constitution, even though the Constitution itself is very explicitly secular,” Park said.

The common cultural belief is more complicated for Latter-day Saints, because it’s also part of their religious tradition, Park said. When Joseph Smith blessed the Constitution in scripture, it made the United States a chosen land for a chosen people, Park said.

“It gave America a sacred past, a sacred destiny, and by sacralizing the Constitution, it gives them a sacred government, too.”

Amid recent national debates about teaching racism in American history, Horman last year sponsored a bill designed to combat federal curriculum emphasizing “anti-racist” teaching by reaffirming “freedom of belief in instruction, speech and association,” she said at the time.

The bill — which became law — was widely considered to be a ban on teaching critical race theory, a field of scholarly research that seeks to address how racism and inequality influence U.S. institutions and culture. Opponents of the measure at the time said it would suppress discussion about historical injustices committed against marginalized groups in America.

Horman, the Legislature’s go-to education budget specialist, told the Statesman that religious freedom is under attack. It’s a common refrain among conservative Christians, like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote in a recent court decision that justices sided with a public school football coach’s right to pray with his players to prevent public officials from being “hostile” to religion.

Horman emphasized that, while “fundamentally Christian,” America’s founders crafted a Constitution that respects a pluralism of religious beliefs.

“This is why our founders came to America,” she told the Statesman. “They left the Old World to establish a new one where they were free to worship, not how the government told them, but how they believed, according to their own conscience.”

The United States welcomes anyone willing to honor and obey the law, Grow said.

“But it’s also founded on Christian principles,” he said. “And I would hope that those that do come wouldn’t try to fight against those principles.”

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