Church leaders encourage members to “study [political] candidates carefully.”
While the Church remains politically neutral, this article studies the statements from the Donald Trump campaign about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This article is not an official statement of the LDS Church or LDS.net. It reflects my political opinions.
The Donald Trump Phenomenon
When Donald Trump began running for president in the summer of 2015, most pundits dismissed his candidacy because of his public profile as a reality TV entertainer.
His campaign generated attention through a series of controversial statements that alienated many voters but won him a devoted following. Still, few considered him a viable candidate.
But now that voting has begun, Trump has started to win actual delegates for the nomination. His statements that did not make front page news now deserve special consideration.
Trump’s campaign has made two statements in relation to Latter-day Saints.
1) Mormons have an “alien” faith
McKay Coppins, an LDS Political writer sat down with Trump in 2014 before he began his presidential run.
Trump insisted that Mitt Romney lost because his faith was “alien.” But as Trump’s thoughts on the Church turned negative, Coppins interrupted explaining that he was Mormon. Trump then changed his tune saying, “People don’t understand the Mormon thing. I do. I get it.”
While Trump’s tone did turn positive, his description of our faith as “the Mormon thing” is not reassuring considering Trump’s treatment and policies toward other “alien” groups.
Trump ended his discussion with Coppins by saying “There was a religious undercurrent” in Utah, “unfortunately.” Even after Coppins mentioned his faith, Trump still persisted in calling it unfortunate. Perhaps, Trump doesn’t “get” Mormons as well as he thinks, since most of them would not see anything unfortunate about their religious devotion.
2) “Investigate Mormon Churches and Shut them Down”
In November of 2015, Trump’s national spokesperson, Katrina Pierson, appeared on Fox News to discuss Trump’s statement about shutting down Muslim Mosques.
To defend this policy Pierson said, “It’s no different than a Mormon Church. You’ve had the DOJ investigate Mormon Churches and shut them down.”
If her statement has you wondering what you missed, you aren’t alone. There seems to be two likely explanations, neither which would speak well to the Trump campaign’s understanding or feelings towards members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
First, Pierson could be referencing Department of Justice raids on FLDS polygamous compounds. But since the first and most prominent of these raids occurred in Texas, Pierson’s home state, she should be expected to understand the distinction.
The LDS Church has consistently clarified that the term “Mormon” is not properly applied to fundamentalist groups that share no affiliation with them.
Second, Pierson could be referencing historical persecution of the LDS Church, sometimes at the hand of the federal government.
In either case, Trump’s campaign either combines all Latter-day Saints with the most extreme apostate groups or endorses the historical persecution of our faith.
The Salt Lake Tribune reached out for clarification both from Pierson, herself, and the Trump campaign, but they refused to make additional comment. And Pierson continues in her role as Trump’s spokesperson today. So the campaign clearly stands by the comments.
Are Other Candidates As Bad?
Donald Trump’s is certainly not the first presidential campaign to speak about The LDS Church. In 2007, John McCain’s mother made several unflattering remarks about the Church. But her son immediately distanced himself from the comments, reiterating his respect for the Church.
Likewise, Mike Huckabee repeated some uninformed anti-Mormon arguments while on the campaign trail. But Huckabee later clarified that his opinions on Mormon doctrine should not affect the direction of the country.
Hillary Clinton also praised “The Book of Mormon” musical that satirizes the Church. But other high-profile campaign surrogates, such as her husband, speak glowingly of taking the missionary lessons as a child and almost joining the Church.
Most candidates simply refrain from speaking about the Church at all. And those that do, tend to issue only polite statements like Ben Carson’s, “I am not the least bit offended by the beliefs of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons and so forth.”
In other words, the uncorrected hostility between Donald Trump and Mormons is unprecedented in modern presidential politics. You may have to go back to Grover Cleveland in 1889 to find similar anti-Mormon sentiment from a presidential campaign.
Why Does it Matter?
Bombast tends to characterize the Trump campaign well. And a list of his outrageous statements toward every group could hardly be included in one article.
With so much outrage, can we take any one of his statements seriously? Or should his anti-Mormon statements be looped in as part of his “I don’t care what you think” charm?
Despite the reputation, political scientists consistently find that presidents follow through on what they say on the campaign trail.
Could Donald Trump be the exception? I suppose, but it’s mighty dangerous to elect someone based on the assumption that they don’t mean what they say.
Other Latter-day Saints may not be worried about the ignorance of the Trump campaign because there is so much misunderstanding of the Church on a national level. But for most presidential campaigns this misunderstanding turns into silence or platitudes.
Trump’s attempts to paint the Church as alien and marginal also has effects on his policies. For most candidates their ignorance about or hostility toward our faith would be incidental because of first amendment protections.
But Trump’s rhetoric has singled out other faiths and threatened to close down their places of worship. His unwillingness to protect religious freedom, in general, makes his negative statements about Mormons particularly dangerous.
Whether or not you agree, many called Ammon Bundy’s seizure of an Oregon wildlife refuge terrorism. Because that group consisted of many Mormons and used Mormon language, could Trump shut down Mormon churches using the same logic that he is currently using to advocate closing Muslim mosques?
The fact that I can’t quickly answer that question “no” worries me a lot.
Trump’s disregard for religious freedom is not only troubling on its own merits but should be particularly worrisome for those who belong to a church that Trump misunderstands and believes is “alien” and “unfortunate.”
Whether Trump’s feelings about their faith is a primary concern for Latter-day Saints in their voting decision or whether they vote based on other factors is the decision of each member. But Latter-day Saints deserve to understand where the Republican frontrunner stands on their religion, and it’s not pretty.