As several Mormon senators step away from their positions in Congress, some observers wonder whether the moves will alter the unusual access that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has had on Capitol Hill. That political power has brought results on matters that include clearing the way for Mormon missionaries abroad and brokering land deals between Utah and the federal government.
The recent retirements of Republican Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Democrat Harry M. Reid (Nev.) come as Mormon political leaders have become some of the most outspoken critics of President Trump, especially within the Republican Party. Mitt Romney, who ran for president in 2012 and has been the country’s most famous Mormon in recent years, announced he will run for Hatch’s seat in Utah. He is likely to assume the role of critic — unlike Hatch, who was a Trump ally.
Romney, who has served as a Mormon bishop, did not discuss his connections to his church in the 2012 election after questions were raised in the previous election campaign. But observers say they expect Romney would be helpful to the LDS Church, as his predecessors have been, if issues arise.
Mormons represent 1.6 percent of the country’s population, but the LDS Church has long had a disproportionately large number of high-profile leaders in Washington, both in Congress and in the federal government, which some attribute to the faith’s emphasis on public service. Mormons make up 6 percent of the Senate and about 2 percent of the House, according to the Pew Research Center.
Recently, the LDS Church also had access to the White House through Rob Porter, a Mormon who served as Trump’s White House staff secretary but recently resigned after his two former wives came forward with abuse allegations. Earlier, Porter served as chief of staff to Hatch.
The LDS Church, which declined through a spokesman to comment about recent Mormon departures from the federal government, does not endorse candidates. However, there’s a natural connection between Mormon politicians and the church, especially in the state of Utah.
“Because such a large portion of their constituents are Mormon, they can act in ways that the church appreciates without alienating the majority of their base,” said Jessica Preece, a political scientist at Brigham Young University.
The current Congress includes the fewest Mormons in several recent sessions, with 13 Mormon members in the House and Senate, compared with 16 members last year, according to Pew. When Reid retired from the Senate, Mormonism lost its highest-ranking elected official.
“While Harry M. Reid no doubt perplexed LDS leaders and church members on issues such as abortion, I think the church misses having a high-profile Democrat as, despite its reputation, it doesn’t want to be perceived as partisan,” said John Turner, a professor of American religion at George Mason University and author of “The Mormon Jesus: A Biography.”
Reid was instrumental in gaining congressional approval for the LDS Church to secure a controversial lease with the Bureau of Land Management for a historic site in Wyoming. Reid also helped the church work through a complicated process to build a study-abroad program for college students in Jerusalem.
Mormon congressional leaders are viewed as helpful in paving good relations between the church and other countries where they might do missionary work. When a domestic or foreign policy issue arises that a congressional leader can help with, one of the LDS leaders (referred to as “the Brethren”) might drop in to see one of their senators in Washington.
There is no specific political expectation from the church for Mormon politicians, said Kent Burton, who has been a lobbyist and an LDS Church leader for Northern Virginia. “It’s born of faith and a desire to be of service,” Burton said. “Out of patriotic duty, Mormons believe that’s important and have an interest [in being] involved politically.”
This past year, Hatch was seen as an important ally to the Trump administration.
Earlier, Hatch was a key driver behind the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when it passed the House and Senate in 1993 and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. At the time, the act had bipartisan support before it became wrapped up in LGBT rights issues in recent years. Persecuted by the government in the 1800s, Mormons are deeply involved in issues of religious freedom, and the church was keen to see RFRA passed.
A video that was leaked last year showed how some leaders have used their position to help the church. Mormon and former senator Gordon H. Smith (R-Ore.) was shown telling church leaders he voted for the Iraq War because he believed it would open the way to LDS Church missionary work there. He also said that he had asked foreign governments to give missionaries more access, and he said he persuaded the Indian ambassador to give visas to 200 Mormon missionaries.
The church shows support for Mormon leaders like Hatch and Reid through public statements of gratitude, awards, honorary degrees and speaking opportunities at church-owned schools. In 2012, the church publicly called on its members to attend neighborhood caucus meetings, two years after then-Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), a Mormon, had been defeated by state convention delegates.
Mormon congressional leaders have also been some of Trump’s most vocal critics. In his speech last fall announcing he would not seek reelection, Flake sharply condemned Trump’s behavior.
“Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified,” Flake said in October. “And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy.”
After the presidential election, Reid called Trump a “sexual predator who lost the popular vote and fueled his campaign with bigotry and hate.”
Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah), a Mormon whose family is from Haiti, sharply denounced Trump’s remarks about “s——- countries.” And the LDS Church has backed immigration proposals that keep families together.
During his campaign, Trump faced trouble in Utah, where Republican candidates usually win easily, when Evan McMullin, a Mormon and former CIA operative, ran as an independent and drew votes away from him. Although Trump won the state of Utah, more people there voted against him (48 percent) than for him (45 percent).
Sixty-nine percent of Mormons identify as or lean Republican. In the past three elections, 72 percent of Mormons voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), 82 percent voted for Romney and 52 percent voted for Trump, according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.
As chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Mormon and then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) rose to prominence for his investigations into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. But Chaffetz drew criticism for what people saw as his soft approach in investigating Trump’s potential conflicts of interest. He was replaced by Republican Rep. John Curtis, who is also a Mormon, so Chaffetz’s departure did not change the percentages of Mormon in Congress.
While the departures of several Mormon U.S. senators are significant, Mike Lee, the Republican junior senator from Utah, comes from a well-connected LDS family. Lee’s father, Rex, who served as president of Brigham Young University, was solicitor general during President Ronald Reagan’s administration.
Questions have been raised over how Romney would handle his shaky relationship with the president. Romney criticized Trump for running a campaign on “racism, misogyny, bigotry, xenophobia … and violence.” After a white supremacist march led to violence in Charlottesville, last summer, Romney called on the president to apologize, saying that “what he communicated caused racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn.”
For Romney, who briefly was considered a candidate for secretary of state in the Trump administration, “not being in the administration will let him have independence from Trump and move forward on legislative goals,” said Max Perry Mueller, a historian at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
The first time he ran for president, in 2008, Romney faced concerns about his Mormon faith. In a 2017 survey gauging Americans’ feelings about religious groups, Americans liked Mormons more than atheists and Muslims but ranked Mormons lower than other major religious groups in the United States, according to Pew.
During his 2012 run, Romney focused primarily on the economy and rarely addressed his faith. Because of Americans’ suspicions of Mormons, Mueller said, Romney might need to be a bit more careful about his public relationship with the church. But if he becomes a senator from Utah, he will probably communicate what his constituents want.
“Romney could provide a vocal check, a voice that would rearticulate Mormon values about justice, about care for the poor, about care for the least of these,” Mueller said.