The Church of Latter-Day Socialists

These Mormons are taking the church back to its socialist roots.

Nicholas Greyson Ward July 1, 2020

Bernie Sanders addresses a crowd of nearly 6,000 in Salt Lake City on March 2, ahead of Super Tuesday. The senator carried the state by a margin of about 2 to 1 over runner-up Joe Biden. (Photo Courtesy of Bernie 2020)

SALT LAKE CITY — As about 60 peo­ple gath­er in a small sub­ur­ban library in late Feb­ru­ary, a guest speak­er proud­ly declares, Bernie is the most Christ-like can­di­date I have ever seen.”

A guest speaker proudly declares, “Bernie is the most Christ-like candidate I have ever seen.”

Though per­haps a small event, it stands out for anoth­er rea­son: The Bernie Sanders pres­i­den­tial cam­paign had large­ly avoid­ed con­ver­sa­tions about reli­gious faith. This event specif­i­cal­ly addressed the con­cerns of Utah’s largest vot­ing bloc — mem­bers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints.

Oth­er speak­ers quot­ed Bible pas­sages. One charis­mat­ic, mid­dle-aged woman intro­duced her­self as a Church mem­ber, then asked the crowd to encour­age oth­er mem­bers to vote for Sanders by talk­ing about the issues they care most about, lis­ten­ing astute­ly and avoid­ing the top­ic of abortion.

Hai­ley Free­man, a 22-year-old col­lege stu­dent who vol­un­teered with the Sanders cam­paign in Salt Lake City, helped plan the event. Free­man is a Mor­mon and a mem­ber of the Salt Lake chap­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA). She tells In These Times that, out of rough­ly 200 active dues-pay­ing DSA mem­bers, at least a dozen are Mor­mon or ex-Mor­mon — sur­pris­ing, per­haps, because of the asso­ci­a­tion between the Church and con­ser­vatism. In Utah, 62% of the state is Mor­mon; a Pew Research Cen­ter poll from 2016 shows 70% of Mor­mons iden­ti­fy as Republican. 

But some Mor­mons, like Free­man, are reject­ing that con­ser­vatism for social­ism. My home was very much a Fox News house­hold,” Free­man says. I’m pret­ty sure we have a George W. Bush reelec­tion com­mem­o­ra­tive coin some­where, if that gives you any idea of my family’s polit­i­cal lean­ings.” But in 2016, while Free­man was attend­ing Brigham Young Uni­ver­si­ty, Bernie Sanders’ first pres­i­den­tial run opened the door for her to left­ist thought. The cam­paign event she helped plan sig­naled, Free­man says, that a per­son can go to church and still be leftist.

The Mor­mon church does have some his­to­ry of incu­bat­ing social­ist ideals. In the mid 1800s, the Church start­ed the Unit­ed Order, a social pro­gram that dis­trib­uted prop­er­ty and goods among mem­bers. It fad­ed by the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, but social­ist thought per­sist­ed in Utah for decades after. In the ear­ly 1900s, an esti­mat­ed 40% of the Social­ist Party’s Utah mem­ber­ship was Mor­mon. Mor­mons, how­ev­er, still faced per­se­cu­tion, and Church lead­er­ship dis­cour­aged social­ist beliefs — fear­ing the ideas could pre­vent mem­bers from assim­i­lat­ing into main­stream Amer­i­ca, a goal of the Church. By the Cold War, lead­er­ship adamant­ly denied the Unit­ed Order was a form of socialism.

Polit­i­cal plu­ral­ism remained com­mon among Mor­mons until Ezra Taft Ben­son, a mil­i­tant anti-com­mu­nist, became pres­i­dent of the Church in 1985. Under Benson’s lead­er­ship, the Church began active­ly sup­port­ing con­ser­v­a­tive pol­i­tics. Sanders’ 2016 cau­cus results in Utah (80% against Hillary Clin­ton) and 2020 pri­ma­ry results (36% against a broad field, with twice as many votes as the run­ner-up, Joe Biden) sur­prised some pun­dits, but the per­for­mance is not an aber­ra­tion — some social wel­fare plat­forms have pre­vi­ous­ly per­formed well in the red state. Through­out most of FDR’s 12 years as pres­i­dent, for exam­ple, two Democ­rats rep­re­sent­ed Utah in the Sen­ate. One of them, Orrice Mur­dock, was not just a strong sup­port­er of the New Deal, but labor rights — and was lat­er nom­i­nat­ed to the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board. Frank Moss, a Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tor who served Utah in the 1960s and 1970s, was one of the ear­ly spon­sors of Medicaid. 

Free­man believes some Mor­mon sup­port for Sanders can be explained by the promis­es of uni­ver­sal child care and relief to small-scale fam­i­ly farm­ers, as the Mor­mon com­mu­ni­ty often stress­es the impor­tance of fam­i­ly and children.

With the youth, how­ev­er, the polit­i­cal lean­ings of the Mor­mon church may be shift­ing. There is def­i­nite­ly a grow­ing num­ber of left­ists in the Church among those who are younger,” says Tom Tay­lor, 35. Tay­lor, a robot­ics engi­neer and social­ist in the town of Boun­ti­ful out­side Salt Lake, ran for Utah’s 4th Dis­trict con­gres­sion­al seat in 2018. He hails from a long line of Mor­mons — one of his great-great­grand­par­ents wrote the famous Mor­mon hymn, High on the Moun­tain Top” — but my fam­i­ly hard­ly talked about pol­i­tics” grow­ing up, he says.

Tay­lor, for one, cred­its his reli­gious beliefs for his left polit­i­cal world­view. I am not a social­ist in spite of my reli­gion, but because of my reli­gion,” he says. I was raised to care deeply about the poor and the needy and to try and bring a sense of jus­tice to the world.”

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