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After Harry Reid’s death, will the LDS Church ever see another liberal leader?

Former Nevada Democratic Senator and Latter-day Saint Harry Reid died last week at age 82. His passing prompted an op-ed that poses the question: Was Reid the last liberal giant the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will see in its membership?
Asher Swan
Former Nevada Democratic Senator and Latter-day Saint Harry Reid died last week at age 82. His passing prompted an op-ed that poses the question: Was Reid the last liberal giant the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will see in its membership?

“Harry Reid’s death may mark the end of the liberal Mormon tradition.”

That’s the headline of a recent op-ed in the Washington Post. The former Nevada Democratic Senator and Latter-day Saint died last week at age 82.

The one-time Senate majority leader held steadfast to his party roots, despite the Church’s strong ties to Republicans.

But Benjamin Park writes that we may have seen the last of his kind. Park teaches American Religious History at Sam Houston State University in Texas. Pamela McCall spoke with him about Reid’s brand of faith and politics.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: In your op-ed in The Washington Post, you cite Harry Reid's 2007 speech at Brigham Young University, where he said, "I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it." What principles did he believe connected his political views to his religious beliefs?

Benjamin Park: In that speech itself, and in several other of his addresses to Latter-day Saint audiences, he would often reference Book of Mormon scripture [themes] that would say there shall be no poor among them, or that helping out the least of your brethren is aiding your God. So he believed that the communitarian impulse that comes through in LDS scripture was something that correlated with the Democratic message of trying to build the community all around, rather than a libertarian impulse of everyone fighting for their own.

PM: Why do you think Harry Reid held to those views when so many members of the Church became steadfast Republicans?

BP: Especially post-World War II and notably after the 1960s culture wars, many Mormons came to embrace a demographic politics that was pretty typical of the Mountain West in America during that time, that was much more libertarian, much more conservative — [which] saw Mormonism as the fulfillment of an individualistic ethos. Whereas those like Harry Reid, who saw Mormonism more as a communitarian impulse, became more and more in the minority. So by the time Harry Reid died, he was one of the last few public Mormon politicians who leaned to the Democratic side.

PM: I want to go back a bit. You state that, historically, it was thought that when Latter-day Saints did seek federal political affiliation after dissolving their own People's Party in 1891, the year after they renounced polygamy, that it would be the Democrats that they would align with. What actually happened and why?

BP: The federal government basically told Utah, if you want to become a state, one, you need to give up polygamy, and two, you need to participate in our two-party political system. And most of the anti-Mormons living in Utah were Republican. The Republican Party was founded on opposing the twin pillars of barbarism: slavery on one hand, polygamy on the other. So it was very common to expect the Mormons to reject republicanism, even as they embraced the two-party system. But starting in the 1880s, the Democrats have resurging power on the national sphere. So the Republicans are like, ‘our only future is if we dominate the American West and turn all these western territories into Republican-leaning states’. And they tried to do that with Mormons in Utah in general to great success.

PM: You note that during that talk at BYU in 2007, Harry Reid said it wouldn't be long before Latter-day Saints returned to the Democratic Party over issues like global warming, economic inequality and civil rights. Fast forward to 2022, those issues are perhaps even more pronounced today. What do you think it would take, one day, to move Latter-day Saints, or a greater percentage, back into the Democratic Party, like Reid predicted?

BP: If you look at the younger generations of Mormons, they often lean Democrat. But the problem is many of those liberal Mormons end up leaving Mormonism altogether or, in order to fit into the Latter-day Saint tradition, they embrace more conservative ideals. What it would take for that to change is a change at the institution, because the institution needs to be able to demonstrate that these more liberal leaning [Latter-day] Saints have a place within their congregations. And as long as the LDS church maintains its rigid exclusion of LGBT people within its ranks, I don't think you're going to see the left-leaning younger generation remain in the faith as much as it would take for them to structure the Church in the future.

PM: What must it have been like for Harry Reid in his later years to be a Latter-day Saint and a Democrat in a deeply Republican faith?

BP: The interviews that he gave often showed him being quite beleaguered and tired and frustrated that the Latter-day Saints did not take the call that he issued in 2007. He did a Salt Lake Tribune interview earlier in 2021 where he basically said the harshest criticisms that he receives are from his fellow Latter-day Saints. And I think he took that personally, because he saw in Mormonism the principles that he believed could shape the modern world through progressive values. And the fact that his fellow [Latter-day] Saints chose not to follow that quest, I'm sure he found as a disappointment.

Harry Reid’s funeral will be held in Las Vegas on January 8.

Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
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