Utahns and the War: A religious divide
Almost as an article of faith, Utah's Mormons and non-Mormons take opposite sides
By Matthew D. LaPlante
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune
Jeremy Dannehl knows that not everyone shares his support for the president's handling of the Iraq war.
He has seen dissent in his neighborhood - and hears it often at the health food store he runs in Ogden.
There is one place, however, he has yet to hear a contrary opinion.
"Not within my ward," says Dannehl, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who leads youth groups and assists in the congregation's Boy Scout program.
Unlike most other major U.S. religions, the LDS Church has taken no official stance on the war. Nonetheless, a recent poll commissioned by The Salt Lake Tribune showed overwhelming support among Utah's Mormons for President Bush's actions in Iraq.
The poll surveyed attitudes on issues ranging from the teaching of evolution in public schools to the prohibition of gay student support clubs to the banning of smoking in nightclubs. But no issue separated Utah's Mormons and non-Mormons more than the war.
While 73 percent of those identifying themselves as Mormons in the poll said they, like Dannehl, supported President Bush's conduct of the war, about 62 percent of non-Mormons said they disapproved.
'I support my president': Each month, Mormons gather to share their beliefs at "fast and testimony" meetings, speaking of how they have come to understand the LDS Church "is true."
But sometimes, the discussion moves to other convictions.
At a recent meeting in American Fork a man identifying himself as a former Green Beret stood to share his testimony.
"If you're a Democrat, I want you to understand that I support my president," he said in comments recorded by the church for homebound members. "And if you have a problem with that, we can talk behind the church."
The comment drew laughs from the congregation, but no challengers.
Though the majority of U.S. religious bodies have made official statements condemning the war, such robust support is common among some conservative Christian denominations.
The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest single U.S. Protestant body, issued a resolution in June expressing "deepest gratitude and respect for our president," who "has been forced to make difficult decisions that place our servicemen and servicewomen in harm's way."
The resolution encouraged "all Southern Baptists to pray regularly for our president and to stand with him in opposing global terrorism."
Southern Baptist officials estimate support for Bush's war among their members stands at about 75 percent.
But while support among their ranks appears comparable, Mormons cannot similarly point to a resolution of their church regarding the president or his actions in the Middle East.
"In matters of politics and government, the church maintains a policy of remaining neutral institutionally," said LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills. "Latter-day Saints are taught to support their local and national governments, but the church does not endorse candidates, parties or platforms."
Bills said neutrality under church President Gordon B. Hinckley "is consistent with principles emphasized by church leaders during previous wars."
'We need to answer the call': Irene Hamblin doesn't need anyone in power to tell her how to feel about the war in Iraq. She's come to her conclusions based upon a desire to support soldiers like her son, Ozro, a Utah National Guard member who just returned from a second tour in Iraq.
"If you say you don't support Bush, I think, it's as if you are not supporting the soldiers," she said. "The main thing is that you are supporting what they are doing."
Although Hamblin is an active Mormon - and says the people of her ward appear to share her views - the Cedar City woman doesn't think her opinions about the war are formed by her church.
Despite a lack of official direction from church leaders, Mormons have for years found a place on the side of warfaring patriots, said Robert Freeman, author of the book Saints at War.
Freeman said Mormon support for America's wars in part may be attributed to the desire to establish Latter-day Saints as legitimate members of a nation that has not always seen their sort favorably.
"There has always been a great resolve to demonstrate the patriotic heart and fervor of the Mormon people," he said.
Freeman noted that while church leaders rarely have taken an official position on war, they have issued "other guidance." But that direction, he said, often leaves members back on middle moral ground.
"The general leadership will, on the one hand, clearly articulate that the position of the church is that war is antithetical to Christ," he said. "But then, on the other hand, they acknowledge that we need to answer the call of our nation."
He noted that the 12th "Article of Faith" in LDS scripture calls upon Mormons to submit as "subjects to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law."
But Paul Peterson, chair of the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, said that article "is simply a general observation."
"The general guideline is very much in vogue," he said. "But I am quite sure that President Hinckley would feel fine about LDS people entertaining variant persuasions on the war."
Peterson was not surprised that general support for Bush's handling of the war was so high in Utah. At the same time an Associated Press poll found that 58 percent of the nation disapproves of the president's war management, The Tribune poll concluded that 59 percent of all Utahns are in support.
"This is strong GOP country," Peterson said. "This is the hotbed of Republicanism, the most conservative state in the nation."
But Peterson said he was surprised by the great difference on the issue between Utah's Mormons and non-Mormons.
Peterson said he encounters plenty of Mormons on BYU's campus in Provo who don't support Bush's Iraq policy. And he noted that even Utah's non-Mormons are thought to be generally more conservative than the rest of the nation and would expect that, to some degree, they would agree with their LDS cohorts about Iraq.
'Truly despised . . . truly beloved': A member of the anti-war group People for Peace and Justice, Tom King compares Bush's war rhetoric "to the words of the Nazis, prior to World War II."
The agnostic son of LDS parents in Utah, King's ardent aversion to the Iraq war could be seen as a rebellious response to the conservative culture in which he lives. He said, however, that he arrived at his views after sampling many different faiths - all of which taught him "to turn the other cheek" and "what goes around, comes around."
King said he rarely discusses religion with members of his group, in which there are several atheists, Catholics, Protestants and, indeed, some Mormons.
In the anti-war activist community, though, Mormons are a minority within a minority.
"I'm always an outsider in that group," said Bonnie Tyler, an LDS member of the Peace and Justice organization, which organizes weekly protests against the war. "I don't drink coffee and when they get together, it's often over a beer. There is this sense that I am different from the group."
Though most in the anti-war band couldn't care less about her faith, Tyler said some "are hostile to the church and take it out on me."
For anti-war Mormons, though, hostility - from all sides - is part of life.
"It's been tough enough that my husband's gone inactive - he stopped going to church," Tyler said, adding that her husband stopped attending after being told by other Mormons that he was acting "against church doctrine" by opposing the war.
"It's not easy," she said. "I miss having him at church with me."
For her part, Tyler can't understand why fellow Mormons so support Bush and the war. "I think the scripture says one thing and the culture does another," she said.
Michael Lyons believes there may be another explanation.
"People don't generally understand the details of complex issues like the Iraq conflict," said Lyons, a Utah State University political scientist. "Surveys often tend to reflect more personal attachments."
Put simply, he said, Mormons might not like the war, but they do like George Bush.
"I think because the president is openly religious himself and they may welcome an openly religious president," Lyons said. "I don't think there is some connection between the belief in the LDS religion and the belief that a war halfway around the globe is justified."
Lyons said The Tribune poll may be showing "the polarizing quality" of Bush between people of a conservative religious background and others.
"There's something about George Bush that provokes very strong emotional reactions in people," Lyons said. "He is truly despised by many of the people who dislike him and truly beloved by many of his supporters. And it may be his self-confidence and open assertion of the values he believes in."
'A Mormon response': Not every Saint marches with a war drum.
"Pacifism is a Mormon response," said Dennis Clark, an LDS member from Orem who opposes the Iraq war on spiritual grounds. "I've always felt that it's really not possible for me to hold priesthood and believe in the use of force."
Clark, a poet and writer who spoke about his views at Sunstone Magazine's 2004 symposium on Mormon history and contemporary life, says he does his best "to sneak in my subversive ideas" when teaching younger men at his ward.
But at 60 years old, he does not expect to see the day when a majority of LDS members are opposed to the use of military force.
Clark often worries about the relationship his fellow Latter-day Saints have forged with Evangelicals.
"Mormons are not Christians in the eyes of these people," Clark said. "I think it's really a miscalculation for church members to feel comfortable in that company, because we'll be the next people they'll come after."