While in college at Idaho State some years ago, I wrote a column for the school newspaper entitled “Support Your Local Land Swap.” It dealt with a proposal in which the LDS-owned Institute of Religion building (which had been on campus for years), would be given to the university in exchange for a bare plot of land elsewhere on the campus. As a Democrat and Unitarian, I was expected to oppose this on the grounds of separation of church and state. Now, while I was then (and am now) a fierce supporter of separation, I supported this proposal. In the aftermath, I shocked the “liberal” community, received anonymous letters of support and met with the campus bishop.
Anti-Mormonism is Idaho’s dirty little secret. While there’s anti-Mormonism everywhere there’s Mormonism, it seems to be particularly malignant here. One reason has its roots in the founding of our state over 100 years ago, in the form of an opportunistic politician named Fred Dubois, who I’ll call Uncle Fred.
Uncle Fred was a tireless champion of Free Silver, a position that was very popular in the West in the late 19th Century. Uncle Fred was also shamelessly racist (especially when it came to Filipinos and Chinese) and arguably the most virulent anti-Mormon activist of his day. It was Uncle Fred who in the 1880s engineered a successful drive to disenfranchise Mormons and prevent them from holding public office in what was then Idaho Territory (elements of those laws remained on the books until 1982). In 1886, Uncle Fred ran as a Republican for the Congressional delegate seat from Idaho Territory on a platform of Free Silver and anti-Mormonism, and won.
Four years later, when Idaho Territory became the State of Idaho, Uncle Fred was instrumental in the creation of the state’s constitution and first government. Late in 1890, he won election from the Idaho Legislature to the United States Senate.
By 1896, Uncle Fred had split from the main Republican Party to become a leader of the Silver Republican faction. As such, he supported the Democratic pro-Free Silver presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, over the East Coast-establishment Gold Standard Republican candidate, William McKinley. McKinley won, Uncle Fred lost reelection to the Senate, and the Silver Republicans began to die out quickly.
Four years after that, Uncle Fred convinced a Democratic pro-union Idaho Legislature (imagine that), to send him back to the Senate as a Democrat, which they did. It was a decision they’d long regret. Uncle Fred spent the next six years railing against Mormons and foreigners. He even tried to convince the Senate to expel Reed Smoot of Utah (later of Smoot-Hawley Act fame) on the grounds that he was a Mormon.
Meanwhile, the reaction in Idaho was predictable. By this time anti-Mormon voting laws were unenforced, and Mormons cast anti-Dubois votes for Republicans in droves. By 1906, due in no small part to Uncle Fred’s constant anti-Mormon rhetoric, a solidly Republican Idaho Legislature was in place. They predictably elected a Republican to replace Uncle Fred in the Senate. That Republican was a progressive Boise attorney named William E. Borah, a man who would scarcely recognize the Republican Party of today.
In the meantime, infighting between pro-Dubois and anti-Dubois factions within the Idaho Democratic Party destroyed what had been a strong coalition of union and agricultural support. By 1910 Idaho Democrats had exorcised most of Uncle Fred’s legacy within the party, but the damage was done. Idaho Mormons were now Idaho Republicans.
Fast forward 100 years and that adage still holds true. But I believe today’s Idaho Republicans take the Mormon vote for granted much more than they should. Consider that the Idaho Republican Party is increasingly dominated by evangelical Christian extremists, a community which just happens to be known to preach against Mormonism as a godless, heretical cult. Ironically many Idaho Democrats, particularly the more liberal elements, are openly disdainful of Mormons because they lump them in the same boat as the aforementioned Christian extremists.
Increasingly Mormon voters are left with a Hobson’s Choice: continue to support the Republican Party, which is more and more dominated by people convinced they’re going straight to Hell, or support the Democratic Party, which they perceive as a cabal of liberals hostile to their faith.
Of course, the latter is not entirely true. Mormon Democrats have served with distinction in state and national politics for decades. The current Senate Majority Leader is Mormon. The Idaho Democratic party chair is Mormon. I believe Idaho Mormons vote Republican more out of habit these days, not conviction.
Consider the Bryan Fischer/Brandi Swindell/Bill Sali strain of evangelical Christian socialism will never truly succeed in Idaho without Mormon support. They’ll never get lasting Mormon support until they prove they’re not out to discredit Mormon faith. To date they’ve done a terrible job of that; this is their fatal flaw. Uncle Fred’s ghost haunts them too.
As for Democrats, while we can debate at length the validity of Mormon theology, the fact is Mormon culture in Idaho is very real. As our experience with Uncle Fred 100 years ago shows, we ignore that at our own peril. Whoever drops their prejudices first has a lot to gain. We’re in a much better position to do it. Indeed, I believe we have a moral obligation to ourselves, the Mormon community, and Idaho in general to do it.