SALT LAKE CITY – Temple Square, where the Salt Lake Temple and Salt Lake Tabernacle are located, is a pilgrimage site for Mormons worldwide. The Temple is the original church built by the Mormon settlers who fled to Utah after political persecution elsewhere in the United States, while the Tabernacle houses the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
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Couples rush to pray in the Temple. Singers leave choir practice. And young guides from all over the world explain to disappointed tourists that only authorized members of the church are permitted to enter the mysterious church at the heart of the complex. Quiet, picturesque Salt Lake City has become a surprising battlefield in recent weeks, with Utah – which the Republican Party has won in every presidential race since 1964 – turning into a swing state because the Mormon community has expressed its disgust for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Mormons comprise about 60 percent of Utah’s population.
In a tight race, Trump needs every state that traditionally votes Republican. So defeat in Utah, with its six electoral votes, is liable to prove fatal. Trump attracted 32 percent support in a poll conducted this week by The Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute, with independent candidate Evan McMullin – a Mormon who joined the race three months ago – breathing down his neck. Trump’s recent slide in Utah put McMullin, who garnered 30 percent support in the poll, in a position to effectively deprive him of the presidency.
Trump’s boorish rhetoric and egotism grate on the ears of a community that sanctifies humility and good manners, while his lewd comments on an “Access Hollywood” tape released last month proved a tipping point for many Utahns. Seventy percent of Utah residents said they do not like Trump, according to a Dan Jones & Associates poll.
Jana Nordfelt, a stay-at-home mom from West Valley (a Salt Lake City suburb), cannot believe Trump is a presidential candidate, and accuses the Republican Party of cowardice.
“Trump is a bully, plain and simple,” she says. “Would we dare put our children in the same room with him? We want our children to be kind and good, so we have to stand up for what is right. It really is outrageous what he’s doing.”
She says her husband is working on a program against bullying in the school where he teaches, and that the struggle is close to her heart. She believes Trump is destroying all of the Mormon community’s hard work against bullying in schools.
Most conservatives oppose Trump, she says. She calls them “good, honest Americans,” principled people who “don’t want to get into conflict.” She stresses that “we need to send a message to the Republican Party: If you don’t give us good candidates, we won’t vote for you.”
Conservative Mormons in Utah could probably swallow all of this if it weren’t for Trump’s rhetoric against immigrants. A few steps from here, young Mormons prepare for missionary service in other places – two years for the young men, 18 months for young women. Many here will be sent to Mexico or the southern United States. They learn Spanish as part of their prep, which they will continue to learn when doing their missionary work.
For Matthew Barrett, 21, the American dream and Mormon dream of self-fulfillment fuse together, and Trump’s hateful rhetoric about immigrants is inconsistent with these ideas.
“I served my LDS [Latter-day Saints] mission in El Paso [Texas], and pretty much anyone I came into contact with there was an illegal immigrant,” he recalls. “I want everyone to have their chance to fulfill what they came here to do.”
Barrett says his friends and family from the Mormon community cannot vote for Trump, and he expects the Republican Party to pay the price for supporting Trump here.
He adds that he places his trust in Congress – and hopes that, if Trump does become president, they won’t let him go wild with his policy against immigrants.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is keeping silent officially, but an article in the Deseret News, which is owned by the Mormons, called on its readers not to vote for Trump.
The Trump camp is furious about the Mormons’ abandonment of him. Last week, Trump’s vice presidential running mate, Mike Pence, was sent to try and rally Utah’s rebellious voters. “Come home,” Pence told them.
At a rally here in support of Trump on Tuesday, Cherilyn Bacon Eagar – a conservative radio show host and blogger – criticized McMullin “for stealing votes from the moral choice.” She reminded Mormons that this was a two-party election and that “Jesus is not on the ballot.”
The Republicans should have started being worried many months ago, because the signs of the rebellion in Utah were clear throughout the campaign. During the Republican convention in July, delegates from Utah were among the loudest voices in the “Never Trump” camp, alongside the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas).
Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), a Republican who has never officially endorsed Trump, was the first to condemn the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump was heard making offensive comments about how he treats women (“Grab them by the pussy”). Lee called on Trump to withdraw from the presidential race. And Gov. Gary Herbert (Utah), also a Republican, tweeted at the time: “Donald Trump’s statements are beyond offensive & despicable. While I cannot vote for Hillary Clinton, I will not vote for Trump.”
Utah’s previous governor, Jon Huntsman Jr., called for Pence to replace Trump after the tape was leaked on October 7. “In a campaign cycle that has been nothing but a race to the bottom – at such a critical moment for our nation – and with so many who have tried to be respectful of a record primary vote, the time has come for Gov. Pence to lead the ticket,” Huntsman told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Others see voting for McMullin, whose candidacy has gradually grown stronger since September, as a moral choice. His supporters say that even if Trump loses because of the revolt in Utah, at least it will send a message to the Republican Party. Nordfelt, who in the past had misgivings because she was worried Clinton might win, said the race was also about the future of the conservative party.