Vice President Mike Pence’s campaign stop in Mesa last week to fire up his ticket’s religious base also fired up some moderate Republicans who oppose his boss’ re-election.
Pence’s appearance was sponsored by Latter-day Saints for Trump, whose very name might have been accurate on one level but misleading on another.
While conservative church members applauded the organization, opponents worried that the name might imply that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints endorses Trump and Pence, which is not correct and runs contrary to its long-standing policy on political neutrality.
A church spokesman in Utah and a spokeswoman in Arizona sent out emails outlining the neutrality position, but did not comment directly on the organization or Pence’s comments about how the President has helped the church.
Church teachings encourage civic engagement but bar direct political activity in campaigns.
“Its sole mission is to bring individuals to Jesus Christ,’’ Arizona church spokeswoman Jennifer Wheeler said, reading from the neutrality policy.
Tyler Bowyer, who helped organize the event and the coalition, said the argument is “silly,’’ and the group’s name does not connote that the church officially endorses Trump.
“Historically, we know Mormons are more Republican than not. Republicans have exceptional support for Trump,’’ Bowyer said.
He said his coalition is one of at least a dozen throughout the country supporting Trump’s campaign, including Cops for Trump and Latinos for Trump.
The controversy serves as a prelude to the debate between Kamala Harris, Democrat presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s running mate, and Pence in Salt Lake City on Oct. 7 at the University of Utah.
Pence, who said he welcomed the confrontation at his Mesa appearance, also appeared before police supporters in Tucson.
Alluding to cultural themes, including Trump’s appointment of 200 conservative judges and preservation of religious freedoms, Pence said, “The choice in this election is whether America remains America.’’
But the rally drew immediate pushback from Republicans for a New President, a group of moderate Republican church members who oppose Trump.
They authored a letter denouncing the Mormon coalition’s name and purpose.
Mesa Republican Tyler Montague, who authored most of the letter, said it’s important to remember that not all church members are a monolith that will vote for one candidate.
Among the list of prominent people signing the letter are former Arizona State Senator Bob Worsley and his wife Christi and Claudia Walters, a former Mesa vice mayor and former president/CEO of Mesa United Way.
“We wouldn’t pretend to give the impression that we speak for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; we do not,” the letter state. “But as individual church members writing on our own account, we would suggest that the group holding a rally calling itself ‘Latter-day Saints for Trump’ is out of bounds for co-opting the Church’s name to give the impression that Donald Trump is supported by the Church as an entity.
“We feel the need to respond and say that while some may support the president, there are also many who disagree with President Trump for many reasons,’’ the letter said.
“For us, this election is not about parties and tribalism. It is about reclaiming our core values. President Trump is the antithesis of so much the Latter-day Saints community believes. Servant leadership, kindness, honesty, acceptance, family, and respect for all are core tenets of who we are and what we stand for.’’
Montague said church members largely are divided among those who support Trump, those who don’t like Trump personally but will probably still vote for him and those who will vote for Biden or for a third-party candidate.
“I think he has taken us to a bad place. Never in my lifetime has it felt so divisive, uncertain, unsteady,’’ Montague said.
Bowyer said about 300 people attended Pence’s speech at the Delta Hotels by Marriott Phoenix Mesa in downtown Mesa, and he was pleased with the response.
The coalition’s leadership includes former Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, Cindy Biggs (wife of U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs of Mesa) and Snowflake state Rep. Walt Blackman.
Nancy Wudel, a Mesa businesswoman and a church member, said she quickly joined the coalition and condemned the letter on Facebook, calling the Biden-Harris campaign inconsistent with church values.
“You should be applauding the good-will done at this event, not condemning it. Pence spoke about families, values, and Christian principles - not one iota of campaigning for Trump,’’ Wudel wrote.