by Brett Hendrickson
According to a recent story in the Arizona Republic, the new anti-immigrant legislation in that state is having a negative effect on Latter-day Saint efforts to proselytize Hispanics. The problem for many potential converts is Russell Pearce. A Republican state senator, he has been the gasoline driving almost all immigration crackdown legislation in Arizona. He is also a Mormon.
Kenneth Patrick Smith, a lawyer and the president of a Spanish-speaking LDS branch in Mesa (Pearce’s home turf and a Mormon stronghold) said, “It's a great disconnect because on one hand the missionaries are out there preaching brotherly love, kindness, charity, tolerance, faith, hope, etc., and then they see on TV a quote-unquote Mormon pushing this legislation that makes them not only . . . terrified but terrorized.”
Another leader in Arizona Hispanic LDS circles, Jorge Pimienta, said, “I don't know Russell Pearce. I don't know where he is coming from. All I know is that what he is doing is not what Jesus Christ taught.”
Naturally, Pearce defends his faithfulness and refers his detractors to The Articles of Faith of the Mormon Church. Number twelve of the thirteen articles reads: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” Illegal immigrants, Mormon or otherwise, cannot follow this article.
This division among the Saints on the issue of immigration presents heaps of fodder for classroom discussion. A short list of topics could include the separation of church and state, the role of authority in Mormon scripture vs. ongoing revelation in LDS immigrant fellowships, and how a global church with U.S. headquarters does or does not monitor and influence public perceptions of the Church.
But my go-to discussion would have to be how far Russell Pearce has deviated from the central Mormon narrative of being a persecuted and unwelcome people in the United States. A little over one hundred sixty years ago, Mormons en masse entered what is now Utah but was then Mexican territory (without papers) to get away from the sort of intolerance for difference that Pearce seems to be promoting. On the other hand, Mormon leaders from Joseph Smith on down have been keen on participating fully in American government, and there is no doubt that the United States has a very unique place in Mormon self-understanding.
So which is it? Is it Mormon to reach out to the dispossessed, even those who are here illegally? Or is it Mormon to stand firmly behind American laws?