Mormon Opposition to War(Update: Welcome Tribune readers. If you found your way here from Matthew LaPlante’s article, have a look around, feel free to leave any thoughts you have, and thanks for stopping by). Today’s Salt Lake Tribune, as an excellent article by Matthew LaPlante about Utah’s Mormon population souring on the Iraq War.

LaPlante notes that at the inception, Mormons overwhelmingly supported the Iraq War; however, recent Gallop polls show a large 21 percent drop in support of American Mormons for the Iraq War, compared with a similar poll five months earlier:

As a group, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been staunch supporters of President Bush and his management of Iraq since the war began four years ago.

So Jeffrey Jones wasn’t surprised to see that a two-year compilation of Gallup polls showed American Mormons, more than any other religious group over that period, believed the United States was right to invade Iraq.

“It seemed to make sense,” said Jones, a political analyst with Gallup, a New Jersey-based national polling firm. “Mormons are overwhelmingly Republican, and party affiliation is a powerful predictor of people’s view on the war.”

But that steady tide may be turning, even in the heart of Zion. A January poll by The Salt Lake Tribune showed a precipitous drop in support for Bush’s handling of the war among Utah’s Latter-day Saints. In the survey, just 44 percent of those identifying themselves as Mormon said they backed Bush’s war management. That’s a level considerably higher than Bush gets from Utah’s non-Mormon population and the nation at large, but it’s also a 21 percentage point drop from just five months earlier. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 4.7 percentage points.

So, what would explain the drop? According to LaPlante, who spoke with Church officials, the Church has no official position on Iraq:

LDS Church spokesman Mark Tuttle insisted there has been “no additional statement, clarification, changed policy or announcement that can account for” the rapid change in Utah church members’ perceptions of the war. And he reiterated that the church has no official position on Iraq.

However, some point to recent comments by President Hinckley about war in general as possibly having some impact:

But that doesn’t mean prominent Mormons didn’t have plenty of influence on how members were thinking about war and peace between August and January. Rather than one unmistakable message from the church, the change may have been ushered by a rapid series of more subtle signals that it was indeed acceptable for Mormons to question their president during wartime And it all may have started at the very top.

Spooked on Halloween.

Speaking to Brigham Young University students on Oct. 31, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley lamented “the terrible cost of war.” “What a fruitless thing it so often is,” he said. “And what a terrible price it exacts.

Hinckley recalled standing at the graves of some of history’s most powerful military and political leaders. “In their time they commanded armies,” he said. “They ruled with near omnipotence, and their very words brought terror into the hearts of people,” he said. And yet, he noted, all of them were now dead: “They have all passed into the darkness of the grave.”

Though brooding heavily on the consequences of war in general, Hinckley never mentioned Iraq or President Bush specifically. But in the following days, online message boards and e-mail discussion groups lit up with conversation about what Hinckley – “prophet, seer and revelator” to millions of Mormons worldwide – might have meant in regard to the nation’s current wars.

Of course, interpreting President Hinckley’s comments, particularly when the topic is war, is not always easy. Russell Arden Fox’s recent post at Times and Seasons reflects how some folks may have heard what they wanted to hear when President Hinckley spoke in General Conference just after the Iraq war began.

A month after President Hinckley’s comments at BYU, Utah’s popular governor gave a rather grave assessment of the war effort:

The month after Hinckley’s speech, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. – one of the more prominent politicians who are LDS members – returned from Iraq with an unfavorable report about the chaos he saw in the war-torn nation’s capital city.

“The security situation is Baghdad is out of hand,” said Huntsman, who enjoys wide popularity among Utahns. “I am less optimistic about a successful outcome.” Huntsman’s dismay echoed that of other well-known Mormon politicians from both sides of the aisle – Sens. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and Republican Gordon Smith of Oregon – who were also issuing disappointing proclamations about what the Bush administration had hitherto referred to as Iraq’s “progress.”

November and December brought on crushing congressional defeats for Republican legislators, the resignation of war architect and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a damning report on the war’s progress by the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel commissioned to come up with solutions to increasing violence and a burgeoning civil war.

Some, including me, who LaPlante graciously quoted in his article feel that as time has gone by, it is more acceptable for Utah or U.S. Mormons to express alternative viewpoints now about Iraq:

That’s an opinion shared by blogger Guy Murray, author of Messenger and Advocate – www.messengerandadvocate.wordpress.com – a popular blog about Mormon issues.

It’s true that, in general, LDS members are more conservative as a whole, but at one point the whole country backed this war and this president,” said Murray. “Over the years, the country has soured on this war, and Mormons may be just following the national trend.” Murray said he believes that, as the war has lumbered violently on, it has become less socially perilous for Mormons to express “alternative” opinions about Iraq. Especially, he noted, as “the church has gone out of its way to stress political neutrality.” “I think there is an element of comfort in that,” he said.

I would also point out that in my brief discussion with Mr. LaPlante, I also observed that these trends on the Iraq war and its support are likely confined to Utah and/or U.S. Mormons, which LaPlane notes in his article. The Gallop polls were clearly confined to U.S. Mormons, rather than worldwide, which, I suspect would show a somewhat different result. I suspect that the Iraq war has much less support worldwide among Mormons than just confined to those in the U.S.

Still, this finding is surprising, given the amount of Mormon support of the war, particularly during the run up and shortly after the “shock and awe” of it all. My hope, of course is that the sooner this war is over the better. I was heartened to see the House pass a funding bill tied to a withdrawal date. I hope the Congress keeps the pressure on the Bush administration to bend its will to that of the American people, regardless of religious affiliation.