9 Mormons Who Ran for President

John Hamerfeminism, history, mitt, mitt romney, Mormon, politics, romney 39 Comments

During this campaign season I’ve been helping Newell Bringhurst and Craig Foster edit their forthcoming book, The Mormon Quest for the Presidency. The book tells the fascinating story of 9 Mormons who ran for president prior to Mitt Romney’s bid and I thought I’d briefly share their stories while Mitt’s fate is being decided today…

1844 Joseph Smith Jr. (no party) — In an era when the separation of church and state were still absolute, Smith was the first clergyman to run for president. As such, he did not emphasize his role as a prophet or as president of the Mormon church. Instead, he campaigned as “General Joseph Smith” (of the Nauvoo Legion of the Illinois militia). Smith organized the Council of Fifty whose chief goal was to campaign to get him elected president. The Fifty ratified Smith’s choice of Sidney Rigdon for Vice President, and then spread out across the country campaigning for the Smith-Rigdon ticket. Smith’s positions were expressed in a widely distributed pamphlet entitled “General Smith’s Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States.” Dominating the day was the question of Texas annexation, which Smith favored. This was a very popular position in the western states which were interested in expansion and cheap land. People in the eastern states viewed the question more soberly because annexation meant an unprovoked war with Mexico. The leading contenders for the Democratic and Whig party nominations were Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay, both of whom came out against annexation. Smith’s initial, quixotic hope was to capture enough of the pro-expansion vote to prevent a clear winner in the Electoral College, throwing the choice to the House of Representatives, where he planned to bargain as John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay had done in 1824. The Democrats’ surprise nomination of James K. Polk and their adoption of a pro-expansionist ticket upset those plans and ultimately resulted in their victory that year. Meanwhile in June of 1844, Smith himself became the first US presidential candidate ever to be assassinated while most of the Fifty were still out on the campaign trail.


1968 George W. Romney (Republican) — Born in the Mormon polygamist colonies in Mexico, Mitt Romney’s father had been president of American Motors and had become the popular governor of Michigan. Romney was a liberal Republican who eliminated the state’s massive budget deficit by imposing the state’s first income tax. For the 1968 election, Romney was initially the leading choice for the Rockefeller wing of the Republican party and he quickly emerged as the party’s frontrunner. However, Romney’s muddled position on the Vietnam War (he was for it before he became unclear about it and then ultimately came out against it) became unpopular among Republicans and Romney dropped out before the primaries, leaving the nomination to Richard Nixon. The Mormon Question: Because Romney was a vocal supporter of civil rights for blacks in the face of the LDS church’s active political opposition, he was viewed as an independent thinker. These circumstances neutralized the question of whether Romney would be “taking orders” from Salt Lake, and his Mormon identity did not have a major impact on his candidacy.

1976 Morris K. “Mo” Udall (Democrat) — Born to one of Arizona’s prominent political families, Mo Udall was raised LDS but broke with the church over the question of race policies. Udall was a prominent member of Congress who had been a House whip behind the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and the Campaign Finance Reform Acts of 1971 and 1974. Udall had been an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. With the weakness of Gerald Ford and the post-Watergate GOP, the Democratic field was full in 1976. Gov. Jimmy Carter emerged as a surprise early frontrunner, but Udall hung on through the primary season as other more prominent rivals dropped out. A couple of close losses for Udall in Wisconsin and Michigan sealed the nomination for Carter who went on to win the presidency. The Mormon Question: Udall’s status as a lapsed Mormon had little effect on the campaign.

2000 Orrin G. Hatch (Republican) — Although raised in a working class family in Pittsburgh and pro-union in his early years, Hatch converted to hardcore Republicanism and pulled off a surprise victory in 1977 race for Sentator from Utah. By 2000, Hatch saw himself as a moderate conservative with a record of working with Democrats. He threw himself into a large GOP field already dominated by previous GOP president’s son, George W. Bush. Hatch’s rationale was that he would serve as a “kind of election insurance policy,” should Bush’s campaign collapse for any reason. Unfortunately for Hatch, Republican voters preferred other brands of insurance, leaving him last in both fund-raising and caucus votes. The Mormon Question: Hatch’s long-shot campaign itself invoked the Mormon question as nearly all of Hatch’s fundraising came from LDS members and Hatch openly called upon Iowa Mormons to caucus for him. Hatch then blamed anti-Mormon bigotry for his dismal showing.


1920 Parley P. Christiansen (Farmer-Labor) — A lapsed Mormon raised in Idaho, Christensen was an activist in the labor movement who hoped to reactivate the progressive impulse that had led to a number of reforms in the early 20th century. He received over 265,000 votes and Farmer-Labor party became a player in places like Washington state and Minnesota. (In Minnesota it eventually merged with the Democratic party, which is why Minnesota Democrats are known as DFLers.)

1968 Ezra Taft Benson (American Independent) — The most politically active member of the LDS hierarchy in the later 20th century, Benson was Secretary of Agriculture under Eisenhower, where he became known for taking opposition to Communism to the point of obsession. The John Birch Society and the “Committee of 76” worked to create a third party ticket of Benson for President and outspoken segregationist Strom Thurmond for VP. Later, when George Wallace emerged as the Presidential candidate for the segregationist American Independent party ticket, Wallace indicated that Benson was his first choice for VP. David O. McKay was persuaded to deny Benson permission to run on either ticket.

1968 Eldridge Cleaver (Peace and Freedom) — Prior to joining the Mormon church, Eldridge Cleaver was a radical left-wing activist in the black power movement. If elected president, he promised to burn the White House down. By the 1980s, Cleaver converted to Mormonism and became an ardent right-wing Republican.

1984 Sonia Johnson (Citizens) — Feminist activist and former chair of Mormons for ERA, Sonia Johnson had been excommunicated in 1979. In 1984 she continued to promote gender equality by running on the left-wing pro-environment Citizens party ticket and was simultaneously endorsed by the Socialist Party USA and the Peace and Freedom party.

1992 James G. “Bo” Gritz (Populist) — Bo Gritz was a convert to the LDS church, a conspiracy theorist and a white supremacist. The right-wing Populist Party had previously run KKK leader David Duke in its campaign to roll back perceived preferential treatment for non-whites. After his 1992 campaign, Gritz was subsequently disfellowshipped by the LDS church for his vocal advocacy against paying Federal income tax.

Comments 39

  1. Only good thing was that none of them made it!

    But with Eldridge Cleaver, what happened to him after this? is he still a member? or a lapsed mormon? What about Udall, did he ever return to church?

    And Gritz? they didn’t disfellowship him for being a right-wing white supremacist but for not wanting to pay tax? strange, isn’t it.

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  3. I think Cleaver passed away in 1998.

    Joseph Smith may have been the first clergyman to run for president but I think it’s quite a stretch to claim that he ran in an “era when the separation of church and state were still absolute.”

    States still had official denominations for some time into the 19th century and it was much more lax than it is today.

  4. Post

    As a conservative Republican Mormon, Cleaver ran and lost bids as mayor of Oakland CA (1983), US House of Representatives (1984), city council of Berkeley CA (1984) and US Senate (1986). He continued on the LDS rolls until his death in 1998, but he was generally inactive in the 90s.

    Mo Udall never became active in the LDS church. His son Mark Udall is a Democratic Congressman from Colorado. I’m pretty sure that Mark is not LDS at all, but he is cousin of Oregon’s Gordon Smith and also cousin of Tom Udall, the Democrat favored to win New Mexico’s Senate seat this year.

    I believe Gritz’s disfellowshipment for radical anti-tax advocacy fell under the 12th Article of Faith. I have a great uncle in Utah who was similarly a “tax protester” and who was imprisoned for tax fraud for a few years, although I don’t think he was disfellowshipped for it.

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  6. Post

    Re #2: David, I should have emphasized that I was discussing the republican ideals for the Federal level of government, in the context of presidential bids. Of course, freedom of religion was not always absolute at the state or local level — Nauvoo itself is a prime example of the complete mixture of church and state, where the head of the local church was simultaneously the mayor, head of the courts, and head of the militia.

  7. The Church still claims Mark Udall as one of its own. Tom Udall is not LDS. His father, Stewart, formally left the Church in the early 60s. I don’t know why Morris didn’t follow suit.

  8. I understood that Bo Gritz actually had his name removed, after being denied a temple recommend for not paying his taxes (on grounds of not being “honest with his fellow man”). He went on and on at the time about the LDS church becoming nothing more than a collection agency for the IRS.

  9. Post

    #7 LL: I think you have it backwards. Stewart Udall and his son Tom stayed LDS; Mo Udall and his son Mark are not LDS.

    #8 Nick: That part of the manuscript hasn’t actually come my way yet, but I think you’re right about Bo’s history after he was disfellowshipped.

  10. Evidence for George Romney’s “vocal opposition to the LDS Church’s racial policies”?

    It’s one thing to a strong proponent of civil rights for Blacks–which George Romney certainly was. It’s quite another to be a vocal opponent of the Church’s racial policies, which if I remember correctly consisted of two things: restrictions on priesthood and temple blessings, and no active proselytizing among people of Black African descent. Did George Romney vocally oppose those policies?

  11. James G. “Bo” Gritz was disfellowshipped for opposing taxes????!!!!
    Good thing Milton Friedman was Jewish!

    When I hear this sort of thing I get a bit upset at how the church has treated people over the years. But I must look forward, there is a bright horizon ahead.

    Nick–I just read your blog and decided to edit this. Ok…now I see it totally differently. Avoiding taxes…though a criminal…a bit of a rogue hero! lol

  12. Post

    Re #8: Mark — Good point, that was sloppy phrasing at best on my part. I don’t know that Romney was ever on record about the LDS church’s internal policies. The actual calculus is about external political policies. I’ve fixed the sentence to read: Because Romney was a vocal supporter of civil rights for blacks in the face of the LDS church’s active opposition, he was viewed politically as an independent thinker. These circumstances neutralized the question of whether Romney would be “taking orders” from Salt Lake, and his Mormon identity did not have a major impact on his candidacy.

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  14. Re #11: Stephen. As I understand things, it was not that he merely opposed taxes. Oh wait, you edited and understand that. Good. But it is an important point. The church does support civil change, but civil disobedience is a has a tolerable limit in the eyes of the church. Criminal activity does not. What the church would do if it came down to a matter of out and out oppression by the government and many members felt the need to join a revolution would be an interesting question. That question arises frequently in other countries, but what if it were to happen in the USA?

    I think that such a time would be VERY trying for the church and members of the church. Let us all hope that it never becomes an issue of real contention.

  15. Great post, John Hamer, and fascinating history. Makes me realize how little the average Church member (i.e., me) knows about our own history.

    I would love to hear more about Eldridge Cleaver’s conversion from left-wing black power advocate to right-wing Mormon Republican. There is a much bigger story there that I am sure you wish you could have told were it not for space limitations.

  16. RE: John Hamer
    “Because Romney was a vocal supporter of civil rights for blacks in the face of the LDS church’s active opposition”

    So, the church was in active opposition to rights for blacks? I don’t think you can say not allowing blacks to hold the priesthood is active opostion to civil rights. I’m pretty sure that the right to hold the priesthood is not considered a civil right.

    Was the church in some other way actively against blacks begin able to vote, sit on the bus where the wanted to, attend white only schools, drink from white only fountains, get a job, buy houses, be married, or anything else that is actually a civil right?

    Just asking.

  17. I know a number of folks who attended Cleaver’s Baptism at the Oakland Interstake Center next to the Temple. It was a really, really big deal at the time. But I don’t think he even lasted a year of activity. Never really got the story of why he decided to join. I guess he just felt the Spirit. There certainly was no advantage to him to join.

  18. While there is no doubt that many Church members and leaders (e.g. Delbert Stapley and Ezra Taft Benson) were opposed to the civil rights movement, the Church actually issued a statement in a General Conference in the 1960s favoring equal civil rights in the political sphere (Hugh B. Brown’s work) and was never politically active as an organization against political civil rights for blacks. Obviously, the priesthood ban and the lack of action in favor of civil rights (other than that General Conference statement) contributed to an inaccurate public perception of the Church as officially anti-civil rights.

  19. Post

    Re #15: The civil rights movement and legislation in the 1960s had those goals you mention, yes. While Apostle Hugh B. Brown succeeded in crafting a general statement in favor of civil rights for all on the basis of “race, color, or creed,” it did not say anything in support of civil rights legislation or the civil rights movement. The competing voices were not so circumspect. For example, from the pulpit in the Tabernacle during the October 1967 General Conference, Apostle Ezra Taft Benson declared:

    There is no doubt that the so-called civil rights movement as it exists today is used as a Communist program for revolution in America, just as agrarian reform was used by the Communists to take over China and Cuba…. Not one in a thousand Americans — black or white — really understands the full implications of today’s civil rights agitation. The planning, direction, and leadership come from the Communists, and most of those are white men who fully intend to destroy America by spilling Negro blood, rather than their own. (Conference Report, Oct. 1967, pp. 34-39, quoted in Gregory Prince, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism.)

    That sort of strong language could not help but give listeners an impression of the LDS church’s stance; which, since it was contrary to George Romney’s position helped establish Romney’s independence in the way I indicate above.

  20. Fascinating, John! Looks like an interesting book. I’d forgotten about some of these presidential bids (Cleaver’s and Johnson’s).

  21. Scary fact: When I was a junior, Bo “God, Guns and Gritz” Gritz taught U.S. Government at my high school (Western High in Las Vegas, NV). I was in a different class, but my friends told me that his lessons were, um, different.

    #8 — you’re close. The Church disfellowshipped Gritz for his “political activities,” and, in protest, he resigned his membership. According to his website, “The Gritz’ recognize a seventh-day Sabbath and Gods appointed Feasts” (whatever that means). You can find him at http://www.bogritz.com.

  22. LL: I think you have it backwards.

    It appears you are correct about Mark (nonmember) and Tom (member). But I’m sure I read somewhere that Stewart resigned his membership. In the last few hours, however, I have not been able to confirm that either Stewart or Morris did so. I’ll keep looking.

  23. Another interesting post, John. I wasn’t aware of the small party candidates, so that was eye-opening. Thanks for the information.

  24. #13 Benjamin Orchard – Very interesting…I wonder what it would do. The church was in East Berlin when the Iron Curtain was up but still encouraged civil obedience. Through all political upheavals or changes I think it is important for the church to appease the party in power….no matter how much I dislike this and as repugnant as I find it. (It works the same for royalty too) The Church is ultimate goal is to ensure it’s survival…and challenging violent institutions such as States is a perfect way to ensure this goal is not met.

    The USA I think would be a totally different kettle of fish as you say if the scenario you talk of arises. For the most part, and as sad as it sounds, if the majority of Mormons did feel a certain way, I dont know if we would see the church siding with them.

    Gosh I miss the Brigham Young and even the Ezra Taft Benson days sometimes when they would say it how they see it. But I think the church is in a much better place now and on a more comfortable path to be totally honest.

  25. “The Church is ultimate goal is to ensure it’s survival…and challenging violent institutions such as States is a perfect way to ensure this goal is not met.”

    Perhaps this is true, but I think that it would have been totally appropriate to leave Nazi Germany or refuse to fight on it’s side in WWII as a Latter-day Saint. I am not an expert on how many LDS were in Germany at the time, but the anecdotes abound of those who were faithful to the church and loyal to the country. Althought the Jehovah’s Witnesses paid for their civil disobedience, at least they took a stand and are remembered for it.

    Alas, I digress from the actual topic.

  26. John,

    A fascinating book project that you’re involved with through Newell and Craig. There must be an interesting story re how they decided to do this.

    I don’t agree with Carlos (#1) re the unsuitability of all the past candidates, at least in George W. Romney’s case. My recollection from having lived in Michigan during 1972-2007 is that he was an excellent governor with very good administrative (business) and leadership skills. He led a very complex and badly needed revision of Michigan’s constitution — no small task not unlike operating on a patient while still awake. I think he also acquitted himself well as a cabinet officer (H.U.D.). He surely would have made a better president than some that we had subsequent to his unsuccessful 1968 run for the Republiocan nomination.The only thing on which I’d fault him was in his slowness to deal with the 1967 Detroit riot, but then LBJ suffered from the same case of what Abraham Lincoln dubbed (in speaking of George McClellan) “the slows.” I happened to be visiting in the middle of Detroit as the riot unfolded — checked out of one hotel after a fatal shooting and became the sole occupant of yet another. When the Michigan National Guard and Air National Guard troops took to the streets (badly unprepared for riot duty), there was a massive expenditure of ammunition with spent cartridge casings (some of it .50 caliber) and casualties all over the streets. It took an agonizing amount of time for LBJ to agree to help; he finally did so by bringing the 101st Airborne Division up from Kentucky to pacify the city with fixed bayonets (no shooting). That should have been done from the get-go but wasn’t.

    In George Romney’s case you’ve accurately described the self-destruction of his candidacy re the Vietnam issue and his gaff in acknowledging that he’d been “brainwashed” by the military in visiting that country. (“Time Magazine” picked up on this and coined the scathing assessment that “If George Romney was brainwashed in Vietnam, it was because he brought too light a load to the dryer.” After this witticism appeared in “Time” it was all downhill. A shame. George Romney got a bum deal just as Gerald R. Ford did for pardoning Nixon and triping once on an aircraft stairway.) Somehow, though, either you or the co-authors seem to have missed a major factor (along with Vietnam) that detracted from George Romney’s campaign — the matter of whether his birth in Mexico to U.S. citizens disqualified him from the presidency under the Constitution’s qualifier that the president must be a “natural born” citizen. Clearly he was a citizen, but of the right kind? The attorney general of New Hampshire seized on this issue and brought suit to bar GWR from participating in the New Hampshire primary during 1968. A friend of Romney’s — a prominent member of the Detroit bar — wrote a long detailed brief bolstering the candidate’s entitlement to run, while a New York lawyer wrote an equally detailed brief arguing that Romnet should be barred. Fascinating reading. This legal issue was never resolved because it was rendered moot by GWR’s withdrawal in New Hamnpshire over the Vietnam flap. I hope that Newell and Craig will get into the Constitutional issue in the course of discussing GWR’s candidacy. It’s interesting to me that that was the main attack on GWR’s suitability for the presidency. There was very little said about the religious aspects of the Romney candidacy — quite different than what his son has unfortunately run into. There was so little discussion of GWR’s religion that in arguing the citizenship issue people for the most part were oblivious to the reason why his parents were residing in Mexico when he was born — the polygamy flap and persecutions.

    Intersting to me also that George Romney’s middle name was Wilcken. His ancestor, Charles Henry Wilcken, had served in the Fourth U.S. Artillery during the Utah War until he deserted and crossed into LDS (Nauvoo Legion) lines near Fort Bridger in early October 1857. Wilcken’s former commander in Light Battery B, Capt. John W. Phelps, subsequently ran for the presidency in 1880 as the candidate of the American Party (a nativist group) and got all of about 800 votes nationally. So Pvt. Charles Henry Wilcken served in the army under one non-Mormon presidential candidate and sired a family that was to include as descendants presidential candidates in 1968 and 2008. Let’s hope that Mitt does better than Phelps or his father did.

  27. Post

    Bill — Thanks for all that information. I’ve always wondered about the issue of Romney’s Mexican birth potentially disqualifying him for the presidency under the Constitution. (It always seemed like much more of a stretch than McCain’s Panamanian birth, given that the Canal Zone was US territory and given that McCain’s father was in the US military there.) I need to look more closely at what Newell and Craig wrote there, but if they don’t have anything about it, I’ll forward what you’ve written here to them.

  28. John, re your #27, I didn’t realize that John McCain had been born in the Panama Canal Zone. I’ve never seen this mentioned in the press coverage of his campaign. I’m sure that you’ve got it tagged right — that this would have been considered U.S. territory at the time of his birth, a different circumstance than George Romney’s birth to American citizens living in one of the LDS colonias of northern Mexico. When GWR was confronted during 1968 with this legal issue, he tended to leave the Constitutional issue to his attorney-backers and deflected it with the comment that he knew he was “natural born” because his mother told him so. If Newell and Craig haven’t seen the article in “Michigan History Review” of a few years ago about the Romney candidacy, it’s worth perusing.

  29. NM Tony

    “I think that it would have been totally appropriate to leave Nazi Germany or refuse to fight on it’s side in WWII as a Latter-day Saint.”

    They believed they were free and were fighting for their freedom in both WW1 and WW2! Sound familiar? I think this is a case of myopia.

  30. Bo Gritz was not disfellowshipped from The Church of jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He voluntarily elected to relinquish his and his family’s membership is 1994 because he was not willing to abide by the direstion of his priesthood leaders. It was during a temple recommend interview when he was asked a question he refused to answer, that he left the interview and shortly thereafter wrote and sent a letter to Church headquarters requesting that his and his family’s name be removed from the membership records. I know because I was personally involved.

  31. Sorry I am not a rich man and I don’t have a web site. I just wanted to make a few comments about Col. Gritz. The #30 statement is accurate as far as I know. It is exactly what I learned of at the time. Your statement about Col. Gritz being a Racist are incorrect. The news media as usual always distorts the truth and because the Col. helped a former soldier of his, namely Randy Weaver, the Col. was broad brushed with the race image. When it’s in print everybody believes it. I helped the col.’s campaign here in Utah, I met him several times, the Col. was friendly and honest and quite funny too.
    I know what nasty things the Mormon’s can do to a person when they want somebody to just go away. As I said I helped in the campaign. I designed & painted billboards & lawn signs. I sold a small line of Patriot books at my Key & Copy Convenience Store.(Nelson’s Super Copies) In 1991 the Mormon’s began a Lying Boycott of my store, Claiming that I ran an ANTI-MORMON BOOK STORE. They ran there lying Boycott till 2001 and I was forced to abandon my store and I got a job at the YCC in Ogden. They Destroyed my Family, and cost me Aprox. $400,000.00 One day I hope to see RESTITUTION for that Theft. Perhaps Jesus himself will have to do that when he returns. My Beautiful Children have wandered off to the ways of the world. I have remarried and am now unemployed. My Lovely new wife waits for the day I will come back to full activation & take her to the Temple. Seeing my DEAD store everyday at:1226 N. Washington Blvd. Ogden, I think my return to believing in that church will be a Long, Long, Long, Long, Long time in comming. But who know’s maybe Jesus will be here tomarrow and we can cut a deal?. A Check for $400,000.00 (+ intrest) would be a drop in the bucket compaired to the Churches Billions.
    Every word I’ve said is TRUE esspecially about my personal situation. Here’s a thought for those who say, Just Get A Job!, ONCE YOU’RE FREE, YOU’LL NEVER BE THE SAME! Spartacus

  32. Bo Gritz site says the republican party tried to team him up with David Duke but Gritz refused to be a racist, he also is God father to a black child

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