On The LDS Church And Obama, Mormon Historian Provides Insight

Rhett Wilkinson

"The highest-ranking Mormon in the White House was an intern."

Gregory Prince pointed out his daughter's distinction. Prince, a historian of the Latter-day Saint movement and a Mormon himself, was talking with Mormon Stories host John Dehlin about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints being on the "world stage."

"There was a time when Pres. Uchtdorf was," Prince said of Dieter Uchtdorf, formerly a member of the church's highest governing body in its First Presidency but since taken off of it.

Prince, well-known nationally after doing work in infectious disease research, business, writing, and social critiquing, further said that he asked Paul Monteiro, religious liaison in former President Barack Obama's Office of Public Liaison, about his "back channel" to Salt Lake City, where church headquarters are.

"He said, 'we don't have one,'" Prince said.

Prince mentioned Uchtdorf's name, he continued to tell Dehlin March 17 at the Salt Lake City Community of Christ chapel.

"Just by coincidence, a few weeks later … [Uchtdorf] was speaking in D.C.," Prince said. "By the end of the speech, Paul was converted to President Uchtdorf."

Then, "for the next few years, they were trying to figure out how to get this man in front of the president," Prince said of Uchtdorf and that Obama staff were seeking for Obama to spend more than "30 seconds" with him.

That happened through a White House meeting on immigration set up by Monteiro.

While other religious leaders were there, "the whole point of the meeting was to get them together – and there was electricity between the two of them," Prince said, noting that Uchtdorf was sat directly across from Obama.

Then, Uchtdorf and Obama talked at an Easter Prayer Breakfast started in 2010 by Obama.

"It was absolutely clear that there was genuine affection for those two men," Prince said.

But the connection between the Democratic president and Mormon apostle "dissipated," Prince added.

"Do you have any theories of what happened or why?" Dehlin asked.

"I think that perhaps [Uchtdorf] was getting too much recognition," Prince replied. "That was a time where the LDS church was poised, I think, at potentially a very beneficial position. But I think if that relationship had been allowed to (continue), it would have put the church in a very, very good light."

Prince thinks that when Uchtdorf was "demoted," as Dehlin described it, by being removed from the First Presidency to the lower Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he was being "silenced," as Dehlin also said.

Was the breaking of Uchtdorf's connection with Obama also part of that "silencing"? Dehlin asked.

"It's speculation, but yeah, that's what I think," said Prince, who said that he anticipated Uchtdorf being moved.

The end of that development was one of the church-White House insights Prince gave for an episode of the Mormon Stories podcast and other items that Prince gave as a historian of the Latter-day Saint movement, also sharing unorthodox beliefs in LDS Mormonism.

In a discussion at the White House, Prince learned that it was a "non-starter" for the Obama administration to involve the church in a White House family-related initiative because of the church's "narrow definition of a family," Prince said, mentioning Proposition 8, a California ballot initiative that the church heavily influenced.

When Obama defeated U.S. Senate candidate Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign, "there was a substantial group within the Mormon church that this was an inexcusable offense, that he beat the Lord's [choice]," Prince later said.

Dehlin asked if giving one's name and reputation to the church meant that they contribute to the "damage" to LGBTQ youth and women.

"You could say that same about being a citizen of the United States, particularly under the name of the current administration," Prince replied to claps.

He mentioned that folks are paying taxes but oppose Donald Trump leading the executive branch.

"Do I resign my United States citizenship and move to a different country?" Prince asked. "I guess I could."

Audience members that filled the chapel and were seated beyond it were able to ask questions.

One asked about how the church can make "inroads" with "mainline Christians" rather than the "evangelical group that [the church] keep[s] trying to appease" that "keep[s] turning their backs on [the church]."

One of the folks part of the Wesley Theological Seminary with Prince said that pursuit is "doomed," Prince replied.

"They will never accept Mormonism for what it really is. … We do; we see the value," Prince reported the individual saying.

As of now, however, the church's Old Testament supplemental study in its "gospel doctrine" class is the "worst" that a professor of Hebrew Bible has seen, Prince said the scholar told him.

Another asked about "how to do the science behind homosexuality."

"I think we need to keep discussing it and the science will get stronger," said Prince, saying that the "gay gene" is "biological, but very complex."

"As we move forward, the stronger the biology will become," added Prince, who has advocated against the church's gay policy that came to light Nov. 2015.

Dehlin asked questions to sandwich audience members'.

He asked about Romney and racism in the church.

Prince said it's more prevalent in Utah now than it was in 1978 when the church lifted a ban on giving the church priesthood to blacks. He said a "Caribbean lady" told him that if people think that the church does not deal with racism "try dating a white guy and seeing what happens."

"Is the church safe for LGBT youth right now?" Dehlin asked.

Folks are "making it safe," Prince said, remarking that there are "too many kids [who] are literally being thrown out of the house."

"I don't think this is a secret to anybody that this is a deeply divided issue at the top," Prince added. "That's why you get mixed messages."

Prince has authored around 150 papers on Mormon history as of September, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. The church has excommunicated historians who present findings unflattering about Mormon history, but LDS church leaders, which the faithful regard as "prophets, seers, and revelators," have not given Prince negative feedback, Prince told Dehlin.

Prince did note that in Dec. 1996, after his book Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood was released in Aug. 1995, church magazine The Ensign published its longest article "ever" by Larry Porter on the same topic.

"I read that and I thought his is really strange because it is saying that in a loud voice that my book doesn't exist – without mentioning my book," Prince said.

Prince told that to a chief church leader.

"He laughed and said 'you might be closer to the truth than you might think,'" Prince reported.

He then noted that the book only indirectly challenged the church before Dehlin asked why Prince does not challenge the leadership directly.

"It's not something that interests me," Prince replied, adding that "a full-assault on the brethren or even a perception of that will cause them to dig in" with retribution.

Prince added that he had three conversations with Kate Kelly, the leader of the Ordain Women movement that began five years ago.

"I said 'look, we've done this in the '70s,'" Prince said. "'It had nothing to do with the righteous cause; it had to do with the politics.'"

"I told Kate, 'there will be a time that women will be asked to be at the table on important discussions on where the church needs to go,'" Prince said. "The direction you need to go, I guarantee you will not … be at the table."

Kelly was excommunicated in June 2014.

Prince gave the church a letter grade of C.

"You don't think it's sinking," Dehlin remarked.

"It's a large and durable enough institution," Prince said. "It is in danger of being marginalized, particularly as I see a sea of youth leaving."

Prince later answered what his belief in it is.

"It works," he said.