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Why Mormons identify with Syrian refugees

After November's terror attacks in Paris, Republican governors across the country said their states wouldn't welcome Syrian refugees. But Utah Gov. Gary Herbert broke with his conservative counterparts. His office said of the refugees, "We will work to do all we can to ease their suffering without compromising public safety."

Utah's support for refugees seems unexpected. The state is the fourth most conservative in the nation, according to a Gallup analysis.There aren't many situations where Utah is at odds with the Republican party line. But on the subject of refugees Herbert has shown a rare deviation that is rooted in the state's history.

Utah Herbert

(Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune)

Mormon history helps explain Utah's stance

More than half of Utah's residents are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, nicknamed the Mormon Church. The church was founded in 1830 in upstate New York and quickly grew in the region.

However, it soon met opposition. The bizarre theology, mixed with the political tint of the movement, caused tension among locals who thought the Mormons would take over their towns and politics. The Mormons' illegal practice of plural marriage fueled this opposition, and soon the Mormons were driven out, often violently, until they eventually made the long journey out of the United States and into Mexico. They settled in the Salt Lake Valley, what today is Salt Lake City, Utah.

Exodus

Thousands of Mormons leaving Nauvoo, Illinois, for Salt Lake, 1842. (lds.org)

How the history affects today's members

Growing up Mormon, I knew this history well. The plight of the early members is the object of everything from Mormon music to Sunday school lessons. Consequently, while Mormons have discriminatory policies against same-sex couples and female members, they have a particular sensitivity to the plight of religious persecution.

So when Republican governors call for a ban on Syrian refugees, or Donald Trump calls for a ban on all Muslims, Mormons tend to identify with this religious discrimination, a sentiment echoed by Gov. Herbert in a recent Facebook post:

I am the governor of a state that was settled by religious exiles who withstood persecution after persecution, including an extermination order from another state's governor. In Utah, the First Amendment still matters. That will not change so long as I remain governor.

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