As former Utah senator Bob Bennett lay dying this spring, the staunchly conservative lawmaker voiced a final, unexpected wish: he wanted to apologize to Muslims for Donald Trump.
“Are there any Muslims in the hospital?” the Republican asked his wife and son, according to the Daily Beast. “I’d love to go up to every single one of them to thank them for being in this country, and apologize to them on behalf of the Republican Party for Donald Trump.”
The embrace of reconciliation wasn’t a new sentiment for the 82-year-old former senator. According to his son Jim, he first expressed unease with Trump earlier this year when the business mogul began spouting anti-Islam rhetoric to win votes, calling for a ban on Muslim immigration into the United States and saying that Islam “hates” America. Frustrated, Bennett reportedly began approaching Muslim women wearing hijab in airports, telling them he was happy they were in the country.
“He would go to people [wearing] hijab and tell them he was glad they were in America, and they were welcome here,” said Joyce, Bennett’s wife. “He wanted to apologize on behalf of the Republican Party.”
“He was astonished and aghast that Donald Trump had the staying power that he had,” his son added. “He had absolutely no respect for Donald Trump, and I think got angry and frustrated when it became clear that the party wasn’t going to steer clear of Trumpism.”
Bennett was also public about his desire to welcome Muslims, telling the Desert News in April, “There’s a lot of Muslims here in [Utah]. I’m glad they’re here.”
Bennett’s moving act of kindness comes at an awkward time for the Republican Party, which is struggling to rally institutional support behind the famously divisive Trump. Yet the late senator’s distaste for Trump is widespread in Utah, where he and many others claim membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose devotees are often called Mormons. When Trump first voices his Muslim ban in December, the LDS church — which is based in Utah — made a rare foray into presidential politics by issuing a statement implicitly condemning the policy, quoting Mormonism founder Joseph Smith’s passionate defense of religious freedom. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert also published a Facebook post rebuking Trump, saying, “In Utah, the First Amendment still matters. That will not change so long as I remain governor.”
Utah voters agreed. When the state held its Republican primary in March, locals overwhelmingly rejected Trump: the Donald came in third with only 14 percent of the vote in the Beehive State, whereas the less-bombastic Sen. Ted Cruz won easily with 69 percent.
There are a myriad of reasons for Utah’s distaste for Trump, but the sentiment is partly rooted in the Mormon sensitivity to religious persecution in the United States — something American Muslims endure daily as anti-Islam attacks and sentiment continue to rise. During the 19th century, Mormons were expelled from various settlements by locals who accused them of being invaders, or even — inexplicably — non-white. Violent clashes between Joseph Smith’s followers and federal troops became so common that the group fled to modern-day Utah, which was then part of Mexico. Things came to a head in 1879, when the U.S. secretary of state recommended that President Rutherford B. Hayes limit Mormon immigration into the country — a suggestion eerily similar to Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the United States.
Bennett, it seems, was all too aware of this history, and wanted Muslims to know that Mormons weren’t their enemy.
“That was something my father felt very keenly—recognizing the parallel between the Mormon experience and the Muslim experience,” Jim Bennett said. “[He] wanted to see these people treated with kindness, and not ostracized.”
Although Mormons are the most reliably Republican faith group in the country, the LDS church has distanceed itself from the rest of the Religious Right in recent years, often choosing relative compromise instead of conflict or culture-war debates. And while they are unlikely to abandon the GOP anytime soon, Bennett’s poignant rebuke of Trump could signal very real problems for the party moving forward: at least one Deseret News/KSL poll released in March found that many Utah voters may stay home or vote Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders this election season, potentially opening a window for a Democrat to win the state for the first time in half a decade.