SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Sen. Mike Lee said Thursday that his comparison of President Donald Trump to Captain Moroni from the Book of Mormon said wasn't intended to be "distracting or offensive," after receiving some sharp criticism for the remarks.
Lee's initial comparison came while making some final pleas to Christian voters at a rally for Trump in Arizona on Wednesday.
"To my Mormon friends, my Latter-day Saint friends," the Republican senator said at the rally, "think of him as Captain Moroni. He seeks not power but to pull it down. He seeks not the praise of the world or the fake news, but he seeks the wellbeing and the peace of the American people."
Lee's comments were a modified verse from the Book of Mormon, which is considered to be holy scripture to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The original verse read: "I seek not for power, but to pull it down. I seek not for honor of the world, but for the glory of my God, and the freedom and welfare of my country."
In the Book of Mormon, Captain Moroni is a military commander who inspired soldiers to fight for freedom. The scripture states that if all men were like Captain Moroni, "the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men."
When asked for a clarification on the analogy, Lee's spokesman Conn Carroll said: "Captain Moroni was a government official, not a prophet. He sought not power, but to pull it down. We should all aspire to be like Captain Moroni."
In a Facebook post made Thursday night to Lee's personal page, the senator offered further explanation and said it was maybe an "awkward" analogy and it might have been "more distracting or offensive" to some, rather than helpful.
"Some people found that comparison upsetting, blasphemous, and otherwise wrong," Lee wrote. "I respect their right to feel that way, and realize that my impromptu comments may not have been the best forum for drawing a novel analogy from scripture."
Noting that he doesn't consider the president to be a prophet nor does he think Trump should be "revered as a religious leader," Lee wrote that he instead was trying to convey the respect he's developed for the man during his presidency.
"After working with and getting to know President Trump over the last four years, I now see him in a very different light than I did in 2016," Lee wrote.
He also said he wasn't arguing that religious voters couldn't "reach a different conclusion" in deciding for whom they vote and that he didn't intend to imply he agreed with "everything (Trump) has ever said or done." Lastly, he said wasn't encouraging people "to emulate President Trump in the same way they might pattern their lives after Captain Moroni."
"I do my best to say what I think in open and forthright ways at all times," Lee continued. "I hope you will respect my right to do my best at that, even when my words come across in ways that offend you."
Lee had earlier posted the video of his short rally appearance on his personal Facebook page and said, "Have you ever wondered what would happen if you were called onto a stage by the president of the United States and asked to speak with only a moment's notice? ... That happened today. It was quite an honor and a lot of fun. Thank you, President Trump!"
But there were plenty of Latter-day Saints who didn't like the comparison between the president and the Book of Mormon hero — and spoke up about it.
Rob Taber, national director of Latter-day Saints for Biden-Harris, wrote in a statement that Latter-day Saints for Trump, an official reelection coalition for the president, has "time and again exploited our shared faith. They have willfully used sacred symbols, including the temple multiple times, in their campaign material."
Latter-day Saints for Trump initially used a picture of the Salt Lake Temple in promotional images (which the organization later changed). The coalition also made a reference to the Gilbert Arizona Temple in a recent rally flyer.
"These are the moves of a desperate campaign, one that fails to understand that governing from the extreme right does not work for our United States," Taber's statement continued. "That families worry about achieving self-sufficiency in an economy pushed to the brink. That we need to follow the science and care for one another and our shared world. That morals, character, leadership, and policy are tied together at a fundamental level. That guarantees of liberty only protect us if they protect all of us."
The analogy drew criticism from others as well.
"I can't believe Mike Lee is now comparing Trump to a righteous leader from the Book of Mormon. What a disgrace," tweeted Evan McMullin, a 2016 independent presidential candidate and member of the church, He received 21% of the vote in Utah. "Mike knows that Trump is a threat to the republic, but chooses to enable him anyway because doing so serves his personal ambitions in Washington. Utahns deserve better."
Benjamin Park, an assistant professor at Sam Houston State and co-editor of Mormon Studies Review tweeted: "I didn't think I'd have to say this, and I don't feel like writing a whole op-Ed about it, but let me be clear: Donald Trump is not a Captain Moroni."
Many on his personal Facebook page expressed support for the senator's comparison between the president and Captain Moroni.
"I agree Trump is like Captain Moroni. A warrior who cares about the freedom of his people," one commenter wrote.
Lee ultimately stood by his analogy.
"Translating Captain Moroni's language into Donald Trump's, he has relentlessly tried to 'drain the swamp' — for example, by avoiding new wars while winding down existing ones, reducing federal regulations, relieving the federal tax burden on working families, and reforming the criminal-justice system," Lee wrote Thursday, echoing his earlier statement through a spokesman. "By so doing, and with his abrupt and often brash style, he has threatened the established political order in a way that — far from bringing him the 'honor of the world' — has subjected him and his family to constant ridicule and scorn."
"He has nonetheless persisted in this effort for pursuit of the 'freedom and welfare of (his) country,'" Lee continued in the post. "In short, Donald Trump has far exceeded my expectations by sticking to his effort to reform the federal government even when it's hard and unpopular."
Both parties have been courting the religious vote in Arizona — a state which has traditionally voted for the Republican presidential candidate but where polls show former vice president Joe Biden holding a 3.5% lead. And Lee used the rally to make pleas to multiple Christian religions.
"To my Catholic friends," Lee said, "think of Amy Coney Barrett and think of the Little Sisters of the Poor. To my protestant and evangelical friends, we have to remember that it is by the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that we've had four years of prosperity and peace."