When Dennis Richardson found his Mormon faith, he said it was like tasting salt: impossible to describe to someone who’s never experienced it.
“One night I just was filled with a sense of love that was overwhelming, from the very top of my head to the bottom of my feet,” he said.
Like salt, he said, “You kind of have to taste it to know.”
Richardson is Oregon’s secretary of state and the first Republican elected statewide since 2002.
He’s 68 and has been married for more than four decades. His backstory is long, defined by his faith — and tinged with controversy.
Richardson spoke with OPB “All Things Considered” host Kate Davidson for an occasional series exploring the experiences that shape the beliefs of people in the public eye.
As a young man, Richardson served as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam. On some days, he flew into combat zones carrying ammunition and flew out with the injured and the dead. Richardson described war as a bullet to the heart from which you never recover. He said he built an emotional wall. His first marriage fell apart.
This conversation is part of an occasional series about the pivotal moments that shape the lives of people in the public eye. If there’s someone whose story you want to hear, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and put “Backstory” in the subject line.
Part 1: Then The Ladder Slipped: Oregon State Rep. Diego Hernandez
Part 2: Sen. Ron Wyden: ‘He Was Constantly Afraid.’
Part 3: Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly And ‘The Bad Tenant Story’
Part 4: Oregon’s Secretary Of State On Faith, Race And Same-Sex Marriage
“I went as a married young man, with a little boy,” he said. “Was divorced while I was in Vietnam and came home as an absentee father and … no bearings anymore. I had really a difficult adjustment period as I tried to figure out what life was all about, and who I was.”
During that transition, Richardson picked up the Book of Mormon and began to read.
He had experience with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from childhood. His father was, for decades, a lapsed Mormon — a “hard-drinking, hard-spoken, tough guy” who Richardson said left home at age 14 to fend for himself.
After his Vietnam service, Dennis Richardson read the Book of Mormon and said a simple prayer: “God, if you’re there, I want to know it. And I want to know if this book is true.”
Richardson spoke to OPB before the deadly violence this summer at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. But he was already examining his own blinders about race and the white world in which he lives.
“I don’t have friends who are African-American. It just hasn’t been part of my life,” he said.
He described his father — a carpenter — as a racist who was personally kind to a black neighbor but had a racial hierarchy at work.
“He put everybody into a box. This is the ‘black box’ and this is the ‘Mexican box’,” Richardson said. “As secretary of state … I want to be a better person than I’ve been in the past, and to do that I need to understand more of the things that I don’t know.”
In the interview, Richardson described his efforts to break out of his own box and better understand the experiences of his African-American constituents. He met with a consultant who spoke with him about issues of race and oppression and the power of language.
A federal judge struck down Oregon’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage in 2014. In the years leading up to that, Richardson was an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage, a stance that he said was deeply informed by his religious beliefs. He has said some highly controversial things about homosexuality during his career in public service.
As a state representative from southern Oregon, Richardson stood on the House floor in 2007 and said, almost as an aside, that gay men are more likely to abuse children than other men (clip begins at 3:18:05).
He once told a woman who asked his advice about insurance discrimination that while he agreed she and her wife were being treated unfairly, they had made the decision not to be in a “normal” marriage.
During the “All Things Considered” interview, Davidson asked Richardson if he feels today that it is immoral to be gay. The question was met with a lengthy pause. The secretary said he wanted to give an honest answer.
“The mere choice of government, or voters, to change a definition, does not necessarily change the definition with God,” he said. “And so, based on my definition, the answer is yes.”
He did try to temper that: “But it doesn’t change the humanity or the acceptance I have for people to make their own choices about such important and so personal of a nature.”
The issue of same-sex marriage, Richardson said, has now been settled.
You can hear an edited version of their conversation by clicking the audio player above.