Mormons and the American Liberal Order

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics is a superb work of social science. David Campbell, John Green, and Quin Monson make exhaustive use of numerous recent surveys conducted by the Pew Forum and Gallup, and a half-dozen surveys which they designed themselves, to produce about as detailed and revealing a look at the political preferences and peculiarities of the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in America as probably any group of scholars ever could. While some of the information which the authors make use of has already been reported in American Grace (a blockbuster in the sociology of religion in America which Campbell co-authored with Robert Putnam), here that information is packaged alongside numerous historic observations and other scholarly insights, resulting in something which stands entirely on its own. Of course, as with any academic study that depends largely upon survey research and the self-reporting of those interviewed, the compiled results need to be recognized for what they are: namely, the best conclusions that correlational and regression analysis allows. Still, I think it is fair to say that just as all serious discussions of actual religious practices and behaviors in the U.S. need to take Putnam and Campbell’s work into consideration, this book by Campbell, Green, and Monson is indisputably the new starting point for all serious conversations about American Mormons and politics from here on out.

The book is arranged into three broad sections, looking at “Mormons as an Ethno-Religious Group,” the “Political Behavior of Mormons,” and “The Consequences of Distinctiveness.” In the first section, their overall argument is that American Mormons have, to a significant if not an absolute degree, resisted the ideological sorting which has characterized the political journey of other white religious groups in America (African-American Protestants have not followed this trend at all), thus maintaining a level of “subcultural” distinctiveness that was once typical in the United States–Irish Catholics voting Democratic, for instance–but which now is nearly non-existent. That is, while it is obvious to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with American Mormons that the huge majority of them vote Republican, that political behavior is not (or at least isn’t fully) the result of the same regional or socio-economic or historical trends that have brought about a cultural alliance between evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics. American Mormons by and large follow a distinctive ethno-religious logic when it comes to their political beliefs and actions. They have created what the authors call a “sacred tabernacle,” within which moral and political distinctions (initially from other Christian churches, but over the past 35 years primarily from the vaguely defined secular “world” on the outside) are propagated, even as larger trends invariable sweep the nation as a whole along.

How is this “tabernacle” maintained in the midst of such trends? The authors develop some rather ingenious indices to chart “Mormon-ness” in terms of one’s degree of activity, respect for institutional authority, insularity, and self-conscious in-group affinity. While all contribute, none are more determinate than levels of activity–that is, nothing (not support for prophetic authority, not agreement with particular doctrines, not self-identification) matters as much as the amount of time one spends amongst fellow members of the church for determining one’s own support for Mormonism’s dominant political culture. This is clarified in one of the book’s most surprising conclusions: “When it comes to questions about the role of authority in the Church, Utah Mormons do not differ from their non-Utah Mormon counterparts….[T]he ‘Utah effect’ is largely in the social networks Mormons form….These similarities illustrate what we mean by the ‘portability’ of the sacred tabernacle–the self-reinforcing subculture Mormons form wherever they reach a critical mass, whether it be in Provo, Portland, or Pawtucket” (p. 68).

What is the content of those moral and political distinctions within the tabernacle? That is the focus of the second section of the book, which charts the rise of partisanship amongst American Mormons (the authors conclude, after comparing various different measurements, that the bulk of American Mormons are more distinctive and party-aligned in their voting habits today than at anytime in the 20th century; you have to go back to the earliest days of Utah statehood to find as unified a bunch of Mormons as you have casting ballots for Republican candidates today). As I said above, the socialization which takes place within the Mormon tabernacle isn’t utterly unique to overall demographic tendencies in America: while Mormons identify with politically conservative preferences at a much higher rate than does the American population as a whole, still, there more male Republican Mormons than female Republican Mormons, more white Mormons voting Republican than Hispanic Mormons, more higher-income Republican Mormons than lower-income Republican Mormons, and as the reported rate of church attendance increases the likelihood of the respondent identifying as a Republican increases dramatically. The only notable demographic distinction which the authors report is that there are (comparatively speaking) more young Mormon Republicans than older, which is obviously the reverse of the general population.

But the real significance of Mormon distinctiveness comes when you get away from broad voting habits, and look at particular details. While American Mormons score higher on the racial resentment index than Catholics or the population as a whole–though not as high as Southern Baptists!–it was not the civil rights movement of the 1960s that stands out as especially influential in moving the American LDS population towards the right (which, incidentally, sets the thesis of Campbell, et al, somewhat against the historical argument made by Jan Shipps and others that it was the 60s-era anti-communism of Ezra Taft Benson and some other general authorities that did the most to set American Mormons on their current political course). Instead, the authors of Seeking the Promised Land look in particular at two “politically infected religious views”: American Mormon views about the U.S. Constitution, and about gender roles.

In regards to the first, the authors review both official and folk doctrines within the church, note that “Mormons are the ‘most exceptionalist’ of any religious tradition in the country,” with 94 percent agreeing with the statement “the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights are divinely inspired” and 72 percent believing that “the United States has a special role to play in world affairs and should behave differently from other nations,” and conclude that “[i]t is only a short step from Mormons’ reverence for the Constitution…to an originalist interpretation,” which–as they point out–is an article of faith amongst most political conservatives in America (pp. 109-112). In regards to the second, nearly three-fourths of American Mormons maintain that “[i]t is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family,” far outscoring the next most conservative Republican-voting religious group in America, evangelical Protestants, of whom less than 40 percent agreed with above statement. The authors, observing some movement in American Mormon attitudes towards mothers who work outside the home (today, only a little more than half agree that mothers harm their children by taking a job, down from 70 percent 30 years ago), rather tartly observe that “we would expect Mormon attitudes towards working mothers in 2020 to be roughly the same as what the rest of the population thought in the 1980s” (pp. 114-115). In short, according to the data presented in this book, it seems to me that while such hot-button topics as abortion and same-sex marriage have clearly played at least some role in shaping American Mormonism’s distinct–though not quite uniform: LDS beliefs in regards to immigration present a small but important exception–conservatism, the implication is that what is most firmly and decisively communicated within the Mormon political tabernacle is the the uniqueness of America’s culture and history, and–presumably–the vital place which a kind of 1950s heterosexual domesticity has come to play in that culture and history.

How this set of teachings will endure and/or change over the next couple of generations, and what that will mean for American Mormon voting habits and perceptions, is an underlying theme in the final section of the book. However much those who self-identify as Mormons in America continue to exhibit etho-religious voting habits, the trends which has broken down those old categories show no sign of letting up. With every step towards the legal equalization of men and women, blacks and white, gays and straights, ideological sortings along philosophically liberal lines will continue to replace ethnic, cultural, and religious communal associations. The politically relevant questions will continually return to taxes vs. welfare, property rights vs. egalitarianism, social libertarianism vs. civil rights, leaving those who orient their political worldview around a supposedly God-blessed nation-state or family unit somewhat outside of the conversation. Campbell, Green, and Monson are all quantitative political scientists, not political historians or theorists, and so the deeper ramifications of some of their data are not something they choose to focus on. Still, in discussing Mormons on the level of presidential politics, some of the above-mentioned realities, and the partisan skewing and suspicions they result in, poke through. They point out that the “strong intrareligious bonds of the sacred tabernacle mean fewer inter-religious bridges,” and thus “Mormons are viewed with greater suspicion than members of most other religious traditions” (p. 184). After exhaustively reviewing he different strategies which all the major Mormon candidates for president (George Romney, 1968; Morris Udall, 1976; Orrin Hatch, 2000; Jon Huntsman, 2012; and Mitt Romney, 2008 and 2012), the authors conclude that while “in the heyday of ethno-religious alliances, denominations and parties were intertwined,” today the fact that “it is entirely rational for a voter who leans Democratic to oppose a Mormon candidate, in the absence of any other information…should give Mormons pause” (p. 251). In short, American Mormons are, for a variety of reasons–some broadly experienced, but some rather unique–playing a political game which stands at least somewhat opposed to the liberal order in which the game is set. And that may make us “peculiar” in an entirely unexpected way.

In the end, Campbell, Green, and Monson suggest that Mormons in America have pursued various broad strategies to fit their ethno-religious distinction into America’s ever-changing, pluralistic political culture. Borrowing here from the pioneering work of Armand Mauss, they list these strategies as separation (the pioneer Utah period), assimilation (the first half of the 20th century), and finally engagement (with the prefer to Mauss’s “retrenchment,” because they see the rising partisanship of American Mormonism as reflecting a sense of “carefully selected” points of conflict with the wider society). They wonder, finally, if Mormon engagement is being replaced by alignment, with Mormons at last being “fully welcomed into the coalition of religious conservatives.” Were this to happen, they suggest it would “require partisanship to seep into the religious aspects of Mormonism” to an even greater degree than it already has (pp. 259-261). They are leery of this outcome, because of what they see as the threat it would pose to religious tolerance in America overall. My worries about that approach are as great as theirs, but different in their philosophical premise: I am dubious of the supposed Golden Age of religious tolerance which took the place of the ethno-religious political cleavages of the past, but am bothered at the prospect of yet another Christian vision allowing itself to become dominated by a the political ethos of modernity, in which salvation too often comes to be seen as dependent upon inculcating into individuals the importance of securing a place of security in the state and the marketplace. The communitarian roots of the Mormon religious vision is occasionally referenced by the authors of Seeking the Promised Land, but it clearly does not motivate their study, because it doesn’t motivate anything like a significant number of actually practicing American Mormons–whose “promised land” is presented, probably entirely accurately, as being “in the world, not of the world–but also accepted by the world” (p. 253). Which is, not to put too fine a point on it, kind of sad. I’m very grateful for this book; it’s wonderful to have such a detailed and rich portrait of where my religious tribe stands. It is somewhat depressing, though, to reach the end and realized how limited the map which most of us have drawn for ourselves seems to be.


  1. Here’s a question for further research: is there a correlation, positive or negative, between the sort of Constitution-reverence displayed by most American Mormons and actual knowledge of the document, or of US history in general? I suspect one exists and is significantly negative, but then I’m a godless Commie (or so I’ve been told).

  2. Thank you Russell. Very good write-up.

    From my (admittedly much less studied) observations I would propose an additional reason for why the LDS tradition is less politically diverse than other mainstream faiths. Unlike most other faith traditions, the LDS tradition presents only one unified corporate body in which to worship. Liberal Jews can find a reformed congregation and maintain their faith identity. Liberal Evangelicals can do likewise. And even Liberal Catholics have a much easier time sliding by because the have a lay-clergy divide that does not exist for LDS liberals. These options largely do not exist for LDS liberals. In short, perhaps the reason why the LDS tabernacle is so unified is because there is no other shelter available so that those on the periphery tend to wilt in the elements.

    Do you know if this theme is addressed at all in Seeking The Promised Land?

  3. Haven’t read the book but that’s a really nice discussion Russell. While I consider myself conservative after a lot of thought, I do worry about how certain worldly conceptions of conservatism seep in an affect Mormonism. i.e. we adopt it because we tend towards Republicanism not because we’ve thought through the issues in terms of our ethical and religious commitments. Identity politics become dangerous when one adopts ideas simply because one’s team does or the opposing team oppose it.

  4. “being ‘in the world, not of the world–but also accepted by the world’”

    What a great insight. Doesn’t this exactly describe the PR-hyperventilating Church of the 21st century? Go watch “Meet the Mormons” and see if you can avoid this conclusion.

  5. APM,

    is there a correlation, positive or negative, between the sort of Constitution-reverence displayed by most American Mormons and actual knowledge of the document, or of US history in general?

    I’ve seen studies on this before–though not specifically to Mormon populations–and they show the result you suspect: the greater the Constitutional reverence, the greater the Constitutional illiteracy. (Though that only goes so far down the ladder; Constitutional reverence to any degree statistically lifts one above those with no knowledge of the Constitution whatsoever, which is an unfortunately large portion of the populations. So I guess you could say that, insofar as Constitutional knowledge goes, Constitutional reverence is a good thing, but it has rapidly diminishing returns as it increases.)

    Dave K,

    perhaps the reason why the LDS tabernacle is so unified is because there is no other shelter available so that those on the periphery tend to wilt in the elements. Do you know if this theme is addressed at all in Seeking The Promised Land?

    I don’t recollect them ever attempting to isolate levels of political uniformity on a ward or stake level, so probably not. However, their general point about how important insular, internal networks and conversations are to the maintenance of the tabernacle, and the more specific observation that Mormon conservatives report that such insular, internal conversations take on a political tone more often than do Mormon liberals, perhaps puts some statistical meat on the general perception that Mormon conservatives can more freely talk politics and persuade and support their ideological comrades within American wards than can Mormon liberals.


    Identity politics become dangerous when one adopts ideas simply because one’s team does or the opposing team oppose it.

    You’re absolutely in line with the authors’ conclusion there.


    “being ‘in the world, not of the world–but also accepted by the world’” What a great insight. Doesn’t this exactly describe the PR-hyperventilating Church of the 21st century?

    I agree. While I don’t think Campbell, et al, were necessarily engaging in snark when they wrote that line, I can’t believe they didn’t intend for it to needle our present political culture, at least a little bit.

  6. Coming from a Portland suburb, where Mormon Corridor transplants were often shocked to find out our stake president was an active Democrat and member of the school board. There was often confusion when telling jokes, with liberals as the punch line, didn’t get many laughs and where political testimonies were quietly stopped by bishopric members who sometimes had to escort people out of the chapel.

    I was sad to see most of my siblings come back from BYU with a cookie cutter view of politics. Only my brother, who had already served his mission and was married before he spent 2 long years finishing his degree in Rexburg, seems to have escaped the assimilation. The pictures of my sister holding signs for Prop 8, on Highway overpasses with her daughter, while her husband finished his PhD at Berkley, was surreal then and still is.

    I wish I understood identity politics, but I really don’t. I have never been a member of a political party because I don’t see the gospel of Christ being reflected enough in any of them. I do vote, and I certainly vote for more Democrats than Republicans, but I look at the party platforms and I can’t see any of the gospel that I love in the Republican party.

  7. Loved the review. These are two of the subjects I engage in most regularly, but I’m not wonky about them. Do you think I’d enjoy the book? Or is it too dense for an average reader like me?

  8. Ann, it’s a very well-written book, and its prose is not at all dense. However, it is a work of quantitative political science, and while the accompanying graphs and charts (there are dozens of them) are, I think, well presented, you will be confronted with a fair amount of explanatory math, in both the text and (especially) the footnotes. So take that for what you will.

  9. Well-written, and good comments afterward. As someone who left the Republican Party over matters of conscience, I notice more the jokes even from leaders at the pulpit with Democrats the butt of the jokes. (I’m not a Democrat, either) I agree with an above-comment that there are major areas of moral concern in both major parties, and my friends are very uncomfortable when I mention my moral concerns about the Republicans. I dislike the assumption in many LDS circles around me and other family & friends that “we are all Republicans” or “of course we all want Mitt to be President.” I don’t let it bother me much, though others I know feel unsafe spiritually when aggressive political rhetoric erupts in Church settings. I’m troubled by the main source of political news for many of my LDS friends, and its deceptive & often dishonest presentations. This seems to incite more intolerance, disrespect, and event bitterness among the less-informed members who self-identify as patriots and defenders of the constitution. This has led to weak testimonies being weakened further where not all members feel welcome. Even where Republican “principles” seem LDS-like at lst, I’m surprised at how many members fail to see the inconsistencies (i.e. Pro Life yet anti-Staying Alive in the Healthcare arena, or in the bombing of 100,000 women and children in Iraq in a war authorized only after deceptions)
    I remember reading of President Hugh B Brown’s difficult conflicts as head of the Democratic Party in Utah, and his comments that some of the Brethren seemed to not consider him worthy of a high office in the Church as a Democrat. He said he chose his political parties (Canada also, where he was like a Governor) “by the way they treat the poor”-which, incidentally, is a strong theme of the Gospel! All 3 parties in the 1968 election were favored by at least one General Authority. Now I don’t think we’ll even hear their preferences, which is probably best. They officially say that politica party affiliation is not a matter for the Church to involve itself in–why do so many “devoted” members not seem to hear that?? Thanks for the great article and comments. Again, I’m not affiliated with either party so the examples are only for discussion of the principles involved.

  10. Wait, effervescentfrancois, who exactly are you implying “bombed” 100,000 women and children in Iraq, and how precisely was such a bombing proximately caused by Republican principles? That seems like a fantastic (not in the good sense), not to mention discrediting, claim to casually throw around.

  11. Paul,
    I’m assuming that you also realize just how low that number is, and that if we killed more than a million noncombatants in Iraq that having 10% or fewer of them be women and children would be completely unrealistic. Certainly we did not do a good job keeping track of which planes and drones killed who, but the “Coalition of the Willing” most definitely was based on Republican lies and Republican maneuvering.

  12. Juliathepoet – As they say, the devil is in the details. In this case, the detail I was disputing is that according to the prior comment, presumably/implicitly U.S. forces “bombed” 100,000 women and children because of Republican principles. Quite a different – and entirely irresponsible – claim than arguing that 100,000, or even a million, people were killed as a result of an invasion (which in any event was authorized by nearly all Republicans and Democrats in Congress alike; as you may recall, they all had access to, and largely claimed to vote on, the same NIE that was approved by George Tenet – a Democrat). Regardless of what led to the invasion, if you or the prior commenter think that “our,” meaning U.S. and coalition planes, drones, and troops, directly bombed a million, or even 100,000 women and children, your view is so far detached from reality that it would be pointless to continue this discussion.

  13. Yes, that was a sloppy comment. As a result of the invasion of a Iran, he New England Journal of Medicine reported 120,000 women and children were killed among 150,000 total civilians. Of course those were not a direct result of “bombings” They still died, though, as a result of being “liberated” from Sadam Hussein. . Bush & Cheney certainly seemed in a hurry to invade, as though they were afraid the ongoing inspections in Iraq would not support their dubious claims.. Bush & Cheney had created a climate of fear within the CIA and elsewhere for analysts who seriously questioned the “data”” being received and its objective interpretation.
    The Analysts themselves were not in any kind of agreement that WD’s were in production & the Valerie Plume “outing” was one of many examples of intimidation of CIA analysts who didn’t tow the Party Line. & policy of cherry-picking tidbits of data that “supported” specious claims.. The assertion that Sadam was “linked to Al-Qaida” was based on one report that the President knew had already been discredited by the CIA. The Maps of Iraq dividing up the oil fields for various oil companies had been created. Bush and Cheney were Republicans.
    As to Republican “Principles” I’m not what those are anymore. Republican state election laws and new voter registration laws surely don’t seem to favor a true democracy. Many objective sources estimate that Tens of thousands of Americans die prematurely every year for lack of Health Care.
    Republicans believe that those people should. have “earned” their healthcare through their jobs, while Republicans like Mitt Romney favor corporate cost-cutting and union-busting which result in lower wages and no or worse healthcare at work, and the suppression of the minimum wage. They favor taxes on those same families before taxing even 1/2 of 1% on derivative transactions and other speculative “investments” They favor corporate welfare in the form of tax credits for the already-wealthy (like oil companies) over reduced food costs in the form of food stamps for families working at their suppressed minimum wages, or reduced health care costs for families who have no other option for obtaining proper health insurance.
    The Bush Cheney administration cut taxes while they ran up huge deficits for their pre-emptive war—what does the Book of Mormon say about pre-emptive war? What do our prophets say about not living within our budget? Their leadership in reducing reserve requirements for loans and allowing speculation with our home mortgages, while underfunding FBI investigations of SEC Fraud & looking the other way with their SEC regulators contributed in major ways to our unnecessarily deep recession.
    Those are some of the “principles” I have concerns about. Certainly Romney’s tactic of
    assigning labels of low character to tens of millions of hard working Americans was shameless and misleading. Republicans in recent years have counted on character attacks on the poor, unemployed, and underemployed to stir up resentment as a way of attracting voters.
    VP Cheney was instrumental in gaining “exemption” for Oil companies from almost all EPA regulations for their fracking activities. You can easily find on PBS and elsewhere online the toxic consequences to hundreds and perhaps thousands of lives already, from poisoned well-water and other domestic water sources—-which were supposed to be entirely :Safe—EPA workers have jeopardized their careers to bring to light evidences of deaths and disease caused by these (“Pro-Life” Republican) Cheney Exemptions to water purity laws..
    Hey, I”m not a Democrat, either. Lots of compromises there, also.

    So, back to the Patriotism and Fervor of so many LDS Republicans — where is the Republican Teddy Roosevelt who tried to break up the Mob’s monopoly on the Ice business in New York City during the Summer of Death when hundreds of the poor were dying in the heat?
    Where are those Men (& Women) of Character we are supposed to vote for? This is a friendly discussion on my part. Why, as Church Members, can’t we at least be the best-informed and least concerned about peer pressure?

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