We Gather Together: Questions for Neil J. Young about the Religious Right

Neil J. Young is an historian and author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics (OUP, 2015). He graciously agreed to answer some questions about the history (and future) of Mormonism and the Religious right.

1. It quickly becomes clear in your history that any interfaith work is the combination of outside forces and a few key bridge builders. Actual trust between various denominations seems elusive. Are we past that point yet? Have we seen any permanent evolution in interfaith dialogue?

The challenge of interfaith work among conservative religious groups is the central story of my book. Mormons, Catholics, and evangelicals viewed each other warily for both historical and theological reasons, even as they recognized each other as cultural allies and formed political partnerships beginning in the 1970s. That wariness certainly changed over time, as my book demonstrates. For instance, Catholics and evangelicals have a vastly different relationship today than they did in the 1950s. But, as I argue, the act of drawing closer often served to heighten religious differences even as the more virulent bigotry and hostilities were put aside.

The changing relationship between evangelicals and Mormons was one of my favorite themes of this book because the history had so many twists and turns. In the 1950s and 1960s, evangelicals largely ignored Mormonism, seeing it as an inconsequential although heretical religion. In the 1970s and increasingly through the 1990s, evangelical leaders become incredibly worried about the LDS Church because of its growth, especially in the South, and the fact that so many evangelicals were converting to Mormonism. Evangelical leaders and institutions devoted extensive resources to developing a strong anti-Mormon curriculum in evangelical churches and seminaries, and they emphasized that Mormonism was a dangerous “cult” that threatened true Christianity.

All of this is happening at the same time that evangelicals and Mormons were linking up politically. I argue those two things didn’t happen in spite of each other but actually were interrelated. Evangelical leaders worried greatly that lay evangelicals would misunderstand the LDS Church’s political conservatism, especially around issues of sexuality and gender, as proof of its authentic Christianity even at the same time they admired the church’s political efforts. So they had to walk a fine line between drawing close politically while also strengthening their religious critique of Mormonism. In the years around Romney’s two presidential bids and the LDS Church’s role in fighting same-sex marriage, evangelical leaders have once again reevaluated their stance on Mormonism, largely dropping the “cult” terminology and instead emphasizing their shared embattled status as religious conservatives in a secular age. But all of this continues to develop – this is certainly not a fixed relationship at this point.

2. The Mormons seem inexplicable at times in their interfaith work. We’re aloof on school prayer, fairly distant on abortion (though condemnatory of the practice), but then we absolutely kill the ERA and the MX missile and are the driving force on Prop 8. What’s going on here?

I often had a hard time making sense of LDS political activism I have to admit! LDS officials have argued that the church is involved in politics only on “moral” issues, but that’s a rather vague term and has often been applied unevenly. If anything, I do think there’s a genuine uneasiness from LDS leaders about political involvement even as the church has been incredibly active around certain issues. This seems a marked contrast from the more robust and fairly unquestioning political engagement the Catholic Church and evangelicals have demonstrated, particularly since the 1980s. I think a lot of this stems from historic worries about Mormonism’s place in the nation, particularly given the history of persecution and discrimination the church has faced. The LDS Church’s involvement in the ERA fight and Prop 8 both elicited a loud and very public backlash, and Mormon officials worried deeply about how these political engagements had harmed the church’s missionary endeavors. So what I think you really see here is a pattern of engagement and retreat repeating over time. Rather than being involved in all the issues it might be, the LDS Church seems to have settled on a more selective strategy that takes into account circumstances beyond just politics.

3. Let’s talk about the Romney campaigns. As you note, the first Romney campaign effort is largely met with mistrust and disdain from evangelicals (Huckabee, for example, innocently wondering on cable TV whether Mormons believe that Jesus and Satan are brothers). Romney himself tries to talk the talk of American protestant religion. The second time around, there’s a shift and greater acceptance from evangelicals. What’s the difference?

The simplest answer is that Romney wins the Republican nomination in 2012 and he didn’t four years before. A lot of that shift and greater acceptance you mention really only comes about once Romney has captured the nomination and is in a head-to-head race with President Obama. Through the 2008 primaries, evangelical voters showed great reluctance in supporting Romney because of his Mormon faith. That continued in the 2012 primaries, but there were also clear indications that evangelicals would get on board with a Romney ticket should he be the Republican nominee. This, I think, says more about how much evangelicals wanted to stop Obama’s re-election in 2012 than it did about an endorsement of Romney as a candidate or a sudden change of evangelical attitudes about Mormonism. Yet Republican officials and evangelical leaders both understood that once Romney was the nominee they needed to do all the necessary work to ensure Mormonism would not be a factor in the race for evangelical voters. There’s a concerted effort in the months leading up to the election from important evangelical institutions like Christianity Today and the Southern Baptist Convention to present Mormonism as another Christian faith, albeit as wrong on certain core issues, but not a cult. The irony, of course, was that these were the very institutions that had spent more than 40 years educating evangelicals about Mormonism’s “cult” status, but all of this was abandoned for political expediency in 2012. I’m very curious to watch how evangelical evaluations of Mormonism develop from here because there was a lot of resistance from evangelical ministers and laypersons about this changing treatment of Mormonism.

4. Your book doesn’t discuss a few recent developments, most notably Obergefell, the Pope’s council on Vatican colloquium on marriage and family in November 2014, the Utah antidiscrimination law, a few others. What would you note as key events and dynamics since your book was published?

Yes, several of those things happened after I had completed writing my book, but I left out some of the other examples because I have a very detailed chapter on the history of Mormonism and same-sex marriage that covers them in an edited volume that is coming out this summer. Obviously, Obergefell is the most important development, a profound legal and social transformation for the nation. At the same time, I’m struck by how much this appears to be settled law as contrasted to the still controversial and contested Roe v. Wade. Survey data indicates younger religious conservatives generally accept the legalization of same-sex marriage even as they oppose abortion rights at similar rates as older generations. That’s a key difference that will shape politics moving forward. I anticipate continued challenges to abortion rights at national and state levels. I don’t think we will see the same for marriage equality.

The other big dynamic is the emergence of “religious liberty” as the prevailing political framework for religious conservatism. Religious right leaders have emphasized the broad notion of religious liberty rather than issue-based politics since the 1990s, but the language and politics of religious freedom has been especially useful during the Obama administration and that will continue in the years ahead.

5. Where are the Mormons today? The trajectory of conversions to Mormonism in the U.S. seems to have plateaued (same as most other major religious in the West). Are Mormons still weird? Does the doctrinal cult/social cult distinction matter anymore?

It’s a great question, and here I’d largely defer to J. B. Haws’ terrific recent book, The Mormon Image in the American Mind. But I do think that tension between being a “peculiar people” and the desire for mainstream acceptance has been a consistent aspect of Mormonism since at least the 1950s. It does seem that the “Mormon moment” of, say, 2008-2012 is over, but there are probably as many upsides to that for the church as there are negatives. Both Romney and “The Book of Mormon” musical normalized Mormonism for many Americans even as both of them helped expose a lot of the below-the-surface prejudices and falsehoods. As I’ve mentioned, evangelicals will continue to regard Mormonism skeptically, but there has been some significant bridge-building work between key evangelical and Mormon intellectuals that will greatly shape that relationship going forward. What I might predict is that as evangelicals learned to distinguish individual Catholics from their critique of the Catholic Church in the 1980s and 1990s, so too will they begin to regard Mormons as separate from and not synonymous with Mormonism, a distinction that has been largely unmade at this point but one that will reveal profound changes for evangelical-Mormon relations.

6. What’s the future of the religious right? Are they still politically relevant? Will we see another Moral Majority or similar coalition in the future — and if so, what religious leader is dynamic enough and influential enough to bring it to pass? It seems unlikely that Mormonism would be the originating force, or at least that any single LDS leader would do so.

Despite constant predictions of its demise, the religious right will continue. But it will change. I don’t think we will see another Moral Majority type organization. There doesn’t seem to be a leader on the scene with the same public visibility as Jerry Falwell or quite the same desire for political prominence. If anything, religious conservatives are more fractured than ever, but as my book shows unity and fracture have been a repeating pattern for the movement.

In many ways, 2016 looks like the end of the religious right, but it’s important to remember how successful religious conservatives have been at the state and local levels for the past twenty years. There’s a vibrant and active grassroots movement that has captured state legislatures, won policy battles, and advanced a conservative agenda at the local level. This has gone largely unnoticed by a media that focuses almost exclusively on national politics, but it is as significant – or more so – for American politics as who controls the White House.

7. Explain Trump in light of all this.

Don’t we all wish we could! The big mystery of 2016 has been how Trump has done as well as he has with evangelicals. His wins in Southern states like Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia, have come in part because he won evangelical voters there. At the same time, most evangelical leaders are actively opposing Trump’s candidacy, so a lot of people see a disconnect between evangelical leadership and the laity. I think there’s something to this, but what I also think we are really seeing is the diversity within evangelicalism emerging in a political context. Evangelicals span a wide swath of Americans geographically, culturally, and economically. But what we’ve noticed less is the political diversity even within conservative evangelicalism. My book documents that diversity, but Trump’s candidacy has put a spotlight on it, exposing longstanding divisions and internal disagreements. This is why I believe religious history is so instructive for understanding American politics. In the case of American evangelicalism, rather than seeing it as a homogeneous bloc but instead recognizing its internal disputes and shifting networks we can better understand this Trump moment as something other than an aberration.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Fascinating (and timely!) stuff.

  2. “Explain Trump” –lawlz

    Great interview!

  3. You missed the most important question. “How comfortable are you with the LDS Church’s current attempts to gain favor with conservative Christians?”

  4. He hasn’t done anything good since Heart of Gold