Thoughts on the Evolution of Mormon Political Engagement

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University put up on their website today a forum in which different scholars were invited to opine on “The Evolution of Mormon Political Engagement.” It includes contributions from Kathleen Flake, Nate Oman, Patrick Mason, Gregory Prince, Luke Perry, and myself. I’m including below the fold my original, pre-edited piece for the Berkley Center; hopefully it will encourage readers to check out all of the contributions. As the election season comes upon us once again, while the “Mormon Moment” may be over (for now), the question of how we American Mormons think and act politically remains as interesting as ever.

For many observers, American Mormons are best summed up politically by describing them as a white conservative Republican voting-bloc in the American West. Given that Utah, the home of the faith’s headquarters and a state whose population is over 55% Mormon, consistently elects Republican majorities to the state legislature and hasn’t given a majority of its votes in a presidential contest to a Democrat since 1964–just to pick two examples–this simple summary may seem accurate.

And yet, it isn’t entirely. While more American Mormons have expressed support for President Trump than have members of any other Christian group in America, Utah has at the same time shown one of the highest levels of support for LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws of any state in the country, and American Mormons have expressed greater support for providing illegal immigrants with a straightforward path to citizenship than have any other Republican-friendly Protestant group. How to explain these seeming inconsistencies?

To answer this question requires understanding the comprehensiveness of Mormon life. While the Mormons are hardly Amish, the faith’s strongly communitarian past–a result of its 19th-century history, including both its experiences with persecution and its struggles to build radically egalitarian communities across the American West–set a tone that, in a very different context, is to a degree still perpetuated to this day. In addition, Mormonism’s leadership structure is profoundly hierarchical, and has established, through the design and administration of Mormonism’s congregations, a self-reinforcing culture of usually insular norms and practices. Many of these are often joyful to members, but they are also time-consuming and presume obedience to both local and general church leaders. Thus, when all is said and done, most American Mormons tend to be rather collective in their actions and opinions–and that crosses over to politics.

Of course, much of this could be said to one degree or another about the political socialization of other regional, religious, or racial groupings. But it is also clear that Mormons–in comparison to historically Protestant white America, anyway–stand out as a uniquely disciplined bunch. Different scholars have studied the dynamics of this unity, which is always challenged by America’s broader culture of diversity and individual choice. David Campbell and J. Quin Monson, in particular, have discussed Mormons’ tendency to create a norm-strengthening “sacred tabernacle” wherever the go, and how, within such collectivities, Mormons are a “dry kindling,” ready to quickly respond to whatever political threat or priority that church leaders impress upon the community. (Of course, kindling burns hot but is quickly exhausted–a point these scholars have made in observing that Utah’s population, most of whom were Mormon, went directly against the statements of church leaders in voting to overturn Prohibition by ratifying the 21st Amendment in 1933.)

Does that mean the secret of the Mormon/Republican alignment today is entirely a function of the church’s (overwhelmingly white, Intermountain Western, and male) leadership? Mostly, yes. It’s unclear how far church leaders could carry that alignment in 2018, but given that they have, over the past century–and particularly ever since the anti-Prohibition debacle–consciously limited any political intersections with the church’s religious mission, such a prospect is unlikely to be tested in the near future. LDS Church leaders have, in contrast to the 19th and early 20th century, steadfastly refused to associate church teachings with ordinary political matters, instead reserving their limited yet potent influence over their flock to explicitly “moral” issues. And since the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, the Mormon position on those issues have ended up grounding generations of American Mormons in the Republican party.

The fact that most American Mormons have been led, to a great degree, to the Republican party through religious-cultural authority and family and congregational tradition, means that their commitment to that party does not consistently follow the same ideological justifications employed by other conservative voters. So, for example, Mormons were one of the primary forces behind the last-ditch effort to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage, because church leaders called for them to so act. But they have similarly seen it is as their Christian duty to provide even those many regard as sinful with the full protection of the law. Similarly, the deep commitment the church has to missionary work and building Zion communities has resulted in huge numbers of Mormon missionaries spreading from the Intermountain West around the world, and many of those they convert to the church coming to Mormon concentrations in America–with the result that protecting the flock and avoiding cultural conflict has mandated that American Mormons moderate whatever conservative beliefs about illegal immigration they may have held in the name of compassion and forgiveness. And so on.

On any particular political issue, Mormons may not be, when one isolates all other variables, any more consistent in their opinions than any other group of mostly white, mostly western, religiously observant Americans. But make that issue something whose moral significance has inspired statements one way or another from church leaders in Salt Lake City, and the group as a whole will usually express themselves with pronounced uniformity and effectiveness–whether against abortion or pornography or underage drinking, or in favor of loosening adoption restrictions or protecting the civil rights of religious believers, of whatever faith. The fact that such policies, and thus most American Mormons, have generally found a home in the Republican party is the result of a confluence of cultural factors and political habits that have a history more than a half-century old by now, rather than the result of a Mormon-Republican conspiracy.

As for the future, there is little reason to expect much change in these collective dynamics–but there could be much change in the parties that have, in part, shaped themselves in response to millions of mostly regionally concentrated voters. Donald Trump may have the political support of the majority of American Mormons, but their opinion of him–of his dishonesty, his adulteries, and his crudity–remains very low. Evan McMullin, a third-party candidate who explicitly presented himself as a conservative alternative to Trump, captured over 20% of the vote in Utah in 2016. If Trump continues to remake the Republican party in his image, it’s quite possible that eventually some critical mass of American Mormons will discover another partisan home for following through on church leaders’ priorities. But given the in-group tendencies at work here, it is unlikely that such a possibility will unfold without some church leaders making a move first.


  1. Rachel E O says:

    Interesting thoughts; thanks for sharing, Russell.

    I find it striking that the panel included only academics (if you count Prince as an academic), all white Americans, and all but one male. I imagine it would have been interesting to get the perspectives of Mormon political activists, left and right, and especially more Mormon women. I say this in part because Mormon Women for Ethical Government is the most significant manifestation of *grassroots* political activism among Mormons in decades (longer?), and it is being led exclusively by Mormon women (few of whom are academics/bloggernaclers/Mormon studies folks either).

    (I emphasize grassroots in juxtaposition to the official Church-directed support for Prop 8 and opposition to the ERA.)

    This actually raises a question for me… what would be the best book/article to read about the history of grassroots political activism among Mormons, especially in the 20th century? Is there anything out there that really tackles this subject?

  2. J. Stapley says:

    That is a good question, Rachel. This isn’t really my area of expertise, but I’m having a hard time thinking of a lot of resources. There is Pedestals and Podiums, which has elements of grassroots activism included. Hall’s work on Amy Lyman is probably worth checking out. Bergera has a UHQ article on student activism. I can’t remember how much Claudia Bushman has on the 20th century in her chapter in Mormonism and American Politics.

  3. Rachel E O says:

    Excellent, Jonathan — thanks for those recommendations; I’ll take a look at them.

  4. Pedestals and Podiums is a very good book, and there are some other articles I can think of (D. Michael Quinn’s “Conscientious Objectors or Christian Soldiers?” comes to mind) but I suspect that reason Jonathan had a hard time thinking of resources is because, with the end of the immense amount of “civil disobedience” (they didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was) and litigation surrounding polygamy, there simply isn’t much activism for said resources to examine. There’s been stuff at BYU and the University of Utah and elsewhere over the years, of course, but by and large, among us generally obedient-minded Mormons, the 12th Article of Faith is a heavy weight, I think.

    I’ve been interested watching what Mormon Women for Ethical Government has done (and hasn’t done) over the months. I know and have a lot of respect for several of the key women involved, and surely they know the lay of the land in Utah and elsewhere in the Mormon Corridor much better than I. The political scientist in me is doubtful that an organization that refuses to be partisan and articulates everything in terms of ethics, rather than politics, is going to have much effect on the discourse of any polity, but maybe I’ll be proved wrong.

  5. “While more American Mormons have expressed support for President Trump than have members of any other Christian group in America.”

    This is complete and utter B.S. Utah had the greatest decrease of all states against voting for the Republican candidate from 2012 to 2016.

    If the Democratic party had more tolerance for a diversity of opinion on abortion, they would have much more Mormons in their ranks (and Catholics for that matter).

  6. The biggest problem with getting the church membership to track more liberal is the Democrats are actively seeking to destroy traditional families and remake the country via fractured identity politics.

    Sadly, too many are equally deceived by Republican tyrannical excesses in the name of patriotic jingoist excesses.

    And increasingly many are confused on both lgtb, family, and society issues, because they lack further light and knowledge on the plan of salvation – you can bring a Mormon frequently to the temple but you can’t make them drink from the living waters.

    All that said, God loves his children, sinners and saints and though we aren’t perfect as a people we have been willing to turn our hearts and actions away from many of societies corrupting influences, which naturally brings us blessings from the divine law of obedience.

    When society is ripe with iniquity on the left and the right and our children are increasingly lead astray without any chance then in 1-2 generations comes the fall.

    We’re fortunately not there yet and God bless the faithful members of the church on the left and right for that.

  7. Sorry, JPV, but it’s not “complete and utter b.s.”: Is the particular interpretation of that poll contestable? Absolutely, in the same way that I can contest the significance of your reported decline in Utah’s Republican turn-out. But the basic facts–namely, that American Mormons are, by and large, so thoroughly Republican that, by and large, they continue to support a president that they say they don’t like or trust–is just about impossible to contest, I think.

  8. I’m not so sure it is impossible to contest. When Trump became the nominee of the Republican Party, I re-registered as an Independent the next day. Even as a life- long Republican, raised in the heart of Democratic Ohio, I could not march off that cliff, and vote for that man. Fast forward 2 years. I cannot count the number of emails the Utah GOP is STILL sending to me, even tho they have been reminded repeatedly that I am not one of them. For the latest Republican Primary, I did not receive a ballot, but my husband, who changed his registration at the same time, did! I get all types of political phone surveys – button type, not a real, speaking individual – & it is perfectly clear that in Utah County, the GOP still counts the hubs & I as one of “them”, in spite of our registration to the contrary. From talking with my friends, we are by no means alone, so any data based on Republican turn-out looks a tad off center for accuracy, from my point of view. I never supported Trump, never voted for him, do not trust him at all, but from the point of view of the Utah County GOP, our household “failed to participate” in the 2018 Republican Primary.

  9. Marivene, I am tempted to make a comment about a parallel between the way the Utah Republican party viewers its voters and how the Mormon church views its “inactive” members, but I shall refrain.

  10. Russell, I think the more apt parallel would be between the Utah GOP & how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints views its former members. The hubs & I are not inactive GOP; we joined a different banner. I have always voted for the individual, not the party, but far, far fewer GOP are getting checks by their names these days on my ballots. I have come to believe that we really need more than the 2 viable political parties currently present in the US, & that is now reflected in my voting, on every level.

  11. Geoff - Aus says:

    In Australia we have an interesting situation too. Mormons are being recruited by the extreme right of our conservative party, because they were a vocal part of the no vote on a vote about gay marriage. The conservative party are called the Liberal party, and the faction the mormons have joined is anti climate change, anti muslim and anti immigration, and trying to undermine the present leader who is Prime Minister, to replace him with someone more to the right.
    There is an election due by may. The liberal party are 10 points behind in the latest poll, and have not won a poll for years. Moving further to the right will make them less electable.
    Most mormons in Aus seem to think they are required to be like republicans, which is to the extreme right in Aus, where only the nutters lurk, they will not help get their party elected, or beliefs implimented, but as a Labor supporter, I think it will improve the liklihood of Labor being elected.

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