Monday, November 17, 2014

Mormons and the American Liberal Order

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Seeking the Promises 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.

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