Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Thoughts on the Evolution of Mormon Political Engagement

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

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 American Mormons think and act politically remains as interesting--at least to people like me--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 grouping. 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.

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