Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, there were several ward families, including our branch president, my Sunday School teacher, some of our YW leaders, and both of my seminary teachers, who were pretty vocal Democrats. Sitting in their classes and hearing the gospel through their political lens, I developed the idea that Mormons leaned to the left on the political spectrum. There were so many aspects of church doctrine that aligned with their political views: consecration, church welfare, women proselyting, birth control, and our strong (then) stance (as a minority religion) on separating church and state, that the liberal left seemed like a fairly natural fit. Even the church’s admonition of self-reliance aligned nicely with the party that was associated with the environment and sustainable, renewable resources. The most self-reliant people I knew were the Democrats, making their own furniture, breast-feedback when bottle-feeding was more popular, and avoiding the materialism of the “Me Generation” Reagan Republicans.
When I went to BYU, it was the first time I was exposed to a majority-position right-wing version of Mormonism. Neither view seemed exclusively correct to me. The church’s positions aren’t consistent with either the Republican party nor the Democrat party, although plenty of Mormons would disagree with that statement. Within the state of Utah, the church wields enough influence that they can soften the GOP stance on some issues that would send Evangelicals into paroxysms while toeing the party line or even going to a greater extreme on others. In today’s climate at least, church members and Utahns align more closely with the Republican party, and in a heated election like this one, it’s causing all sorts of angst and division in our wards.
As noted, the church exerts enough influence in Utah to adapt some of the standard Republican positions to more closely match its own values within state politics. Likewise, in retrospect, it’s probably more accurate to say that the Democrats I knew were comfortable leaning to the right on the church’s more conservative positions. One of them even supported polygamy in theory!  These are Bernie Sanders supporters who think Hillary is too far to the right; I’m not talking about lukewarm liberals here.
I was recently listening to an interesting Maxwell Institute podcast in which Blair Hodges interviewed Quin Monson, an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University, and David Campbell from the University of Notre Dame about their book, Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics. The interview talked about some of the history within the church when it comes to politics. A fact many already know is that the Republican party was originally formed to combat two evils: 1) slavery, and 2) polygamy. That’s a platform I can get behind! But of course, in opposing polygamy, they were essentially the original anti-Mormon political party. From the podcast, a brief history of party affiliation in the church:
MONSON: So clearly because of that history when Utah first became a state it was a staunchly democratic state, not surprisingly. Why would Mormons vote for this party that wanted to basically stamp out their religion? But things began to change relatively quickly. And so we went through a period of time through the twentieth century where Mormons as a group were somewhat a split vote. They were kind of bipartisan. So we had the rank-and-file of the church who were primarily democrats. We had lots of church leaders who were Republicans. Of course, a lot of church leaders come out of business and not surprisingly lots of business people end up on the Republican side of the aisle.
So, it really wasn’t until we hit the post-war era that we begin to see the movement sharply into the Republican column among Mormons. And that kind of accelerates once we get into the 70s, the 80s, until we reach the period that we have now where Mormons are predominantly Republican. But it hasn’t always been the case, it didn’t happen all at once, and it didn’t follow the same pattern as it has for other groups.
So, for example, we often speak of Southern Evangelicals shifting to the Republican party. Well, that happened, but not in exactly the same way that it did from Mormons, which suggests that there might be slightly different reasons the Mormons were moving to the Republican party than other groups were.
HODGES: It’s a quick but fascinating part of the book. I mean, you start off with Joseph Smith’s era where Mormons are sort of courting public parties—there’s Whigs, there’s Democrats. Mormons are sort of trying to find where they fit in in terms of what could benefit and protect them politically, so there’s this era of courting parties. Then there’s this exclusion era, Mormons leave the country, they set up their Great Basin Kingdom. There’s a lot of antagonism toward the United States. There’s polygamy, the Republican party is established in part to say “we’re going to abolish the twin relics of barbarism, polygamy, and slavery. Mormons aren’t going to join the party at that point.
And then you talk about this re-involvement, where Mormons begin to re-engage at the turn of the century. And also, the book didn’t talk too much about this but I wanted to get your thoughts on this maybe Quin you can touch on this, the idea that the political parties themselves were shifting as well, right? So B. H. Roberts was a Democrat at the turn of the century but he was opposed to women’s suffrage, right?
MONSON: Well, and I would say the part where the most shifting begins to occur is posted World War II where…
HODGES: So it’s after B.H.? It’s later on…
MONSON: I think so. Yeah. I think that’s where we have the most data and we’re well equipped to see the shift. The shift from a more balanced two-party Mormonism early in the 20th century to a heavily Republican Mormonism in the present day began really in the post-World War II era, and there’s this sort of steady uptick that happens from election to election as the percent voting Republican just gradually increases. And I think it’s partially the rhetoric of the parties and partially the rhetoric of church leaders that helps Mormons align with the party.
So as the parties become more distinctive in terms of things like communism, and then you get into the 60s and all of the sexual revolution kind of issues, and then abortion in the 70s, and then families and gay marriage in the 80s and 90s and to the present day. The parties become distinctive on those issues, right, where the political parties didn’t have different platforms on abortion in the 60s, by the 80s they do, right? Where the presidential candidates didn’t have different views on gay marriage in the 80s or even in the 90s or even in the 2000s, they later do, right? And as the parties become more distinctive and the church leaders make more emphasis on those social issues, it pushes and pulls Mormons into their Republican party over time.
HODGES: So when Mormons were initially Democrats way back when, what was it about the Democratic Party that drew Mormons in? Was it mostly because Republicans were so anti-Mormon, or what sort of political ideas in the Democratic party of that era appealed to Mormons?
CAMPBELL: It’s actually important to know that Utah—we take Utah as sort of the bellwether for Mormons at the time—Utah was not unusual and certainly by no means unique in its support, for example in 1896 for William Jennings Bryan who was a Democrat and a populist very much. Remember, Utah was an agrarian state. The Democrats of the time were the party of the farmers. And so, it would make perfect sense that Mormons, this agrarian group, would line up with the largely agrarian party. Now, their animus toward the Republicans was I think kind of a booster shot, [laughs] it kind of amplified that, but even without the Republican anti-Mormon sentiment at the time, I think you still would have likely found most Mormons identifying as voting for Democrats.
HODGES: Okay, good. Yeah. That’s what I’m looking for. So, one of the things that I wanted to talk about as well is this idea about how Mormons sort of have aligned heavily with the Republican party and we’ll talk about that a little bit more in just a moment.
The podcast also talked about the changes in political positions the church has taken over time. Polygamy is one area where the church’s views differed dramatically from 1890 to 1910. Other shifting views over time include: race and civil rights, the role of women, how much we embrace the secular, gay rights and anti-discrimination, and immigration.
Another interesting angle was that Mormons of both political party affiliations report that they don’t hear over politicking at church, unlike many other denominations. You might expect Democrats who are in the minority to be more sensitive to political messages at church, but the research didn’t back that up. Expanding on this:
CAMPBELL: We don’t see big differences between Mormon Democrats and Mormon Republicans in reporting the absence of—And I want to be clear that the question asks about overt politicking. So you’re specifically asked whether or not you’re encouraged to vote for a particular candidate, or whether there are voter guides made available. That kind of stuff which Mormons clearly do not do. But anyone who’s familiar with Mormon culture knows that there’s a lot of politically relevant stuff that is said over the pulpit in Sacrament meeting, by the Gospel Doctrine teacher. It works its way into Sunday school lessons for the youth [laughs], et cetera, et cetera.
It’s just not phrased in terms of, “Brothers and sisters, we need to go out and vote for so-and-so.” It’s phrased in terms of, “Brothers and sisters, we need to remember the importance of self-sufficiency. We need to remember the importance of not incurring debt.” The sort of things that will line up well with positions that politicians will take, even if they aren’t put into overtly political terms. And certainly the emphasis on traditional marriage is very much so. Every time I hear a sermon on that, it’s obviously going to favor the Republicans.
MONSON: And when it is overtly political, it’s explicitly non-partisan. But it still has implications. So just let me give you a brief personal example. Back in the spring, before the political caucus meetings were held in Utah, I was asked in my home stake to speak at a fireside about civility, and civility in politics and elsewhere.
It was overtly political in that sense. I was one of two speakers. I gave a talk about the importance of civility and drew on a bunch of material from Mormon Newsroom and other places that emphasizes that. And what are the political implications of that? Who was the candidate being the most uncivil at the time?
MONSON: I mean it was pretty obvious, right? It was obvious to me what was going on. And who took third place in the Utah Caucuses back in March? It was Donald Trump, right? So you know, I wasn’t asked to give a talk about the incivility of Donald Trump.
MONSON: But the timing of the topic and the event had clear political implications.
The lack of overt politicking is questioned by non-Mormons who can’t imagine that’s true when Mormons tend to vote monolithically. Campbell points out that the lack of politicking means it gets more attention when it happens, such as the church’s anti-gay marriage political actions.
HODGES: To follow up on that, David Campbell, your surveys in the book show that many Mormons do hold conservative views—It comes as no surprise. But these conservative views have a distinctive flavor in the United States, and there are some differences that Mormons hold. They are “peculiar partisans,” is the term you use. So I’m thinking of issues like immigration.
Let’s look at this a little closer. You note that your survey suggests that Mormons don’t just “blindly follow their leadership.” That’s an accusation that’s leveled against them, and it’s part of the reason why Mormon candidates today might face external opposition. But you also show that Mormons are peculiar partisans in that they’re swayable when church leadership speaks out.
CAMPBELL: They are. And the way we test that is to see what happens when Mormons—and so this is a survey of people who identify as Mormons—what happens when they are either told or reminded of church positions, positions the church has taken, that might be construed as politically liberal rather than conservative. So that would include questions about immigration, where the church is actually pretty far to the left—or at least you might say it’s in the center—on an immigration issue. And also the church’s public position on non-discrimination toward gays and lesbians.
And so we tested, well what happens when you give people these statements and ask for their opinions? And sure enough, even the most conservative orthodox Mormons will shift toward the more liberal position when they are reminded, or they are told, that that is the position that the church has taken. So there is evidence, actually, that the Mormons do follow their leaders. But not necessarily always in a conservative direction, which kind of makes it a little more complicated when you talk about the role of the church in American politics. It’s not always on the right. Sometimes it’s in the center, and sometimes you might even argue it’s a little bit on the left.
So to me, that does sound a lot like church members vote as they are told, but it takes a few different forms because they are often not told directly in terms of “we believe X so vote for proposition Y or candidate Z.” It’s usually more subtle than that. Sometimes it’s subtle enough that both liberal and conservative church members feel justified voting differently based on their interpretation of the same gospel-centric instruction. It’s not that church leaders tell members how to vote exactly, but nearly all church members look to church messages to form their opinions.
And sometimes church leaders do intend to influence voters, and they use various formats to get those messages across.
HODGES: There is another interesting thing I quickly want to turn to, that there are different ways the church can speak out on something that seems to have greater or lesser impact. So it depends on how the church talks about something. Talk about that for just really quick.
MONSON: Yeah. It really has to do with how specific they are, right? And so again, my favorite example of this goes back to the 80s with the MX missile because, at the time, we have Spencer W. Kimball as the president of the church. He’s, I think, widely known now and even back then as somebody who was peace-loving and thought about the Cold War in a certain way and so on. You have this MX missile proposal coming from the Reagan White House, to build this missile system in the west desert of Utah and into Nevada where they were going to shuttle these missiles around and hide them in silos and move them around so that the Soviets wouldn’t know where they were and couldn’t destroy all of our missiles at once. And this was seen by Utah political leaders at the time as a big economic boon and something that is sort of consistent with their pro-military, pro-Reagan stance, and also would provide a lot of jobs and so on. And so the political leaders came out in favor of it.
And you see in the limited public opinion data available at the time, Mormons were kind of suspicious of it at first but they kind of got on board with the political leaders. And over time, they became much more favorable to it.
And then I think you see President Kimball and the First Presidency who—I guess what I would assume or sort of infer from what they said publicly—were not in favor of this and were trying to send signals about it. And the most interesting one is a Christmas message in 1980. And then an Easter message from the First Presidency in 1981 where in the midst of a Christmas and Easter message are making references to nuclear weapons and avoiding the nuclear holocaust. I mean, it’s very strange to look back and see that. I think in the context of the time, it may not have seemed so strange. But looking back at those messages, you can see that they’re trying to send some signals. Well, those are very general statements. They didn’t mention the MX missile in the Christmas message.
HODGES: It was like you in fireside on civility. You didn’t address it.
MONSON: Yeah. Exactly. But then you get to May of 1981 and the assumption that they have is “our message isn’t getting through. It’s not working. The public is still in favor that this is going to happen unless we come out and say something specifically.” And so you get this multipage letter that goes into explicit detail about their opposition to the MX missile and why it’s both immoral and bad for Utah in so many ways, right? And again, anecdotally, we don’t have great opinion data contemporaneous with the message coming out. But again, Mormons become heavily opposed and the whole congressional delegation switches their position. And it falls apart and doesn’t happen.
An example of going from general to specific in a way that made a difference was repeated most recently on the issue of immigration in Utah, where they were very general in terms of treating each other as children of God and allowing families to stay together and square themselves to the law. And then in the midst of the Utah legislative session, by the end of the session, they’re naming bill numbers in their statements and saying, “Remember what we said a few weeks ago? HB-whatever is consistent with what we said.” And getting very specific. And then getting their way with the legislature as well, right?
HODGES: Yeah. It was interesting to see in the book you talk about this scale, so there’s General Conference talks, Firesides and things like that, versus First Presidency letters versus Newsroom announcements, and all of them sort of have different—Almost like Mormons themselves are like, “Okay. Well, that was just a Newsroom thing.”
CAMPBELL: That’s exactly the way to think of it. So it gives cover to those who might disagree with the church’s position. Oh, that’s just Public Affairs.
MONSON: By the way, I would add that the latest letter that was read over the pulpit in Sacrament meeting about political involvement I think has an effort at validating and elevating Mormon Newsroom’s position, because it’s named by name in the letter, right? “Sometimes we speak out and we do so via Mormon Newsroom on political issues.” So it serves to legitimize that, I think in part in a response to these folks that rationalize that away as something that doesn’t come from the church.
HODGES: Right. The type of letters that are read over the pulpit, it was interesting to see the Newsroom mentioned one of those. Also, more recent letters have talked about principles of the Gospel being found in most political parties, or all political parties having some sort of resonance with the Gospel. So there’s this sense of trying to amplify the church’s voice, but also to find a way to acknowledge some internal church diversity at the same time. It’s a really interesting mix. If we had more time, we could sort of dig into it.
While the interview acknowledged a greater degree of diversity within the church when it comes to party alignment (than say, Evangelicals), there is some expectation that we’ve become so entrenched in culture wars that this will eventually change. Certainly there are many vocal ward members across the church who already think it’s OK to bash Democrats pretty openly based on my own observations in Gospel Doctrine classes.
Campbell outlines 4 distinct periods of history in the church’s social development:
- Separation. The church essentially left the US and separated itself in settling the Utah territory. It became completely isolated, forming a new cultural identity.
- Assimilation. Upon entering statehood and renouncing polygamy (a prerequisite), Mormons began tamping down on their uniqueness and assimilating into American culture. The trajectory was very much like mainline protestantism at this time.
- Engagement. During the correlation era, the church began to make deliberate decisions about what distinct (or peculiar) elements to retain and where to engage with broader society. Some of the “distinctive” elements that were chosen for emphasis included Word of Wisdom (which was previously not strictly adhered to or adopted), having large families, modest clothing, etc.
- Alignment. This is not necessarily what’s happening now, but the authors predict that it’s what the church could be seeking. This would include aligning with a particular political perspective that unfortunately means taking on the cultural baggage of that party affiliation. That action has two other side effects: 1) it will alienate Democrats who will “self-deport” from the church, and 2) it will turn off secular converts while probably also not winning converts among conservatives who are already religiously active in other traditions.
So are we heading into an era in which being Mormon means you must vote Republican or be ostracized? Some doubtless feel we are already there.
CAMPBELL: We don’t think Mormonism is necessarily there yet because the church itself remains above the partisan fray. And as you mentioned, the church does actually make statements about both parties having value and people within the church can support either party. But we could reach that point, and we sort of suggest that that’s one possible future.
HODGES: And there’s clear leaning in that direction, as well.
MONSON: But I would say that there’s push-back too, in the sense of, if you want to go to 2016 and Donald Trump, right? There’s clear pushback in both questions of immigration, and refugees, and civility, and in other ways that make that perfect alignment less likely.
What do you think?
- Is the church tolerant of politically diverse viewpoints?
- Are the church’s positions unique or so aligned with conservative American politics that they can’t be reconciled with liberal views?
- Are the church’s messages deliberately crafted to appeal to the best within both parties or simply a dog whistle for conservatives that liberals and progressives can ignore?
- Do you foresee a future in which political alignment is required to function in the church?
- Or do you think the church will back away from the Republican party in the wake of the 2016 election due to the incivility, anti-immigration and misogyny that have come out during the campaign?
 Surprise, surprise, she was descended from high ranking polygamists.