Dr. Russell Arben Fox is a professor of political science at Friends University. He frequently comments on Kansas and Wichita politics through multiple media outlets and is an associate editor of the blog Front Porch Republic. He received his B.A. and M.A. from Brigham Young University and his Ph.D. from the Catholic University of America.
For many observers, American Mormons are best described politically as a mostly white, highly conservative Republican voting-bloc in the American West. There is obviously much truth to that description–but it isn’t the whole truth. True, American Mormons have expressed some of the highest levels of support for President Trump than of any other religious group in America. But at the same time, Utah–which is about 55 percent Mormon–shows higher levels of support for LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws than any state except the predictably liberal states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and Mormons have expressed greater support for providing illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship than any other white mainline Christian group in America. How can we explain these seeming inconsistencies?
The answer, I think, is to be found in understanding the comprehensiveness of Mormon life. While the Mormons are hardly Amish, the faith’s strongly communitarian past–a result of its nineteenth-century history, including both significant persecution and a commitment to build radically egalitarian communities across the American West–set a tone that, despite very different contexts, is to a degree perpetuated to this day. There is also Mormonism’s hierarchical leadership structure, and its congregations’ often insular norms and practices, all of which tend to inculcate a high level of obedience. The result is that most committed American Mormons tend to be rather collective in their actions and opinions–and that crosses over to politics.
Different scholars have studied this unity, which is obviously 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 they 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 doesn’t last–a point these scholars have made in observing that Utah’s Mormon population went directly against the repeated statements of church leaders in helping to overturn Prohibition by voting for 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; Mormon church leaders have, in contrast to the nineteenth and early twentieth century–and particularly ever since the anti-Prohibition debacle–mostly 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 positions 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 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. 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. Many of those they convert to the church are 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 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 from church leaders in Salt Lake City, and the group as a whole will usually express themselves with pronounced uniformity–whether against abortion 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.
There is little reason to expect much change in these collective dynamics in the future–but there could be change in the party that has in part shaped itself in light to millions of mostly regionally concentrated Mormon voters. Donald Trump may have the basic partisan 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 percent 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.