Nathan B. Oman is the Rita Ann Rollins Professor at William & Mary Law School. He has written widely on law and religion with a special emphasis on Mormonism; he is currently working on a book on the Mormon legal tradition. Oman holds a B.A. from Brigham Young University and J.D. from Harvard Law School.
Mormon political impulses toward Trump are caught between two opposing pressures. On one hand, Trump’s style and many of his policies deeply offend the Mormon ethos. At the same time, Mormons are living through a period of heightened anxiety, an anxiety that makes progressivism appear far more threatening than in the past. The result has been opposition to Trump by some Mormons, grudging support for Trump by others, and widespread ambivalence.
Much of this dynamic is driven less by national politics than forces internal to Mormonism in the United States. Until the mid-twentieth century Mormons tended to be Democrats. After 1968, Latter-day Saints increasingly moved toward the GOP, largely in response to the cultural excesses of the 1960s and the rise of cultural politics in the wake of Roe v. Wade. For most of this period the church’s hierarchy was comfortable with the drift toward the Republican Party, and in some cases high-level church leaders actively promoted political conservatism among members.
The period corresponded with an unprecedented season of growth for the church. In 1945, Mormonism was a small American denomination concentrated almost exclusively in the Intermountain West. By 2000, a half-century of wildly successful missionary work had created a global community of Latter-day Saints and substantial Mormon populations throughout the United States, particularly in such important states as California and Arizona.
Mormon identification with the GOP probably reached its high-water mark in Mitt Romney’s run for the presidency, but even before 2012, high-level church leaders seem to have recognized that it was not healthy for their institution and its religious message to be tied so closely in the public mind with a single political party. This can be seen, for example, in public statements by high-level church leaders lamenting the one-party dominance of the GOP in Utah.
This uneasiness with the place of Mormons in the political landscape coincides with a period in which church growth has fallen off markedly. Mormon missionaries are baptizing fewer converts than they were a generation ago. Likewise, Mormons are not replicating themselves as effectively as they did in the past, with higher rates of disaffection for those born in the church.
Finally, in its most overt and substantial political move in decades, the LDS Church very publicly threw its support behind California’s ill-fated Proposition 8, which tried to reverse a state supreme court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. While the proposition passed it was struck down by the courts. The church’s hollow victory at the polls made it a lightning rod in the backlash against Prop 8, and the final victory of same-sex marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court left many Mormons feeling more alienated and fearful than they had felt in generations.
This is the Mormon backdrop to Donald Trump. His crass public style, his frat-boy sexual predations, and his xenophobia are intensely distasteful to many Latter-day Saints. Mormons are deeply committed to sexual restraint, marital fidelity, and public civility. Every Mormon congregation in the United States contains bilingual Latter-day Saints who learned Spanish while serving as missionaries in Latin America or among immigrant populations in the United States. Unsurprisingly, the church has actively opposed harsh and punitive immigration policies, and Mormons consistently show far less xenophobic attitudes than other religious conservatives.
At the same time, however, many Mormons fear what might happen to them in an America with a progressive ascendency. On this view, cases such as Masterpiece Cakeshop are the canary in the coal mine. For them these cases are less about discrimination than punishing those who dissent from recent cultural trends and driving religious conservatives from spaces dominated by progressives. These fears can no doubt be overblown, but for many Latter-day Saints they are real. They are reinforced by internal dynamics within Mormonism that are already leaving many Latter-day Saints anxious.
Trump created a modest swing away from the Republican Party among Mormons. Given how sticky partisan identities tend to be, the effect of Trump on LDS voters was remarkable. Utah, for example, saw the largest swing away from a political party of any state in the 2016 election, and it was a swing away from the GOP of Donald Trump. That said, the swing came nowhere close to a wholesale exodus of Mormons from the Republican Party.
While finding Trump loathsome, many Mormons took comfort from the defeat of progressivism in the 2016 election and look with fear on the stridency of the progressive resistance to Trump. The result is widespread unhappiness with the current political situation and anxiety about the future.