Luke Perry is professor of government at Utica College and director of the Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research. Perry’s research focuses on campaigns, elections, and religion and politics. His book Donald Trump and the 2018 Midterm Battle for Central New York (2019) examines how GOP incumbents navigate the Trump presidency in moderate House districts during the 2018 midterm election cycle.
Latter-day Saints have accomplished their nineteenth century political priority, survival, as well as much of their twentieth century focus, acceptance and ascendance. Mormons have become governors, U.S. ambassadors, cabinet secretaries, senate majority leaders, and presidential nominees. This has enabled the LDS Church to politically advocate for select moral causes central to their doctrine, such as marriage and family. For Mormons, having two married parents of opposite genders is imperative not only for the well-being of people on earth, but for the organization of eternal life.
The LDS Church has fallen short of maintaining “traditional” conceptions of family life throughout U.S. society, along with other predominately conservative religious groups. Such efforts have come at significant cost externally, in terms of public backlash, and internally, in terms of division and defection. Like other conservative Christian groups, the LDS Church has pivoted its political attention to protecting religious liberty amidst shifting cultural attitudes.
There are also nuances within Mormonism, such as attitudes towards gays and lesbians, which have unfolded over time. Brigham Young University applied electric shock therapy to men’s genitals in the 1970s in the hope of dissuading same-gender attraction. Today, the LDS Church has championed local and state LGBT nondiscrimination laws, which Mormons at large support, while continuing to oppose the legalization of marriage equality. This illustrates how Mormons seek to balance promoting minority rights with protecting moral convictions.
Mormons are also more liberal than their political allies when it comes to immigration, in large part because of their unique and extensive missionary program. Mormons have long viewed themselves as an international church. This is increasingly becoming the norm throughout American Christianity as religious activity declines here and grows abroad.
Social conservatism will continue to be the cornerstone of alignment between Mormons and the Republican Party. This stone has notably loosened as Donald Trump reshaped the GOP in recent years. Fissures were on full display during the 2016 campaign, when Mitt Romney criticized Trump’s business acumen, intelligence, national security credentials, and personal conduct, encouraging Republicans to vote for anyone but Trump in the primary.
When Romney asked Utahans to “think of Donald Trump’s personal qualities, the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third grade theatrics,” and “imagine your children and your grandchildren acting the way he does,” it meant something deeper within the Mormon tradition, where righteousness and family are paramount. Just 14 percent of Utah voters, for instance, thought Trump was “a good role model for young people.”
Romney is not alone among Mormon conservatives. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) fought Trump’s nomination through the convention floor. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) became the first person to call for a primary challenge against Trump and may do so himself. Representative Mia Love (R-UT-4) publicly rebuked the president for his derogatory comments about Haitians, while even Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), an outspoken Trump supporter, has criticized the president on tariffs and family separation at the Mexican border.
These criticisms point to a growing rift between LDS political elites and Donald Trump over presidential conduct and the meaning of being a Republican. Trump has overturned many conventional norms, and Romney’s political resurrection threatens to usher in another: a Republican loss in Utah for the first time since 1968. Evan McMullin won 21 percent of the Utah vote in 2016. If Romney backs McMullin, like Senator Mike Lee did, this could result in a significant bump at Trump’s expense. Over 70 percent of Utahans voted for Romney in 2012, compared to just 45 percent for Trump in 2016.
Longstanding partisan patterns don’t subside easily and a lot can happen in two years. While the LDS Church will probably continue to stay out of electoral politics, noteworthy Mormons will probably remain prominent Trump critics. Religious influences are a significant and often overlooked reason why. How these tensions are reconciled has the potential to reshape the future of LDS/GOP alignment.