Dr. Gregory Prince is CEO of Soft Cell Antimicrobials, following a career in pediatric infectious diseases research. He has authored four books on Mormon history, including Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood (1995) and Gay Rights and the Mormon Church: Intended Actions, Unintended Consequences (2019).
In less than a century, the Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) shifted from political pariah because of its refusal to abandon plural marriage, to potent political force whose influence belies its numbers—about 1 percent of the American population. Three factors underlie its influence: near-universal obeisance to the will of its prophet, leading many to classify it as a cult; de facto control of the Utah state legislature, some 90 percent of whose representatives are LDS, making it the only state in the country dominated by a single religious tradition; and impressive ground game when the call to mobilize is issued by the prophet.
The emergence of the church as a national political force occurred in the 1970s during the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment. Church leaders characterized the battle as moral rather than political and mobilized members in two keys states, Virginia and Florida, resulting in the ERA’s defeat in both states and national victory for anti-ERA forces.
A short time later, upon realizing that much of the MX missile infrastructure would be built in Utah, the church again flexed its political muscle and was a major factor in its defeat.
While the church’s position on the ERA dovetailed with conservative politics, its opposition to MX veered away from Republican priorities. With the subsequent death of church president Spencer Kimball in 1985, Ezra Taft Benson became president, and the shift of the church to hardcore Republican priorities accelerated. Benson, who served for eight years in the Eisenhower administration as secretary of agriculture, was a staunch ally of Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society. Blocked by church leaders from becoming a director of the society, Benson nonetheless maintained strong influence through his son Reed, who was the society’s national director of public relations. The bond between Mormonism and the Republican Party became seemingly unbreakable.
In the post-Benson years, the church’s highest profile plunge into national politics was California’s Proposition 8 in 2008. But the road to Prop 8 began over a decade earlier with Baehr v. Lewin, a lawsuit that appeared to pave the way to Hawaii becoming the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. Claiming a threat to traditional marriage, church leaders took the unprecedented step of forging an alliance with a former theological rival, the Roman Catholic Church, through the formation of a front organization, Hawaii’s Future Today. The alliance helped pass a state constitutional amendment that superseded a decision by the Hawaii Supreme Court enabling same-sex marriage. It also established the playbook for subsequent LDS involvement in the fight against marriage equality—including Prop 8.
Prop 8 was the most expensive social initiative in the nation’s history, with each side raising more than $40 million. Although Mormons compose only about 2 percent of the state population, the call from the prophet to devote time and means to passing Prop 8—and thus outlawing same-sex marriage in California—yielded impressive (and, to some, alarming) results: Mormons contributed over 50 percent of the Yes on 8 money, and about 80 percent of volunteers who helped to get out the vote. By a narrow margin and contrary to nearly all pre-election polling, Prop 8 passed. The church’s role was widely-enough acknowledged that Prop 8 became known as “the Mormon Proposition.”
Prop 8 was a pyrrhic victory. The backlash against the church was swift, intense, and sustained, and it caught church leaders by surprise. With the church’s approval numbers plummeting nationally, its leaders began a strategy of tactical engagement on LGBT issues, yielding on antidiscrimination legislation regarding housing and employment (it was the decisive force behind the passage of Utah SB 296, the first LGBT-rights law to pass in a Republican-controlled state), while holding the line against same-sex marriage (amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges), public accommodations (amicus brief in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission), transgender rights (amicus brief in Gloucester County School Board v. GG), and hate crimes legislation (refusal to endorse Utah legislation). That line holds today.
Will there be change in the direction of LDS political influence? Yes, for two reasons. The first is that one person—the church president—has virtually complete control of the church agenda. The current president is 93 years old and reflects his own generation’s worldview, and successors will gradually come from different backgrounds. But even more important is the growing influence of younger church members, particularly Millennials, who will vote with their feet if social change does not occur at an acceptable pace.