Kathleen Flake is the Richard Lyman Bushman Professor of Mormon Studies at University of Virginia, where she teaches courses in religion and law, as well as the evolution of marginal religious movements. She is the author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (2004).
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tends to be very selective in its political goals and closely guard its neutrality in elections. Except, that is, in the most recent presidential election. More about that in a moment.
The LDS Church does not employ professional lobbyists in Washington, D.C. but arguably, given their territorial concentration in Utah, it does not need them: two senators and four representatives in Congress seem to serve well enough. Its cooperation with government programs is limited to providing humanitarian services. To minimize accountability to regulatory laws where possible, it avoids entanglement with public enterprises or funds. This reticence is in no small part a reflection of their early history of sustained political and military conflict with local and federal governments. Indeed, it may be said that its highest political priority has always been to be left alone by the state. The culture wars of the last 50 years have drawn the church out of its traditional quietude, however. It has chosen to weigh in on certain ballot initiatives and been largely successful, at least at the political level. Most analysts believe them responsible for defeating the proposed Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. Most recently, Prop 8 (the California Marriage Protection Act) was lost in the courts in 2010, only after the church’s political campaign succeeded.
The church has, however, paid a price for its success. Externally, it has renewed nineteenth-century doubts about the church’s willingness to support the nation’s mores. It has handled these renewed tensions with political compromise and there, too, has had some success. The church-sponsored Utah rights bill on LGBT housing and employment in 2015 was not enough for some (“a Trojan Horse,” it was feared). But for others, it was a model for achieving common ground in a winner-takes-all struggle between competing dignity interests. Internally, however, no changes were made to church law forbidding same-sex marriage, and this has created considerable tension among its membership. Recent data shows that U.S. member opposition to gay marriage has dropped by 15 percent and is fading faster among the young. How much this affects the church’s political priorities remains inconclusive. If judged by its internal policies, one would have to say not much. Leadership has strained to better meet the needs of same-sex attracted members, while simultaneously reinforcing internal strictures against gay marriage.
The success of the church’s political efforts on electoral initiatives has also renewed perennial concerns that it has undue influence over its members. What is “undue” remains to be defined, but leadership’s effect on member values, as noted above, is not as strong as the anxious might think or leaders might wish. The same can be said for voting patterns. In 2016, for the first time in its modern history, the church inserted itself into a national election and even called upon a candidate to withdraw from the race. Reacting to the Access Hollywood tape, an op-ed in the church’s newspaper stated in graphic terms “What oozes from this audio is evil” and warned: “Trump’s banter belies a willingness to use and discard other human beings at will . . . . the essence of a despot.” However, the call to voters to take a “clear stand against the hucksterism, misogyny, narcissism and latent despotism that infect the Trump campaign” was ignored by 61 percent of Utah’s Republicans. Neither did it prevent high profile lay leaders from presenting and, God forbid, praying at a Trump rally. Hence, the other truism about Mormonism’s American history: it is not only always at odds with many outside the faith, but also always at odds with some within. It is simply the nature of the beast: much more diverse and maverick than others expect and Mormons themselves intend.
So, what does this portend for the church’s future political activity? Like other religious bodies, changes in social mores among its youth, if retained, will trend it toward the political center. Its current voters can still be taken for granted by the Republican Party, however. As for the LDS Church itself, having spent the last 20 years winning battles but losing the war civilly, it will probably return to its former focus on maintaining its cultural boundaries and furthering its missionary interests. This will include subtle, but no less strong resistance to limitations on immigration and increased attention to religious free exercise. The church’s consistent and highest priority has always been to ensure it has the freedom to make its religious message heard. Anything that impedes its access to the public square or from exporting its message abroad will be of instant concern and cause for mobilization of its political resources.