Patrick Mason is professor of religion and Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, where he also serves as dean of the School of Arts and Humanities. He is the author of several books, most recently What Is Mormonism? A Student’s Introduction (2017).
In March 2016, I hosted Dallin H. Oaks—then a senior member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and now first counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—for a conference keynote lecture. Oaks, formerly a justice on the Utah State Supreme Court, provided a characteristically learned and incisive lecture.
Our Q&A period afterward was more free-ranging. I asked Oaks his thoughts about one of the major Mormon-related news stories at the time, the prominent participation of several members of the LDS Church in the armed occupation of the headquarters of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. He responded, “Sometimes members of the church do stupid things.” Oaks’ folksy denunciation of the group only underscored the LDS Church’s official condemnation of the act and its assertion that the “armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis.”
This incident—and many others could be cited—reveals the internal pluralism within the Latter-day Saint community when it comes to political orientations and approaches. Mormonism is not, and must not be treated as, a monolith. Mormons are not just Mormons, but also ranchers, academics, socialists, NRA members, veterans, community activists, and everything else. Their layered identities can reveal conflicting commitments. Though it might want to, the church cannot claim all its members’ attention or affection.
Not all members get the memo when sent from headquarters. On most political issues, the church doesn’t send out a memo, leaving members to their own prudential judgment (or lack thereof). In a church that now claims over 16 million members worldwide and continues to grow internationally, the diversity of political perspectives among its members will correspondingly proliferate.
As I look at the future trajectory of Mormonism, I see two major possibilities, both of which involve the political orientation of the LDS Church and its members. The first and most likely scenario is what I just suggested, that more church members will also mean more diversity of all kinds, including viewpoint and political diversity. The political and cultural homogeneity of LDS Mormonism was largely the product of a parochial Mormon experience in the American West, and especially Utah, from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries. That provincialism is gradually phasing out due to domestic migration for educational and professional opportunities, the LDS Church’s global missionary effort, and generational change. What will likely happen is that as Latter-day Saints increasingly live outside the “Mormon corridor” (Utah, southeastern Idaho, and parts of Arizona), Mormons will look (and poll) less and less like a distinctive regional subculture. As such, the Mormon trajectory in the twenty-first century will resemble the Catholic trajectory of the twentieth century, with a once solid religio-political bloc scattering across both the country and political spectrum.
But there is a second possibility. Rather than following the twentieth-century Catholic model, the LDS Church could follow the Southern Baptist Convention’s turn toward religious and political fundamentalism in the late twentieth century. In this scenario, the church doubles down on conservative doctrines and policies—for instance, further hardening its stance on LGBT issues and traditional gender roles—and either actively drives liberals and moderates out (unlikely) or makes them feel so uncomfortable that they exit on their own accord, leaving behind only the majority conservative wing of the church. Available evidence suggests that the growing church membership in the Global South is generally conservative, especially on issues of gender, sexuality, and authority, and would therefore support and exacerbate a rightward tilt within the global church.
For the first time in the nearly two-century history of the LDS Church, its international membership is beginning to shape the agenda in church headquarters. This doesn’t happen through direct action or parliamentary procedures—as Mormons are often reminded, the church is not a democracy. But church leaders travel widely and know that the church’s future is largely south of the equator. Many of the political stances that the LDS Church has taken in this century, even when proximately driven by political debates in Utah or the United States, come because the leadership has at least one eye fixed abroad. The church’s active positions on religious freedom and in favor of family-friendly immigration policies entail self-interest, to be sure. But given that no one political policy can benefit only Mormons, the impact of Mormon engagement with politics will always extends well beyond the faithful.