What’s the Matter With Utah?

Mormons are the most strongly Republican religious group in the country. Why aren’t they supporting Trump?

Mitt Romney in 2012. Gage Skidmore

In this strange electoral cycle, Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party shattered the old GOP coalition. Governors and senators were defeated easily in the primaries by someone who appeared to be a joke candidate. Professional conservative pundits didn’t see Trump coming and neoconservative ideologues are now either dabbling with a long-shot independent candidacy or heading back to their ancestral home in the Democratic Party.

But the most dramatic defection has been the Christian right, which has been riven by disputes over whether it’s possible to support a candidate whose values seem anything but “traditional.” Meanwhile, independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin is polling so strongly in the Republican stronghold of Utah that he may become the first third-party candidate since 1968 to win a state’s electoral votes.

Due to their high profile, the influence of conservative Christians on the Republican Party has often been exaggerated. In truth, they’ve never held the dominant role that outsiders imagined. Barry Goldwater had no time for them, and would tell anyone who would listen. The deeply irreligious Ronald Reagan brought them into his big tent but gave them very little in return. Candidates from Bob Dole to Mitt Romney have had a strained relationship with them.

Their one apparent victory was George W. Bush, who seemed to belong to the same flock. But this turned out to be a poisoned chalice: they suffered from association with his disastrous administration, while gaining nothing — and in some cases losing ground — on their policy priorities.

In fact, the Christian right has been in headlong retreat for at least a decade now, as evidenced by the fact that they don’t talk about their own issues very much any more. Now, Trump’s candidacy is revealing fault lines within a group that once appeared to be an immovable conservative voting bloc.

It’s the Economy, Stupid

Christian right operatives like Ralph Reed or Jerry Falwell Jr have embraced Trump, but their endorsements signal desperation more than anything else.

First, Trump, a nominal Presbyterian who displays no religious knowledge or belief, doesn’t share their faith. But more importantly, he’s nobody’s idea of a cultural conservative. Trump doesn’t care how or with whom the great American public has sex, nor is he worried about which bathroom facilities transgender people use.

But for many religious conservatives — who know they have no prospect of winning on their traditional issues — he’ll have to do. Faced with the possibility of a Hillary Clinton administration that they know will be hostile to them, plenty are willing to gamble on a candidate who doesn’t care about their issues and would probably leave them alone.

This, however, doesn’t represent the majority of the Christian right. Many are much more fastidious, and, long before the recent sexual allegations surfaced, religious blogs and journals were awash with articles decrying Trump’s bad character, his lack of Christian virtue, his multiple marriages, his often bizarre and violent language, and above all his vulgarity — the traits Ted Cruz revealingly described as his “New York values.”

East Coast progressives might be appalled at being identified with Trump, but in a political subculture that’s long contrasted the values of the heartland with those of the liberal coastal enclaves, it has real resonance.

Dr Russell Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and arguably the most important Evangelical leader in the United States right now, has been a very prominent #NeverTrumper. But on the face of it, he’s had little effect — Trump won huge primary victories in precisely those states where the SBC is strongest.

There are other factors below the surface, however. Exit polling indicated that, while Trump won Evangelicals as a group, those who actually regularly attended church were more likely to favor Ted Cruz. Or, to look at it differently, there was a class differential. Church attendance among Southern whites is largely a middle-class activity; lots of poorer whites refer to themselves as “Evangelical” or even “fundamentalist,” but never attend church. The same applies in Appalachian Trump strongholds.

What these results indicate is that the median Cruz voter tended to be more prosperous and ideological, while the median Trump voter was relatively plebeian and populist.

You can find similar breakdowns across denominations. The Catholic bishops — not only the more progressive, but even as outspoken a conservative as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia — have uniformly wanted nothing to do with Trump, not least because of their strongly pro-immigration position.

Granted, conservative Catholics are notoriously fractious, and have been reluctant even to support candidates who were ideologically close to them, like Pat Buchanan. But the virtual invisibility of a “Catholics for Trump” lobby is striking. The primaries showed that Trump did enjoy quite a bit of popular traction with ethnic Catholics in states like Michigan — but this probably has more to do with his rhetoric around trade and industrial decline than religious-based mobilization.

We could put it like this: Trump’s rise has demonstrated that the GOP core isn’t particularly conservative — at least not on social issues. Likewise, the Christian right’s popular base seems driven much more by economics, culture, and a populist dislike of Washington than by strictly theological concerns.

This shouldn’t be surprising — after all, the moral conservatism of black churches doesn’t prevent their members from voting overwhelmingly for liberal Democrats. But one traditionally conservative denomination has been strongly resistant to the Trumpening: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). Their anti-Trump sentiment is striking given that, according to Pew research, Mormons are the most strongly Republican religious group in the country.

Trump’s polling numbers in Utah have sometimes been so low as to put Hillary Clinton — hardly a Mormon-friendly candidate — within striking distance in a state that gave Mitt Romney almost three-quarters of the vote in four years ago. Meanwhile, recent polls show that McMullin, the little-known former CIA officer recruited by #NeverTrump conservatives to run as an independent, is performing very strongly in Utah, maybe well enough to win a three-way battle with Trump and Clinton. It helps that McMullin is himself a Mormon and a Utah resident.

Divinely Inspired

The usual political stereotype presents Mormons as ultra-patriotic, uniformly right-wing, and capitalist. This isn’t far from the truth. Brigham Young University’s enthusiastic group of Bernie Sanders supporters notwithstanding, the senior leaders of the faith are overwhelmingly Republican, and their followers mostly mirror them.

But there are factors that make Mormons unique. They often refer to themselves not as a denomination but as a “people.” They’re tightly knit, hold on tenaciously to their distinguishing beliefs and practices, and are rooted in a dramatic history going back almost two hundred years.

Mormonism occupies a far more complex and contradictory place in American culture and society than is often assumed. Leo Tolstoy wasn’t wrong when he described it as “the American religion.” Satirists have long had fun with the Book of Mormon’s account of a resurrected Christ visiting America to preach the gospel to a lost Hebrew tribe assumed to be ancestors of today’s Native Americans. The fact that Mormon folklore places the Garden of Eden in Jackson County, Missouri begs for a joke.

On a more political level, Mormon doctrine holds that the United States Constitution is literally divinely inspired. There is also the unofficial but popular White Horse Prophecy, which speculates that one day the Constitution will hang by a thread and it will fall to faithful Mormons to save the republic.

These themes — the reverence for the founders and Constitution, along with an apocalyptic streak — feature strongly in the output of conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck, a Mormon convert. But this patriotic people were once subject to considerable government persecution and popular violence. In 1844, a mob murdered their founding prophet, Joseph Smith, and his brother and second-in-command Hyrum.

In the church’s early years, its members were pushed out of Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois in turn before leaving the then-United States to migrate to the Great Basin.

Even there they weren’t safe. James Buchanan’s administration sent troops against Brigham Young’s Utah government in the 1850s. Later, in the 1880s, Mormon missionaries in the South were attacked and sometimes killed by the Klan.

Ostensibly, Mormons became outcasts because they believed in plural marriage. The very first Republican Party presidential platform in 1856 committed the party to opposing the “twin relics of barbarism”: slavery and polygamy. Many LDS leaders were jailed for the practice, and the federal government actually attempted to suppress the church until it formally gave up the practice in 1890.

Even after that, Reed Smoot — a monogamist — had to face a four-year battle to establish his right to be seated in the Senate. The hearings didn’t just deal with polygamy, but also with the church’s considerable wealth, its dominance over Utah society, and its hierarchical leadership, which claimed to be guided by revelation.

But since then — particularly since the participation of Mormon soldiers in World War I — the Latter-Day Saints gradually assumed their familiar all-American image. However, many outsiders still regard them as strange, and the church has remained distinct from the rest of American life in sometimes surprising ways. For example, Mormons — a group suspicious of government welfare programs — have for decades maintained the enormous Church Welfare System to care for their own needy.

This hasn’t, however, prevented Mormons — once a group with a vigorous Democratic presence — from becoming one of the bedrocks of the GOP coalition.

A Matter of Style

So why have the Latter-Day Saints been resistant to Trump in a way that members of other conservative denominations have not? BuzzFeed’s chief Trump whisperer McKay Coppins has been sketching out the reasons for months. But recently, Mormon opposition has grown to the point where even those parts of the commentariat that don’t usually take notice of anything outside of New York and Washington have had to pay attention.

The economic data presented above accounts for some of this: Trump has played strongly among economically insecure whites without college degrees, but Mormons are at the other end of the scale, relatively prosperous, and well-educated.

Further, the church’s missionary program, which sends most young men and an increasing proportion of young women to serve missions all over the world, means Mormons are much better travelled than most Americans. This makes them an unlikely constituency for Trumpian nativism.

A range of big current issues touch nerves in Mormon culture. Race is one — like the Southern Baptists, the LDS Church has a discriminatory legacy that it is still trying to live down.

Mormonism does have a slightly more mixed record on race than many outsiders realize. One major reason for their persecution in antebellum Missouri was that the Mormon leadership were suspected of being abolitionists — and in fact, Joseph Smith’s 1844 presidential campaign featured a plan for the federal government to buy the freedom of slaves. Still, the young church was by no means free from racial prejudice, as seen in several passages in the Book of Mormon relating how the curse of dark skin came upon the unrighteous Lamanite tribe. Some of Brigham Young’s sermons, too, are far from what we would consider racially sensitive today. (Young, incidentally, had a very Trumpian flamboyance that doesn’t come across in the airbrushed history favored by today’s LDS authorities.)

The Mormon hierarchy, moving at its usual glacial pace, maintained a formal ban on ordaining African American men until as late as 1978. The change had less to do with the Civil Rights Movement — which barely existed in the white Mormon heartland — than with the church’s missionary expansion in Brazil and West Africa.

But once church president Spencer Kimball had pushed through the change, a lot of effort went into making it stick. (In a wonderful example of religious Leninism, apostle Bruce McConkie, long the most dogmatic segregationist in the leadership, became its most fervent integrationist overnight.) The old attitudes haven’t disappeared entirely, but things have changed to the point that photos of smiling, multiracial groups of children have become a visual cliché in LDS literature.

Related to that is the church’s response to the refugee crisis, where general humanitarianism is given an edge by its history. The popular and charismatic apostle Dieter Uchtdorf — the only non-American in the top leadership — holds the distinction of having himself been a refugee twice as a young boy: His family first fled Czechoslovakia for being ethnic Germans, then fled East Germany for belonging to a Yankee imperialist religion.

Uchtdorf, who has taken on an increasingly prominent role due to President Thomas Monson’s failing health, has set much of the tone around the issue. Meanwhile, the church-owned Deseret News, a faithful representative of the hierarchy’s views, has been running regular articles on the global refugee crisis and advising Mormons on what they can do to help.

Trump’s Muslim-bashing, too, has gone down badly with a religion whose folk memory of being an unpopular and persecuted minority still persists. To many Mormons, Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration sounds uncomfortably close to their ancestors being expelled from Missouri and Illinois. The LDS hierarchy has been demonstratively Muslim-friendly recently and responded to Trump’s statements with a strong defense of religious pluralism.

Ultimately, though, much of the antipathy comes down to  style. Senator Smoot and church president Heber J. Grant largely defined the Mormon style of public leadership in the early twentieth century. Following that model, Mormons like their politicians to be clean-cut, prosperous, sober, polite, and just a little boring — like Mitt Romney, in fact.

One might also mention the most senior congressional Mormons, Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who have been around for a very long time without ever being accused of being terribly exciting.

For a long time, the most famous Mormon politician was Ezra Taft Benson, who served both as an LDS apostle and as Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture. Benson held exotically right-wing opinions, including support for the John Birch Society, which from time to time got him on the wrong side of other church leaders. Thanks to his tendency to talk politics from the pulpit, his sermons were often censored. The church hierarchy even banned him from standing as George Wallace’s running mate in the 1968 election. But despite his unpopular opinions, Benson’s outward style was very much the sober and respectable Mormon farmer. He had none of Trump’s crudeness.

In general, LDS culture disdains people who are too flashy, ostentatious, or overtly ambitious; Mormons value the appearance of bourgeois respectability. So Trump’s brashness and vulgarity — his very “New Yorkness” — grates enormously on their sensibilities. The infamous Access Hollywood tape seems to have been the final straw, drawing a stinging rebuke from the Deseret News.

The Western Strategy

Put all these factors together, and the fallout in the Mormon Corridor has been dramatic. McMullin’s local strength has taken everyone by surprise. Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson has also polled relatively well there. This is extraordinary for the reddest of red states, a place that no Democrat has won since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

In fact, the 2016 campaign looks very much like it could be another 1964, where the parties’ electoral bases shift into new combinations. The results perhaps won’t be obvious for another four or eight years. Some of this is determined by long-term economic trends, patterns of immigration, or other quantifiable factors. But cultural factors play a role here too.

Mormons, as a distinct and geographically concentrated group who have long been one of the GOP coalition’s strongest components, will be one demographic worth watching.