Magazine article Kennedy School Review

Latter Days: Mormons in Politics

Magazine article Kennedy School Review

Latter Days: Mormons in Politics

Article excerpt

A cursory glance at 2008 might suggest it was the year in which Mormons firmly cemented their loyalty to the GOP. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was the most serious contender for the U.S. presidency in the church's history. And heeding the Republican call to "protect traditional marriage," the Mormon Church (officially known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) played a decisive role in the battle to prevent same-sex marriage in California.

But this largely Republican church may actually be turning more politically diverse. During the 2008 election season, Democrats made inroads not only in the West, but among Mormons as well: New Mexico elected a Mormon Democrat to the U.S. Senate, a Democratic presidential candidate won Salt Lake County for the first time since 1964, and Mormon Democrat Jim Matheson was reelected to his House seat with a whopping 40 percent of Republican and 51 percent of Mormon voters in his district.

The fact that Mormons were found on both sides of the aisle in the 2008 elections points to a church that is politically beginning to look more like the rest of America. Although Mormons currently identify as Republican at a higher rate than any other religious group--52 percent of Mormons identify as Republican, compared with Evangelicals in second place at 38 percent--changes within the church are set to challenge a long-standing loyalty. But before we get to that, it's important to discover how they became so Republican in the first place.


Before they were devoted Republicans, Mormons were communitarians who lived in an egalitarian social order. The first Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, taught that church members should consecrate all of their property and earnings to the church, which would then redistribute them according to need. Despite its initial radicalism, the church's rocky relationship with the government pushed its members into the conservative camp. Having been successively pushed out of Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois in the first half of the 19th century, Mormon pioneers developed a significant distrust toward the federal government by the time they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.

Distrust of the government grew in 1857 when the GOP inscribed polygamy in the party's platform as one of the "twin relics of barbarism." Three years later U.S. President James Buchanan irked Mormons even more when he sent one-third of the U.S. Army to Utah to put down an alleged uprising and curb the ambitions of Mormon Church President Brigham Young. Over the next forty years, Mormons were the target of legislative action aimed at ending polygamy and the church's grip on all aspects of life in the territory.

When Utah attained statehood in 1897, the federal government's efforts appeared to have been largely successful. But when Utah elected Mormon Reed Smoot to the U.S. Senate in 1903, a series of hearings revealed that polygamy was still being practiced in secret. The church was compelled to recommit to abandon polygamy and at this point, according to Richard Bushman, professor of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University (speaking at a Pew Forum conference in May 2007), "turned to laissez-faire liberalism, having no confidence in the government."

Today few Mormons would cite these reasons to explain their conservatism. Although this history provides a foundation, it is only half of the explanation. In order to justify their political beliefs today, members of the church--like Evangelicals--are far more likely to cite the "value issues" of abortion and same-sex marriage and the "moral deterioration" of family and society as driving factors in the way they vote.

In particular, the roots of the church's social conservative alignment began in the civil rights era when Black members of the church were barred from holding the priesthood. Although the church eventually allowed blacks full membership rights, the controversy triggered an increasing discomfort with the rights-based movements of the 1960s and 1970s. …

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