Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics

By Ellsworth, Brant W. | Cultural Analysis, Annual 2015 | Go to article overview

Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics


Ellsworth, Brant W., Cultural Analysis


Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics. By David E. Campbell, John C. Green, and J. Quin Monson. New York City: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xiv + 294, preface, acknowledgements, data appendix, bibliography, index.

On October 9, 2014, in the midst of a particularly contentious midterm election, the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints issued a letter to be read to Church congregations throughout the United States urging members to register and regularly exercise their right to vote. This letter, like those circulated each election cycle, admonished Latter-day Saints to study the candidates and support wise, honest leaders, but it did not recommend specific candidates. Instead, the Church maintained its political neutrality and clarified that admirable characteristics could be found in candidates across the political spectrum. Despite the Church's political ambivalence, its membership is markedly not. In fact, 65% of Mormons in the United States identify as part of, or lean towards, the Republican Party, making Mormons the most Republican religious group and one of the most Republican subcultures in the United States. This has not always been the case. In Seeking the Promised Land, political scientists David E. Campbell, John C. Green, and J. Quin Monson trace the evolution of Mormon political preferences from Joseph Smith's 1844 presidential candidacy to Mitt Romney's bid in 2012. In this excellent work of social science, the authors examine the intersections of Mormonism and American politics by mining twenty-eight surveys and public opinion polls to reveal the political preferences and peculiarities of Mormons in America. These findings expose a paradox in the Mormon experience that is central to the text: have Mormons become both "quintessentially American" and a "peculiar people," simultaneously occupying a spot in the American mainstream and one along the fringes of American society?

The book is divided into the three sections: "Mormons as an Ethno-Religious Group," "Political Behavior of Mormons," and "The Consequences of Distinctiveness." In section one, the authors outline a framework for best understanding the above-mentioned paradox by examining Mormonism as a religion and Mormons as a people, with overviews of their doctrine, culture, and history. As an ethno-religious subculture, Mormons, the authors argue, thrive in a state of tension with the broader culture, at odds with both secular society and other religions. This tension and the perception of peculiarity nurtures a strong sense of internal cohesion among Mormons and tight-knit religious communities throughout the world, which, in turn, "enable Mormons to thrive even in the face of a culture they perceive as a threat to their beliefs" (42). While not all Mormons within these communities (or, as the authors call them, "sacred tabernacles") are alike, differing in levels of religious activity, compliance to institutional authority, insularity, and self-conscious affinity with the group, the authors conclude that levels of religious activity are the most significant indicator of "Mormon-ness" and serve to reinforce political affiliation.

Section two traces the development of partisanship among American Mormons, arguing that during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Mormons have evolved through three distinct political periods in response to particular political, historical, and cultural stimuli: periods of exclusion, re-involvement, and partisanship. Prior to Utah's statehood in 1896, Mormons, and by extension Utah, participated in a state party system that differed from the rest of the country, eschewing the Democrats and Republicans in favor of the Utah-bred People's and Liberal parties. Throughout much of the twentieth century, as they sought to accommodate the social, cultural, and political demands of the nation, Mormons affiliated for periods with both the Democrat and Republican parties. …

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