On Oct. 8, 2008, several elite leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—also known as the LDS or Mormon Church—went on the air and urged members in California to boost their involvement in defeating the state’s legalization of same-sex marriage.
The LDS Church was one of the last to join the Protect Marriage Coalition—mostly composed of conservative religious groups, including Catholics and Orthodox Jews—but they were certainly not the least. Elder M. Russell Ballard’s call to action was clear. “Many of you will text message, blog, make phone calls, walk your neighborhoods,” said the then-80-year-old on camera. “These methods of engaging will be major elements of informing people of the issues and of the coalition’s position.”
The Protect Marriage Coalition claimed victory on Election Day: Proposition 8 passed with 52.2 percent of the vote, and gay marriage in California was temporarily eliminated. According to some estimates, Mormons made up an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the early volunteers who walked door-to-door in election precincts. On Voting Day, there were 100,000 volunteers staffing get-out-the-vote efforts, a sizable portion of whom were LDS. Financial contributions from Mormons in and out of state made up as much as half of the nearly $40 million raised on behalf of the measure in a state where they account for 2 percent of the population.
A new book, Seeking the Promised Land, examines Mormon political behavior by looking, among several points of inquiry, into their responsiveness to church leaders. The authors are professors: Notre Dame’s David Campbell, J. Quin Monson of Brigham Young University—both of whom are Mormon—and John Green of the University of Akron, who is Protestant. Calls to action from LDS leadership are infrequent, so when the leaders speak uniformly with specific directions on political issues, the authors argue, most Mormons follow their leaders. Of course, Mormons are overwhelmingly aligned with the GOP, much like the African American vote is Democratic, which is not always the most desirable political situation to be in.
The Mormon vote, while thought to be a lost cause for Democrats, could just as easily be taken for granted by Republicans. The Mormon constituency, in other words, could easily find themselves overlooked and marginalized in the political sphere. Furthermore, Monson, of BYU, cautions that the imbalanced Mormon Republicanism “ought to be concerning, because (it) has potentially some negative consequences for the church as an institution.” If the church is perceived as partisan, missionaries proselytizing among non-Republicans could face a tarnished reputation among groups of possible converts.
Why are Mormons so overwhelmingly Republican? The short answer is that they, as voters, look to protect their traditional values, the authors argue. They are a communal and homogenous group that exhibits a high level of faith in their everyday lives—abstaining from alcohol, caffeine, etc.— making them distinctive. Their belief and culture are heavily focused on the family, and this can bleed over into politics with issues they see as “moral,” such as gay marriage and abortion.
This is not to say Mormons have always been predisposed toward the Republican Party. After Utah was granted statehood in 1896, Mormons were largely Democrats, because the Republicans of that era, in addition to being against slavery, were against polygamy. Mormons eventually became bipartisan; their values were not so at odds with the greater culture as a whole. The 1960s, however, brought with it a sexual revolution and significant cultural change that caused disruption. During this time, Monson says, “you see Mormons gravitating toward the Republican Party for the similar reasons that evangelicals did”: a defense of traditional values. The ensuing culture war pushed Mormon voters further to the right.
That rightward drift has continued. The authors found that young Mormons are more likely to be Republican than older ones. Mormons growing up in the ’80s and ’90s aged in a cultural environment where their faith and politics tightly aligned, something that their parents and grandparents wouldn’t have seen so definitively, Monson says.
Fealty to the GOP may not end any time soon. However, Mormons contradict their partisanship on certain key issues. “When LDS teachings are out of step with conservative orthodoxy,” the authors write, “Mormons generally follow their church over their party.” In 2013, for example, Dieter Uchtdorf, a member of the church’s governing First Presidency, was among other faith leaders who met with President Obama about immigration reform that would have created a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. Obama’s policy, Uchtdorf said, “was totally in line with our values.”
What this means for the future of Mormons in American politics is not entirely clear. There seems to be no sign of strong Mormon Republicanism waning. But many Mormons are, above all, faithful to their church.
“When those messages from the church hierarchy are consistent and repeated over time,” Monson says, “the members respond.”
This story originally appeared in High Country News.
Seeking the Promised Land
By David E. Campbell, John C. Green and J. Quin Monson
312 pages, $26.99