The Conversation: Mormon leaders push back against one-party politics

Top leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dropped a bombshell in June by telling their flock to reject straight-ticket voting.

The Latter-day Saints, often known as Mormons, have overwhelmingly supported Republicans in recent decades. But in a letter that local leaders read during worship meetings nationwide, the church’s president and counselors instructed church members against aligning solely for one political party.

“Merely voting a straight ticket or voting based on ‘tradition’ without careful study of candidates and their positions on important issues is a threat to democracy and inconsistent with revealed standards,” the church’s top authorities wrote, referring to Latter-day Saint scripture.

Such letters are frequently used to direct the faithful.

In 2008, similar letters mobilized Latter-day Saints in California to support Proposition 8, a ballot initiative to prohibit same-sex marriage. As suggested by the significant time and money church members poured into that proposition, these letters can be persuasive, due in no small part to the unique role church leaders play.

Within the faith, top LDS authorities are known as “prophets, seers, and revelators.”

Members often speak of the need to “follow the prophet,” referring to the church’s president. Indeed, there is a catchy children’s song with that title, which includes the repeated refrain “follow the prophet, don’t go astray.”

To the casual observer of American politics, it is no doubt surprising to hear that LDS leaders are promoting the idea of voting for Democrats. But as a political scientist who studies religion, including the LDS church, I believe the letter highlights an important trend in American Christianity.

It is true that Mormons rival white evangelical Christians in their support of the Republican Party, and generally hold very conservative views. According to the Cooperative Election Study, 60% of LDS church members identify as Republican and only 23% as Democratic.

However, Mormons do not always align perfectly with the priorities of other Republicans.

For example, they are more moderate on immigration policy. And while opposed to abortion, they have hesitated to call for a total ban.

Despite a history of opposing gay marriage, their leaders endorsed a recent bill in Congress affirming the right to same-sex marriage — albeit only after ensuring religious organizations would not be required to recognize such marriages.

The Latter-day Saints never fully jumped on the Donald Trump bandwagon, either.

In 2016, Trump only took 45% of the vote in Utah, a predominantly Mormon state, largely because third-party candidate Evan McMullin, a member of the church, ate into his support. And going into the 2020 election, Trump had lower approval ratings among Latter-day Saints than among other heavily Republican groups.

Many members’ ambivalence toward Trump may stem from earlier messaging by church leaders. In 2016, an editorial in the church-owned Deseret News called on Trump to pull out of the race — though it did not endorse his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Even more directly, church leaders issued a statement decrying Trump’s proposed “Muslim ban.” An uncharacteristic move for the church, it reflected Latter-day Saints’ particular opposition to the targeting of religious minorities, given their own history of being treated as outsiders.

It is no coincidence then that the most prominent LDS politician in the country, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, has long been a thorn in Trump’s side.

So why are leaders now speaking out against blind support for the GOP?

One might argue that this is nothing new, as the LDS hierarchy has previously encouraged two-partyism. “It’s not in our interest to be known as a one-party church,” one elder told The Salt Lake Tribune during a 1998 interview.

A better question is why the church’s top authorities are speaking out now.

Part of the explanation likely stems from concern over the hold that Trump, and the Trumpian approach to politics, has on the Republican Party. But I argue for another explanation.

Latter-day Saints are known for an extensive missionary program around the world. Within the United States, however, the church has not been immune from the national decline in religious affiliation.

The church itself reports declining growth in official membership numbers, based on baptism records.

But public surveys show the number of Latter-day Saints in the U.S. is actually declining outright, not just growing more slowly. Even among self-identified Latter-day Saints, a quarter have considered leaving the church.

Research that I and other political scientists have done shows that one reason so many Americans are turning away from religion is the relationship between conservative Christianity and the Republican Party.

People whose religious views align with the religious right, but do not share its politics, often feel conflicted. In some cases, they leave the congregation where they worship for a new one.

Others give up on religion altogether. That’s one reason for the dramatic growth in the percentage of Americans who claim no religious affiliation.

While most of this research has focused on evangelicals, it follows that, as a predominantly Republican faith, Mormonism is also likely to experience an exodus.

In her research into why people leave the LDS faith, religion writer Jana Riess finds former church members are far more likely to identify as Democratic than those who remain in the fold.

Older Latter-day Saints continue to identify heavily as Republican, but members under 30 are much more likely to describe themselves as Democrats. If those young church members see their church as a bastion of Republicanism, they may decide that Mormonism is not for them, whereas more bipartisanship might keep them in the fold.

This recent call from LDS leaders could create a potential counter-example of a trend within American religion. Increasingly, Americans tailor their religious beliefs to their politics, rather than the other way around.

Here, on the other hand, is a statement from men whom Latter-day Saints believe speak for God, telling their co-religionists that they should break Republican ranks. If there were ever a case to expect religion to inform people’s politics, this is it — with eyes on the 2024 election.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.



All churches need to keep politics out of the pews in the first place.

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