Progressive and Conservative Lamentations
Mormons with more progressive or liberal leanings can’t understand how someone that believes in the LDS version of the gospel can support big business over the common laborer and war over peace. They don’t understand how Mormons that have a church welfare system and a system that promotes communal care for its members can oppose government programs designed to implement compassion, or how members of a church that strongly promotes education can be at odds with the public education system. They don’t understand how Mormons can ally themselves with evangelicals, who by and large despise Mormonism. They can’t understand how Mormons can work to implement moral laws and stand against the “agency” of others with alternative lifestyles, when the LDS Church argued for so many years in the latter half of the 19th Century that Mormons only wanted was to be left alone to live per their religious convictions while allowing all others the same privilege.
But this cuts both ways. Conservative Mormons can’t understand how liberal Mormons can support legalized infanticide, big government that constantly expands to get its fingers deeper into our everyday lives, socialist programs that “force” people to demonstrate compassion, government programs that provide textbook examples of what church leaders used to call “the evils of the public dole,” malaise about national security (without which no individual rights can exist), the suppression of public religious behavior, support of immoral lifestyles, etc. They don’t understand how Mormons can ally themselves with strident secular humanists that clearly hate Mormons (but only as part of a larger group of religionists) far more vehemently than evangelicals dislike Mormons. They empathize with Elder M. Russell Ballard’s recent lament where he listed several social ills, including that, “In the name of "tolerance," the definition of family has been expanded beyond recognition to the point that "family" can be any individuals of any gender who live together with or without commitment or children or attention to consequence.”
From my personal study of the scriptures and church teachings, I’m afraid that I do not find it easy to narrowly define my interests as strictly liberal or conservative. I cannot find a very good match for my personal philosophy in either of the major parties — or in any of the third parties out there either, for that matter. Some facets of the gospel fit well with one political philosophy, while some fit well with another. While some Mormons are completely confident that their politics and their religion match well, I suspect there are a lot of Mormons that more or less feel the way I do.
I believe the reason most U.S. Mormons vote Republican results from:
- Our two-party political system.
- The LDS Church’s (nearly) politically agnostic promotion of political activity by its members.
- Roe v. Wade.
- Diminished need for labor unions.
Third parties play an important role in U.S. politics because they can sometimes move the debate one way or another. They can occasionally influence the outcomes of elections. But they rarely win elections, and when they do, their tenure is usually brief (except in New Hampshire). If you want regular political influence, you’ve got to be in one of the two major political parties. History shows that if one of the two major parties disintegrates, another will rise to take its place, such as when the Republican Party rose from the ashes of the once powerful Whig Party.
LDS Church leaders regularly tell members to be politically active, but they refuse to take sides with parties or candidates (although they do occasionally take sides on issues). These facts together mean that most Mormons that follow the counsel to be politically active will choose to ally themselves more or less with one of the two major political parties.
That leaves the question of which party to go with. Utah used to vote more Democratic than Republican, but that began shifting many decades ago. The migration was gradual at first, but became more rapid in the wake of the social and political culture wars of the 60s and 70s. The counter culture came to represent the worst elements of society with its drugs, illicit sex, and general rebellious attitude. The method of delivery of its message of love and peace came across as repugnant to people with more traditional ideas of family and social structure. To stick it to Nixon and the Republicans, as well as to stop the war, Democrats co-opted the counter culture antiwar crowd. Whatever the pros or cons the Vietnam War, many religious people, including Mormons saw themselves at odds with the hippie culture, so the Democratic move to assimilate that culture caused many to lose affection for the party.
Then came Roe v. Wade. The battle over legalizing abortion had been working its way through various state legislatures so that a patchwork of laws on the matter existed across the country. There were well meaning people on both sides. Had the process been left to work itself out legislatively, matters would have homogenized over the next decade or so (with a few exceptions, of course). Enter the Supreme Court, mandating that abortion, which some believed to be infanticide, was now legal nationwide. Debate over!
But the debate is not over in the minds of the American people, so the matter has remained very public. Somehow the Democratic Party has come to adopt this single principle as the one defining issue that holds its various factions together. Even its most grisly forms are strongly defended. Unfettered access to abortion has become the Democratic Party’s Sacrament. Heretics that are not in lock step with this philosophy are not welcome. Even Senator Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who is LDS pussyfoots around the issue in public statements, but then does the bidding of the most strident abortion rights groups.
People that disagree with unfettered abortion on demand have difficulty aligning themselves with the Democratic Party. That means a wide swath of the LDS community. After the court’s decision, Mormons in Utah started defecting to the Republican Party in droves. This dynamic caught three-term Senator Frank Moss (D-UT) off guard, allowing upstart Republican political novice Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to win his seat in 1976.
Larry Eastland has attempted to empirically show (here) that the Roe decision is costing the Democratic Party voters. The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto has argued many times (for example, here) that overturning Roe would benefit Democrats by forcing moderation on both sides of the debate. Democrats would no longer be required to maintain untenable extreme positions, and Republicans would no longer be able to have it both ways (arguing one way in their rhetoric, but not having to really do anything about it). I suspect that Mormons would trickle back into the Democratic Party if the chilling effect of Roe became a thing of the past.
The world of work has changed substantially since WWII. While labor union supporters can argue all they want that unions are as necessary today as they were 100 years ago, nobody really believes it – except for government workers. Unions have diminished in every sector except for the government. Working conditions are generally pretty good compared to what unions were formed to address.
Meanwhile, Utah has long been stridently anti-union. Mormons, infused with a strong work ethic and the doctrine of stewardship, have not ginned with the concept of having an institutionalized adversarial relationship with their employers. Unions that once worked for better working conditions now fight for perks that end up stifling potential. Like it or not, labor unions have never become popular among U.S. Mormons. So the fact that the Democratic Party has long been the home of labor unions simply comes across as irrelevant to many Mormons.
Progressives often argue against the evils of big business. But many in the mainstream today are investors in big business with their 401k plans. That includes many Mormons. Why in the world would they want to ally themselves with a party that constantly comes across as anti-business? Their future retirement is riding on business performance. Yet another strike against the Democrats.
The Lesser of Two Evils
For many Mormons that want to obey the counsel to be politically active, these facts and others combine to create a Democratic Party in which they simply cannot find a home. Strident voices from the far left wing of the party don’t help much either. To be sure, Republicans have obnoxious voices on the far right, but these often come across as an over-emphasis (or a somewhat misguided emphasis) of various moral virtues, while the far left often comes across as anti-American, anti-family, and anti-religion. Unfortunately, these sentiments seem to find their way into the party’s mainstream as well. That leaves only one major party that even comes close to fitting the philosophies of many Mormons. They go to the Republicans by default.
Some progressives come across as arrogant when they argue that Mormons are dupes for voting so strongly Republican. This argument rings hollow in the face of research that shows that Mormons are better educated than the general public and that their religiosity tends to increase with the amount of education they receive. Mormons aren’t saps; they are simply choosing their best political option, even if that option isn’t that wonderful.
I think many Mormons are stunned to find Democrats like Congressman Jim Matheson (D-UT), who is more conservative than some Republicans and is often a reliable vote for conservative issues. They will vote for him, but they won’t join his party. They respect the fact that he is working to reform the party, but to them he is somewhat of an enigma. Tellingly, some mainstream Democrats find him an enigma as well.
Even with a changed Supreme Court, I doubt there will be any rush to overturn Roe v. Wade, so the abortion debate will continue to be framed by the most extreme views on both sides. While I have been critical of the Republican Congress, I don’t see that current events will lead Mormons to abandon the Republican Party. The Democrats simply aren’t currently offering a palatable alternative. So for the time being, regardless of whether it’s good or not, expect Mormons to continue to largely vote Republican.