Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Why Do U.S. Mormons Vote Mainly Republican?

I have recently had discussions with several acquaintances and have read several blogs that have centered on the same subject: why do Mormons largely vote Republican? It cannot be denied that this is actually the case, particularly along the Wasatch Front. In Utah state politics where the majority of voters are LDS, the Democratic Party is more like a third party, while the Republican Party sort of acts like the two main parties, loosely having a more conservative branch and a less conservative branch.

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.”

Fitting In
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.
  • Vietnam.
  • Roe v. Wade.
  • Diminished need for labor unions.
Two-Party System & LDS Political Activity
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.

Labor/Big Business
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.


Anonymous said...

I suspect I'm a rather unusual mormon, I personally fancy myself as a liberal. Not a modern liberal, but a classical liberal. A liberal that believes that liberal means freedom from the interference of government. A liberal that believes that liberal means that I should retain the vast majority of my income free from taxes. And yes, a liberal that believes that I should have the right to screw up my life. If that means eating 10 whoppers a day, using drugs, or selling one of my kidneys. Basically I want to have government stay out of my life, and simply guard our basic freedoms. In other words I tend libertarian.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Mark, thanks for pointing out that there is a difference between the modern term "liberal" and classic liberalism. My personal observation is that there are more than a few Mormons with a libertarian philosophy, but many of them vote mostly Republican. There is a branch of the Republican Party that really wants limited government. But there is another branch that is willing to use (abuse?) government to achieve "conservative" ends, even if it means violating the principles of limited government. To me, that's just another brand of big governmentism -- but it's a "conservative" brand rather than a "liberal" brand.

Anonymous said...

An interesting post, and you are probably right. And to an extent, I am Republican because they are the closest fit. However, for me it comes down to the anti-big government side of things. I like Mark (slam) want more freedom. But I do believe that there are some areas where government should control things (i.e., drugs, driving, etc.). thus, the Republican Party is a pretty good fit. I just wish that there would be true efforts (not just token bills) to limit the size of government.

Scott Hinrichs said...

I'm with you on the limited government theme. But the Republican's latest big successes -- NCLB, Medicare expansion -- run in the exact opposite direction. How do these programs differ from the liberal agenda for bigger, more intrusive government?

Unknown said...

Thank you for the well thought out post answering the main question. It really helped me to understand many of my friends in the Church a little better. I have NEVER been happy being "strapped" to one party...I vote for what I think are the best choices for leaders - often a VERY difficult decision, mainly because the choices are not good - not for the general tenets of one party or the other. Personally, I think the abortion issue should not bother Mormons so much. I sometimes shock fellow members with this concept, but when you think about it, we are actually taught that the Church is really's just that the choice needs to be made BEFORE conception, not after. Correct principles + free agency = right choices. Think about it. Yes, pro-life at the same time, but if we could just get the concept across, maybe there wouldn't be so many "abortions on demand." Making THAT tragedy so easily accessible is a problem, but the real problem is that bad choices are so often made and there are no consequences. Look at the stock market/bailout mess as a high-profile example. It's another story for another thread, but if we all (government included) lived within our means instead of on credit, how much better would things be??

Scott Hinrichs said...

Greg, thanks for your comments on personal responsibility. Unfortunately, it seems that both major parties have parted paths with this concept. Still, even in the current election cycle, one party has come across as pro-family while the other party has strongly ridiculed this ideal.

I voted all over the board this time. I even wrote in names where I could stomach none of the candidates. But many Americans understand that politics is a 'team sport.' As explained in my post, power is accrued at the team level. Therefore, many vote for the team more than for the individual player.

Some have said that this runs against the counsel in D&C 98:10 to seek diligently for good, wise, and honest candidates. But I can't bring myself to fault people that vote for the team of their choice when the opposing candidate(s) isn't/aren't notably superior to the team's candidate.

Emerson Ruskin said...

I am seriously thinking of leaving the Church after the obvious right wing radical agenda of the Church. I can't believe members can read Alma and come away anything but a socialist democrat. I want to serve the Church of Jesus Christ but it has left us again. I can't find it. The Spirit is gone.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Brother Ruskin, I can't believe that church members could read anything from recent prophets and come away with the idea that transferring one's liberties to a corrupt socialist secular state in the name of altruism is in line with the Lord's gospel. Doing so has been called "a substitute for true religion" and "a counterfeit of the gospel plan."

Government's only real power is coercion. Our nation's Founders understood this quite clearly. That's why they attempted to create bulwarks against government expansion. You cannot create a moral good through force. While you can mimic 'care' through such action, you cannot create virtue. I seem to remember that there was a guy in the pre-earth life that thought he could pull this off.

Secular government is not the road to salvation or to gospel living. True religion must come from choices freely and personally made to love and care for one's neighbors. Forcing others to 'care' for their fellowmen is the opposite of the gospel plan.

I would gently suggest to anyone that considers leaving the Lord's kingdom because his political views differ from those taught by the Lord's representatives has built his house upon a sandy foundation. He is certain that his politics are true, but he's not so certain that the church is true.

I would invite each person in such a condition to earnestly do the things that are constantly taught us that lead to building a secure testimony and to developing a close relationship with the Savior.

Emerson Ruskin said...

Reach upward... thanks for the thoughts. I am certain you are genuine. My issue is with the idea the Church has that the spiritually well are in need of fellowship while the sick are expendable. I remember the Lord saying he was eating with the sick because the well have no need of a physician. I hold to the axiom that government expansion is ONLY possible when we the people fail to take care of each other. We are our brothers keeper and the Church is acting more and more like the Levite that passed the beaten and robbed man because he was unclean. I am struggling with the fact that the good Samaritan did the better job... and he was not of the house of Israel.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Interesting thoughts. I can't help but think of the church members in my own ward that donated literally thousands of hours during this past year to help many people in need --- most of whom have no affiliation with the church. I also think of the varied needs addressed, including service to those who have made a mess of their lives through addiction. I particularly like the fact that little of this received any kind of public recognition. It was simply service rendered out of concern for one's fellowman.

It makes me wonder whether such efforts are occurring in your area or whether you are simply dissatisfied with the efforts that do occur.

Please note that each of us is commanded to be "anxiously engaged in a good cause" and "bring to pass much righteoussness" of our "own free will." Those that require compulsion to do their part are "slothful" and unwise.

The Good Samaritan exemplified this commandment. He was not part of a government program. Although, it could be argued that both the priest and Levite that passed by were part of such a program. I think this shows the folly in relying on government to do for our neighbors what we ourselves should personally be doing.

As Nephi foresaw, the church's numbers will always be minuscule in comparison to society at large. Thus, the church cannot ever meet the temporal needs of broader society. Coercive government encroachment can always be rationalized under the parameters you have outlined. And, as noted above, it can always be done under the rubric of virtue, although, it is the opposite of such.

Unknown said...

I believe that Mormons mainly vote Republican, is because Originally the Republican party was about political freedom and economic freedom. Meaning limited government(decentralized) and Capitalism (free markets). The personal values were also a part of the Republican party like, teaching a man to fish instead of feeding him fish, helping people to become self reliant. True liberals were also all about that. Modern day liberals are nothing more than Socialists who would have a strong centralized government controlling most facets of their lives. They seem to not want the self reliance and the responsibility for their own actions and lives. Too bad Milton Friedman wasn't Mormon and was actually Jewish. He was a genius along with the Scottish man Adam Smith. Both were brilliant economics geniuses.

Scott Hinrichs said...

I recently received a comment on this post that I previously would have responded to. However, as I noted in this December 2009 post, I have taken a break from political blogging. I may engage in it again at some future point, but I'm not doing so at this time.

I believe it would be inappropriate to post this particular comment and then not respond to it. Since I choose not to respond, I have also chosen not to post the comment.

Those who wish to comment further on this post's topic are free to create a post on their own blog site. Feel free to reference this post or its related comments if you wish.