According to the Pew Forum on Religion in American Life, about two-thirds of Mormons consider themselves conservative, and another eight percent upon that Republican. Unfortunately, for both the Mormons themselves and Americans in total, Mormons in America appear to fit the prevailing stereotype about religious people in politics: Today, too often, “religious” means simply a particularly virulent form of the slightly more numerous species of “intolerant social conservative” or “Republican.” This is the fault both of the political mobilization of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, in which religious people eagerly tried to cram God into the cramped box of American partisan politics, and of liberals who have come to see Christianity as primarily a political opponent and thus sneeringly dismiss centuries of profound truths about human nature and society. The term has been drained of the transcendent imagination which animated the Puritans and the civil rights movement alike.
A cursory reading of Mormonism’s involvement in politics in the past generation or two seems to fit this bill. It is easy to make Mormonism’s historical and theological inheritance fit into one political party or another. But it’s more valuable, and more important, to recognize the ways that it does not.
Recent events seem to show Mormonism moving in tandem with the rise of the religious right more generally, mobilized by social issues like abortion or gay marriage and gradually becoming single issue Republican voters. In 2008 the Mormon leadership urged its members toward involvement in the fight over Proposition 8 in California because the church opposes same-sex marriage. Whatever else may be true about it, Mormonism is possessed of vast depths of social capital, and the church turned out volunteers and individual donations in staggering numbers. Thirty years before the church mounted a similar campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment and likely tipped the scale against its passage. Similar, smaller campaigns against legalized gambling and other legislation on same-sex marriage dotted the eighties and nineties.
Of course, Mormonism’s past reveals a far more tortured and complicated relationship with American politics than this. Some recent commentaries have attempted to paint Mormon Republicans as hypocrites. After all, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young spent a lot of energy attempting to persuade their followers to abandon American capitalism in favor of Christian socialism of one variety or another. Brigham’s sermons offer no shortage of cranky denunciations of the capitalism he saw encroaching upon the religious settlements he’d built in Utah. Further, the Mormons spent half a century receiving drubbings from the hands of American government because they practiced a form of marriage most other Americans found distasteful and weird. Because American politics has bent the way that it has, it’s easy to pick tidbits from the Mormon past in order to argue that Mormons should be Democrats. There is of course a small but vocal faction of Mormon liberals who regularly perform this particular rhetorical ritual.
It would be just as easy, however, to sketch a historical argument on behalf of Mormon Republicanism. Despite repeated pleas from Joseph Smith, the federal government declined to intervene to stop persecution of the Mormons in Missouri in the 1830s. By the middle of the century Congress had passed laws banning polygamy. The Supreme Court ruled that these laws did not violate the First Amendment, and president after president sent federal marshals to enforce them. The Mormons have as good a reason as any American community to be suspicious of government, and long before the culture wars Mormon leaders were warning their people against the New Deal’s welfare programs, echoing Brigham Young’s calls for self-sufficiency, and generally affirming that government is at best a necessary evil. Similarly, though the Mormons indeed practiced polygamy they did so with all the rectitude they could muster. Most early Mormons were old Protestant stock, deeply invested in the stern Victorian morality of their age, and nineteenth century Mormon periodicals are full of side by side invocations of virtue, modesty, and chastity alongside stem-winding defenses of polygamy.
The point is that no religion can be properly understood if it’s forced into the narrow lens of American political positions. At its best religion is unexpected and prophetic. Spencer W. Kimball served as president of the LDS Church from 1973 to 1985. Before his accession to the presidency, he was an apostle – a member of the church’s second highest governing body. In the 1950s and 1960s he helped shape the church’s nascent policy on homosexuality, writing tracts denouncing its sinfulness in language harsh even for the time. He also spearheaded the church’s outreach to Native Americans, drawing on Mormonism’s particular theology tying America’s indigenous inhabitants to God’s covenant people to both combat the poverty on the reservations while proposing that Native children be raised by white families.
After he became president of the church within a several month span in the late 1970s Kimball both directed the church’s campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment and revoked the policy which prevented Mormons of African descent from full participation in the Mormon priesthood. In 1981 Kimball’s administration announced opposition to a Reagan Administration plan to build a missile base in Utah, reproving the president’s embrace of Cold War militarism. Kimball’s sermons and writings denounced in scathing terms both sexual immorality and hunting for sport, both jingoism and drinking alcohol, both capitalism and communism.
Spencer W. Kimball, in short, had no coherent political position. He would alternatively inspire and horrify today’s progressives, and prove an inconsistent and frustrating ally to the American right. And this is as it should be. Mormonism is not so simple as a quirky version of American conservatism, and both Mormons themselves and their fellow Americans would do well to notice.
Matthew Bowman is a visiting assistant professor of religion at Hampden Sydney College and the author of The Mormon People: the making of an American faith. His work regularly appears in Slate, The New Republic, and other venues.