Mormons and American politics, with David E. Campbell and J. Quin Monson [MIPodcast #56]
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. As the 2016 Presidential Election in the United States approaches the deep red state of Utah is surprising pundits. For the first time in over fifty years the state is poised to vote for someone other than the Republican nominee. Mormons within the Republican party have been singled out for a significant reason Utah is looking elsewhere. So it’s useful to ask how the things get to this point?
Throughout its existence members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have seen themselves as a peculiar people. At the same time, they’ve worked hard to fit in with their broader American culture. These goals require a lot of balancing.
Political Scientist J. Quin Monson and David E. Campbell have written about this balancing act in their book Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics. We’re talking about it today on the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Questions and comments about this and other episodes can be sent to email@example.com.
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I’m joined today by David E. Campbell and J. Quin Monson talking about their book Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics. Thanks for joining us today, David.
DAVID E. CAMPBELL: Great! It’s great to be here.
HODGES: And Quin Monson is also joining us. He’s here at Brigham Young University. Quin, thank you also for joining us today.
J. QUIN MONSON: Glad to be here.
HODGES: We’re talking today about their book Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you both about this book here is because obviously we’re in the middle of the election so it’s a timely subject. But also the book is going to be reviewed in the next issue of the Mormon Studies Review. Molly Worthen, who is a friend of the Maxwell Institute Podcast way back in episode eight, has contributed a really intriguing review of this book and a few other books on Mormons and politics in the next volume of the Mormons Studies Review. So people will definitely want to check that out.
It’s an interesting day for this conversation today because we just had the third presidential debate last night and we’re recording this the day after. So, before we dig into the book, you guys, I wanted to put you on the spot and get your election predictions here. We’re two weeks away from the 2016 Presidential Election. So, what are you seeing right now?
MONSON: You want a prediction state-by-state, or just an overall, here, Blair? [laughs]
HODGES: Let’s go county by county then state by state.
MONSON: Got it.
HODGES: Oh, yeah. Yeah, just kind of general election-wise, what do you see happening nationwide? What the trends are?
MONSON: The trend is toward Hillary Clinton. I’m a big believer in allowing the polling data and other indicators drive my perceptions on what’s going to happen. Aand right now she’s going to win in a landslide. The fact that you have states in play haven’t been in play for quite a number of years is an indicator of just how the ugly Donald Trump is going to lose.
CAMPBELL: I would add that I think the question now is not “who’s going to win the election,” but “what is going to happen to the Republican party after President Clinton is inaugurated.” And that is an open question and I think there are lots of different directions the party could go.
MONSON: And after the debate last night, how quickly Donald Trump concedes and what his supporters do as a result.
HODGES: Yeah. It’s been really interesting to watch the numbers. One of Trump’s big talking points right now is kind of questioning poll data, or cherry picking poll data. And I think most political candidates sort of look at the polls that favor them generally, but in terms of their reliability, the kind of polls that people see say on like CNN or something versus something like FiveThirtyEight, do you have any thoughts about the relative accuracy of those type of polls?
MONSON: Well, they differ a lot in terms of their methodology and I would quibble about methodology more in a different context, but when every single poll is basically pointing in the same direction it’s hard to get to specific about methodology at that point. No matter how you do it he’s losing and he’s losing big, so.
CAMPBELL: Yeah. So, I mean, there’s one argument out there that there are perhaps more Trump supporters than we’re seeing in the data because people are “shy Trumpsters,” which is a play on a term in Britain the Shy Torries. I would first of all note, one thing about Donald Trump supporters is they don’t strike me as an especially shy group of people, but secondly, if that were true then you might expect to see differences between online polls where you’re just interacting with a computer versus telephone polls where we actually talking to another human being. We don’t see that difference. If anything actually, the differences are on the support for Hillary not for the support for Trump. So there’s really no reason to think that there is some sort of systematic bias in the polling.
HODGES: Hmm. So let’s dig right into the book, then. This book is called Seeking the Promised Land. But I think it is until the tenth and final chapter that you really directly explain what that title suggests. So I thought we would start there. When it comes to Mormons and American politics, what is the promised land that you think Mormons are seeking, Quin?
MONSON: Well, I think the promised land is the sort of sweet spot between distinctiveness and acceptance. And that’s been a struggle for Mormons in terms of remaining distinctive in a way that allows the tradition to flourish, and also being accepted in a way that allows not only proselytizing into flourish but just generally to get along with neighbors. It’s the “being in the world but not of the world” kind of a sweet spot.
HODGES: David, what would you add to that sort of description of seeking the promised land?
CAMPBELL: I think I would add is that for many Mormons I think they aspire to the kind of place in American society and culture that other religious groups have achieved. And Catholics actually might be the primary case here. Catholics were once very much reviled in the United States but that’s changed. Now Catholicism is widely accepted. It’s not really a controversial faith. We could perhaps discuss whether or not Catholicism has truly retained its distinctiveness and so there might actually be a warning there for Mormons who are concerned about becoming too mainstream and losing what it is that makes Mormonism vital. But I think for many Mormons they would look across religious landscape and say, “Well, there are other groups out there that seem to have accomplished this. We would like to be like them.”
HODGES: You mentioned Catholicism, this is an interesting comparison because Anti-Catholicism and Anti-Mormonism were pretty similar early on in the life of the United States—though Mormonism grew up a little bit later on—but it’s this idea that Catholics were somehow really beholden to the Pope or to their church itself as opposed to the country., and this question of loyalty. But it seems like after John F. Kennedy it’s become much more focused in on particular issues such as the Catholic position on abortion. So, if there’s a Catholic candidate, an opponent might focus on particular issues rather than the identity of a Catholic. Is that an accurate sort of view that I have?
MONSON: I think that is entirely accurate. It’s actually striking that in the 1960 presidential campaign when Kennedy’s Catholicism was an issue, abortion was not. That was a pre- Roe v. Wade America. And so, it wasn’t that Kennedy was ducking the issue. It’s that it really wasn’t on the agenda at the time.
I think it’s very telling just to again stick with the Catholic parallel that we’ve seen in this race, Tim Kane, very prominently discusses Catholicism on the left. In previous races we’ve also had Catholics talking about their Catholicism on the right, so think of Paul Ryan back in 2012. But then, of course, we also have Joe Biden on the left. So, the fact that we have Catholicism being openly discussed by political candidates on both sides of the political spectrum is really quite striking. Mormonism is not quite there yet. It’s still too controversial a faith for somebody to really want to put front and center a candidate and it certainly can’t claim to be bipartisan if that’s the right word, or at least to have factions on both sides of the political spectrum the way that Catholics do.
CAMPBELL: I’d just add to that that I think Catholics have sort of mainstreamed and become more accepted, but at the same time going back to the other side of the promised land, they’ve lost some of that distinctiveness and I think that the tradition itself is struggling in terms of having enough priests, having churches that are full on Sunday, and so on. So, that’s the balance, right? That’s the difficulty.
MONSON: I mean, even Notre Dame’s football team they’re only 2 and 5 this year! I mean, it’s just an embarrassment.
HODGES: Yes, excellent. But let’s talk about the distinctiveness factor. So we’ve been talking about this idea of Mormonism wanting to retain its distinctive nature. And one of the things that the book explores is this idea of an “ethno-religious group.” I think the scriptural phrase that Mormons might use would be “a peculiar people,” but being good social scientists you guys bring in the jargon with an ethno-religious group. So David maybe you can unpack that term a little bit. Describe what you mean when you’re describing Mormons as an ethno-religious group.
CAMPBELL: Sure. Well, the meaning of the term is essential that, Mormons are clearly a religious group but they’re a little bit more than that. So think of them as a religious group “plus.” In a way that differentiates them from say Presbyterians or Methodists, which are clearly religions but don’t also have what we describe as the subculture that you find within Mormonism. So, to be a Mormon is actually more than just simply where you worship on Sunday. It has just as much to do with an overall worldview. It has a lot to do with the people you hang out with and your mating preferences and the culture you consume, the pictures you hang on your wall, even the language you use when speaking about many things. All of that is kind of wrapped up together in this subculture that we say borders on being an ethnic group.
We don’t want to go so far as to say Mormons are an ethnic group because, obviously, one can convert to Mormonism in a way that you can’t convert to becoming another ethnicity. But there are all the trappings of an ethnic group within Mormonism. It’s just that ethnicity is defined in religious terms rather than through your bloodline, or through the color of your skin, or through other cultural aspects of your life.
HODGES: Quin, what are some of those characteristics that would mark an ethnic group and that would also mark Mormonism? I’m thinking of things like high internal solidarity, high external tension, those type of things.
MONSON: One thing that comes to mind for me is just the unique language that Mormons use. We seem to invent our own words for things that other religions have in common. So, if you just think of the kind of adjustment you’d have to make if you showed up to a Mormon congregation, right? You’d learn to call out a ward and a stake, and so some of the offices are in common but used differently.
And then the way we talk about scripture and testimony and other things. And then just other cultural elements, from green Jell-O to everything else that makes Mormon culture distinctive. So I think there is something to the idea that if you were in a crowded airport and a Mormon family walks by and you are a Mormon and you know what those markers are, you could probably guess, right? And they have some things in common with other faith traditions—Evangelicals is probably the closest one. But there are still a bunch of markers that make Mormons different and you can sort to pick them out.
HODGES: Another thing you also talk about is some of the theological principles that set up tensions. I’m thinking of the boundaries that you talk about, this idea of “the sacred tabernacle” Mormons exist within. There are these boundaries that set it apart from other groups. Two really particular ones—one of them secular and one of them religious. David, can you expand on that?
CAMPBELL: Sure. Let me first just take a moment and explain the metaphor of the sacred tabernacle. I’m guessing that many listeners will be familiar with the term tabernacle but when we invoke that what we’re actually referring to is a concept from a sociologist named Peter Berger from a book written about forty years ago in which he spoke of the “sacred canopy,” the idea that there are religious societies that are covered by a canopy of a common faith.
That idea was then picked up by one of my colleagues here at Notre Dame, Christian Smith, when writing about Evangelicals in which he said, “Well, Evangelicals, they don’t have the concept of the sacred canopy but instead they have sacred umbrellas”—A very personal item, kind of religion that they just carry around in their own heads. They work out their own beliefs and it doesn’t really have a communal aspect to it.
Mormons, on the other hand, are in between. So Mormonism doesn’t span an entire nation, but if you’re part of Mormonism you’re part of a community, and the communal aspect of Mormonism is extremely important in understanding Mormons as a group.
Now, given that Mormons are a distinctive group and not just a series of individuals and it has this subcultural idea, this ethno-religious idea, that presents tension as you describe along what we call two fronts. We somewhat tongue in cheek refer to the “two-front war” the Mormons are fighting. On the one hand, Mormons distinguish themselves from those or other faiths. Mormonism is the “one true church,” and it’s difficult the engage in ecumenical activities when you are claiming absolute truth in contrast to other religions. But Mormonism is also very keen to distinguish itself from secular society and in fact probably in recent years that’s been the greater emphasis on the part of the church, that we as Mormons hold a particular set of beliefs, and that’s in contrast in what you would find from a secular worldview. And so Mormonism is constantly engaging on both fronts so that it can emphasize what makes it distinctive among other religions and then also as a subculture what makes a distinctive from secularism.
HODGES: Quin, I’ve heard it said that some of the boundary marking that happens between the church and secularism, because it’s part of identity politics, can also be risk being exaggerated. What do you think about that possibility?
MONSON: In exaggerated in what way?
HODGES: So, one person I was talking to in particular was talking about how Mormonism benefits so much from secular culture, from the idea of separation of church and state, the idea of freedom of religion, all the advances of modern society, and technology, medicine and all these things. So, when we talk about “the world,” so to speak, Mormons are sort of contrasting themselves with it but also reaping a lot of benefits from it and maybe not focusing on those better elements of secularism when they talk about what makes them different.
MONSON: Well, I guess I would come back to the idea of again seeking the promised land and the tension between distinctiveness and acceptance. So, I would say that you hear these boundaries being set up between the church and secular society by our own leadership, and I think part of that is an effort to accentuate this distinctiveness in a way that allows the tradition to flourish and be more cohesive and so on. And so this is where, if you look back through history, through Mormon history in particular, right, you see a different emphasis on different doctrinal elements that make us distinctive. Where at the beginning of church history we didn’t emphasize the Word of Wisdom. That was only later where it became not wisdom but sort of a requirement, right, for temple attendance and so on. And that’s I think one indication among many of the church’s effort to mark these boundaries and make the church more distinctive.
The latest one in my mind is this heavy emphasis on religious freedom, where ten years ago it was all about traditional marriage. That battle has been lost in the Supreme Court and the emphasis has been turned to religious freedom. And we hear a lot of talks in terms of the political rhetoric that comes from our church leaders about maintaining those boundaries and allowing for religions to be treated fairly in the public square and so on.
HODGES: Do you see that shift, that pivot from focusing that much on the family to focusing on religious freedoms, as directly tied to the idea of traditional marriage? You see it is a natural outgrowth of the Supreme Court ruling?
MONSON: I see it as a natural outgrowth in the sense of there’s no point to talking about traditional marriage any longer because that battle is over. The Supreme Court is the last word. There’s no reason to keep pushing that, and then church leaders seeing the danger elsewhere in terms of where the boundary could be eroded and pushing in that direction.
HODGES: Alright. I think we still hear quite a bit about family as well. I’m just thinking in terms of—I just thought it was really interesting, this idea of a shift or almost a tactical shift that you’re kind of talking about as really interesting. And it’s a lot of speculation too obviously. So it’s really hard to pin that kind of—that’s kind of a tough question.
But going back to this idea of the sacred tabernacle, Quin, you talk about how Mormons have an usually high level of religiosity in this book. And you’ve conducted polls to sort of gauge that religiosity. So, let’s talk a little bit about how you went about determining that Mormons have comparatively high levels of religiosity.
MONSON: Sure. We use data from the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life and there’s a great survey there called The Religious Landscape Survey, where they interview several thousand Americans and ask them detailed questions about their religious denomination, affiliation, and then all sorts of questions about religious behavior and religious beliefs. And it allows you—the nice thing about it is they get enough Mormons to make a comparison along with other religious traditions. And so we take all of the religious belief and behavioral items and create a big table of the percent of each tradition that does stuff like believe in God, and believe in life after death, and belief in different statements, along with going to church every week and reading scripture and so on.
And what you see very clearly is that in case after case in terms of both belief and behavior Mormons are at the top, the group that is the most homogeneous in their belief and the most religiously active in their behavior. And there’s only a very small number of things where we lose out narrowly to some other tradition. And that’s just to say that Mormons are just very religious. They have high levels of religiosity compared to other traditions.
CAMPBELL: Just to sort of accentuate what Quin is saying, what is really remarkable about these statistics is, remember, these are questions that are asked of members of all religious traditions. And so, in some cases the questions don’t quite match up with the language that Mormons themselves use—going back to our earlier point that there’s a unique vernacular within Mormonism—and in spite of that, Mormons still—they know what they’re—they hear different language but they’re able to make the translation and nonetheless come out on top in so many of these measures.
HODGES: What kind of particular behaviors or being looked at? I mean, you’ve talked about some beliefs, Quin, you talked about belief in God or in an afterlife and that sort of thing. What type of religious behaviors of these polls looking for, and is there a danger that it can be Christian-centric?
MONSON: Well, it’s certainly Christian-centric. But I think that America is Christian-centric. So, I’m not too worried about that. And we only compare them to other Christian traditions. And so, but it’s attending church, reading scriptures, praying, volunteering through the church, attending social activities at church, being an official member of your church, participating in prayer or scripture study groups or religious education programs, and then even things like meditating. Mormons come out at a high level! I don’t think we talk about meditation all that much in those terms. But you could think, what’s the term that Mormons would think about? Oh, they might think of pondering, right, or some such word like that, and they would translate that into the question and say, “Yeah. I probably ponder about the scriptures. And so, I’ll count it. I meditate. Yes.”
HODGES: The surveys that you talk about in the book also show that Mormons have a remarkable degree of unity on a lot of these issues. I think a lot of people would assume that already. I should mention too, all three of us are members of the LDS Church. A co-author of the book who’s not with us today, John C. Green, he’s not a Latter-day Saint but he assisted on this book. So just to let people know all three of us are Latter-day Saints.
But you also talk about some internal diversity in addition to the remarkable unity that you find. Let’s talk a little bit about that. There are different sort of areas in which Mormons differ from each other internally. I’m thinking of when you talk about activity, authority, identity and insularity. David, why don’t you talk a little bit about the internal diversity question?
CAMPBELL: Sure. So as you noted, the first thing to keep in mind about Mormons is that relative to most other religious traditions, Mormons are a remarkably cohesive group. However, given that, we still do find variation among Mormons. Not every Mormon agrees on everything. So not a lot of disagreement on kind of the fundamentals of the faith, “was the Book of Mormon of divine origin?” “Was Joseph Smith a prophet?” Those sorts of things. But you do find differences on, for example, how it is that Mormons should reconcile the idea that they are to follow their leaders on the one hand, but then they’re also to exercise their own free agency on the other. And so, you find some Mormons will strike that balance in different ways.
You mentioned one of the key features of Mormonism—going back to this idea of their subcultural identity—what we call insularity. Some Mormons, they essentially live in a Mormon cocoon. They are married to a fellow Mormon. They associate primarily in their friendship networks with other Mormons, and so they very much live in a Mormon world. Other Mormons, however, are not so centered in Mormonism in the other aspects of their life. And that’s an interesting difference that we see across Mormons. So basically the way I would characterize the overall picture of Mormons is that, a lot of cohesiveness, some variation, and variation that turns out to be quite important if you want to understand what Quin, John, and I are primarily—I think—driven by, which is how do Mormons behave politically.
MONSON: Let me just add, Blair, that the one thing that is, I think, probably of interest to a lot of your listeners is—we only spend a page or two on it in the book—but I find people bring it up especially in Utah. And that is the difference between Mormons in Utah and outside of Utah. And it turns out, we looked and looked for differences there and we didn’t find much, which explains why we didn’t spend a lot of time on it in the book. There wasn’t much to talk about. In hindsight, I wish we had spent a little more time explaining that there weren’t a lot of differences because it seems to be something that is unconvincing to a number of people [laughing]. When we talk to people about it they want to push back and say “Oh, but I see differences!”
There aren’t big differences in the data we have, except for on the question of insularity. Mormons in Utah have a lot more Mormons in their social circles than Mormons outside of Utah, which is to be a completely expected, right? That’s not surprising at all. But in every other way in terms of religious belief and behavior and political belief and behavior we were unable to uncover much difference, if any.
The only difference that’s even meaningful, that I would say beyond the Utah difference, is a really intriguing difference between Mormons and former Mormons that comes up, right? So the Pew data has a question about what church you were raised in, and we’re able to isolate people that were raised as Mormons and no longer identified. And it turns out they are different. They sort of regress back to a more secular or more sort of standard American cultural norm.
HODGES: Yeah. I thought that part was really interesting, too. I’ve lived outside of Utah in the United States, and I was raised here in Utah, I live in Utah now, and I see differences in the way I experience the church. But I think some of those are directly related to just being in an environment where there are fewer members of the church. I’m interacting a lot more with non-Mormons, and I think that can carry over into the way that church meetings play out, the kind of discussions that are had in church meetings, and so forth. So, it’s interesting that the data didn’t particularly tease out some of those differences because if—
MONSON: Yeah. Those subtle differences that you notice and I think I’ve noticed too don’t have large consequences for religious belief, behavior, or politics.
HODGES: Yeah. It’s really interesting that these are some of the things that data can’t capture. Some of the things about social scientific approaches that are more quantitative and try to get at the quality but that don’t always get some of these particular things.
The other thing about religious solidarity I wanted to mention as well and I’ll ask you about this Quin because you hinted out it earlier is that the LDS Church has also shown a capacity to adjust over time. And this is important. You mentioned the differences between early Mormons not really emphasizing the Word of Wwisdom as much and that sort of becoming a key identity marker later on in the early 20th century. So talk a little bit about the importance of that capacity to adjust.
MONSON: Well, I think for me what it means is, it’s the kind of thing that allows the church to adjust to the broader culture in a way that it’s able to maintain the boundary, maintain some distinctiveness. I think that’s a real purpose that it serves. I think about it in terms of sociology of religion literature that talks about things like strictness of religious traditions, and the way that religions have to adapt or adjust in order to attract new members and maintain their sort of vibrancy. And I see that Mormon theology—because we believe in a modern prophet and we believe in the continuing revelation—that allows for an adjustment that allows this distinctiveness to be maintained.
HODGES: I think, speaking with a lot of members of the church when we talk about this capacity to adjust, it’s not something that’s culturally emphasized very much. So it seems like an unusual idea. Consider the people that I go to church with every week in my ward who maybe aren’t on the blogs, they’re not listening to the podcast, they’re not part of these sort of wider discussions and I think this idea of the church adjusting would seem almost foreign. There’s a sense that the gospel is eternal and doesn’t change. Did you see any of that in some of the numbers that you all ran?
CAMPBELL: Well, not in a specific way. We didn’t ask questions about whether people perceive the church as having changed in any respect over time. But I do think it’s fair to say anecdotally, consistent with your impression, that to some Mormons it would be a little unsettling to say that, “yeah, actually the church changes, or at least it changes what it emphasizes over time,” until they stop and think about it and say “well obviously there have been changes, big ones, polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, come to mind.” But in more subtle ways that I think actually are in the culture even if they’re not in the forefront of most Mormons’ minds. And this is not unusual that people can carry conflicting ideas around in their heads. So many Mormons can reflect on a time when Primary songs, just to take one small example, Primary songs used to be a lot more secular than they are now.
CAMPBELL: And so, we had a little stream that told us to give. That song would not be written now. It’s still, we hold on to it because so many people have such a fondness for it, but if you look at the new Primary or the newish Primary songbook versus what was used decades ago, Primary is just a different thing. Well, there is another example of the church kind of shoring up one part of its doctrinal emphasis through what it’s teaching to children through song in a way that is different than what was done in the past.
Now that’s a very minor example. The Word of Wisdom would be a more dramatic example, changes in the temple garment or in the temple ceremony itself would be still more dramatic examples. So chang is out there even if it’s not something that Mormons themselves emphasize and your typical sacrament meeting talk. Because usually the theme is the gospel stays the same.
MONSON: And it’s constantly happening in a way that accumulates quite a bit over time, right? So I could point to several examples even over the past two or three years of things that have changed in relation to how to youth are taught, how Sunday school proceeds, right, where we’re constantly…
HODGES: Just thinking of the place of women in the church—
MONSON: Yeah, sure. We’re constantly adjusting. Whether the General Women’s Meeting is part of a General Conference or not. Little statements here or there, right? that if you go back and sort of add them up, there’s a quite bit of adjustment happening.
HODGES: Yeah. It’s really interesting, the section in the book on perceptions of women and the proper role of women, and your surveys have noticed how that’s changed over time. The idea that women should primarily be homemakers in the home. Almost an open stigma against working outside of the home, and we’re seeing some relaxed attitudes on that, recognition of women working outside of the home, that being something that women can do. And your data kind of shows how Mormon attitudes have shifted on those questions over time.
CAMPBELL: They’ve shifted, but it is important to note that on that question of gender roles Mormons are highly distinctive compared to both “the world,” secular society, but also members of other religious traditions. So Mormons are truly outliers in the percentage who do endorse the traditional idea of the woman at home as a homemaker and the husband out as the breadwinner, even if things are changing.
HODGES: Do you remember—The number I have in mind is around seventy percent—Like there was a twenty percent drop in Mormon perceptions but there was like a forty percent drop in the rest of the culture. Something like that where, yeah, attitudes generally in the country shifted radically. And Mormonism also shifted, but I think you project that it would take until 2020 before Mormonism gets to the point—like Mormonism right now attitudinally is where the country was in like 1980 or something like that.
CAMPBELL: That’s exactly right.
HODGES: Yeah. That was a fascinating part. People that check out the book, Seeking the Promised Land can kind of dig into more of these numbers. It’s hard to do graphs and charts over the podcast so people will be able to dig more into the numbers if they pick up a copy of the book.
CAMPBELL: And really, why stop at one copy? Go ahead and buy a bunch. Give them out to your friends, your neighbors!
MONSON: The holidays are coming.
HODGES: Holidays are coming up, and if you buy the book you don’t even really have to read it. [h/t to John Hodgman.]
HODGES: …Owning it is, you know…
MONSON: Just having it on your shelf is…
MONSON: …cache enough. That’s right.
HODGES: Exactly. Exactly. We’re talking today with David E. Campbell. He’s a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. We’re also talking with Quin Monson. He’s here at Brigham Young University, an associate professor of political science. And together with John C. Green they wrote the book Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics.
So we’ve covered part one of the book which talks about Mormon distinctiveness and the solidarity of Mormonism and the tension that is set up between Mormons and wider culture—and that’s between Mormons and other religions and also Mormons and secular cultures. So, part two of the book then gets into the political implications of this.
Chapter four presents a brief overview of LDS political party affiliations over time. I think a lot of people today—including Mormons ourselves—will be surprised to learn that the church has not always found such a welcome home in the Republican party. So let’s spend a little bit of time on that history. David, why don’t you dig into that a little bit?
CAMPBELL: Sure. It’s actually remarkable that the Republican party was founded to stamp out the “twin evils of barbarism,” one of which was slavery and the other was polygamy. And there was only one group in the United States at the time that was practicing polygamy so it was very much an Anti-Mormon statement. And that was back in the 1850s and clearly Mormons got over that.
So clearly because of that history when Utah first became a state it was a staunchly democratic state, not surprisingly. Why would Mormons vote for this party that wanted to basically stamp out their religion? But things began to change relatively quickly. And so we went through a period of time through the twentieth century where Mormons as a group were somewhat a split vote. They were kind of bipartisan. So we had the rank-and-file of the church who were primarily democrats. We had lots of church leaders who were Republicans. Of course, a lot of church leaders come out of business and not surprisingly lots of business people end up on the Republican side of the aisle.
So, it really wasn’t until we hit the post-war era that we begin to see the movement sharply into the Republican column among Mormons. And that kind of accelerates once we get into the 70s, the 80s, until we reach the period that we have now where Mormons are predominantly Republican. But it hasn’t always been the case, it didn’t happen all at once, and it didn’t follow the same pattern as it has for other groups.
So, for example, we often speak of Southern Evangelicals shifting to the Republican party. Well, that happened, but not in exactly the same way that it did from Mormons, which suggests that there might be slightly different reasons the Mormons were moving to the Republican party than other groups were.
HODGES: It’s a quick but fascinating part of the book. I mean, you start off with Joseph Smith’s era where Mormons are sort of courting public parties—there’s Whigs, there’s Democrats. Mormons are sort of trying to find where they fit in in terms of what could benefit and protect them politically, so there’s this era of courting parties. Then there’s this exclusion era, Mormons leave the country, they set up their Great Basin Kingdom. There’s a lot of antagonism toward the United States. There’s polygamy, the Republican party is established in part to say “we’re going to abolish the twin relics of barbarism, polygamy, and slavery. Mormons aren’t going to join the party at that point.
And then you talk about this re-involvement, where Mormons begin to re-engage at the turn of the century. And also, the book didn’t talk too much about this but I wanted to get your thoughts on this maybe Quin you can touch on this, the idea that the political parties themselves were shifting as well, right? So B. H. Roberts was a Democrat at the turn of the century but he was opposed to women’s suffrage, right?
MONSON: Well, and I would say the part where the most shifting begins to occur is posted World War II where…
HODGES: So it’s after B.H.? It’s later on…
MONSON: I think so. Yeah. I think that’s where we have the most data and we’re well equipped to see the shift. The shift from a more balanced two-party Mormonism early in the 20th century to a heavily Republican Mormonism in the present day began really in the post-World War II era, and there’s this sort of steady uptick that happens from election to election as the percent voting Republican just gradually increases. And I think it’s partially the rhetoric of the parties and partially the rhetoric of church leaders that helps Mormons align with the party.
So as the parties become more distinctive in terms of things like communism, and then you get into the 60s and all of the sexual revolution kind of issues, and then abortion in the 70s, and then families and gay marriage in the 80s and 90s and to the present day. The parties become distinctive on those issues, right, where the political parties didn’t have different platforms on abortion in the 60s, by the 80s they do, right? Where the presidential candidates didn’t have different views on gay marriage in the 80s or even in the 90s or even in the 2000s, they later do, right? And as the parties become more distinctive and the church leaders make more emphasis on those social issues, it pushes and pulls Mormons into their Republican party over time.
HODGES: So when Mormons were initially Democrats way back when, what was it about the Democratic Party that drew Mormons in? Was it mostly because Republicans were so anti-Mormon, or what sort of political ideas in the Democratic party of that era appealed to Mormons?
CAMPBELL: It’s actually important to know that Utah—we take Utah as sort of the bellwether for Mormons at the time—Utah was not unusual and certainly by no means unique in its support, for example in 1896 ,for William Jennings Bryan who was a Democrat and a populist very much. Remember, Utah was an agrarian state. The Democrats of the time were the party of the farmers. And so, it would make perfect sense that Mormons, this agrarian group, would line up with the largely agrarian party. Now, their animus toward the Republicans was I think kind of a booster shot, [laughs] it kind of amplified that, but even without the Republican anti-Mormon sentiment at the time, I think you still would have likely found most Mormons identifying as voting for Democrats.
HODGES: Okay, good. Yeah. That’s what I’m looking for. So, one of the things that I wanted to talk about as well is this idea about how Mormons sort of have aligned heavily with the Republican party and we’ll talk about that a little bit more in just a moment.
But before that, there’s part of the book where you talked about how Mormons report not hearing about politics in church as frequently as other religious traditions do. I think that was really interesting to me, because I wonder if those numbers could be divided according to party affiliations. So democratic Mormons are obviously in a clear minority in the church, but I wonder if they would have a higher reportage of hearing about politics at church. Because there’s also the possibility of dog whistling, and sort of political ideas that are expressed in religious language. How did you reckon with that as look at these numbers?
CAMPBELL: We don’t see big differences between Mormon Democrats and Mormon Republicans in reporting the absence of—And I want to be clear that the question asks about overt politicking. So you’re specifically asked whether or not you’re encouraged to vote for a particular candidate, or whether there are voter guides made available. That kind of stuff which Mormons clearly do not do. But anyone who’s familiar with Mormon culture knows that there’s a lot of politically relevant stuff that is said over the pulpit in Sacrament meeting, by the Gospel Doctrine teacher. It works its way into Sunday school lessons for the youth [laughs], et cetera, et cetera.
It’s just not phrased in terms of, “Brothers and sisters, we need to go out and vote for so-and-so.” It’s phrased in terms of, “Brothers and sisters, we need to remember the importance of self-sufficiency. We need to remember the importance of not incurring debt.” The sort of things that will line up well with positions that politicians will take, even if they aren’t put into overtly political terms. And certainly the emphasis on traditional marriage is very much so. Every time I hear a sermon on that, it’s obviously going to favor the Republicans.
MONSON: And when it is overtly political, it’s explicitly non-partisan. But it still has implications. So just let me give you a brief personal example. Back in the spring, before the political caucus meetings were held in Utah, I was asked in my home stake to speak at a fireside about civility, and civility in politics and elsewhere.
It was overtly political in that sense. I was one of two speakers. I gave a talk about the importance of civility and drew on a bunch of material from Mormon Newsroom and other places that emphasizes that. And what are the political implications of that? Who was the candidate being the most uncivil at the time?
MONSON: I mean it was pretty obvious, right? It was obvious to me what was going on. And who took third place in the Utah Caucuses back in March? It was Donald Trump, right? So you know, I wasn’t asked to give a talk about the incivility of Donald Trump.
MONSON: But the timing of the topic and the event had clear political implications.
CAMPBELL: Blair, if I can just throw in that when I speak about our findings to non-Mormon audiences—just as to Mormon audiences, the fact that we don’t find a difference between Utah Mormons and mission field Mormons is a surprise, and we get pushback on it. To non-Mormon audiences, the thing I get pushback on is this claim that there’s very little politicking going on within Mormon congregations, because there is this perception that there’s a lot of that going on. How else could this group turn out to be so monolithically Republican? And everyone remembers Proposition 8, and the Mormons are highly mobilized on that.
And of course, the answer is “well, they could be highly mobilized on that issue and occasionally on other issues because there’s not a lot of politicking in a church.” If you go to a mainline Protestant church, you hear about politics all the time. It’s a little bit like hearing about home teaching in your typical Mormon ward. It’s just kind of rolls over people [laughs]. They don’t hear it, any given message, because it’s just so common. You tune it out.
HODGES: That’s why I was going to say, if the question was extended more broadly than the more pointed thing you’re talking about, I do suspect that Mormon Democrats would still report hearing more about politics at church than Republicans do, just because of the sort of dog whistling that can happen.
But you mentioned political mobilization and the book talks about Mormons being like dry kindling. They’re ready to be ignited to take political action. But you note that more recently, the actions that Mormons are often prompted to take fall sort of on the conservative side of the line. And you note that this could actually pose some problems for a church that’s seeking to increase its membership or seeking a diverse membership. So Quin, maybe you can talk a little bit about that issue. Political mobilization and some of the problems that can occur with that.
MONSON: Well the problems that can occur are I guess going back are related to these boundaries and to the idea of trying to be distinctive in a way that it allows the religion to flourish. And again, there is a sweet spot, that if you cross over and get too overtly involved on the secular side, then you risk some alienation, right? From potential converts or at least public relations problems.
And in that sense, the church’s involvement in Proposition 8 in California is a good example of thinking about how that probably served to make the church friends with other religious groups that were like-minded. I think part of the reason that the church got involved in the first place was an overt request on the part of the Catholics to come and help, right? And that those relationships were strengthened. But the cost on the other side was some alienation of secular people in California and around the country who saw it as too much involvement, too overt, and saw a powerful religious group coming in and interfering in a way that they didn’t appreciate.
And so I think, again, there’s a real balance there, where the church’s power to mobilize can have positive and negative consequences. I think the power is the most positive in cases that are not as overtly political. So putting on yellow vests and helping clean up after a hurricane is something that I think is pretty universally viewed as a good thing, right? But when you get involved in a divisive ballot issue, then, of course, you’re going to have detractors and they’re going to hit back.
HODGES: There’s also—not just externally but internally, and I’m thinking [laughs] to borrow a phrase from Mitt Romney, do your numbers detect any sort of “self-deportation” of Mormon Democrats” when these types of things are emphasized. I mean, Mormon Democrats are interested in things like the environment, and these types of issues that Mormons aren’t really asked in our time to directly take action regarding.
MONSON: I don’t think we have specific data in our book to answer that. But I think you’re probably correct that there is some of that going on.
CAMPBELL: We know that happens in other religious traditions. So there’s a growth in the percentage of Americans who say they have no religion. They’re often known as the “Nones” because when asked “what’s your religion,” they’ll say “I don’t have one. I’m a none.” And there’s lots of reason to think that rise in the religiously unaffiliated population is at least partially a backlash to the religious right, specifically the involvement of Evangelicals in politics. And so if that’s happening writ large for a group like Evangelicals who are arguably the single largest group in the US, it’s plausible to think that’s happening within Mormonism as well. We just can’t see it because it’s a much smaller group. But anecdotally, I certainly hear these stories of people who feel that the church is too political and so they just don’t want to be a part of it anymore.
HODGES: To follow up on that, David Campbell, your surveys in the book show that many Mormons do hold conservative views—It comes as no surprise. But these conservative views have a distinctive flavor in the United States, and there are some differences that Mormons hold. They are “peculiar partisans,” is the term you use. So I’m thinking of issues like immigration.
Let’s look at this a little closer. You note that your survey suggests that Mormons don’t just “blindly follow their leadership.” That’s an accusation that’s leveled against them, and it’s part of the reason why Mormon candidates today might face external opposition. But you also show that Mormons are peculiar partisans in that they’re swayable when church leadership speaks out.
CAMPBELL: They are. And the way we test that is to see what happens when Mormons—and so this is a survey of people who identify as Mormons—what happens when they are either told or reminded of church positions, positions the church has taken, that might be construed as politically liberal rather than conservative. So that would include questions about immigration, where the church is actually pretty far to the left—or at least you might say it’s in the center—on an immigration issue. And also the church’s public position on non-discrimination toward gays and lesbians.
And so we tested, well what happens when you give people these statements and ask for their opinions? And sure enough, even the most conservative orthodox Mormons will shift toward the more liberal position when they are reminded, or they are told, that that is the position that the church has taken. So there is evidence, actually, that the Mormons do follow their leaders. But not necessarily always in a conservative direction, which kind of makes it a little more complicated when you talk about the role of the church in American politics. It’s not always on the right. Sometimes it’s in the center, and sometimes you might even argue it’s a little bit on the left.
MONSON: I would argue that that evidence is among the most powerful in the book in the sense that we set it up with what’s called a survey experiment, where you’re holding everything constant and then randomly assigning these survey respondents to receive one message or another. And by doing that, you can be much more confident that the difference in what they’re hearing or reading on the screen is actually having the effect. And that, together with the fact that you can push these conservative Mormons a little bit to the left politically, to me is pretty powerful evidence that church leaders can have an effect on the rare occasions when they actually speak out and take a position on these issues.
HODGES: There is another interesting thing I quickly want to turn to, that there are different ways the church can speak out on something that seems to have greater or lesser impact. So it depends on how the church talks about something. Talk about that for just really quick.
MONSON: Yeah. It really has to do with how specific they are, right? And so again, my favorite example of this goes back to the 80s with the MX missile because, at the time, we have Spencer W. Kimball as the president of the church. He’s, I think, widely known now and even back then as somebody who was peace-loving and thought about the Cold War in a certain way and so on. You have this MX missile proposal coming from the Reagan White House, to build this missile system in the west desert of Utah and into Nevada where they were going to shuttle these missiles around and hide them in silos and move them around so that the Soviets wouldn’t know where they were and couldn’t destroy all of our missiles at once. And this was seen by Utah political leaders at the time as a big economic boon and something that is sort of consistent with their pro-military, pro-Reagan stance, and also would provide a lot of jobs and so on. And so the political leaders came out in favor of it.
And you see in the limited public opinion data available at the time, Mormons were kind of suspicious of it at first but they kind of got on board with the political leaders. And over time, they became much more favorable to it.
And then I think you see President Kimball and the First Presidency who—I guess what I would assume or sort of infer from what they said publicly—were not in favor of this and were trying to send signals about it. And the most interesting one is a Christmas message in 1980. And then an Easter message from the First Presidency in 1981 where in the midst of a Christmas and Easter message are making references to nuclear weapons and avoiding the nuclear holocaust. I mean, it’s very strange to look back and see that. I think in the context of the time, it may not have seemed so strange. But looking back at those messages, you can see that they’re trying to send some signals. Well, those are very general statements. They didn’t mention the MX missile in the Christmas message.
HODGES: It was like you in fireside on civility. You didn’t address it.
MONSON: Yeah. Exactly. But then you get to May of 1981 and the assumption that they have is “our message isn’t getting through. It’s not working. The public is still in favor that this is going to happen unless we come out and say something specifically.” And so you get this multipage letter that goes into explicit detail about their opposition to the MX missile and why it’s both immoral and bad for Utah in so many ways, right? And again, anecdotally, we don’t have great opinion data contemporaneous with the message coming out. But again, Mormons become heavily opposed and the whole congressional delegation switches their position. And it falls apart and doesn’t happen.
An example of going from general to specific in a way that made a difference was repeated most recently on the issue of immigration in Utah, where they were very general in terms of treating each other as children of God and allowing families to stay together and square themselves to the law. And then in the midst of the Utah legislative session, by the end of the session, they’re naming bill numbers in their statements and saying, “Remember what we said a few weeks ago? HB-whatever is consistent with what we said.” And getting very specific. And then getting their way with the legislature as well, right?
HODGES: Yeah. It was interesting to see in the book you talk about this scale, so there’s General Conference talks, Firesides and things like that, versus First Presidency letters versus Newsroom announcements, and all of them sort of have different—Almost like Mormons themselves are like, “Okay. Well, that was just a Newsroom thing.”
CAMPBELL: That’s exactly the way to think of it. So it gives cover to those who might disagree with the church’s position. Oh, that’s just Public Affairs.
MONSON: By the way, I would add that the latest letter that was read over the pulpit in Sacrament meeting about political involvement I think has an effort at validating and elevating Mormon Newsroom’s position, because it’s named by name in the letter, right? “Sometimes we speak out and we do so via Mormon Newsroom on political issues.” So it serves to legitimize that, I think in part in a response to these folks that rationalize that away as something that doesn’t come from the church.
HODGES: Right. The type of letters that are read over the pulpit, it was interesting to see the Newsroom mentioned one of those. Also, more recent letters have talked about principles of the Gospel being found in most political parties, or all political parties having some sort of resonance with the Gospel. So there’s this sense of trying to amplify the church’s voice, but also to find a way to acknowledge some internal church diversity at the same time. It’s a really interesting mix. If we had more time, we could sort of dig into it. But I want to move on here.
That’s Quin Monson. He’s associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University. We’re speaking with him and David Campbell from the University of Notre Dame about their book, Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics. We’ll take a quick break and be right back.
HODGES: We’re here with David Campbell and Quin Monson talking about their book, Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics. Part three of the book gets into public views of Mormons. Your survey suggests that Mormons get mixed reviews from their fellow Americans. Mormons have a really high regard for themselves. But they actually, in the public eye, fair better only than atheists and Muslims. They’re slightly better thought of than those groups. So Quin, why don’t you talk about some of the factors that have played into that and some of the things that have been shown to maybe ameliorate some of these negative views.
MONSON: Well, when we asked Americans their views about Mormons, you’re right. They don’t come out of the bottom of the list. You see atheists and Muslims do a little bit worse. But they’re clearly not viewed that favorably. And part of that comes from, I think, stereotypes about Mormons that—Who knows where those originate exactly. But when we ask people to provide sort of one-word answers in terms of why they view Mormons a certain way, on the negative side, you get things like cult and polygamy. But on the positive side, you get things like family, and then different synonyms for nice. Friendly, honest, and so on.
And I think what we find is that negative information about Mormons is pretty powerful in its ability to push somebody away from feeling friendly toward the church, and in particular toward not voting for a Mormon candidate, which we look at pretty seriously. And then the one thing that does a good job of balancing that out, or allowing positive information to have an effect, or to counterbalance is whether or not somebody has a close friend or family member who is Mormon. Not just a casual acquaintance but a close contact, a close relationship. And it’s that close relationship that allows people to resist negative messages and hear a counterbalancing positive message and have it have an effect on their views.
HODGES: Yeah. So it’s sort of dependent on how much people knew about Mormonism. And then also if they knew Mormons and how closely they did. One of the interesting parts about that is you found that a little bit of information about Mormons was okay. A lot of information about Mormons was good. That showed some increase positivity. But just a moderate amount? It was worse.[laughs]
CAMPBELL: That’s right. Which is an interesting finding. Although you actually see this with other groups as well. So that particular finding is not unique to Mormons. And what it reinforces is that Mormons truly are distinctive.
So if you, say, have a Mormon coworker or a Mormon neighbor, so on a survey you’d say, “Well, yeah, I know a Mormon.” But you can’t really say you know them very well. Well what would you know about them? Well, if they’re your neighbor, you’d see they get up on Sunday morning, and they all dress up, and they all drive off to church, and they’re gone for a long period of time. And then they come back. Then you see that occasionally these missionaries show up at their house, and what are they doing? And then you see that—you talk with them over the fence and you learn that they have a year’s supply of food. They go “what the heck is that about?”
MONSON: And they have 2.5 more kids than you do. All of that, right?
MONSON: You just notice the weirdness, but you don’t really know them, right?
CAMPBELL: So that’s how we’ve characterize it, is that those people in the middle category know a Mormon but don’t know them well, well, they know enough about Mormons to know that there’s something different about them. But they haven’t learned to have that sort of personal relationship that gets over the weirdness factor as Quin just called it [laughs] and develop a real close relationship where that doesn’t matter anymore, because you’ll see it turns out “oh, this person is a lot like me. They just happened to worship differently.”
HODGES: Yeah. And you all laid the groundwork in the book that talks about sort of these national feelings about Mormons. And then you tie it directly to the political consequences, particularly pertaining to Mormon presidential candidates. So from Joseph Smith up to Mitt Romney, depending on the campaign, there were different public perceptions at the time, so there were different ways that Mormon candidates dealt with their campaigns.
So let’s talk about that for a minute. For example, you polled people to find out how Mitt Romney’s Mormonism impacted their perception of him as a candidate. And you did this just as he was becoming more widely known before the 2008 election. So it wasn’t widely known that he was Mormon. What kind of results did you see on those initial surveys when people found out he was a Mormon?
CAMPBELL: Well we found that particularly, as you said when he was emerging on the scene, telling people that Mitt Romney was a Mormon triggered a very negative reaction—not just among Democrats, but also among Republicans. And that undoubtedly played out to Mitt’s detriment in the 2008 primaries. It wasn’t the only reason that he didn’t become the Republican nominee in 2008, but that was definitely an important one.
And we know it wasn’t just simply that he was religious, because this is another one of these experiments that Quin was describing earlier. So people are randomly selected to learn different information about, in this case, Mitt Romney. Some heard that he was Mormon and active in the Mormon church. Others just heard that he was religious, that he was active in a church. And that didn’t actually trigger much of a reaction at all. It was the Mormon part of it that seemed to matter most.
HODGES: Yeah. That was really interesting to see. There were even some questions about a hypothetical candidate. People could say “Well maybe people didn’t like Mitt Romney himself and just sort of tied that into his Mormonism,” sort of a thing. But you also found that a nameless candidate who was said to be Mormon also experienced a huge drop in acceptability in the eyes of a lot of voters.
CAMPBELL: Yeah, that’s true.
MONSON: That’s exactly right.
HODGES: So there were differences though between 2008 and 2012. Romney’s Mormonism was known by then, but what was the shift between 2008 and 2012 for Mitt?
MONSON: Part of it, for me, is the difference between the fact that he got through to the general elections. So the context changes, where I think—I don’t know that Evangelical perceptions of Mormons changed, but now it’s Mitt Romney running against Barack Obama and not Mike Huckabee, right? That’s kind of the difference in a nutshell where, when he’s running against Barack Obama, “he may be Mormon,” Evangelicals might say, “But he’s our Mormon. He’s our Republican Mormon.” It’s the power party and how gaining the nomination makes him acceptable in a way that he wasn’t even a few months earlier.
CAMPBELL: Right. And there’s certainly no reason to think that this was because Romney was talking about his religion a lot. He really didn’t in 2012 with a few exceptions. The 2012 Republican National Convention did include some speeches that spoke of Mitt’s role as a bishop and they were calling him a “pastor” to kind of make that translation to terms other people would resonate with.
HODGES: Protestants in particular. [laughs]
CAMPBELL: Right. And that itself is an interesting statement, right? Because it suggests that this warming up to Romney, and the fact that his Mormonism didn’t seem to be as much of a detriment among at least Republicans, wasn’t because they were learning more about Mormonism. It’s really more what Quin was saying: a reaction to the political environment. It’s Obama versus Romney and if you’re a Republican, you’re going to go with Romney.
MONSON: And one of the interesting consequences of that, of course, is that the measure that we have of perceptions of Mormons doesn’t change much over time. But it does become differentiated by political party, where—as a result of Romney’s nomination and candidacy as it becomes widely known in the American public that he’s Mormon and obviously that he’s a Republican—Democrats now take a dimmer view of Mormons, and Republicans become more positive about Mormons in ways that are very clear in the data.
And I would be really interested to know if that’s still true, right? If those numbers persisted. We did a survey two years after the election to see if it was still true, and it was then back in 2014. But you wonder if it continues to persist over this much time.
CAMPBELL: If any of your listeners want to write us a check to fund the poll that we would do to test that, we’re happy to take the money.
HODGES: Preliminarily, there are some results at the end of the book that sort of show that maybe there has been some drop in Evangelical perceptions a little bit. Some “cooling off” I think is the phrase you use. But that it’s been heavily made very partisan. Like you can see a distinct difference now between Democrats and Republicans. Attitudes towards Mormons, whereas before the Mitt Romney phenomenon it was pretty much the same. That was really interesting.
Another fun fact that blew me away was seeing that a greater percentage of Evangelicals voted for Mitt Romney than a percentage of polled Mormons. I mean it was just a difference of 1%. But still, a greater percentage of Evangelicals voted for Mitt Romney than Mormons did.
MONSON: Yeah. I’d call that a statistical tie, but for sure, you know, even if it’s equal, that’s remarkable, right?
HODGES: Yeah. It really is. That was one that really just jumped off the page as I’m reading along here. And people will be interested to see a lot of the stats that you bring up, a lot of the things that we aren’t talking about in the interview here, and they can find that in the book, Seeking the Promised Land.
In fact, the final chapter gets back to this idea of seeking the promised land. Seeking this golden mean between being too distinctive or being assimilated, being accepted, basically. You use the scriptural terminology of—Christ says “you’re the salt of the earth.” If you’re too distinctive, you can’t be the salt. You won’t be included in the recipe. You can’t flavor the mix, or you’ll be the same as it already. If you’re too similar, you can’t be a light to the world. You can’t because you’re just like everybody else. So seeking this balance between things.
And there’s a few different postures that you say the church could take toward greater American society that we should talk about. There’s separation, assimilation, engagement, and alignment. These are different attitudes the church can take toward wider societies. So let’s talk about those. Separation, assimilation, engagement, and alignment. Where’s the church been? Where do you see it right now?
CAMPBELL: Well, when we say separation, we’re referring to the fact that during the Brigham Young era, the church physically separated itself from the rest of the United States by settling in what became the Utah Territory. And for a time, existed as a more or less isolated group that really wasn’t all that interested in engaging with the rest of the country. That, however, proved to be a short-lived experiment. Of course, Utah became a state. Mormons in general became more a part of American society.
And then we went through a period—and this may come as a surprise to some listeners. In the early part of the 20th century, we characterized this as a period of assimilation for Mormons because, at the time, it appeared like Mormonism was sort of heading in the same direction as maybe your typical mainline Protestant denomination. There was kind of a tamping down of the distinctiveness of Mormonism at that time. And had that continued, Mormonism today would look very different than it does.
But it didn’t continue, because during the period that historians often call kind of the “correlation era” of the church when there was this emphasis on the church putting its house in order, and choosing which elements of Mormonism it was going to emphasize for its distinctiveness, we entered a period of what we call engagement. And what we mean by that is, Mormons are not fully separated from society, but neither are they trying to be fully assimilated. They’re choosing a middle ground in that they’re engaging with American or secular society, wherever they’re located, in a way that we were describing earlier. So they’re incorporating cultural elements into Mormonism. They’re not the old order Amish. They aren’t orthodox Judaism. That’s completely separating. But they’re choosing those aspects of Mormonism that make more Mormons distinctive. Whether it’s the Word of Wisdom, whether it’s an emphasis on modest clothing, whether it’s an emphasis on having large families. Whatever it might be, there were a number of things that sort of kept Mormons distinctive.
We suggest that, perhaps, engagement could shift into an era of alignment. And by alignment, we borrowed that from political terms. We mean you could imagine a Mormonism that actually becomes aligned with a particular political perspective in the US that carries with it a lot of cultural baggage in the way that I would say Evangelicalism in the US is very closely associated with conservative politics. We don’t think Mormonism is necessarily there yet because the church itself remains above the partisan fray. And as you mentioned, the church does actually make statements about both parties having value and people within the church can support either party. But we could reach that point, and we sort of suggest that that’s one possible future.
HODGES: And there’s clear leaning in that direction, as well.
MONSON: But I would say that there’s push-back too, in the sense of, if you want to go to 2016 and Donald Trump, right? There’s clear pushback in both questions of immigration, and refugees, and civility, and in other ways that make that perfect alignment less likely, right? I was just reading yesterday an article in the Deseret News about how the church has been donating money to these Lutheran groups and having Mormon women volunteer to show up to help these Lutheran groups with refugees in a way that is a different kind of approach, and would push in a different direction than sort of the Republican conservative alignment that you might assume.
HODGES: Yeah. This is really interesting. We conclude with some thoughts about this. We might call it the “Trump effect.” And that’s the fact that for the first time since I think 1964-ish or whatever, Utah is now not heavily in the camp of the Republicans but is now a swing state. What do you both make of that? And let’s get some predictions.
HODGES: Then there’s this Mormon candidate Evan McMullin that’s running, and political analysts are looking at Utah and calling it a toss-up.
MONSON: I’m going to take the opportunity to go on record, on a recording, before the election, that Evan McMullin will win Utah.
HODGES: Oh, wow. Bold Prediction.
MONSON: Yeah. But I guess that to me, it’s kind of a different stance—It goes back to this sort of “conservative but different” idea that we put forward in the book in one of the earlier chapters. And that is, it’s not as if Evan McMullin is some kind of…He’s really a Republican-slash-Independent. He’s espousing sort of standard conservative fair and is dividing the Republican vote up. Hillary Clinton is going to get about the same percentage as she would have gotten anyway. And so Utah is a battleground state in the sense that the Republicans are having trouble coalescing around an alternative to Hillary Clinton. But that’s all it is, really.
CAMPBELL: Yeah. And I would characterize—and let’s see if Quin agrees with this—the McMullin vote in Utah is very much a protest vote. I mean the people who are voting for Evan McMullin are presumably not under any illusions that he could actually become president. I know there’s this far-fetch scenario if things get thrown to the House of Representatives
HODGES: There are a few, yeah—
CAMPBELL: But I mean, come on. On the planet earth, this is a protest vote.
MONSON: That’s right.
CAMPBELL: But that’s still significant, actually. And that’s why this question of “what’s going to happen to the Republican party post-November 8th” I think is fascinating, and Mormons are kind of on the vanguard of figuring it out.
HODGES: I actually expected more mainstream Republicans to follow that lead. Including leadership in the Republican party, to sort of read the tea leaves and see that Donald Trump’s not going to win this election. So even pragmatically, Mormons seem to be ahead of the curve. They object to him for greater reasons than that, obviously, when you see the editorials that are being written. But also just the idea of Trump being a losing candidate and sort of jump ship, like let’s not tie my boat to that larger sinking ship. [laughs]
MONSON: And that’s where McMullin is problematic because he’s not…He’s young. He’s relatively inexperienced. He’s not the standard bearer that could attract votes outside of Utah and outside of Mormonism. Had Mitt Romney declared an independent candidacy eight or ten months ago or something when he, shortly after he first objected to Trump. Now that would have real potential I think—not for Mitt Romney necessarily winning, although who knows what could have happened. But certainly, for attracting a following beyond Mormons and beyond Utah, they could have led to something significant in terms of developments for the Republican party. But that didn’t happen.
I think, you know, there are lots of question marks at this point about what happens next. And a lot of that depends on who sort of seizes leadership of the Republican mantle moving forward, and what kind of rhetoric and positions they take, and whether or not they can repair the damage that Donald Trump has done and tap into the anger that he’s tapped into without all the sexism and misogyny and racism and everything else that he’s also tapping into.
CAMPBELL: You know, back when Siskel and Ebert used to do movie reviews, it was most interesting when the two of them would differ, where one would be thumbs up and one would be thumbs down. So here’s a chance where Quin and I may differ a little bit. Quin is closer to the data as a Utah pollster and so I will defer to him on today’s polling.
CAMPBELL: But I am in my heart a political scientist, and I carry a little card in my wallet that says I’m an official political scientist, and therefore I feel contractually obligated to point out that the party label matters a lot. And so I may be a little less certain than Quin is that Utah will go for McMullin only because of that pull of party. But I’m not going to say that with any certainty, so I wouldn’t put any money on what I’m saying. [laughs]
MONSON: I’m contractually obligated as a political scientist, but I also have polling data to sift through.
MONSON: A lot more data than Dave has, and I’ll say right now, McMullin—Because here’s the problem, right? McMullin is the third party candidate, and traditionally in political science, the third party candidate has trouble attracting support because it’s a wasted vote. Well, what if polling comes out that puts McMullin in a first place and now the wasted vote argument turns on the Trump voters? So there’s a fair number of people still sticking with Trump that really don’t like him. And if their priority is to not see Hillary Clinton take the state of Utah, then the correct answer for them is to vote for Evan McMullin if he’s truly leading. So it really becomes a question of perceptions about who’s ahead in the state of Utah. And if McMullin is perceived as tied or in the lead, then those wasted vote arguments don’t work as well for him.
HODGES: And Utah’s not a national swing state in terms of making a dent in the election. I think that might [play into the calculus, too. But I wanted to ask, how many average voters do you really think are that calculating about their vote? I just get the sense that a lot of people I know just have their candidate, they’re going to vote for him. They don’t look at these crazy McMullin scenarios. They don’t look at Utah not being a national swing state. They just know “that’s my person, that’s who I’m going to vote for.”
MONSON: All you have to assume to get there is that these faithful Mormon Republicans really, really don’t like Hillary Clinton.
MONSON: And that is not too hard, for me to get there. And if you can get there, then you can think of them sort of calculating, “Well, what’s the best way to vote to defeat her?” Right? That’s all you have to do.
CAMPBELL: I mean, I’ll say this, and perhaps this is obvious, but much will depend on what happens here in the remaining weeks before the election.
HODGES: McMullin’s going to get WikiLeaked, you guys. I know it. He’s got, there is some stuff coming out here…
MONSON: Only if they can tap into the CIA, right?
CAMPBELL: I want to know how many times has Evan McMullin been on a bus with Billy Bush? And that’s the burning question.
HODGES: Has he been on Access Hollywood before? Yeah. Alright. Well, thank you so much, you guys. That’s Quin Monson and David Campbell. They joined me today on the Maxwell Institute Podcast to talk about their book, Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics. And you heard it here first, Quin Monson, Utah pollster, is going out on the line here. He’s saying it’s going to be McMullin in Utah. David Campbell’s playing it safe, being wishy-washy—
CAMPBELL: I’m a flip-flopper. Yeah, that’s right.
HODGES: He’s flipping around. But he’s on record doing it, so after the election, he can’t come out saying “Oh, I knew that.” So it’s good to have both of you on record. Thank you for doing that.
MONSON: Thank you.
HODGES: Alright. You guys, we’ll see how the election shakes out. And thanks for being on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
CAMPBELL: Blair, let me say, Quin and I, we’ve done a few other podcasts and interviews and such about the book. Far and away, this was the best one.
CAMPBELL: [laughing] Your knowledge of our own material is, frankly, very, very impressive and kind of intimidating.
MONSON: It helps when you’re part of the tribe, I think. I think you can read it and understand it a little better than some. But I’ll agree—
MONSON: —your questions were much more detailed, and the further we get from the publication date, the harder it is to answer with specificity.
HODGES: I know. I always feel bad when I interview people that are a couple of years out from their book’s publication.
CAMPBELL: [laughing] That’s great.
HODGES: I’m just like, “Oh, man.” Because I wrote stuff a month ago that I can’t remember.
CAMPBELL: And I learned—so I had heard, just from the email chatter between the two of you, that there was a review of the book coming out in Mormon Studies Review. But I didn’t know that it was written by Molly Worthen, so—
MONSON: I didn’t either.
HODGES: That’s right. Molly wrote it and it’s a great review. I think you guys will really like it. People can check that out in the next volume of the Mormon Studies Review. That’s coming out in November after the election. But people can pick up a copy. That’ll be at mi.byu.edu, is where they can pick that up. And the book again is called Seeking the Promised Land. It’s from Cambridge University Press. Congratulations on that. I know we’re a little ways away from that. It will be really interesting to see this book ten years down the road and see the kind of things that have changed by then. So it’s a nice benchmark I think for people to go back to.
HODGES: Alright. Take care, you guys.
CAMPBELL: Thank you.
MONSON: Alright. Thanks.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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