The past few years have been rough on the Religious Right.
While it’s true that American theological conservatives have won state-level victories on LGBT and abortion issues in recent days, their list of defeats continues to mount. The decades-long crusade against same-sex marriage — a flagship battle for Religious Right leaders, who spent millions to try and protect “traditional marriage” — ended abruptly in 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision rendering marriage equality legal nationwide. Right-wing Christian groups celebrated a “pro-religious liberty” ruling regarding the craft giant Hobby Lobby in 2014, but several commentators noted that the jubilation belied a breakdown in the Religious Right’s political machine, as evangelicals failed to muster a strong candidate of their own in the 2012 presidential race. Things have only gotten worse in this year’s election, with influential evangelical leaders bemoaning their inability to control “values voters,” hemorrhaging millions to the discernibly not evangelical Donald Trump. CNN has even gone so far as to declare the Religious Right officially dead.
Mormons, the most reliably Republican subgroup of the right-wing religious bloc, have managed to more or less save face with the American public.
But in the midst of this cavalcade of bad press and defeats at the hands of progressives, an unexpected narrative has emerged: Mormons, the most reliably Republican subgroup of the right-wing religious bloc, have managed to more or less save face with the American public, winning small victories and unexpected praise from Republicans and Democrats alike.
“Winning” is relative term, of course. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), although claiming millions of members, is hardly large enough to exact national political power on its own. Even so, the epicenter of Mormon influence — the state of Utah — has proven unusually capable weathering culture war battles of late: While evangelical leaders scramble to understand why huge numbers of their flock are rushing to support the theologically problematic Donald Trump, for instance, Mormon Republicans handed the twice-divorced businessman a crushing defeat in the Utah caucuses on March 22. They flooded voting sites to reject his inflammatory rhetoric, use of profanity, and proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States — something evangelical thought leaders such as Russell Moore has begged his fellow churchgoers to do, if only they would listen.
Even more remarkable of is the way that Mormons have managed to extricate themselves from proxy battles over so-called “religious liberty” laws. Republican governors in Arizona, Indiana, and most recently Georgia have all been forced to veto bills that have to potential to discriminate against LGBT people, bowing in the face of overwhelming pressure from businesses, progressive religious organizations, and LGBT equality groups. Not so for deeply Mormon Utah, where the state legislature effectively circumvented such fights by passing an LGBT nondiscrimination “compromise” bill in 2015 that also included religious liberty protections — yet was still praised by advocacy organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
“This is an extraordinary moment for the state of Utah, for LGBT Americans, and for the Mormon Church, which, by supporting this legislation, shows a willingness to align with others on the right side of history,” HRC President Chad Griffin said at the time. “The desire exhibited by the Mormon Church to work toward common ground should serve as a model for other faith traditions here in the United States.”
Utah was the only state that passed nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people that year, surpassing 28 states that still offer nothing.
In fact, Utah was the only state that passed nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people that year, surpassing 28 states that still offer nothing. And the collaborative effort behind the bill, which was endorsed by LDS church leadership, proved persuasive to Mormons as a whole: although less than half of Utahns support same-sex marriage, a new study from the Public Religion Research Institute found that the historically conservative Beehive State now boasts the third-highest level of support for LGBT nondiscrimination laws (82 percent) in the country, sitting just behind East Coast liberal bastions Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Mormons have also proven to be somewhat leftist on immigration reform, a policy that the majority of Americans support but that many Republicans — especially those who are evangelical Christians — reject. Whereas evangelical leaders have spent ample resources to encourage their flock to be more accepting of migrants, a healthy majority of Mormons (61 percent) already support providing a pathway to citizenship to undocumented people, roughly the same as Americans overall (62 percent) and at greater levels of support than white mainline Protestants (58 percent) and white evangelicals (54 percent). And despite partisan gridlock on Capitol hill, it was Orrin Hatch — a Republican Mormon — who first co-sponsored the DREAM Act in 2001, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for the children of immigrants. The LDS Church also officially sponsored the Utah Compact in 2010, a relatively progressive set of principles meant to guide the state’s discussions on immigration reform that was praised by the New York Times.
And the one Republican state that didn’t toe the party line and pledge to ban Syrian refugees? Utah.
Thus, in America’s increasingly polarized political climate, the LDS Church has managed to do the impossible: maintain credibility among their ideological brethren (religious conservatives) while also winning praise from their political opponents (American progressives).
Let’s not kid ourselves; the LDS church hasn’t magically transformed into a bastion of progressive inclusivity.
Now, let’s not kid ourselves; the LDS church hasn’t magically transformed into a bastion of progressive inclusivity, especially for LGBT people. Although Utah’s LGBT nondiscrimination bill was lauded by equality groups, activists say that was largely because it was the best deal they could get in the state. The law included substantial carveouts for “religious liberty” concerns that, while par for the course in deeply Mormon Utah, are a poor model for the rest of the country, so much so that ThinkProgress’ own Zack Ford refers to efforts to replicate the law elsewhere as “Trojan horse” bills. Indeed, the same PRRI survey that highlighted Utah’s unusual support for nondiscrimination laws also noted that the state has a low level of opposition to “religious refusals,” or laws that would allow small business owners to refuse service to gay or lesbian people on religious grounds. Only three states — Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee — had less opposition than Utah, where 50 percent of citizens do not approve of religious refusals.
Meanwhile, the LDS Church recently announced that it won’t even baptize children who live with same-sex couples, a stance that caused a minor exodus of members leaving the faith and forcing church leaders to try and awkwardly walk back the policy. All this in addition to the church’s continued refusal to ordain women into the Mormon priesthood.
But the fact that the LDS Church retains its conservative views in a changing political climate arguably makes their accomplishments even more impressive. Whereas conservative Catholic and evangelical leaders struggle to retain anything close to a positive image this election season, Utah Mormons are riding high, winning praise from both sides of the aisle while avoiding the proverbial (mud) slings and arrows of this election season.
That’s perhaps because the LDS Church has something evangelicals and conservative Catholics do not: near-universal acceptance among members for core tenets of the religion, with 94 percent of Mormons agreeing that the president of the LDS Church is a prophet of God, according to Pew.
This level of support means that official church proclamations, such as opposing Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration, carry significant weight in Mormon communities — a level of devotion and influence not shared by high-ranking evangelical pastors with their members, or even the pope with U.S. Catholics. Still, the Religious Right could stand to learn a thing or two from their brethren in Salt Lake City, where faith leaders are at least attempting compromise — problematic or otherwise — instead of refusing to cooperate with people different from themselves.