It’s hard to avoid Mormonism in Salt Lake City.
Home to the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the downtown area is built around a gleaming Mormon temple, its ivory spires and golden statue of the angel Moroni carving out a dramatic silhouette against the looming, rust-colored mountains that encircle the city. Pairs of white-shirt wearing, name tag-bearing, backpack-brandishing LDS missionaries criss-cross Temple Square, some clutching worn copies of the Book of Mormon as they grin cheerily at tourists. Others duck in and out of nearby establishments inscribed with names that can confuse outsiders, but make Mormons feel right at home: Deseret Book, Nauvoo cafe, Zion Bank.
“It’s hard to avoid Mormonism in Salt Lake City.”
It’s also hard to miss the influence of the Republican Party here. Like most American cities, Salt Lake itself leans liberal — but the state of Utah is majority Mormon, a group that also happens to be the most reliably Republican major religious group in America. It’s no coincidence that the state legislature, housed in a massive capital building perched atop a hill overlooking the city, is more than 80 percent Republican and more than 80 percent Mormon. The state’s Governor and Lt. Governor are also Republican and Mormon. And while Utah has consistently voted for Republican presidential candidates since 1968, a staggering 72.6 percent of Utahns supported former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in 2012 — himself a Republican and, of course, a Mormon.
Yet despite this longstanding marriage of Mormonism and the GOP, one thing is increasingly difficult to find in Utah this year: support for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
News of this curious electoral drift — evidenced by growing anti-Trump sentiment among Mormon politicians and polls that show the business mogul with a surprisingly narrow lead in the state — has captivated political analysts in 2016. When Trump placed a distant third in Utah’s GOP caucus, some observers (this reporter included) began wondering aloud whether Utah could go blue for the first time in decades. Trump himself even acknowledged his troubles in the Beehive State last month, telling a group of evangelical pastors, “We’re having a tremendous problem in Utah.”
The truth behind Trump’s Utah problem is multifaceted, born out of a complex menagerie of theological and ideological trends that The Donald is uniquely (and sometimes inexplicably) positioned to subvert. Whether or not he ends up losing the state, however, understanding his impact (or lack thereof) among Mormons in Utah is crucial, as the repercussions could outlive his candidacy — and possibly spell trouble for Republicans for years to come.
There is a tendency among locals to compare Salt Lake to the Vatican, and the city’s marble-filled downtown certainly evokes echoes of Rome — albeit an immaculately polished, hyper-Americanized version. Much like the Catholic Church’s looming basilicas, the towering, brutalist church-owned buildings that dot the city’s skyline are evidence of very real power: The LDS church now boasts around 16 million members worldwide, roughly 6 million of whom live in the United States, with Utah as their base of spiritual and political operations.
But it’s a power Trump is struggling to engage. The first hint of his Mormon troubles came in December, coinciding with arguably the most controversial moment of The Donald’s already infamously controversial campaign.
In the wake of ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks in France, Republican governors across the country began declaring their intention to ban Syrian refugees within their borders (never mind that they can’t actually do that). Ever the one-upsman, Trump promptly took things a step further by proposing to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, assuming an increasingly Islamophobic Republican Party base would back him.
Most GOP voters did, in fact, end up supporting Trump’s ban — but not Utah Mormons. The exclusionary policy proved wildly unpopular among LDS members in the state, prompting Gov. Gary Herbert to break ranks with his party by publishing a Facebook post condemning the proposal, citing Mormonism’s own history of religious persecution at the hands of the United States government. But an even more striking — and, for Trump, politically damaging — rebuke came a few hours later: In a statement issued from Salt Lake, the LDS church itself blasted the ban and quoted church founder Joseph Smith, who voiced acceptance of Muslims in his community as early as the 1800s.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in regard to party politics and election campaigns,” the statement read in part. “However, it is not neutral in relation to religious freedom.”
The statement was short, but to Mormons — 94 percent of whom believe their church president to be a prophet of God — it spoke volumes. (As one Mormon Utahn put it, “If our church leaders tell us to do something, we do it.”) Like most American religious groups, the church almost never publicly weighs in on election matters, lest they be chided for violating laws that govern faith-based nonprofits. For them to issue such a declaration, which requires high-level conversations from multiple branches of the church, a candidate would have to endorse a law that directly affronts a core aspect of church teaching.
As it turns out, Trump’s ban appears to have inadvertently violated several key aspects of Mormon theology. Speaking to a delegation of international journalists in August that included ThinkProgress, Elder Todd Christofferson, a member of LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the highest ranking body in the church after the prophet), explained the statement was necessary to reassert longstanding Mormon opposition to infringements on religious liberty — even if the religious group in question is Muslims, not Mormons.
“We have not and do not endorse candidates, and we do not oppose candidates,” Christofferson said, flanked by two other high-ranking LDS officials nodding in agreement. “[But] we have felt we ought to be — and can be — heard on policy matters; things that we feel have a moral basis that needs to be defended.”
When ThinkProgress pressed Christofferson to clarify if the statement emanated from a spiritual need to protect religious liberty — which has been historically cited by the church as a reason to oppose same-sex marriage — he shook his head eagerly in affirmation, saying that was part of it. But he also pointed to the church’s need to protect “civility” in government.
“That’s where it originated,” he said.
Mormon civility is sometimes cast aside as frivolous, dismissed as a peculiar aspect of the aggressive “niceness” that church members often exhibit in person. But the LDS passion for decorum has already played an important role in localized policy debates, facilitating the church’s surprisingly progressive stance on immigration reform — and, this year, support for American Muslims.
For proof, one need only look to the final days of former Utah senator and devout Mormon Bob Bennett. The GOP member articulated a powerful rejection of Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric from his deathbed earlier this year, asking his family if he could speak to any Muslims in the hospital in order to “apologize to them on behalf of the Republican Party for Donald Trump.”
Mormons in Utah explained this desire to maintain civility in government is more than just a cultural norm — it’s an article of faith.
“We didn’t really take a position on the Muslim ban — but if we did it would have been opposed to it,” said Derek Monson, a Mormon and the director of Public Policy at the Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based conservative think tank that sits just across the street from the Salt Lake temple. “If the Mormon faith believes anything, it’s that everyone is a child of God. So, if you’re going to look at someone, whatever heritage, ethnicity, race, national origin they may be, you’re looking at a fellow child of God.”
But the most anti-Mormon aspect of Trump’s Muslim ban — and his campaign in general — is arguably the least discussed. Aside from issues with religious liberty and civility, there’s also a question of whether Trump’s polices respect the U.S. Constitution.
Constitutional references are common in American elections, but they take on an distinctly religious dimension among Mormons: the LDS church believes the U.S. Constitution, similar to holy scripture, is “divinely inspired.”
“Our religion teaches that the Constitution is an inspired document.”
This fusion of faith and patriotism keeps popping up in the statements of the growing number of Mormon politicians who have rejected Trump. When Mormon Republican and Utah Senator Mike Lee was asked in June why he refused to endorse the GOP nominee, he launched into an extended rant, calling Trump “religiously intolerant” before demanding he offer assurances that he will defend the Constitution. Romney also passionately rejected Trump in March, declaring him a “fraud” and accusing him of “twisting the Constitution to limit first amendment freedom of the press” — a line that took on special significance in Utah, where he delivered the speech.
And while Utah’s governor recently agreed to vote for — but not endorse — Trump, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox remains steadfast in his refusal to offer any support for the candidate, rooting his rejection in a belief that he does not respect the Constitution.
“Our religion teaches that the Constitution is an inspired document,” Cox told ThinkProgress in August, leaning across a conference room table to emphasize his point. “We believe that God played a role in establishing this country — that the Founding Fathers were inspired in what they did… So when you have a candidate who espouses the opposite of that, who uses fear and demagoguery, tries to paint everyone as other, sees the worst in people and highlights the worst in other groups…That doesn’t mix with our worldview.”
Several dozen people huddled into a tiny, nondescript office space just outside Salt Lake on August 23, the room abuzz with excited chattering despite the sauna-like afternoon heat. The crowd, which spilled out the door and onto the sidewalk, was a sea of blue, many adorned in T-shirts and stickers emblazoned with all caps slogans such as “I’M WITH HER” and “UTAH TOGETHER.” The gaggle of liberals had gathered for a singular, highly unusual purpose: the opening of a Hillary Clinton campaign office in Salt Lake — the first time a Democrat has made a serious play in the state in decades.
The energy was electric, more closely resembling a sold-out secret show in Brooklyn than a political gathering in Utah. To wit, when a campaign official hopped atop a makeshift stage to offer a welcome speech, the room exploded into deafening applause.
Surveying the crowd as the official spoke, most attendees said they ascribed to non-Mormon religious traditions or no faith whatsoever. The political embodiment of Newton’s Third Law, a Utah without Mormons would be one of the bluest states in the country: An August survey from Public Policy Polling found that 46 percent of non-Mormon Utahns supported Clinton, compared to 30 percent who supported Trump and 11 percent who say they will vote for Johnson.
But Utah Democrats are not uniformly non-LDS. Roughly 35 percent of the state’s Mormons say they will support Hillary this year, a number that could rise if her grassroots efforts in Salt Lake prove lucrative.
This means Clinton is counting on passionate support from volunteers like the Love family — Jill Love, her husband Perrin, and their daughter Elizabeth. The group gabbed eagerly about Clinton’s prospects as they exited the office opening, often talking over each other as they answered questions.
“We’re Hillary supporters, and we’re excited she’s having a presence here,” Jill said, noting that she and her daughter also supported Hillary during her 2008 campaign for president (Perrin supported Obama). “It seems like she may wage an effort in Utah, and that doesn’t happen all that often for Democrats, and we want to be supportive of that.”
Only Jill identifies as LDS (“We’re a mixed family!” she said, triggering a subtle eye-roll from her daughter), but she smiled broadly when asked if Utah’s Mormon Democrats could be a factor come November.
“That’s right,” she said, nodding. “They’re just great at messaging and organization this year.”
Indeed, a smattering of progressive Mormon organizations, cheekily referred to as the “Latter-day Left,” are already revving up their (admittedly small) political machines. The Utah-based “LDS Dems” plans to hold several events at Clinton’s new Salt Lake office in September, and will host their annual general conference in the city later this year.
Granted, LDS support for the Democratic Party is hardly new. Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, himself a Mormon and a Democrat, once told a crowd at Brigham Young University, “I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it.”
“I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it.”
But the progressive movement’s embrace of reproductive rights for women has strained the relationship between the Democratic Party and the LDS faith, with many Mormons fleeing to a GOP that rejects abortion.
As Trump’s uniquely volatile form of politics weakened the Party’s grip on Mormons this year, however, the Clinton campaign is now actively working to reclaim LDS Democrats. In a clear play to Mormons in the state, she published an Op-Ed in the Deseret News in early August that repeatedly cited Mormon history and values — including their history of oppression — throughout the piece, and closed by fusing religious feminism with the LDS church’s reverence for the Constitution and the U.S. government.
“As Sister Rosemary M. Wixom once said, ‘As individuals we are strong. Together, with God, we are unstoppable,’” Clinton wrote, referencing a famous female Mormon leader. “Sister Wixom is right, and she’s not alone. Generations of LDS leaders, from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to Gordon Hinckley and Thomas Monson, have noted the infinite blessings we have received from the Constitution of the United States.”
“The next president will swear an oath to preserve, protect and defend that document for successive generations. And if you give me the honor to serve as your president, I will fight every day to carry out that sacred responsibility,” she added.
Despite the enthusiasm of Clinton’s supporters, virtually no one believes Democrats can win Utah in a one-to-one match-up against Trump. When asked whether Utah could go blue this year, both Democrats and Republicans demurred, pointing to the fact that the “other” Clinton — Bill — finished third in the state behind Ross Perot in 1992.
Instead, left-leaning strategists are hoping Republican LDS members will split their vote by choosing alternative conservative options such as Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, whose yard signs dot the outskirts of Salt Lake and who is currently polling at 12 percent in Utah overall.
Peter Corroon, Chair of the Utah Democratic Party, outlined this (indirect) divide-and-conquer strategy while standing outside the newly christened Clinton office.
“If [Utahns] don’t vote for Donald Trump but vote for one of the other candidates who are headquartered here in Utah, [such as] the libertarian candidate … then that’s another possibility [for a Clinton victory],” Corroon said. “There are a lot of pieces to that puzzle.”
“If [Utahns] don’t vote for Donald Trump but vote for one of the other candidates who are headquartered here in Utah, [such as] the libertarian candidate … then that’s another possibility [for a Clinton victory].”
Libertarianism is common throughout the American West, where cowboy-style rugged individualism is still a beloved ideal. Naturally, their exists a distinctly Mormon strain of Libertarianism rooted in the credos of two influential LDS members: Ezra Taft Benson, former Secretary of Agriculture under president Dwight D. Eisenhower and the 13th president of the LDS Church, and Mormon theologian Cleon Skousen.
“There is an important concept in Mormonism called free agency,” Matthew Bowman, a historian and author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, told ThinkProgress in January. “Mormons don’t believe in original sin, so everyone is on this earth to choose how to live their lives, which [to Benson and Skousen], was with maximum possible individual liberty … For Benson and Skousen, essentially we need to live in a Libertarian society for liberty to be effective.”
An especially bellicose form of LDS Libertarianism attracted national attention in January, when a cadre of armed militiamen forcibly occupied a federal building in Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The group was led by Ammon Bundy, the son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who staged a similar standoff with the U.S. government in 2014. The Bundy family and many of their followers, in addition to their apparent zeal for ten-gallon hats, proudly claim to be Mormon, so much so that some of the Oregon occupiers would only identify as “Captain Moroni” to press — a direct reference to a hero from the Book of Mormon. The LDS Church ultimately published a statement disavowing the occupiers (it included the none-too-subtle line, “This armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis”), yet Mormon support for libertarianism remains.
Even if Utah Mormons don’t rally behind Johnson (his recent comments implying that Mormon pioneers were murderers have given some pause), Clinton could still eke out a win with the help of Evan McMullin, a former CIA agent who recently announced an independent campaign for president. Utahns who spoke with ThinkProgress repeatedly mentioned McMullin’s Mormon identity and the fact that he attended the LDS-affiliated Brigham Young University, a background that gives him instant God cred among the Utah faithful. And McMullin knows it: he says he intends to “aggressively contest” Utah, where he is now listed on the ballot.
Lt. Gov. Cox, who is still looking for a candidate to support, was quick to mention McMullin as a potential option — citing their shared faith.
“I think he’ll take some of those votes away [from Trump],” he said.
This scenario only helps Democrats. Were McMullin to grab the endorsement of Utah’s “favored son” Mitt Romney — an unlikely, but not impossible, scenario — Clinton could have a path to victory. That is assuming McMullin doesn’t sweep the state on his own: after announcing his candidacy mere weeks ago, McMullin is currently polling second among Utah Mormons at 13 percent (Trump has 44 percent, while Clinton and Johnson are tied at 12 percent).
Utah’s sudden flash of national attention aside, it’s worth remembering that neither Clinton nor Trump are likely to muster a robust effort in a state with only 6 electoral votes (especially not Clinton, who is heavily favored to win the national election without Utah). Corroon and other liberals openly acknowledged that Democrats have their own emerging tribalism to wrangle with, as evidenced by the lone pro-Bernie Sanders, anti-Hillary Clinton protestor who stood outside the Clinton campaign office when ThinkProgress visited, politely chatting with attendees as they left (for context, Sanders won the Utah Democratic caucus with a whopping 79 percent of the vote). And even among Utah Mormons who despise Donald Trump, Clinton remains a tough sell.
But this year in Utah—where religious freedom, decorum, and respect for the Constitution are not just important, but sacred—simply “not being Trump” might be enough.
“The only person they dislike more than Trump is Hillary Clinton,” Cox said. “But I’ve been wrong about everything else this election cycle, so I don’t expect to be right about it this time.”