We believe in being Republican
Before the American presidential election, Republicans were in something of a panic about the possibility of losing the usually reliable Mormon vote. Several prominent Mormon Republicans criticized the Republican presidential nominee, such as Mitt Romney, who warned that a Donald Trump presidency would lead to “trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry, trickle-down misogyny.”
As the Trump campaign continued, it grew more and more offensive to Mormon sensibilities. In December 2015, the Trump campaign took a stand against religious freedom when his campaign announced that “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
In October 2016, footage was released showing Trump bragging about committing sexual assault. Several Mormon politicians revoked their endorsements of Trump soon thereafter. “We have a 15-year-old daughter,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Mormon representing Utah in Congress. “And if I can’t look her in the eye and tell her these things, I can’t endorse this person.” Polls showed the predominantly Mormon and usually reliably Republican state of Utah in a virtual three-way tie between Trump, Hillary Clinton and a former Republican running as an independent: Evan McMullin, who happened to be Mormon.
Shortly before the election, vice presidential candidate Mike Pence held an emergency rally in Utah, begging Utahns, and particularly Mormons, to “come home.”
“Mormons run the risk of being a people without a party,” fretted Don Peay, chair of the Trump campaign in Utah.
Wait, what? Aren’t Mormons already a people without a party? The church is politically neutral! Didn’t Peay cross a line with that comment?
Yes, he did. But that line is a fuzzy line, a line that Mormon church leaders themselves tend to cross on a regular basis.
General Conference talks are riddled with Republican catch phrases. Mormons can expect to hear the phrase, “personal responsibility” during General Conference but not the phrase “social justice,” although both concepts are rooted in gospel principles. Using the term “politically correct” as a sneer has nothing to do with gospel principles but everything to do with Republican philosophy.
If the Mormon church is politically neutral, why does General Conference sound like a Republican campaign rally?
Simply put, it is because most Mormon church leaders happen to be Republican. In 2014, the Salt Lake Tribune researched the political affiliations of the 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and found that most were Republican, some were unaffiliated, and none were Democrats.*
Many Mormon women were shocked to see former General Relief Society President Julie Beck endorse Trump for president at that Utah rally. I wasn’t. Beck’s Republicanism always shined through during her “nonpartisan” religious talks.
I’m not only talking about the infamous Mothers Who Know sermon. For example, in her 2009 talk, Using Relief Society Meetings to Teach and Inspire, Beck advocated for local bishops to have more power and control over Relief Society units than Beck herself, who governed at the general auxiliary level. Essentially, she was copying and pasting a Republican philosophy about state and federal power into the context of church governance.
Of course, the problem with placing control of the women’s Relief Society in the hands of male bishops is that it disempowers women within their own organization. But frankly, her lack of concern about sexism is another trait that lends itself to Trump support.
At the rally, Peay continued his speech by threatening Utah Mormons: “And if Trump were to lose Utah and it cost him the presidency, where is that gonna put the Mormon people amongst the Republican Party? If you do cost him the election, you’re in exile for a generation.”
What? What?!! So Mormons have to vote as a block for the Republican candidate, even if the Republican party nominates someone as abhorrent as Trump, or the Republican party will exile Mormons?
I didn’t think Mormons would fall for that, but shortly after the rally, for the first time, polls showed Donald Trump rebounding among Utah voters. To be fair, a self-identified white nationalist also paid for robocalls in Utah that same week, accusing independent candidate McMullin of being gay, so anti-gay bigotry and racism may have also played a role in the Trump rebound. Shame on us.
Less than three weeks after Rep. Chaffetz said on live television that he could not look his daughter in the eye and endorse Trump, he reconsidered and drew the finest of fine lines. He would vote for Trump and urge everyone else to vote for Trump…but he would not use the word, “endorse.”
I wonder if he makes his daughter wear sunglasses in the house now.
In spite of all the Mormon hand-wringing about Trump in public throughout the election cycle, when Mormons secretly cast our ballots, 61% of us nationwide voted for Trump. A higher percentage of Mormons voted for Trump than any other religious demographic.** In the end, we chose “trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry, trickle-down misogyny” after all. We were among the minority of American voters who made Donald Trump president.
But we had to! We had to protect our religious freedom! And the Republicans told us they would exile Mormons if we didn’t vote for their Islamophobic candidate!
So how is that working out for us? Did we buy Republican protection with our votes?
The Trump presidency has not yet begun, but one of his first moves as president-elect was to recruit Steve Bannon as his chief strategist, a white nationalist with a history of bigotry toward Mormons.
We can’t defend our own religious freedom by voting for those who would trample the freedom of others. In the words of Martin Luther King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
To their credit, Mormon church leaders issued a press statement the day after the Trump campaign announced his intention to discriminate against Muslims if he became president, making the same point that Martin Luther King did. But after years of hinting that Mormons should Choose The Right Wing from the pulpit, a news release was simply not enough.
Mormon leaders may not be doing this intentionally. As a homogeneous group of Republicans, they may not even recognize the political cues in their speech that are so jarring to Mormons of a different political persuasion.
Ideally, if Mormon leaders want to be as politically neutral as they say they are, they will work to identify and purge Republican rhetoric from religious sermons and texts. They will seek out and advance people into church leadership who differ from themselves, so that not every General Conference speaker reflects a Republican voice.
But we can’t wait for that. In four years, Americans will vote for or against Trump again. Let’s not make the same mistake twice.
Those of us who are among the minority of American Mormons who didn’t vote for Trump have the most influence among the people we know, the people who share our congregations. We need to work to cultivate an atmosphere tolerant of political diversity, to differentiate between political and religious speech in our church services and materials, and to make the case for Mormons to support freedom and justice for our neighbors, as well as ourselves.
And speaking of ourselves, half of us are female. Yet, Trump’s misogyny was not a dealbreaker for most of us in the end. That tells us something about how our current pattern of teaching gender relations—heavy doses of chivalry, light on equality—isn’t working. At the least, we could begin conversations about consent in our church meetings.
We are well-poised to prevent another Trump victory, because we are intimately acquainted with some of his core voters.
*Some new apostles have been called since 2014. I do not have data on their political affiliations.
**Oddly, the Pew Research Center did not provide data on Evangelicals as a demographic, only for the disaggregated group of white Evangelicals, so the overall Evangelical percent is unknown.