“I love the Mormons,” Donald Trump told a crowd of a thousand supporters at a Salt Lake City rally the weekend before the Utah Republican caucuses in March. According to Trump, the feeling is mutual. “I have many friends that live in Salt Lake,” Trump said. “I’ve had many Mormons work for me.”
Trump is counting on his supposed legions of Mormon friends to help him secure the heavily Mormon states of Utah and Arizona, both of which he needs to carry in November to have any chance of winning the White House. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS, is the most reliably Republican religious group in the country. Despite Trump’s claims of massive Mormon support, however, many Mormons have not looked fondly on his candidacy. In fact, most of Trump’s Mormon friends must have stayed home on caucus night in Utah. He finished third (14 percent) to Ted Cruz (69.2 percent) and John Kasich (16.8 percent). Things haven’t looked much better since. A poll from earlier in the summer showed Clinton and Trump tied at 35 percent. The Clinton campaign is confident enough that the state is up for grabs that it’s sending Bill Clinton to campaign there later this month. Utah hasn’t voted Democratic since 1964. In 2012, Mitt Romney carried it by 48 points.
Romney, the most famous Mormon in the world, is also the most famous Never Trumper, which surely hasn’t helped the candidate’s cause. Yet Mormon wariness towards Trump goes beyond the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee. In early July, at a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill intended to build party unity, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona—another prominent Latter-day Saint whose Mormon pioneer ancestors helped settle northern Arizona—confronted Trump about his attacks against Mexicans and against Gonzalo Curiel, the Mexican American judge overseeing the Trump University lawsuit.
The Mormon distaste for Trump also goes beyond establishment Republicans like Romney and Flake. In late June, Tea Party–backed Sen. Mike Lee of Utah responded angrily to a conservative radio host who chastised him for failing to toe the party line and endorse Trump. To explain his refusal to back the nominee, Lee pointed to Trump’s “religiously intolerant” statements, which have made him “widely unpopular in my state, in part because my state consists of people who are members of a religious minority church.” Citing one of the darkest days of the Mormons’ long history of enduring state-sponsored religious persecution, Lee continued, the Mormons are “a people who were ordered exterminated by the governor of Missouri in 1838. And statements like … [banning Muslims from the U.S.] make them nervous.” In Cleveland, at the Republican National Convention, Lee was a vocal opponent of GOP leaders working to put down anti-Trump dissent. Lee and other Republicans anxious about the Trump nomination tried to secure a rules package that would have unbound delegates from state primary and caucus results and allowed them to “vote their conscience.”
In May, the man Mike Lee unseated in the Senate through a primary challenge, Bob Bennett, spent his last breaths bemoaning Trump’s bigoted stance on Islam and hoping to repair the breach. Days before he died, from his bed in the George Washington University Hospital, Bennett, who had been left partially paralyzed by a stroke, asked his son, “Are there any Muslims in the hospital? I’d love to go up to every single one of them to thank them for being in this country and to apologize to them on behalf of the Republican Party for Donald Trump.”
From the outset of his unlikely candidacy, there was speculation that Trump, the thrice-married, former pro-choice Democrat, would have trouble winning over religious conservatives. But as more (white) Protestant leaders and laypeople have moved toward Trump during and after the primaries, Mormons haven’t budged.
Trump hopes that the members of his evangelical advisory board and his pick of the self-described “evangelical Catholic” Mike Pence as his running mate will bring evangelical and Mormon “values voters” into his coalition. Many Mormon voters share the same pro-life, anti-gay marriage beliefs as other religious Republicans (a fact that Romney tried to exploit in 2012 by presenting himself as a “culture warrior”). Yet the values of the evangelicals backing Trump don’t exactly align with what Utah’s Republican Gov. Gary Herbert—another Mormon who has publicly opposed Trump—has described as “Utah values.”
By “Utah values,” Herbert means Mormon values. Mormons make up 60 percent of the state’s population and dominate Utah’s political and cultural landscape. These Mormon values include more than just objecting to Trump’s baleful and juvenile personal style, “the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third grade theatrics,” as Mitt Romney famously summarized it during his anti-Trump speech at the University of Utah in March. As Romney suggested in the same speech, Utah values also conflict with a campaign that is based almost exclusively on creating “scapegoats of Muslims and Mexican immigrants”—all in the hopes of stoking white Americans’ economic and racial anxieties.
The Mormons know something about being scapegoats. The church and its members haven’t forgotten that the Mormon past was in large measure defined by state-sponsored persecution and even violence. But the Mormons’ reluctance to embrace Trump is also connected to the Mormon present. Mormonism is an increasingly global religious movement that is experiencing some of its largest growth in Latin America, especially Mexico.
Let’s start with the Mormon past. The fact that the Mormons became so thoroughly connected with the Republican Party may today seem inevitable. But that is not the case. The Republican Party was founded not only as an anti-slavery party but also as an anti-Mormon party. On their first presidential platform in 1856, the Republicans vowed to fight the spread of the “twin relics of barbarism—Polygamy and Slavery.” Throughout much of the rest of the 19th century, Republicans in Congress and in the White House led efforts to pass and enforce anti-polygamy laws. As a result, many polygamous Mormon men were imprisoned. Others fled to polygamous strongholds in Mexico (including Mitt Romney’s own great-grandfather, Miles Park Romney).
In 1890, the LDS church announced the “Manifesto,” which officially ended polygamy and allowed Utah to become a state in 1896. Church leaders instructed their membership to join one of the two national parties. Some prominent Mormons urged Utahans to join the Democrats. Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats hadn’t made it their mission to destroy polygamy, the signature cultural and theological practice of the Mormon faith. However, church apostle and future church president Joseph F. Smith, the nephew of Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith Jr., published a widely circulated treatise arguing that “the people of Utah should be Republicans.” It’s true that the party had been the Mormons’ chief antagonists in the recent past. But Smith explained that the Mormons shared with Republicans a belief in hierarchal institutional authority. The Constitution—which the Mormons believe is inspired by God—established a hierarchy of responsibilities and powers, with the federal government at the top and state and local governments at lower rungs. Smith argued that it was the federal government’s responsibility to guarantee citizens’ rights—including the right to religious liberty—and to intercede in state and local affairs when those governments fail to protect those rights. Today, GOP ideals are much more defined by local control and fostering personal liberty by shrinking the federal government. But in the 1890s, with the memory of the Civil War still fresh in the national memory, the Republicans remained committed to federal sovereignty over the kind of states’ rights ideals that had left the Mormons vulnerable to mistreatment.
Joseph F. Smith urged Utahans to recall the experiences of the first generation of Mormons, like those of his uncle and namesake. In the 1840s, Joseph Smith Jr. appealed to the federal government to protect his faithful from what the Mormons understood as unconstitutional abuses. In the run-up to the 1844 presidential election, Joseph Smith Jr. petitioned likely presidential candidates Henry Clay, James K. Polk, and John C. Calhoun. But the politicians refused to use the powers of the federal government to protect the Mormons. Such authority, they argued, was reserved for the states. As a result, Joseph Smith Jr. decided to run for president himself. He hoped that his growing national stature would insulate his community from further attacks by local anti-Mormons. The strategy failed. In June 1844, Smith along with his brother Hyrum was assassinated by an anti-Mormon mob. The assassins were acquitted in what many scholars have described as a sham trial.
Fifty years later, as Mormons vied for political acceptability, Joseph F. Smith reminded his people that the Democrats’ states rights principles had failed to protect the first generation of leading Mormons. Now that the Mormons had placed themselves on the right side of the Republicans by officially ending polygamy, the Republican ideology of hierarchical constitutionalism was best suited to protect them and other religious minorities who, without the assurance of federal intervention when necessary, would always remain vulnerable to unconstitutional abuses by local and state officials (not to mention vigilantes) who viewed them and their faith as suspect.
In the 20th century, it was the GOP’s evolution away from the party of Lincoln and toward the party of religion and family values that wedded the Mormons so thoroughly to the Republicans. During the same period, Mormonism also evolved from a pariah faith to become an American religion synonymous with social conservatism, family, and piety. And yet, the impulse to side with political parties that defend “religious liberty” in a more inclusive sense than many evangelicals have done so recently remains a key part of the Mormon political identity. That helps explain the reluctance among Republican Mormons to embrace their party’s current nominee for president.
In Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, Mormons hear echoes of the anti-Mormon violence of the past. In the wake of the shootings in San Bernardino, California, last December, Trump proposed his now infamous ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S. The LDS church made an unprecedented entrée into presidential politics to denounce the ban. While the church declared that it remained “neutral in regard to party politics and election campaigns … [the church] is not neutral in relation to religious freedom.” To demonstrate its long-standing commitment to American pluralism, the church included in its statement an 1843 city ordinance from Nauvoo, Illinois, the largest Mormon community founded by Joseph Smith Jr. before his assassination, which precipitated the Mormon exodus to Utah. The ordinance read in part, “all religious sects and denominations” including “Mohammedans [Muslims]” “shall have free toleration, and equal privileges in this city.”
Days after the church published its denouncement, Utah GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz (who converted to Mormonism while attending Brigham Young University) brought a similar message to a Salt Lake City–area mosque. Chaffetz told a group of 50 Utah Muslims that Trump’s call to ban Muslims is un-American, immoral, and does not represent “who we are as a people.”
The Mormons’ past has helped them empathize with the predicament of Muslim Americans; Mormon empathy for Mexicans is more a product of the church’s present. With close to 1,400,000 church members, Mexico is second only to the U.S. as the nation with the largest Mormon population. Today, more than half of the church’s 15 million members live outside the U.S., with the largest growth in Central and South America and Africa. It is also likely that there are today more nonwhite Mormons than white ones.
The church’s increasing internationalism tends to make American Mormons, many of who have served church missions in Spanish-speaking countries and Spanish-speaking areas in the U.S., wary of the kind of strident attacks against immigrants that have rallied other Republican voters to Trump’s corner. The Public Religion Research Institute found that compared with 36 percent of Republicans in general, 45 percent of Mormons say that “immigrants strengthen American society.” At the Atlantic, Jack Jenkins has noted that a large majority of Utah Mormons backs efforts to provide undocumented, law-abiding citizens a pathway to citizenship. So does the LDS church and the State of Utah. In 2010, the Mormon-dominated Utah state legislature initiated “the Utah Compact,” which called on immigration law enforcement to use their discretion to focus on routing out criminal activity among immigrant communities while taking care not to separate families unnecessarily through deportation. “We must adopt a humane approach [to immigration],” the compact reads, “reflecting [Utah’s] unique culture, history and spirit of inclusion.” In 2014, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, himself a German immigrant convert to Mormonism, and a member of the LDS church’s First Presidency, met with President Obama and other faith leaders at the White House to discuss common-sense immigration reform. During the meeting, Uchtdorf offered the Utah Compact, which the LDS church officially backed, as a potential model for federal immigration policies.
It’s important not to overstate the Mormon embrace of Muslims or immigrants. Let’s remember that most Utah Republicans’ first choice for president was Ted Cruz, who is no champion of religious pluralism or immigration reform. Following the terror attacks in Brussels earlier this year, Cruz called on police to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” Late in the primary race, Cruz also began to parrot Trump on immigration. “We should deport [12 million undocumented immigrants]. We should build a wall, we should triple the Border Patrol,” he told Bill O’Reilly in February. The next month, Cruz won almost 70 percent of Utah’s GOP caucus votes.
The day after the caucus, in the Washington Post, Emory University’s Benjamin Hertzberg cautioned political observers not to read the Mormons’ rejection of Trump as a sign that they can “provide ballast to a GOP otherwise careering out of control.” Instead, what Herzberg saw in the Utah vote was “the fearful calculus of a minority religious group that has legitimate concerns about the likely implications of the GOP’s increasingly punitive policies toward the religiously different—but does not have the courage to embrace their particularity and leave the party entirely.” By voting for the “marginally more respectable Cruz,” the Mormons, who since the late 1890s have desperately sought acceptance within the conservative American mainstream, have “stay[ed] in the closet.”
But if the Mormons’ chief concern was to protect their hard-fought political and cultural acceptance in the Republican Party, we might expect a majority of Mormons to have resigned themselves to the results of the primary process and to join Trump’s movement. They haven’t.
So if not Trump, for whom are Mormon Republicans going to vote in November? For many Utahans, Hillary Clinton is (almost) as unpalatable as Trump. Emily W. Jensen, a popular blogger who also covers Mormon social media for the LDS church–owned Deseret News, explained to me that in the eyes of most Mormon Republicans, Clinton is “amoral … someone who accepts abortions and gay marriage and seemingly flaunts the justice system for her own gain.” With the choice between Trump and Clinton, Jensen says that many Republican Mormons “are praying for a miracle”—often the miracle that Mitt Romney runs as a third-party candidate.
Mormons on the political left—and they do exist—have started to call on their Republican Mormon brethren to pray for something—or someone—else. On the popular Mormon blog By Common Consent, Russell Fox, a political science professor at Friends University (and an avid Bernie Sanders supporter), posted an open letter to the “Mormon Voters of the American West.” In it, Fox invoked the Mormon “White Horse Prophecy,” an almost certainly apocryphal statement attributed to Joseph Smith Jr. The prophecy foresees that one day, the United States will find itself on the brink of collapse, with the Constitution “hang[ing] like a thread,” only to be saved “by the efforts of the White Horse.” Fox explained that for years Mormons have been misinterpreting the prophecy. The White Horse is “not a reference to a [would-be] LDS President of the United States”—not a Romney, not a John Huntsman, or an Orrin Hatch. Instead, Fox suggested, the White Horse is “the Mormon people.”
Fox wrote that the ascension of Trump, who as president “would apparently be comfortable with trashing the 1st, 4th, 5th, and 14th amendments,” just might depend on winning the Western states, notably Utah and Arizona. If somehow Trump captures the Rust Belt and Upper South, it would fall to the “Mormons and the newly enfranchised Hispanic population, which American Mormons are already more willing to work with than the rest of the Republican mainstream” to ride in on the White Horse and stop Trump.