Mormonism and the Republican Party

By December 12, 2009

I’ve written previously on ways Mormon historians can transcend the 1890 rupture and begin to conceptualize and integrate the twentieth century into narratives of Mormon history. I suggested that one way to do this is to historicize contemporary issues, such as those surrounding race, gender, and sexuality, and show how the past can illuminate the present. Some may protest that this approach is overly-presentist, but I would argue that all history is presentist to one degree or another, and as historians we should be writing histories that are useful and useable.

One contemporary issue that demands further scrutiny from historians is Mormon involvement in conservative politics. While many observers believe that the Mormon affinity for conservatism is a natural outcome of Latter-day Saint doctrine and theology (I’m thinking here of arguments that concepts such as free agency inevitably lead to libertarian and anti-statist political ideologies), I would argue that the current near-identity between Mormonism and conservatism is a product of history.*

Some historians have put forward a narrative that postulates that Mormons at some idyllic point in the past were progressive by nature, and that it was not until the culture wars of the 1970s (women’s liberation, gay rights, etc.) that church members moved hard to the right. Others have contended that the origins of Mormon conservatism lie in the 1960s with Ezra Taft Benson’s anticommunism, while others would instead point to the anti-New Deal rhetoric emerging from the 1930s. A new dissertation recently completed at the University of Utah by Jonathan H. Moyer, “Dancing with the Devil: The Making of the Mormon-Republican Pact,” pushes the argument back even further, to the late nineteenth-century, and essentially argues that the Republican party co-opted the Latter-day Saints as part of a western strategy (similar in a way to Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy). Although I have yet to read the dissertation (it’s over 600 pages long!), I believe it will be an important contribution to what is doubtless a central theme of twentieth-century Mormon history. Here is the abstract:

ABSTRACT

The Mormon Church initially positioned itself in opposition to America’s order.

Its leaders rejected all authority but their own and demanded obedience. Already outside

the American mainstream, Mormons migrated to Mexico, but soon found themselves

locked in a contest with the nation they rejected. The Republican Party, organized to

redress racial issues, also took aim at Mormonism. Party leaders denounced polygamy

and the political control of the Mormon hierarchy and enacted measures to curtail the

church’s power. Church and state came together in a volatile clash.

 

Discarding the crusading zeal of the former generation, visionary Republican

leaders and pragmatic churchmen crafted a mutually advantageous arrangement.

Republicans saw the Mormons as the key to western votes. Mormons hoped for local

autonomy and the preservation of church control. The two struggled to negotiate a viable

compromise which eluded them until the contest over seating Utah Senator and Apostle

Reed Smoot.

 

The controversy over Senator Smoot highlights how the Mormon Church

transformed itself from outlaw to insider. In resolving the Mormon question, the nation

defined the limits of religious liberty. The crisis inaugurated a new era of religious

participation in politics and political influence in ecclesiastical issues. Religious

denominations learned the value of material wealth in their quest for heavenly goals and

strengthened their political sway as they forged new alliances.

 

The Republican Party also changed and welcomed former adversaries into its

ranks. With a politics of inclusion, the party added formerly outcast ethnics, immigrants,

and religious groups to its winning coalition. Bartering its founding creed for a broader

appeal, it traded its goal of social justice for one of social control. The Republican Party

redefined itself, moving from a vehicle for radical reform to the embodiment of

conservative stability.

The dissertation is available through ProQuest for those with access to university libraries. I don’t know if Moyer has immediate plans for articles or even publication of the dissertation, but maybe he’ll stop by and leave a comment.

_________

*To be clear, I’ve focused above on Mormon Corridor Mormonism, which excludes the many Latter-day Saints who have no roots in the region. I acknowledge that Mormons in Canada, Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere do not adhere to the same western conservatism as those from the Corridor, and for that matter, that some Mormons who do have roots in the region do not fit the conservative mold (some JI bloggers, me included, are good examples of this). We need research that will problematize the totalizing discourses that underpin such overly-simplistic statements as “all Mormons are conservatives/Republicans.”

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Accommodation


Comments

  1. Thanks for this notice, David. I’m looking forward to getting to it.

    Comment by Jared T — December 12, 2009 @ 10:49 pm

  2. Wasn’t Joseph Smith a fan of Douglas over Lincoln?

    Comment by Dan — December 12, 2009 @ 11:27 pm

  3. Hi Dan. During JS’s lifetime Lincoln was still a little-known Whig attorney and politician (the Whigs were precursors to the Republican party, which wasn’t started until the 1850s). There’s really no evidence that JS ever met the future president. JS did however know and like Douglas.

    But what I think you’re really asking is whether JS and most Mormons were Dems in the 1830s and 1840s. The answer is complicated. Most Mormons were likely Jacksonian Democrats during the 1830s, but after the expulsion from Missouri, the Saints blamed the Dems (Boggs was a Dem), and switched to supporting the Whigs soon after settling Nauvoo. Douglas, an Illinois judge, presided over an 1841 legal hearing where he ruled on a technicality that Missouri could not extradite JS to stand trial, a decision which convinced JS that the Dems could be trusted again. The Saints would switch back and forth between the parties a few more times, which thoroughly alienated both parties.

    Comment by David G. — December 13, 2009 @ 12:08 am

  4. “…the current near-identity between Mormonism and conservatism…”

    While American Mormons are definitely conservative leaning, I feel like the above statement is a bit of an exaggeration.

    Comment by JDD — December 13, 2009 @ 2:48 am

  5. JDD, did you read the footnote?

    Comment by David G. — December 13, 2009 @ 8:57 am

  6. If Mormons changed the Republican Party in Utah by joining it, one can only imagine what might happen if more Utah Mormons became Democrats. I know, I know…that would never happen, but the what if is fun to contemplate.

    Comment by Ray — December 13, 2009 @ 9:43 am

  7. Thanks for this notice, David; all I needed was another 600 page dissy to add to my reading pile…

    Comment by Ben — December 13, 2009 @ 11:12 am

  8. So what does everybody think of his argument?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 13, 2009 @ 11:53 am

  9. Steve, without reading what the evidence is, I can’t say for sure, but it sounds intriguing. I know Jon, he’s a bright guy, and I know he’s done some pretty extensive research. I know he has issues with the way Flake approaches some similar themes. That said, I expect a well crafted, persuasive argument, but I’ll need to get into it more to appraise it more substantively.

    Comment by Jared T — December 13, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

  10. Any thesis about Mormons and Republicans needs to account for the same voting patterns emerging throughout the plains and mountain states. Utah’s neighbors to the east have plenty of Republicans, but not so many Mormons. Something else is at work there.

    Also, as late as the 1970’s, a majority of Utah’s Congressional delegation and the state legislature were Democrats.

    The Mormon/Republican connection isn’t particularly unique, nor did it extend unbroken to the Smoot era.

    I have no idea if that problematizes any totalizing discourses.

    Comment by Clair — December 13, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

  11. Steve, like Jared, I can’t say for sure without reading his evidence. One thing that I do find frustrating so far is the lack of an introduction. He just guns right in with chapter one, without any preliminary discussion or historiography.

    Clair, my own view is that Mormon Corridor conservatism is at least partly explained by its location in the West, as you seem to be suggesting with your first paragraph. As for your second paragraph, the relationship is complex. Many (but not all) of the brethren in the early twentieth century supported the Republicans, in particular the conservative wing of the party, while many of the rank and file supported progressive Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and liberal Democrats like FDR. It’s not until the 1960s with the Cold War that Mormon voters begin following a more homogenous pattern in voting Republican. But the leaders had made that move decades earlier.

    Comment by David G. — December 13, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  12. The role of anti-Communism might help explain the turns of Utah politics. That sentiment was strong in Utah and was freely preached over the LDS pulpit. Before the war in Viet Nam, anti-Communism was bi-partisan. During and after that war, Republicans carried on with that banner more noticeably than the Democrats, and the Mormons followed.

    Comment by Clair — December 13, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

  13. I have long thought that there was such an implicit bargain, that the Church’s chief political persecutor, the GOP, would leave the Church alone if the Church’s leadership was not anti-GOP. As I recall from Tom Alexander’s book about that era, Joseph F. Smith had strong GOP leanings, and did not seem hesitant in taking actions that could be read as favoring the GOP. While Heber J. Grant was a democrat, I do not think he was a particularly ardent one, and by the end of his life (perhaps with encouragement of J. Reuben Clark, he had become strongly anti-New Deal if not anti-democrat.

    I have also personally attributed it some of the pro-GOP sentiment at the highest levels during (and perhaps after) that time frame to a sort of Stockholm syndrome, where the captives become loyal to the captors, the captives being the leadership of the Church (and to some degree with membership), and the captors the GOP.

    Comment by DavidH — December 13, 2009 @ 7:52 pm

  14. I am a conservative Mormon but know several Mormons that are Democrat. I see that there is support for both sides. Personally, I am very traditional and socially conservative. That is the main reason I vote republican. I also do not believe that democratic policies towards taking care of the poor help in the long run though the intentions are good.

    I read an article by Harry Read where he says that he is a democrat because of Mormonism, not in spite of it.

    Democrats believe in taking care of the poor, taking care of the earth, being good and tolerant citizens, allowing freedom of choice, and some other things that are gospel centered.

    I think that most people vote slightly right or slightly left of the middle. When politics skews too much to the right (we are working 16 hour days, there is no middle class, etc.) then the people vote democrat. When we drift too far to the left (the government takes all our money and redistributes it as they please), we vote republican.

    Comment by Peter — December 13, 2009 @ 9:33 pm

  15. I think demographic LDS factors better explain the conservative tilt of the LDS population in the US in addition to the conservative bent of the religion.

    white
    married
    children
    church going

    This describes the typical LDS voter and the typical conservative voter.

    Comment by bbell — December 14, 2009 @ 11:20 am

  16. Umm, bbell, that also describes a heckuva lot of liberal voters, too.

    Comment by Ben — December 14, 2009 @ 11:59 am

  17. Thanks for highlighting this new thesis. As for my thoughts, while I obviously haven’t read it, but based on the abstract, I don’t think this dissertation looks to be the definitive answer to Mormonism’s involvement in Republican politics, or the shifting political believes of the Republican Party of the last hundred years. The abstract seems to present things a little too conveniently. And perhaps I am wrong (since I haven’t read the dissertation), but from the dissertation’s tone, it sounded like a conservative wrote the dissertation and that it lacks a progressive and objective understanding of both Mormonism and conservative politics. Hopefully I am wrong and the dissertation is better than my initial impression.

    Comment by Zach — December 14, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

  18. Zach, i can say for sure that Jon is no conservative 🙂

    It’s always fun to speculate, though let’s remember that most of us have only read the abstract. I hope, however, that one of my fellows or myself or someone somewhere will post something more detailed once we’ve gotten through a larger portion of it. I take this post for what it is, a notice that something new is out and to be aware of it. Also, it helps speak to David’s previous points about transcending the 1890 divide.

    Comment by Jared T — December 14, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

  19. can say for sure that Jon is no conservative

    True dat. He’s one of the most independent thinkers, the least likely to be swayed by partisan politics of any kind, of anyone I know.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — December 14, 2009 @ 12:38 pm

  20. Ben, bbell is right. Generally speaking that demographic votes Republican. You and I are anomalies.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 14, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

  21. It has been my experience with the members of the church I know that voting is influenced largely by a few issues that person feels strongly about. In doing so many other important issues are left out of the decision making process, but I think every voter does this to some extent.

    Social issues like gay marriage and abortion have a lot of influence because of their moral implications. Recently war is factoring in even more as a moral issue as well. I think our church history also gives us an inherited distrust of government which may be a reason many of us like the limited government philosophy of the Republicans.

    Comment by AYdUbYA — December 14, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

  22. Exactly Jared. I don’t see this dissertation as providing all the answers as to why most Mormon Corridor Mormons vote Republican (or Libertarian/Conservative party, whatever). But from the abstact I see it as an important contribution that pushes the chronology back, beyond the culture wars of the 1970s, the Cold War, or the anti-New Dealism of the 1930s. And it helps us reconceptualize Mormon history so that it doesn’t privilege the 1820 to 1890 period as the “interesting” epoch, leaving the post 1890 frame as the boring, Americanized period.

    Comment by David G. — December 14, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

  23. Also, while I agree that demographics does explain a lot, it doesn’t shed much light onto why the Mormon Corridor and the South are the reddest spots on the political map. Region also plays into this.

    Comment by David G. — December 14, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

  24. David, when you look at commonalities for the Mormon corridor and the south, both have a history of strained relations with the federal government (ie, Utah War, Civil War). Both were trying to continue institutions that became to be perceived by the rest of the country as morally repugnant (slavery, polygamy). The federal government has been consistently seen by conservatives in Utah as intrusive into local issues and what would be viewed as property rights, such as restrictions on grazing on public lands, designated wilderness areas, and environmental restrictions on private business.

    I don’t know that anyone would call them “states rights” anymore, but there does seem to be, in addition to the moral aspects listed in previous comments, a general distrust of all things federal.

    However, I’m a part of that minority that is more progressive, hoping that the federal authority will save us from our own worst instincts along some of these lines.

    Comment by kevinf — December 14, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

  25. Indeed, Kevin. Resentment toward federal meddling in local affairs is a characteristic of both the MC and the South, and both are rooted in history. The irony, at least in the West, is that especially after World War II the federal government has poured billions into the region. Utah has benefited from those dollar tremendously in terms of jobs in the defense industry. Employees of defense contractors usually trend to the right politically, and counties and states with a significant presence of the defense industry tend to vote Republican (TX, AZ, Orange County, CA).

    Comment by David G. — December 14, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

  26. Steve, #8:

    I think he is getting off on the wrong foot with this sort of rhetoric:

    “The Mormon Church initially positioned itself in opposition to America’s order. Its leaders rejected all authority but their own and demanded obedience.”

    Well, we also have Later-day Saints advocating for alternative political parties (including in official Church newspapers,) Joseph Smith running for President (an act within the bounds of the Constitution) and revelations talking about the inspired nature of the Constitution. An article of faith promising to honor, obey and sustain the law, being subject to rulers, magistrates, etc. So if he doesn’t severely nuance his introductory paragraph to this abstract, I have to say the foundation does not look promising.

    Already outside the American mainstream, Mormons migrated to Mexico, but soon found themselves locked in a contest with the nation they rejected.

    I’m wondering why the Saints kept celebrating the 4th of July, applying for Statehood, and hoisting American flag if they rejected the nation.

    These are just a few preliminary thoughts, but I am not impressed much with the abstract.

    Comment by BHodges — December 14, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

  27. Blair, I agree he should have nuanced a bit his sweeping statements about early Mormon anti-Americanism. LDS relationships with the nation and the federal government are more complex than Moyer allows for in his abstract, I’ll give you that.

    But let’s not let that call into question his entire thesis, that the Republican Party and Mormon leadership, after decades of antagonism, developed a very comfortable relationship at the turn of the century. That’s a significant change, and one that demands explanation. Alexander, Flake, and Yorgason have already laid out the outlines of that thesis, and I see this dissertation as the fullest exploration of that argument to date.

    Comment by David G. — December 14, 2009 @ 8:21 pm

  28. Blair: I actually think think the quotes you offer are not as off-base as you make them out to be. The Saints may have cherished the constitution, but they felt the American government had fallen in a state of apostasy and thus a lost cause. JS running for president was more of a corrective to the government rather than trying to work within it. And personally, I think the AofF statement of obeying the laws of the land had a major unwritten caveat of “as long as it alligns with the will of God” (I mean, JS and the Saints were at that very time involved in extra-legal activities).

    Once in Utah, their celebration of the 4th was based more in American ideals than the contemporary American government; when they flew a flag in the Mormon Battalion, it was a flat with the 13 stars, not the most recent design, to signify where their allegiance truly was. Their applying to statehood was the only way they felt they could gain autonomy and live their religion freely (they had learned that states rights were more powerful the communal religions). They may not of rejected the principles America was founded on, but their rhetoric was very clear that they rejected the contemporary nation.

    Of course, well-laid nuance always helps; but I fear you are jumping the gun with your critiques, that is all.

    Comment by Ben — December 14, 2009 @ 8:37 pm

  29. I think it is fairly easy to demonstrate that the Saints that traveled west viewed the US as a contemptible and apostate state.

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 14, 2009 @ 8:48 pm

  30. I agree with Ben and Stapley on this one.

    Comment by SC Taysom — December 14, 2009 @ 9:56 pm

  31. J Stape: undoubtedly the Saints generally were entirely frustrated with the current government and their (in the Saints’ view) complete failure to redress the wrongs done to them. I don’t believe that is how this abstract paints things, though.

    Ben: Jumping the gun with a few comments about an abstract? My comments are responding to the abstract only. Saying the Saints “rejected the nation” is either inaccurate or poor wording. (Unless I get the time to look at the overall argument I won’t know which it is.) My comments are in regard to what I see as weak attempts to draw boundaries and boost tension. “The Mormon Church initially positioned itself in opposition to America’s order. Its leaders rejected all authority but their own and demanded obedience.” Seriously? There are some significant points of departure, undoubtedly, but this sentence sheds more drama than light, IMO. And what is “America’s order”? Again, my comments are responding only to the abstract. The overall argument may be sound, I have no idea.

    Ben said: “The Saints may have cherished the constitution, but they felt the American government had fallen in a state of apostasy and thus a lost cause.”

    OK, that would have been a more accurate way to depict the situation by far, IMO. But this abstract, in my view, doesn’t do that.

    [Again, speaking of the abstract.]

    Comment by BHodges — December 15, 2009 @ 12:05 am

  32. “…but soon found themselves locked in a contest with the nation they rejected.”

    Or continued aspects of the same antagonistic struggle that had been going on for years. This sentence seems to set up artificial periodization marked by the Mormon migration, but again, they didn’t “soon” find themselves locked in a contest, IMO.

    I will say this: I have a very difficult time summing up a short article I’ve written in a few paragraphs. Writing an abstract can be a real pain, and it can be very easy to include comments that oversimplify things.

    Comment by BHodges — December 15, 2009 @ 12:13 am

  33. Yea, given that it’s almost 700 pages, I think your last sentence there maybe could have been your first.

    Comment by Jared T — December 15, 2009 @ 12:27 am

  34. Jared:

    I noted from the beginning I was only commenting on the abstract. See my post #26. 😉

    Comment by BHodges — December 15, 2009 @ 1:03 am

  35. Blair, I read “So if he doesn’t severely nuance his introductory paragraph to this abstract, I have to say the foundation does not look promising.” as extending your critique of the abstract to the entire work. But if that reading is incorrect, so be it, but I think it a reasonable reading.

    Nevertheless, I think your more charitable appraisal of the challenges in writing abstracts is the more appropriate portion of your comment and that was the point of my last.

    Comment by Jared T — December 15, 2009 @ 1:18 am

  36. Yeah, we’ll have to see how it plays out in the body of the work.

    Comment by BHodges — December 15, 2009 @ 8:35 am

  37. #28, I haven’t read it in over a decade, but Kenneth Winn’s exiles in a land of liberty does a good job of describing this situation.
    I agree the abstract is very flat and that abstracts often do not represent the richness of the actual work.

    That said, let this be a warning to all of us: however hard an abstract is to write, it may be the only thing anyone reads of your work. Don’t be afraid to spend 20-40 hours working on a 2-paragraph abstract. It will not only improve your presentation, it will help you think through how to organize the actual written work.

    Comment by smb — December 15, 2009 @ 9:11 am

  38. That’s wise, Sam. Also good to keep in mind is something Dr. Fluhman told me once, that a dissertation is an act of desperation and not always the best written production 🙂

    Comment by Jared T — December 15, 2009 @ 10:46 am

  39. I’m through the first ten pages and don’t think he did the best job overviewing church history from 1820s- 1844. Anyone else plan on doing any reading yet?

    Comment by BHodges — December 15, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

  40. I didn’t realize the connection with these two.

    Comment by Defense Contractors — November 8, 2010 @ 5:47 pm


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