"SEEKING THE PROMISED LAND: Mormons and American Politics," by David E. Campbell, John C. Green and J. Quin Monson, Cambridge University Press, $29.99, 294 pages (nf)
The LDS Church makes a point of stating that it is nonpartisan, yet two-thirds of Mormons in the United States identify as, or learn toward, the Republican Party.
The question of why, and what that does for the public perception of Mormons, is just one of the many issues dissected in "Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics", by political science professors David E. Campbell of Notre Dame, John C. Green of the University of Akron and J. Quin Monson of Brigham Young University.
Much has been written about the “Mormon Moment,” but "Seeking the Promised Land" is a scholarly work that delves into how Mormons have fit into the political context, from the time of Joseph Smith to Mitt Romney’s 2012 bid for the White House. It is a sweeping and impressive account of Mormonism and politics.
The book begins by establishing a framework for understanding the Mormon faith, with broad overviews of doctrine, culture and history. (It should be noted that both Campbell and Monson are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, thereby providing a great deal of context from within the faith.) In particular, it establishes the dual nature of Mormons as a “self-consciously peculiar people who are also quintessentially Americans.”
The second part of the book places Mormons on the political landscape, going into detail about their changing views and how they react to church policy and direction. The final third of the book flips the coin, showing how public perceptions of Mormons have changed in the evolving political climate. It covers the strategies of seven Mormon presidential campaigns from 1967 to 2012 and devotes an entire chapter to Romney’s presidential bids, discussing how his campaigns shaped public attitudes toward Mormons.
Mormons consider themselves in a two-front war, one in which they separate themselves from other faiths, and one in which they separate themselves from society, or as many Mormons refer to it, “the world.” According to the authors, this view is the first step in understanding the lens through which Mormons perceive politics.
Yet the Mormon political culture is filled with paradox, a theme that runs throughout the book. Why, for instance, do Mormons lean so heavily Republican when theirs is the religion least likely to hear politicking over the pulpit? From the early days, Mormons tended to vote as a bloc, but they were fairly split across party lines until the 1950s. At about this time, the book notes, both the church and political parties began to change. The church underwent “correlation,” in which attitudes and practices within church governance were brought into alignment.
At the same time, the cultural shifts happening within the political parties began to divide along issues of abortion, sex, gender roles, religion and race. “On each one, Mormons hold conservative attitudes that over time have come to align much more closely with the Republican Party,” the authors note — to the point that 80 percent of Mormons voted for George W. Bush (incidentally, slightly fewer Mormons, 78 percent, voted for Romney).
Likewise, Mormons overwhelmingly favor stances that are in line with church teachings, even when some of those stances, as in the case of immigration, are in direct conflict with Republican positions.
One of the more fascinating sections of the book discusses how the church either intentionally or unintentionally mobilizes its members for certain causes, as it did in opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and in support of California’s Proposition 8 in 2008.
The authors write, “We find that Mormons are like ‘dry kindling’ that can be ignited by a ‘spark’ from their church leaders.” Yet even in this there is paradox, as members grapple with the natural tension between following their priesthood leaders and receiving personal revelation.
How Mormons are perceived by the public and by specific religions is also illuminating. The authors state, “ the irony of Mormonism’s place in the American political sphere is that their closest political allies, evangelical Protestants, are also their religious antagonists.”
Romney’s involvement in the general election for president in 2012 shifted those attitudes slightly, but not as much as one might expect. In fact, while overall public opinion of Mormons hardly budged, Romney’s bid for president had one lasting impact: public opinion of Mormons became more distinct along party lines. Republicans emerged with a more favorable view of Mormons, while Democrats emerged with a less favorable view.
In fact, the authors sum up their book with cautionary evidence for the future. As LDS Church culture becomes increasingly more partisan, it risks alienating Mormon Democrats, effectively shutting them out of the dialogue. Mormons should be wary of the prevailing perception that one cannot be a Democrat and a member of the church in good standing.
In addition, the church risks losing “a rising share of Americans, especially those under 30, (who) have turned away from religion as a reaction to the mingling of faith and conservative politics.”
The authors draw upon experiments, case studies, dozens of surveys by the Pew Forum and Gallup, as well as their own Peculiar People’s survey administered among “self-identified” Mormons in 2012. While those surveys offer an exhaustive look at doctrinal and social issues, it would have been nice to hear the authors discuss why Mormons take such conservative views on other issues such as the role of capitalism and protection of the environment.
In addition, while the authors give brief mention in the footnotes, there is no analysis of the impact that Ezra Taft Benson, a prominent and outspoken conservative, had on Mormon political leanings in his dual role as presidential Cabinet member and apostle — and later prophet and president of the faith.
That said, "Seeking the Promised Land" is a highly readable book that will be of interest not only to Mormons and the scholars who study them, but also to anyone seeking to understand how faith shapes politics and politics shapes faith.
As Mormons continue to play a prominent role both in the voting booth and on the national stage, examinations like this are ever more vital.
If you go ...
What: "Wither the Promised Land? Mormons' Place in a Changing Religious Landscape," University of Utah Fall 2014 McMurrin Lecture on Religion and Culture, by David Campbell, professor of political science, University of Notre Dame
When: Oct. 30, 7 p.m.
Where: Salt Lake City Main Library Auditorium, 210 E. 400 South
Note: The event is free and open to the public