Editor's note: This commentary from scholar Taylor G. Petrey is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought. Conservative commentators Boyd Matheson, Connor Boyack and Paul Mero have responded to this piece here, here, and here respectively.
Since the 1960s, American members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have increasingly aligned with a politically conservative ideology. This movement combined a libertarian free-market approach to deal with economic problems and strong government oversight of sex and gender to deal with social problems.
Mormons from an earlier era were not only more politically diverse, they also were champions of various progressive social movements, including women's rights and economic and social welfare institutions. The rise of Mormon conservatism was a reframing of values, not an inevitable interpretation of the tradition.
Today, Mormons are the most Republican of any religious group — a lopsidedness that has been a recipe for some notable failures. With nearly 60 years of this experiment, the mingling of conservative philosophies with scripture needs reevaluation.
Mormon conservative politics is largely a political failure. The appropriation of the religious right's values made sex and gender issues central to political identity and organizing — against women's and LGBT rights — in the name of "family values." While it often strung together some short-term victories against the Equal Rights Amendment and same-sex marriage, these victories were futile in the long run. The legal and cultural changes came about anyway.
It also turns out that conservative political approaches have little impact on strengthening families. Progressive values like greater marriage equality and educational opportunities for women have produced more stable marriage rates and could complement Mormon interests in the family. Further, these wins were counterproductive by creating bad will among members and potential friends and converts to the church. For Americans age 18-29 — the group most likely to support progressive politics — Mormons are the least liked by a wide margin.
Mormon conservative politics is largely a moral failure. Too many Mormons have outsourced their morality to the false gods of trickle-down economics and nationalist protectionism. Conservatism reduced morality to a question of sexual conduct and how much of the body clothes cover. It turned moral analysis of wealth and poverty over to the amorality of libertarian economics. Mormon conservatism enabled plutocrats whose policies contributed to the massive transfer of wealth from the lower and middle classes to the top 1 percent and reduced economic mobility.
While the LDS Church itself supports progressive policies on immigration and refugees, its membership has largely rejected these policies in the polls.
Mormon conservatism also failed on the great moral questions of our nation, including the criminal injustice system, environmental degradation and disastrous wars. The sexualization of morality has impoverished our thinking.
Finally, Mormon conservatism has been self-destructive to the Mormon community itself. There was once a time when conservative churches were growing and liberal churches were in decline. This has proved to be a short-term trend, since conservative churches are now in decline as well. Research has indicated that at least part of the reason for the decline in Christianity among younger generations is the perception that it has become an organ of conservative politics rather than a movement to bring about God's justice.
Similar research confirms that Mormons who leave cite disagreements on social teachings, values and treatment of LGBT individuals. In my view, the conflation of the gospel with the Republican political platform has contributed to a challenging church environment for many politically moderate and liberal Mormons. The result is driving away members with different political values.
Political monopolies, like economic monopolies, are rarely conducive to the common good. In our efforts to be a united people, we have confused homogeneity with genuine unity. When Mormon progressives call for a revitalization of Mormonism's past and potential, they do not mean that Mormons should all become Democrats. Rather, they mean that the political monopoly of one party distorts the community and its priorities by crowding out genuine conversations about the relationship between our religion and public values.
The Book of Mormon, Bible and the Doctrine and Covenants all offer sustained critiques of the uneven distribution of wealth and power. By applying the ethics taught in Mormon scriptural texts to social problems, the political outcomes may be quite different.
It is perfectly appropriate to debate the limitations and balances for social programs to benefit the collective good. But the talking point that voluntary charity is superior to shared responsibility in social institutions is unscriptural, anti-democratic, an empirical failure and morally questionable. Efforts to build shared institutions for education, health care, economic safety nets, social welfare and equal rights are not equivalent to communism nor a gateway to it. Public and private efforts to strengthen society should work cooperatively.
Having chosen a failed political path, a morally suspect social analysis and a self-destructive single-party system, it may be time for a re-evaluation of the role of this brand of conservatism in Mormon identity.
Taylor G. Petrey is a visiting associate professor at Harvard Divinity School and Lucinda Hinsdale Stone Associate Professor of Religion at Kalamazoo College.