(The Conversation) — Top leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dropped a bombshell in June 2023 by telling their flock to vote for Democrats – well, almost.
In a letter that local leaders read during worship meetings nationwide, the church’s president and his two counselors instructed church members not to vote solely for one political party. Latter-day Saints, often known as Mormons, have overwhelmingly supported Republicans in recent decades.
“Merely voting a straight ticket or voting based on ‘tradition’ without careful study of candidates and their positions on important issues is a threat to democracy and inconsistent with revealed standards,” the church’s top three authorities wrote, referring to Latter-day Saint scripture.
Such letters are frequently used to direct the faithful. For example, in 2008, similar letters mobilized Latter-day Saints in California to support Proposition 8, a ballot initiative against same-sex marriage. As suggested by the significant time and money church members poured into Proposition 8, these letters can be persuasive due, in no small part, to leaders’ unique role. Within the faith, top LDS authorities are known as “prophets, seers, and revelators,” and members often speak of the need to “follow the prophet,” referring to the church’s president. Indeed, there is a catchy children’s song with that title, which includes the repeated refrain “follow the prophet, don’t go astray.”
To the casual observer of American politics, it is no doubt surprising to hear that LDS leaders are promoting the idea of voting for Democrats. But as a political scientist who studies religion, including the LDS church, I believe the letter highlights an important trend in American Christianity.
GOP fans – but not always
It is true that Mormons rival white evangelical Christians in their support of the Republican Party, and they generally hold very conservative views. According to the Cooperative Election Study, 60% of LDS church members identify as Republican and only 23% as Democrats.
However, Mormons do not always align perfectly with the priorities of other Republicans.
For example, they are more moderate on immigration policy, and while opposed to abortion, the church has never called for a total ban. Despite a history of opposing gay marriage, LDS leaders endorsed the recent bill in Congress affirming the right to same-sex marriage – albeit only after ensuring that religious organizations would not be required to recognize such marriages.
Latter-day Saints never fully jumped on the Donald Trump bandwagon, either. In 2016, Trump only took 45% of the vote in Utah, a predominantly Mormon state, largely because third-party candidate Evan McMullin, a member of the church, ate into his support. Going into the 2020 election, Trump had lower approval ratings among Latter-day Saints than among other heavily Republican groups.
Many members’ ambivalence toward Trump may stem from earlier messaging by church leaders. In 2016, an editorial in the church-owned Deseret News called on Trump to pull out of the race – though it did not endorse his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Even more directly, church leaders issued a statement decrying Trump’s proposed “Muslim ban.” An uncharacteristic move for the church, it reflected Latter-day Saints’ particular opposition to the targeting of religious minorities, given their own history of being treated as outsiders.
It is no coincidence that the most prominent LDS politician in the country, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, has long been a thorn in Trump’s side.
Eyes on the future
Why are leaders speaking out? One might argue that this is nothing new, since the LDS hierarchy has previously encouraged more two-partyism. “It’s not in our interest to be known as a one-party church,” one elder told The Salt Lake Tribune during a 1998 interview.
A better question is why the church’s top authorities are speaking out now. Part of the explanation likely stems from concern over the hold that Trump, and the Trumpian approach to politics, has on the Republican Party.
But I argue that there is another explanation. Latter-day Saints are well known for their extensive missionary program around the world. Within the United States, however, the church has not been immune from the national decline in religious affiliation.
The church itself reports declining growth in official membership numbers, which are based on baptism records. Public surveys, however, find that the number of Latter-day Saints in the U.S. is actually declining, not just the growth rate. Even among self-identified Latter-day Saints, a quarter have considered leaving the church.
Research that I and other political scientists have done shows that one reason so many Americans are turning away from religion is the relationship between conservative Christianity and the Republican Party. People whose religious views align with the religious right but do not share its politics often feel conflicted. In some cases, they leave the congregation where they worship for a new one. Others, however, give up on religion altogether – one reason for the dramatic growth in the percentage of Americans who have no religion.
While most of this research has focused on evangelicals’ entanglement with the GOP, it follows that, as a predominantly Republican faith, Mormonism is also likely to experience an exodus. Strikingly, in her research into why people leave the LDS faith, religion writer Jana Riess finds that former church members are far more likely to be Democrats than those who stay in the fold.
Older Latter-day Saints continue to identify heavily as Republicans, but members under 30 are much more likely to describe themselves as Democrats. If those young church members see their church as a bastion of Republicanism, they may decide that Mormonism is not for them – whereas more bipartisanship might keep them in the fold.
This recent call from LDS leaders could create a potential counter-example of a trend within American religion. Increasingly, Americans tailor their religious beliefs to their politics, rather than the other way around.
Here, on the other hand, is a statement from men whom Latter-day Saints believe speak for God, telling their co-religionists that they should break Republican ranks. If there were ever a case to expect religion to inform people’s politics, this is it – with eyes on the 2024 election.
(David Campbell, Packey J. Dee Professor of American Democracy, University of Notre Dame. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)