This might be the last place you would expect to see it: a state where Republicans already prefer the inclusive message of Marco Rubio over the divisive messages of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz,* even before Rubio’s strong finish in South Carolina.** That is, if you didn’t know much about Utah. Utah is the reddest state in the Union, with a 36-point gap in party affiliation. Rubio is often called a moderate, so he should be the favorite in a place where the Republicans are tinted purple, like Massachusetts or Vermont, right? Nope! They prefer Trump, by 34 percentage points in Massachusetts and 15 in Vermont! Trump is leading nationally by around 14 points, and in nearly every state. Just look at the polls. Cruz won the Iowa caucus and leads in his home state of Texas and neighboring New Mexico. Otherwise, it is all about Trump right now—except in Utah.
How is the reddest state in the Union coming out in favor of a so-called moderate rather than a hard-liner like Cruz or Trump? Utah has a different brand of Republicans, much less likely to see the world in tribal terms, especially not ethnic tribes.
For most of us in this country today, national politics is driven more by what we hate and fear than by what we love. Most voters’ negative feelings toward the opposition party are stronger than their positive feelings for their own. This is called negative polarization, and its effects are as plain as day in the primary contests unfolding as we speak. Anger and self-righteousness are the dominant tone for the leading candidates in both parties’ races. Trump gladly and openly claims the mantle of anger, and even if Hillary is hanging onto more delegates, Bernie has dominated the debate with his more energizing message—revolution against a system that’s been rigged. For both Donald and Bernie, as much as anything the problem is about certain groups of people—those people—that are wrecking America.
Sadly, political discourse on the Left, rather than calling us to transcend barriers of race, ethnicity, gender, and so on, in recent years has come to treat these as the decisive features of the political landscape—and, oh, also economic status, which Bernie reminds us is actually a more serious issue today. Evangelical and blue collar whites, sensing their lack of favor, have moved away from the Democratic party lately and become major sources of support for Trump and Cruz. As a result, we see a tribal character to politics on both sides this cycle.
But Utah has a whole bunch of Mormons, and Mormons are different. Mormons are part of an institution that is deeply designed to overcome this kind of tribalism and actively build a different kind of community. Of course, the message of Christ has always called us to see our fellow human beings as our brothers and sisters, rich or poor, black or white, Jew or Gentile, bond or free. This message is there to be found in most any Christian church, but too often the institutions are set up in a way that undermines it. Too many church congregations are mainly white or black, rich or poor. People self-select into communities that are defined by these markers. The Catholic church is a distinctly global church, whose global character is much more visible than many others because of its global institutional structure, mostly absent in the Protestant world. Still, individual parishes are too much defined by “the big sort,” by which we divide ourselves into groups of similar race/class/ethnicity.
Mormons are different. Our congregations are defined in ways that cut across these divisions, often deliberately, and we are expected to go and serve and be served there. We are affected by the tribal tendencies too, but our church works decidedly against it. Where a church unit is particularly slanted in one direction or another, we will often change its boundaries, or call members of another congregation to go and serve there, even serving in a different language. Just as importantly, a large percentage of our members have served missions, sent far from home to serve people very different from them, not just for a week or two but for years, in another state or another country. With the recent change in age for missionary service, the percentage of active members who have served missions may rise very high indeed.
Even for those who have not served missions themselves, they are surrounded by people who have lived and learned to love the people all over the world. The stories, languages, relationships, and cuisine from these experiences become a routine part of the landscape in a Mormon ward. Our general authorities tell stories from their global travels and hold up the faith of saints in Africa or Latin America or Mongolia as an inspiring example for us all, as they would the saints in their own hometowns. A rising number of general authorities themselves hail from distant lands and express through their own accent and culture the same spiritual message that we all embrace. We celebrate the building of each new temple as they proliferate across the globe.
For generations, America has aspired to be a community defined by moral principles that transcend the obvious lines of tribalism. After centuries of apparent progress toward that ideal, the current trend is decidedly backward. In some sectors, we are failing because we have embraced new principles that refuse to let tribalism go. In other sectors, we are failing through a lack of deep commitment to any shared principles. One seriously wonders if America can stay the course. But the Mormons are doing it.
[*Cruz is obviously not as divisive as Trump, but he is still ready to, for instance, openly advocate treating refugees differently on the basis of their religion. Trump comes in noticeably behind both Rubio and Cruz in Utah.]
[**The Utah Policy poll I am looking at is from February 10-15, just after Rubio’s most disappointing debate performance and the New Hampshire primary in which Rubio placed fifth, making this strong level of support especially remarkable.]