The Merger of Mormonism and Right-Wing Evangelism

Guest post by Don Albrecht.

I grew up in a tiny Mormon (1) hamlet in Southern Utah. My hometown had been settled 70 years before my birth by Mormon pioneers who had literally carved a community from the wilderness. Several of these pioneers were my great-grandparents. At the time my hometown was settled, the gulf between Mormonism and what most Americans considered acceptable religion or even mainstream Christianity was wide. Mormon pioneers were polygamists; Mormons had books of scripture beyond the Bible including The Book of Mormon and The Doctrine and Covenants; Mormons taught that there were living prophets on the earth today who received revelation directly from God just like prophets of old; Mormons taught that after death and the resurrection, we would be assigned to one of three ‘Degrees of Glory’ rather going to either heaven or hell; Mormons taught that baptisms and other ordinances could be performed in their temples for those who had died without the chance of accepting Christ while on earth; Mormons taught that families could be sealed for eternity and the righteous, through the process of eternal progression would have a chance to become Gods in the next life and then create world of our own. All these beliefs were considered heretical by mainline Christians.

During my childhood, we were taught to be proud of the fact that we were a ‘peculiar people’. We had the full and complete gospel of Jesus Christ as restored by the Savior to the prophet Joseph Smith; others only had parts of the truth. Church members talked proudly of the persecutions our people had historically faced because of our uniqueness. Once in the West, Mormons attempted to establish a theocracy, complete with communal ownership of property, a system called the ‘United Order’. People not only had communal property ownership but worked cooperatively to build irrigation systems to get water to the parched land and to build churches, schools, and other public buildings.

By the time I was born in the mid-20th century, some of the Mormon uniqueness was gone. The policy of polygamous marriages ended in 1890. The United Order had been abandoned before that. Mormon people were fully engaged in the capitalist economy. During the first half of the 20th century, Mormons were not only proud of their Church, but were proud to be Americans. They joined the miliary in large numbers and fought and died in both World Wars. Mormons tended to vote in similar ways to residents of the rest of the country (2). In fact, the winner of the Utah vote won the U.S. presidency in 14 of 15 elections from 1916 to 1972. This included 7 elections won by Democrats (Woodrow Wilson in 1916; Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944; Harry Truman in 1948; and Lyndon Johnson in 1964). The only time Utah differed from the nation during these years was in 1960 when Utah voters chose Richard Nixon over John Kennedy in a close vote. On many issues, Mormons tended to be rather progressive. In 1870, the Utah Territory became the first place in the nation where women had the right to vote. When Utah was granted statehood in 1896, women could vote. In 1919 Utah was one of the first states to pass the 19th amendment which guaranteed women the right to vote nationwide. By the time of my childhood, Mormons were generally considered to be hard-working, clean-living, family-oriented people. 

The hometown of my youth was comfortable and safe. Neighbors helped neighbors, and crime was virtually unknown. The house I grew up in did not have locks on the doors and my parents kept the keys to our vehicles in the ignition. Decades later, when my mother was older, I suggested that she should get locks on her doors. She replied, “How will people get in if I need help?” In the church meetings of my youth, we learned about the need to work hard, prepare for missions to share the gospel with God children throughout the world, and gain knowledge which would be essential for our future Godhood. The Church of my youth emphasized the importance of serving the poor, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Emphasis was placed on the words of Jesus when he said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Mathew 25: 40).

Following high school, I served a 2-year mission, graduated from college, got married to a beautiful and brilliant girl from my home-town high school and started a family. My wife, children and I then moved out of state (Iowa and Texas) where we lived for the next 30 years. We both had Ph.D.’s and worked in academia. The congregations we attended made me feel at home. We were far from our own families, and members of our congregation became like family to us.

Thirty years later, in 2008, we moved back to Utah. What I found shocked me. The Utah Mormon Church had changed almost beyond recognition. Church meetings were a strange combination of gospel doctrine and right-wing politics. I learned that being a Democrat was a sin about on par with adultery. Rather than prepare to serve God’s children throughout the world, we were being admonished to stockpile guns to protect ourselves from the invading hordes. Certainly, not all people and all congregations were affected equally, but everywhere things were very different than they had been, and for me things were becoming ever more uncomfortable.

During the 30 years I was away, the State of Utah had become vastly more conservative. The last Democrat to win a presidential election in Utah was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Since the 1980s, Democrats often receive only a miniscule share of the State’s vote. For example, in the 1980 election, Jimmy Carter received 20.6 percent of the Utah vote in his bid for reelection against Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s opponent in 1984 (Walter Mondale) did little better, receiving only 24.7 percent of the vote. In 1992, third party candidate Ross Perot got more votes in Utah than Democrat Bill Clinton. In 2016, third party candidate Evan McMullen got more votes than Democrat Hillery Clinton. Democrats got less than 30 percent of the vote in 2000, 2004, and 2012. 

What was surprising to me was how conservative principles had seeped into the Church. The Church admonishes us to keep Church and politics separate. Many people, however, seem unable to differentiate between gospel principles and right-wing dogma. In their mind they are the same thing. There were few talks and little discussion about gospel principles that had made Mormonism unique. Scriptures about the meek and serving the poor were seldom mentioned. Instead, we talked about walling out evil, and how America was in moral decline, and it was our job to save the country. Instead of an emphasis on gaining knowledge and eternal progressions, many people have become squeamish about education and expressed concern about sending their children to universities where they might be influenced by prideful liberal professors. Horror of horrors, they might even be taught about evolution. We had neighbors who denied that dinosaurs ever existed. For decades, Church leaders such as J. Reuben Clark, Ezra Taft Benson, and Boyd K. Packer had been pushing the Church to the right. Apparently, we were experiencing the logical culmination of this push.

After spending years out of state, it seemed to me that the Utah Mormon Church had become very much like the White Christian Evangelical churches I had been familiar with while living in Texas. I should note that some of my best friends, and people I deeply admire identify as Christian Evangelicals. However, as described by Tim Alberta in his book The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory, large numbers of Evangelical Churches now spend far more time preaching the gospel of right-wing politics than they do preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. This now seemed true of the Utah Mormon Church.

Among the growing similarities that I noticed between the two churches are:

  1. Voting habits between Mormons and White Evangelical Christians are remarkably similar, and both tend to strongly support Republican candidates.
  2. Both churches emphasized the importance of electing moral leaders when Bill Clinton was in office, but quickly pivoted away from this concern when Trump took center stage. In 2011, a PRRI/Brookings Poll found that only 30 percent of White Evangelicals said that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” By 2016, this number had grown from 30 percent to a remarkable 72 percent. I don’t have similar data on Mormons, but large numbers of them who were once very concerned about Democrat immorality seem unconcerned about Trump’s behaviors.
  3. Both churches place a heavy emphasis on the power and glory of America, even though both have international reach and should be concerned about all of God’s children everywhere. Members of both churches seem to look to political leaders rather than religious leaders for guidance. 
  4. Both churches have a deep undercurrent of racism which increased sharply with the election of Barack Obama. In both churches there is ample evidence of support for policies that are racially discriminatory, including opposition to Civil Rights, opposition to school desegregation, and support for racially biased immigration policies.
  5. Both churches have become skeptical about science and education. Since Darwin, there seems to be a fear that science will uncover truths that are difficult to square with the Bible. There is also an expressed concern that schools of all levels support a liberal agenda. Consequently, support for banning books has grown.

The consequences of these changes in the Church are significant. Many people are oblivious and don’t recognize that things are different. These people fit the mold (white, Republican, heterosexual) and are perfectly comfortable the way things are. For many others, the change has been painful. Loving our neighbors has become contingent on who the neighbors are. People who don’t fit the mold are made to feel unwelcome in subtle ways (and sometimes in not-so-subtle ways). 

Many people are bothered by the inconsistencies between what Christianity professes and what they now see inside the Church. How is the Republican Party the Party favored by God when instead of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, they cut taxes on the wealthy and reduce programs to help the poor; instead of lending a helping hand to the sick, they endorse a Darwinian health care program that denies desperately needed health services to those unable to pay for them. The result is the U.S. has the highest infant mortality rate and the lowest life expectancy of any developed country in the world. And they support Donald Trump, a man convicted of sexual assault, a man who bragged about grabbing women by the genitals, a man who lied about election results and attempted to overthrow our democratic system of government after his 2020 election defeat. 

The exodus of people leaving the Church has reached a flood stage. To stem this flow, it is essential to leave politics to the politicians and while in church we learn to love our neighbor as the Good Samaritan did.

  1. The Church asks that we use the full name of the Church, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” and not refer to members as Mormons or Latter-Day Saints. I use Mormon both for historical and simplicity reasons. 
  2. During much of the 20th century, a large majority of Utah residents were Mormon. Since I lack better data, using the state as a proxy for the Church makes sense.

22 comments for “The Merger of Mormonism and Right-Wing Evangelism

  1. This is a story about a community that thought it could never change. But the constant was change.

  2. Don, as a blog post, this isn’t very good. It’s wordy, with too much extraneous material that should have been cut. More importantly, it makes a lot of allegations based on personal impressions but little or no evidence. If you don’t have comparable statistics on some point or another, you don’t have an argument. Too much broad-brush overgeneralization, not enough careful analysis. I know, it’s just a blog post – so focus on one thing and make a compelling argument for it.

  3. I have begun to view division in the church as ideologically similar to the Mulekites. For every ideological divide, there is a Mulekite branch (illiterate and disconnected from the truth, but still of the house of Israel) and a Nephite branch (truth possessing, and also of the house of Israel). Today, we see divides in the same house of Israel, as some ideas depart ideologically from the truth. Those ideas lose touch with the basic messages of the gospel. Maybe someday, we’ll meet at our Zarahelma and reunite under a King Benjamin again, where errors are corrected. I pray for peace.

  4. And I think Jonathan was being picky and hypercritical. Not every post needs to be backed up with studies. Most are about people’s lived experience, and I like the lived experience. If I want scientific studies, I’ll go to a science magazine. Religion is in the living of it, not the surveys and studies and analyzing things. This is about how one person sees his religious community changing and I liked it. It is a valid perspective and just as informative as any analysis of somebody else’s study. Great guest post, and ignore Jonathan.

  5. I for one appreciate this and think there are some profound observations here. (I found statistics where appropriate, and it’s long but only 13% longer than Jonathan’s last post.)

    I really appreciated the First Presidency letter last June which unfortunately was not read in my ward and which hasn’t seemed to be given the air time it deserves. Things would be so much better if we collectively took it to heart. Among the points:
    – members should “vote for those who have demonstrated integrity, compassion, and service to others, regardless of party affiliation”
    – we should “be active citizens by registering, exercising their right to vote, and engaging in civic affairs, always demonstrating Christlike love and civility in political discourse”
    – “Political choices and affiliations should not be the subject of any teaching or advocating in Church settings”

  6. Dear Don,

    I’ve lived in Utah Valley since 93–and I’ve seen very little of the culture you describe in church meetings.

    With regard to the change that you’ve claimed to see in the church here in Utah I think you need to factor in elements from the larger community. For example, one reason as to why there might be more Republicans in Utah than there used to be is because the Democratic party has changed–indeed, the whole world has changed in big ways over the last 30-40 years. Now perhaps some members are swinging too far to the right–I’ll grant you that–but we shouldn’t assume that because Utah seems to be more conservative nowadays that it must be it must be a result of something that is broken only within the church. Society as a whole is broken–and so what we have is a population of believers scrambling to survive in the best way they know how–collectively speaking. Since the shredding of the family during the 70’s and 80’s there have been huge socio-political shifts in just about every institution in the West.

    And so let’s try to remember that when we see a shift in voting patterns and social priorities and whatnot that people, by and large, are not gleefully joining some brotherhood in defiance of the current socio-political landscape. Most folks are just trying their best to navigate the political malaise according to their own values–and for most Latter-day Saints nothing is more important than family. That said — and I can only say this according to my own anecdotal experience — I would bet you dollars to donuts that at least half the members who will vote for Trump this time around (in Utah) will be holding their noses–some more tightly than others, of course. But there you have it.

  7. I like the general thrust of this blog post. I think that it has a good message. I do find a bit conflict though in how it both mentions McMullen getting so many Utah votes, and the implication that Utah Mormons are as devoted Trump supporters as Evangelicals. If Utah Mormons did embrace Trump the way Evangelicals do, McMullen wouldn’t have gotten more than the Democrat candidate.

  8. Wow, did someone decide it should be contention week at T&S? Actually, I’m impressed that the responses this post, at least so far, have been more measured than the responses to the abortion post. (It’s certainly within the rights of a regular to comment on the writing style and overall quality of a guest blogger’s post, but couldn’t that have been done in private?)

    Actually, the abortion post provides evidence for this post’s thesis, as some Church members there put forth a theology of abortion that they’ve apparently picked up from their Evangelical political allies, who picked it up from their Catholic political allies, who picked it up from Aristotle (the essence of a thing cannot change, so if X can become Y, X really IS Y all along). I’d expect a theology of abortion that’s actually based on the restored gospel to *start* with the question of when the spirit enters the body.

    But it’s critical that all sides follow the guidance of the Handbook (38.8.30): “Members should not judge one another in political matters.” The framework for political activity President Oaks described in his April 2021 talk “Defending Our Divinely Inspired Constitution” has helped me not to judge. He basically says we should decide what’s most important to us in the political sphere and vote/advocate accordingly. I can understand why a good person might decide that the most important thing to them is that the government regulate abortion. And if that’s so important to you that you’re willing to neglect all other factors, and if your (meaningful) choices are voting for Biden and voting for Trump, then you vote for Trump. (Though it’s perhaps less clear-cut now that Trump has apparently decided he doesn’t need to cater to pro-life voters.)

    For me, defending our divinely inspired Constitution (to coin a phrase) is more important than regulating abortion, so I’m not going to vote for someone who has explicitly called for its termination, made an attempt to do exactly that, and gives every indication of wanting to try again. But I remind myself that my sisters and brothers in the gospel who vote otherwise are not bad people, they have just prioritized different good things.

    This election is going divide our country more than anything in recent memory. It’s critical we not let it divide our ward and branches, or the Church.

  9. My family just moved out of Utah again after 17 years. I had forgotten how much better church can be when people in a ward need each other more and are less focused on things political. I can’t say I agree with everything Mr Albrecht had to say in this very well written blog post (the critics haven’t been very helpful or enlightening in the comments) but I have seen for myself his concerns about church meetings in Utah being much more politically focused than they are in my new congregation. True, I live in a more politically progressive/liberal place now, but the politics from either side just don’t show up like they did in my Utah church-going experiences. It is refreshing.

  10. I’ve long held that the general ideological shift to the right was largely a response to the evangelical counter-cult movement of the 1960s to early 2000s. Leaders and members alike so desperately wanted to be seen as Christians by other Christians, and so they started adopting the views and practices of those most loudly proclaiming what it means to be Christian.

  11. Everyone has his or her own perceptions, of course, and I didn’t and don’t live in the same wards as the author of this post, so I couldn’t in any case directly contradict the observations presented here. Even so, I strongly suspect that the picture given here is seriously distorted. I did grow up in Idaho back in the 1950s and 60s, and the description of Mormon culture then resonates with me. I also recognize and regret some of the changes described in the post. But a more balanced picture would need to include the following (and of course this is based on my own perceptions):

    – The Church emphasizes Christ far more than it did back in my youth. The Book of Mormon always taught about Christ, of course, and Church teachings back in the day were generally wholesome, but there just wasn’t much emphasis in church meetings on Christ, grace, the atonement, etc. I recall one or two occasions when there was little talk of the Christian Gospel even on Easter Sunday. Today the focus on Christ is overwhelming. An accurate “then and now” perspective would register this change in, for example, testimony meetings. In this respect, the post’s call for getting back to teaching the Gospel seems very odd to me.

    – Mormon culture no doubt has become more politically conservative. But a) there are also more and more vocal progressive members than there were back in the day, b) rather than describe this change as if it were just a change in Mormon culture, the factors mentioned by Jack need to be considered (and in the post, they aren’t even mentioned), and c) in my own experience, there was more overt teaching about politics back in the 1960s, whereas now there are repeated efforts to keep politics out of church meetings. (Again, I of course can’t speak to the author’s own ward, but his description makes me think that if he is accurate his ward is quite an outlier.)

    – On a subject like evolution, I am pretty sure that there was far more condemnation of that idea back in the 1960s and 70s (when I was a student at BYU) than there is today.

    – The Church’s efforts to welcome immigrants and refugees and its numerous projects (sometimes in collaboration with other churches) to provide assistance to the needy ought to be acknowledged.

    Once again, I do recognize and regret some of the changes described in the post. But I would be more sympathetic if a more fair and complete picture were offered.

  12. RLD, I thought the comments on the abortion post were surprisingly measured and substantive for an abortion post. Maybe I’ve lowered my standards.

    The timeline is a problem in this post. Don’s thesis is that church members in Utah have gotten more conservative over the last 30 years, but the post is all over the place chronologically, with election results going back to the early 20th century and childhood reminiscences from the 1960s. Focus on the timeline that’s relevant to the thesis and cut back on everything else. (Mondale performed horribly against Reagan everywhere, so his dismal results in Utah don’t tell us much.)

    And the presidential election stats don’t support Don’s argument. If Democratic candidates couldn’t crack 30% of the vote for decades, and then Biden got 37% in 2020, that doesn’t suggest a state getting more conservative in recent years.

    Then there are the parts that I think are just not true, such as the charge that church members oppose immigration for racist reasons – the church issued a pointed statement about immigration back in 2017, and differing attitudes between conservatives nationally and people in Utah made the news.

  13. Political shifts aside, there is the whole “you can’t go back home” thing. Thirty years ago there was a woman who was almost as old then as I am now, who came back from her mother’s funeral and wistfully said of her hometown, “I now have no reason to ever go back.” Last month I was in my hometown for a funeral, and I felt a portion of my old friend’s words. The place has gone on just fine without me and is no longer mine. Its past is mine; its present and future belong to others.

  14. @Jonathan Green: Yes, there’s a surprising amount of good stuff in the abortion post comments. There’s also a whole lot of people talking past each other, like the “you can’t call yourself pro-life if you don’t support my preferred social programs” argument and all the arguments that are only persuasive if you already agree that a fetus is a person with all the rights of a person from the moment of conception (there are an awful lot of those). And then there are the truly inflammatory comments, like “praying to Moloch” and those that were called out in the thread itself. Whether the discussion as a whole makes a positive contribution or not is a judgement call, but I’ll grant you “better than expected.”

  15. There’s some great commentary about the Church’s efforts to ensconce itself in the Religious Right in recent decades as a way to build up political alliances in the United States that has been coming out in the last year or so. For example, Ben Park’s American Zion provides a good overview. That seems relevant to the topic of the post, for those who are interested.

    RLD, to your point about contention week at T&S, we’ve had a few guest posts submitted recently and it felt like a good idea to pair political posts from the different sides of the divide together, even knowing that politics in general is contentious.

  16. Same with E. I relate to so much of this post. And I mourn with you. I wanted to be on the record thanking you for sharing your experience.

  17. I was also surprised at the comments. I thought the punch line was missing from the abortion post. Therefore you should vote for Trump because although there were more abortions under Trump, he is such a strong family man. Or abortions always reduce under democrats because of their policies supporting birth control, sex education etc, so you should vote democrat.

    What was the point of the post? I assume the author is saying abortion should influence our vote.

  18. Thanks everyone. I really appreciate your insights and. Having a cordial discussion on the topic is refreshing.

  19. Thanks for this post. It reflects my experiences in Eastern Idaho, where politics comes up on an almost-monthly basis in EQ.

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