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As polling suggests Utah may not vote for the Republican for the first time in 52 years, many wonder why the reddest of states and its prominent socially conservative religious group are drifting away from the party. It’s tempting to chalk it up to a simple answer: last go around, they had one of their own at the top of the ticket and he was expected to assure the public and his party that he is against having multiple wives, but this time, the GOP nominee and party leaders take the position that multiple wives are dandy so long as they’re consecutive, not simultaneous. Glibness is fine for the screamers of cable news, but let’s strive for better. The Mormon question is a complex one. There are theological and cultural influences at play that deserve exploration.
Even among other devout Christians, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints–which from now on I will refer to as Mormons for the sake of clarity and brevity–is considered unusual. As religious belief wanes and socially liberal attitudes enjoy ever wider acceptance  Mormons and the religious right have found each other fighting the same enemies, but their alliance is not based on perfect harmony. Media coverage has unsurprisingly focused on the peculiar aspects of the religion, like sacred undergarments and the sinfulness of drinking coffee, while giving attention, that is at most cursory, to the doctrines that are significantly different from other Christian sects.
Mormons believe it is works, not faith that is ultimately the key to salvation which is ground shared with Catholics, but puts them at odds with most Evangelicals. Hell is not an eternal punishment, but a temporary state following death, after which the occupants are allowed into Heaven. The Mormon conception of Heaven is also idiosyncratic–it’s divided into three tiers to house souls according to righteousness. Those denied entrance into Heaven are a select few cast into Outer Darkness. Hell’s diminished role in Mormon theology is in stark contrast to other Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, but it is in line with a large amount of the American public. It is also characteristic of the Mormon disposition that eschews fury and condemnation. While the church belongs to the millennial tradition, the rhetoric of its officials can hardly be described as apocalyptic. Twice a year they broadcast speeches to their membership, which you can view online. You will notice the calmness of the delivery, the softness of the message, and nary a whiff of fire nor brimstone. Anodyne yes, but jeremiad no.
According to Mormon dogma God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost are three distinct beings. This non-believer can’t fathom why this is a sticking point, but it should be noted as many Christians view this as heretical. Even with regard to social issues, Mormonism isn’t completely aligned with the religious right. Though they were scapegoated for the passing of California’s Proposition 8, the church holds a moderate stance on gays, including support of allowing gays to adopt and anti-discrimination legislation. Aside from controversial statements from President of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, Boyd K. Packer, the rhetoric used regarding the issue is less than inflammatory and falls short of hateful. Officially the church is against abortion, but unlike the staunchest pro-lifers, allows exceptions for cases of rape and incest. For more information on the cultural differences between Mormons and Evangelicals, Razib Khan does a good job detailing Mormonism’s Puritan lineage.
Before jumping into the issue that I believe has been wholly ignored, let’s reflect on the circumstantial. This election follows the first in which a major party nominated a Mormon. People not on society’s margins may find it difficult to empathize with Mormon’s enthusiasm for Romney, like many couldn’t grok the significance JFK had to Catholics or even that of Obama to blacks, but identity politics is not sufficient an explanation. Harry Reid is unlikely to have received the same approval had he been the Democratic nominee. Though he hails from a liberal New England state, Romney has connections to Utah other than belonging to its predominant religion. His time as CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games of 2002 was a major success, overcoming budget issues and a bribery scandal that many Utahns feared would cause great damage to the reputation of their state.
During the 2007 primaries and again in 2012, questions were raised about Romney’s religious beliefs and their amenability to the Republican base. So long as politicians profess their faith on the campaign trail, this is not unfair and it certainly doesn’t violate the prohibition of religious tests for public office contained in Article XI of the Constitution. Ultimately, concerns about Evangelical antipathy turned out to be overblown. There was no great exodus of Christians from the GOP. Conservative pundits and politicians rarely brought it up once Romney clinched the nomination and usually they did so to come to his defense, even if halfheartedly. However, from the Mormon perspective, it was a reminder of their outsider status. It is no surprise that there is resentment when four years ago Evangelicals questioned if Mormons are Christian, but now prominent Evangelicals are excusing and rationalizing the sexual misconduct of a man whose religious convictions reek of perfunctory affirmations that are required of anyone seeking office.
And that brings us to the main factor, Donald Trump himself. Mormons are not alone in finding Trump’s personal behavior distasteful, but they are especially repulsed. Family is central—raising children and maintaining a loving marriage are so important that according to church teachings family relationships continue eternally after death. A popular quote in the church is “No success can compensate for failure in the home.” People who take that to heart are not only unlikely to be persuaded that Trump’s affairs can be set aside because of his business experience, they find the argument immoral. But it’s deeper than that. Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich both have well publicized affairs, but it’s doubtful I’d be writing this were either of them the nominee. Trump has been in the public eye a long time, and his own statements clearly display an attitude toward his sexual conquests that is not just blasé but proud.
While it’s not mind-blowing that people notorious for their buttoned-down squareness and clean living are turned off by a vulgar media personality who boasts about his marital infidelities and was a frequent guest on Howard Stern, that’s not the entire story. The thing that doesn’t get commented on, is the Mormon view of women. It sounds strange to people who confuse mainstream Mormonism with the lecherous criminals of the FLDS and leftists who can’t comprehend traditional gender roles coexisting with respect for women, but women are highly regarded within the church.
A unique aspect of Mormon theology is belief in a Heavenly Mother. It is commonly believed among the membership, and indeed as a child I was taught, that Heavenly Mother is mentioned so infrequently to spare her from the blasphemies that are directed at Heavenly Father. This is not an official part of doctrine. The church provides little information about Heavenly Mother and no explanation why so little has been revealed about Her.  What is not shrouded in mystery is the church’s progressive history on the rights of women. Utah was the second territory to grant women the right to vote. Prior to Utah attaining statehood, its women were disenfranchised by the Edmunds-Tucker Act which was passed to stamp out polygamy. The bill succeeded in that respect, but the Utah constitution was amended to grant women the right to vote as well as hold office. Martha Hughes Cannon was the first woman state senator in the nation. Doubtless, these developments were not exclusively the result of a commitment to gender equality. Still, they are characteristic of a culture that values women. Outside the political sphere, Mormons hold the role of women in even higher esteem with a reverential opinion of motherhood. Many on the left scoff at the veneration of motherhood, assuming it to be disingenuous pretext for keeping women at home, but other social conservatives understand its sincerity. Cheating on the mother of your children who then suffers the additional humiliation of having it published in tabloids doesn’t win votes anywhere, but is particularly offensive to residents of the Beehive State.
Lastly, mention should be made of demographics. Utah has the youngest population of any state, largely because of Mormon fecundity. Even if adopting the conservative views of their parents, the promise to make America great again, doesn’t resonate with young voters. Neither are they likely to find appealing a baby boomer in his seventies. (The youthfulness of the state is also a plausible explanation why Bernie Sanders won the primary against his more conservative opponent.)
We’ll see soon enough how Utahns vote. While the polls indicate Republican support slipping, it behooves us not to overstate our case. If Trump loses Utah it will be just barely. Clinton isn’t a decent alternative for Mormons who see in her and Bill the same personal failings that Trump has, as well as an unacceptable political agenda. Evan McMullin is the only other option with a shot, but is hampered by low name recognition, little political experience and the common perception that third parties aren’t serious enough to warrant a vote. If Utah’s six electoral votes do not go to the Republican it should be viewed as a rejection of Trump, not conservatism. Bizarre as it has been, this election is not going to radically alter conservative Mormons into big government Clinton Democrats. As friendly as their reputation is, the average Mormon is still eats up the red meat served on talk radio and Fox News. After all this is the religion that produced anti-communist crusader and nutcase Cleon Skousen, who was a primary inspiration of fellow Mormon Glenn Beck when he was the most rabid voice in right-wing media.
There’s reason to fear that this group may not always feel welcome in the American right. With Lou Dobbs tweeting about the “Mormon mafia” and Trump supporters speaking about reprisals against those who don’t fall in line, already sour relations threaten to become worse. Lots has been said about reaching the conservatives who stayed home last election, appealing to the white working class and not neglecting regular citizens who are fed up with the elites of the Washington establishment and think-tank eggheads. The same people pushing that narrative may actually end up driving people out of the movement. That would be as some say, “Sad!”
 Even the much vaunted gains of the pro-life movement haven’t shifted public opinion dramatically with a slight majority thinking it should be legal, though not in all cases.
 Brigham Young University published an article on the subject which sheds some light on the subject, but which I think underlines the fact that the official teachings are much less than extensive. It is logical that members have come up with their own interpretations.