How Mormonism Has Moderated Romney's and Huntsman's Politics

Widely considered one of America's most traditionalist religions, the church of Latter-day Saints also pushes believers into the world


There is a popular image of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) as authoritarian, apocalyptic, and even racist. Until 1978, it refused to ordain African-Americans as priests, and it doesn't help that some of its most famous followers -- from Glenn Beck to Bay Buchanan -- have tended to be on the radical right.

But Mormons should not be lazily categorized as raging conservatives. Now the fourth largest denomination in the U.S., and the richest per capita, the Mormon faith has come of age at the national level, with two church members -- Jon Huntsman, Jr., and Mitt Romney -- running for the Republican presidential nomination. Sure, Mormons are as overwhelmingly Republican today as most people imagine, but, as the politics of the Mormon-dominated state of Utah show, that's not the full picture.

Utah also contains a constituency of liberal and moderate voters, and the influence of that demographic has been reflected in the more liberal positions taken by Huntsman on social issues. As governor, Huntsman came out in favor of gay civil unions and his job performance ratings barely flinched. The local press found that 47 percent of Utah residents supported civil unions and 42 percent opposed them -- a narrow plurality for gay rights, but bigger than expected. Romney, for his part, has been routinely attacked during the presidential primary contest for his more liberal views, some of which he has renounced, on everything from health-care coverage to abortion.

It is true that Mormonism demands of its followers a rigid code of behavior. Women are encouraged to be homemakers and no one is allowed to drink. Dating outside of the Church is discouraged and non-Mormon relatives are banned from attending weddings in temple. And church members have been known to organize secular cultural campaigns. In 2008, Mormons descended upon California in huge numbers to secure passage of the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8. They gave almost half the $40 million donated towards the campaign, despite making up only 2 percent of the state's population.

But opinions within the LDS Church are more divided on sexuality than they once were. Recently, a San Francisco Mormon bishop elevated a gay man to the position of "executive secretary" of a local temple. The appointment was conditional on him "living the commandments" (remaining celibate), but it represents a dramatic attempt to engage with modernity.

This kind of creeping social change can be found in the LDS Church's own backyard, as well. The percentage of Utah residents who are Mormon is at its lowest level since the Church started keeping numbers. By 2030, it will no longer constitute a majority. That has already happened in Salt Lake City, where less than half the population is affiliated to the faith. Ironically, the LDS Church has been a victim of its own success. Because they have to go abroad on mission, young Mormon men are raised bilingual. In a country where that talent is rare outside of the immigrant population, the LDS Church realized it was on to a money maker. It created a regulation-light culture in Salt Lake and encouraged foreign firms to set up business there. In 2011, the city is the industrial finance capital of America.

But with the new money came non-Mormon businessmen and Latino laborers. Enriched Mormons left Salt Lake and settled in the suburbs. Slowly, the LDS Church lost its grip on the city. In 1999, Salt Lakers elected the liberal Democrat Rocky Anderson to the mayoralty. Among his achievements were extending civil service benefits to same-sex partners of employees and outlawing anti-gay discrimination in hiring. Until he quit the party in protest at its "gutlessness," Anderson was part of a long tradition of Democratic Mormon office-holders, from Arizona's Mo Udall to Nevada's Harry Reid.

Salt Lake City now offers people a place to escape the rigors of LDS life. Women can get a job, men can get a drink. For many who are raised Mormon but who "live in the world," Mormonism is less a religion than it is an ethnicity. They might still avoid drugs or attend temple once in a while, but they don't necessarily subscribe to their faith in the strict way their parents did. This has led to a conversation within the community about what it means to be Mormon in the 21st century. An example of how that has played out is the rise of an LDS movie industry, dubbed Mollywood.

In the late 1990s, a handful of Mormon directors started making independent movies about the peculiarities of Mormon life. Many of them focused on the overseas mission -- an experience ripe for comedy. Most of these movies dealt with Mormonism as a social experience: the weirdness of being dumped by your parents in Holland or the consequences of bringing home a non-Mormon boyfriend. Overtime, the LDS Church realized the profitability of Mollywood and took over censorship and distribution. They set strict rules about what they wouldn't show on screen (drinking, sex, tattoos). But the output was still surprisingly fluffy and lightweight, including a Mormon parody of Pride and Prejudice. Other filmmakers insisted on making gritty dramas that explore their community's problems. Beneath the radar, the LDS Church is undergoing a mini-cultural revolution.

Acknowledging the complexities of Mormon cultural life, we should also be more careful about projecting our own images of Mormonism upon Romney and Huntsman. Their loyalty to the faith community they grew up in doesn't necessarily translate into strict observance of its rules. That's one more reason why the attacks on Romney's faith are so distasteful. They imply that a man can't be loyal to his Church while also being thoughtful and progressive. That's not how faith works in modern America.

Image credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder