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date: 21 September 2023

Mormon Mobilization in Contemporary U.S. Politicsfree

Mormon Mobilization in Contemporary U.S. Politicsfree

  • Matthew R. MilesMatthew R. MilesDepartment of History, Geography and Political Science, Brigham Young University Idaho
  •  and Jason M. AdkinsJason M. AdkinsDepartment of Social Sciences and Cultural Studies, Montana State University Billings


In 2012, the Republican Party selected a Mormon, Mitt Romney, as their nominee for U.S. president. After decades of persecution and suspicion, many felt like the LDS Church was finally being accepted as a mainstream religion and an equal player on the national political stage. From a different perspective, the “acceptance” of the LDS Church by the U.S. government and the Republican Party has come at a tremendous cost. Unlike those who joined other religious denominations in America, 19th century converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gave everything they had to the church. The 19th-century LDS Church controlled not just the political, but the economic, social, and religious aspects of its members’ lives. The LDS Church has traded immense power over a few dedicated members for a weaker political voice in the lives of millions more members. From this perspective, the LDS Church has never been more politically weak than they were in the 2012 presidential election. Previous LDS Church presidents endorsed non-Mormon candidates Cleveland, Taft, and Nixon more enthusiastically than President Monson endorsed Mitt Romney—one of his own. In the 20th century, the power of the LDS Church over the lives of its members has waned considerably, significantly hindering the institutional church’s ability to politically mobilize its congregants. Even in Utah, only the most ardent LDS Church members are swayed by the political dictates of LDS Church leaders.


  • History and Politics
  • Political Behavior
  • Political Values, Beliefs, and Ideologies

Mormon Political Mobilization

Among religious denominations in the United States, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) is uniquely positioned to exercise political influence and politically mobilize its members.1 This is because the organizational structure and teachings of the Mormon Church facilitate adherence to the instructions of LDS leaders (Campbell & Monson, 2007; Gordon & Gillespie, 2012).2 Beginning from 12 to 14 years of age, Mormons are trained to teach Sunday school lessons, preach sermons from the pulpit, and regularly visit the homes of church members as ministers.3 In addition, most young men are expected—at age 18—to leave home for two years and proselyte door-to-door. Young women may leave at 19 to proselyte for 18 months. This activity develops civic skills in Mormon congregations that are easily adapted to political mobilization, if activated (Putnam & Campbell, 2012). In addition, LDS Church members revere the president of the church as a “prophet, seer, and revelator” and raise their hands in quarterly meetings to affirm this belief. Mormons who wish to enter the temple must affirm in a private interview that they believe that the president of the church is the only person authorized to speak for God or govern the church.4

Given this kindling, we might expect the LDS Church to wield tremendous political power. In reality, the LDS Church is rather politically impotent. Despite notable successes defeating the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and mobilizing opposition to same-sex marriage in 2008, the LDS Church rarely influences policy outside of densely populated Mormon communities. Over the course of its history, the LDS Church has had very little power in the U.S. national government. Despite the legislative successes of Mormons elected to Congress, no directive from the LDS Church leadership has caused a shift in federal government policy.5 In state and local politics, LDS Church power depends on the number of Mormons who live in the region and the amount of resources church leaders choose to expend on the issue. When church leaders employ all available resources, they can be quite influential in state and local politics in Mormon-populated regions. Yet, statements from church leaders on moral issues have little influence on the political behavior of Mormon congregants. Finally, political influence comes at a cost. The negative repercussions of full-scale political mobilization may be the primary constraint on Mormon Church leaders’ decisions to influence politics.

This article uses a historical approach to explore the extent to which the LDS Church successfully utilizes this latent political power. Unlike other denominations in the United States, the LDS Church began as an institution that controlled every aspect of its members’ lives. Politics was one of many aspects of life that individuals chose to conform to the will of their church leaders. This conformity was a threat to the political power structure in the regions in which Mormons founded communities. As such, elected officials used the power of the state to forcibly remove Mormons from the borders of their communities, and eventually beyond the borders of the United States. Yet, deeply held American patriotism motivated Latter-day Saints to seek recognition of the U.S. government as a U.S. territory and state. Not until the U.S. government threatened to obliterate the LDS Church did the church yield to U.S. government authority and achieve statehood in Utah. It is impossible to understand the contours of LDS political influence without the historical context of the fight between the LDS Church and the U.S. government over who would exercise political authority over the community of Saints in the Western states. The historical lens illuminates why a religious organization with so much political potential rarely uses that influence to alter political outcomes—the LDS Church rarely wins in politics.

The Beginnings of Mormonism

The LDS Church was organized in New York in April of 1830.6 Within a year of the church’s founding in New York, the main body of Latter-day Saints moved to Ohio and Missouri and developed an organization through which church leaders controlled all the surplus property of church members. In Ohio, they were commanded to give all of their surplus property to the church (Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013, 42:33).

In Missouri, Sidney Gilbert was commanded to establish a store where goods could be bought and sold, “that he may obtain money to buy lands for the good of the Saints” (The Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013, 57:8). Edward Partridge was appointed to be in charge of managing the goods and properties donated to the church, while Williams W. Phelps was appointed to manage a printing office. The early converts of the LDS Church were not simply selecting a religious denomination, but an entirely new life. New converts were expected to sell their possessions, gather with one of these main bodies of adherents in a new land, and give all that they had to building the Lord’s Kingdom on Earth.

The desire to gather together motivated these converts to build new communities of Mormons rather than integrating into existing communities. This created a strong union of church, state, and economy within LDS communities. In Missouri, Mormons traded almost entirely through Sidney Gilbert’s store. This activity differentially influenced local markets, much to the chagrin of prospective residents (Arrington & Bitton, 1992, p. 49). Moreover, Mormons tended to vote as a united bloc, which created tension because the “Mormon vote” could be blamed for electoral defeats. Even when winning parties benefited from the LDS coalition, they feared that eventually the Mormons would become strong enough to elect an entire slate of Mormon candidates. In short, although many LDS church members were poor and without means to be politically or economically significant on their own, the economic and political unity of the body of LDS adherents made them a strong political and economic force in the small communities in which they initially settled.

In the fall of 1838, Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs signed an executive order stating that “the Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state of Missouri.”7 Joseph Smith and other church leaders spent the winter of 1838–1839 in a Missouri jail. As the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Brigham Young asked church members to sign a pledge to give all of their available property to a committee charged with ensuring that all of the poor, needy, and destitute Mormons would be removed from the state of Missouri (Arrington & Bitton, 1992, p. 68). The main body of the LDS Church found their way to Quincy, Illinois. The citizens of the city (1,500 in number) assisted approximately 5,000 Mormons through the winter.8 In the spring, Joseph Smith escaped from jail and joined with the main body of Mormons to begin development of a city 50 miles to the north of Quincy, named Nauvoo.

Growth in Illinois

In 1837, two Mormon Apostles began proselyting in England and baptized more than 1,300 people. In 1840, Brigham Young and the remainder of the Apostles arrived in England to support the missionary efforts. By 1846, Mormon missionaries baptized 18,000 English citizens, and nearly 5,000 of them emigrated to Nauvoo and the surrounding communities (Arrington & Bitton, 1992, p. 68) By 1844, the city of Nauvoo had grown from approximately 100 individuals to 12,000, making it the second largest city in Illinois behind Chicago (Black, 1995). Once again, the community of Latter-day Saints built a society that wholly intertwined religion, economics, and politics, but on a larger scale than anything they had previously accomplished.

This large voting bloc attracted the attention of candidates for statewide and national political office. Early on, Mormons were Jacksonian Democrats (Wicks & Foister, 2005). However, after Joseph Smith’s meeting with President Van Buren to seek redress for the events in Missouri failed, Mormons began supporting candidates who were sympathetic to their cause. One demonstration of the political power of the Nauvoo Mormons occurred during the 1843 congressional election for the newly created Illinois Sixth District. Joseph Hoge was the Democratic nominee and faced Cyrus Walker as the Whig challenger. Earlier in June, Joseph Smith had been arrested on charges of treason against the state of Missouri, and Cyrus Walker agreed to act as attorney for Joseph Smith if he agreed to deliver the Mormon vote in the upcoming congressional election. Joseph consented and within a week was released from jail. Joseph Smith returned to Nauvoo with Cyrus Walker and gave a speech to an assembled crowd praising Walker and pledging to vote for him (Jenson, 1888, p. 517; Wicks & Foister, 2005, p. 40).

Shortly thereafter, the Illinois State Register suggested that this was all part of a Whig conspiracy to win the election. Another rumor was that Smith’s brother, Hyrum Smith, had pledged to deliver the Mormon vote to Joseph Hoge in exchange for a Democratic seat in Congress the following term.9 The voting public seemed divided on whom to support. Hyrum Smith and William Law (a counselor in the First Presidency) supported different candidates, causing confusion about which of the two candidates Joseph Smith wanted the Mormons to support. Two days before the election, Joseph Smith arose to speak at a Sunday meeting. Smith said:

I have not come to tell you to vote this way, that way, or the other in relation to national matters. I want it to abroad to the whole world that every man should stand on his own merits. The Lord has not given me revelation concerning politics—I have not asked the Lord for it—I am a third party stand independent and alone—I desire to see all parties protected in their rights.10

Joseph further stated that his brother Hyrum believed that it would be better for the Mormons to vote for Hoge and he had never known Hyrum to have a revelation that failed, but that he—Joseph Smith—would be voting for Walker (Cook & Ehat, 1981). Walker lost the election, and those in the surrounding areas became upset that Democrats were winning office because of the “Mormon” vote. By September, many of them had organized and adopted a resolution stating that they would not support a political candidate who should “truckle” to the Mormons and threatened that “when the government ceases to afford protection, the citizens fall back on their original inherent rights of self-defense” (Jenson, 1888, p. 768).

In November 1843, Joseph Smith wrote a letter to each of the leading candidates for the U.S. presidency—John C. Calhoun, Lewis Cass, Richard M. Johnson, Henry Clay, and Martin Van Buren—asking how they would treat the Mormons if they were elected.11 He received personal correspondence from Clay, who stated that he would not make any promises to members of any groups in advance of the election.12 Calhoun promised to treat all citizens of different religious creeds equally and repeated an earlier statement that Smith’s complaints about the treatment of Mormons in Missouri were not under the jurisdiction of the federal government.13 The rest did not reply. Joseph Smith was indignant at the implication that the federal government had no authority to protect the Mormons from states that might deprive them of their religious liberties. In his reply, Smith compared the oppression of the LDS people in the United States to that of exiled Poles who “have felt the iron hand of Russian grasp” (Smith, 1991, 6:156–160).

Perhaps sensing that the Mormon militia in Nauvoo would be insufficient to protect the LDS Church should the people of Illinois choose to repeat what happened in Missouri, Joseph Smith decided that running as a third-party candidate for the U.S. presidency would be the best way to generate sympathy for their cause. Smith believed that if someone in the White House interpreted the U.S. Constitution properly, the federal government could exercise authority to protect the Mormons from oppressive state laws (Bushman, 2007). He was also convinced that none of the presidential candidates had a broad enough view of executive authority to restrict state actions against the Mormons. In January 1844, a political meeting in Nauvoo unanimously agreed to have an independent electoral ticket and to have Joseph Smith as their nominee (Jenson, 1888, p. 540).

By April, Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign was in full swing. William W. Phelps had been enlisted to draft a document outlining the candidate’s views on the powers and policy of the U.S. government. The church held its semi-annual general conference at which they asked for electioneering missionaries, and 244 volunteered on the spot. Within six days, 339 people were assigned to visit 26 states and the Wisconsin territory teaching LDS theology and campaigning for Joseph Smith (Crawley, 1997, p. 246). These missionaries held political conferences and distributed copies of the pamphlet, which outlined Smith’s political views: abolition of slavery within five years, prison reform, the expansion of federal government power, and a national bank (Robertson, 2000; Smith, 2015).

We do not know what effect this campaigning might have had on the outcome of the 1844 presidential election. In June 1844, Joseph Smith was arrested and killed by a mob, which stormed the jail in Carthage, Illinois. Many believed that this would be the end of Mormonism. By August, many of the Quorum of the Twelve returned to Nauvoo from their missions abroad to join in the discussion about who should be the successor to Joseph Smith. The main body of the Latter-day Saints agreed that the Quorum of the Twelve, with Brigham Young as president, should be the body to govern the church. The people in Illinois had grown tired of the strong LDS presence in their community and mobs once again began tormenting the LDS people. In January 1845, the Illinois state legislature repealed the Nauvoo charter, and with it the Nauvoo militia. Once again, the Mormons began looking for a new place to build their community.

The preceding discussion demonstrates the contingent political power of the LDS Church from the beginning. Although the church exercised immense power within the Mormon communities, church leaders did not successfully influence election outcomes, elect Mormons to statewide office, or defeat their political enemies. In fact, whenever Mormon influence threatened to change the status quo, those with the real political power forcibly removed them from the community.

The Kingdom of God in the West

Brigham Young scouted land in the West and determined to build a new community in what is now Salt Lake City, Utah. The initial plan called for an advance team to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley and plant crops to prepare for the remainder of the Saints to follow. The political environment in Nauvoo, however, necessitated an earlier departure than what was planned. By the fall of 1846, Nauvoo was almost empty. The advance team dug trails and planted crops along the way to make it easier for the main body of Saints to travel to Utah. Yet, most of the Mormons were penniless. They sold their Nauvoo holdings at pennies on the dollar to finance their expedition and did not have sufficient means to make the journey. In January 1846, Young instructed a church leader (Jesse Little) to take advantage of any opportunity for assistance from the federal government. Thomas Kane helped Little to connect with newly elected President James Polk. Little suggested that the Mormon Saints might be able to assist in the Mexican War in exchange for payment. In early July 1846, The Mormon Battalion left Council Bluffs, Iowa, on one of the longest infantry marches in U.S. history. A year later, the battalion arrived on the Pacific Coast and was disbanded after receiving $70,000 in wages. In July 1847, the first group of Mormons arrived in the Salt Lake Valley and began building dams, tilling the ground, and planting crops. Within three months, nearly 2,000 people were living in Salt Lake and—just had been done before—organized a community that completely integrated religion, politics, and economics (Arrington & Bitton, 1992, p. 99).

The 1847 crop was meager, and many Saints nearly starved to death. In the winter, the church began a voluntary rationing system. By the spring, many were surviving on tree bark, wolf meat, thistle, and sego lily bulbs. The population doubled again in 1848 as 2,400 new immigrants arrived. Whereas Ohio and Missouri only had one congregation each, by the fall of 1848, Brigham Young had established 19 congregations (with from 70 to 100 families), each with their own bishop. Each congregation was charged with building a church meeting house, establishing a school house, building roads, bridges, and canals, and taking care of the poor in their midst. During the winter of 1848–1849, Young established a court system, formed a provisional government for the State of Deseret, started public works projects, created coinage out of gold dust brought by Battalion members returning from California, and distributed land to nearly 1,000 people (Arrington & Bitton, 1992, p. 105).

Young was not content to build a single community in the Salt Lake Valley. With $2,000 of Battalion money, the church purchased the land to the north from famed trapper Miles Goodyear. Most of those who joined the church in the early years were farmers, businessmen, and clerks. In contrast, those who joined the church in England were craftsmen and mechanics who had been employed in industrialized British factories. President Young realized that the community would not survive unless it was completely self-sufficient. To that end, Young would call missionaries to travel to remote locations and establish communities, following the same pattern that was developed in Ohio and Missouri and repeated in the Salt Lake Valley. Around 100 families—consisting of farmers, businessmen, craftsmen, and mechanics—would be called to settle a region in the West, create a local congregation, civic government, and schools, and develop an industry vital to the broader LDS community. The missionaries and their families would leave almost immediately and, within a year, most of these settlements were vibrant, productive communities. By the late 1880s, communities of Latter-day Saints were established in what is now eastern Idaho, western Wyoming, Carson City, Nevada, San Bernardino, California, Las Vegas, Nevada, and throughout all of Utah (Arrington & Bitton, 1992, p. 123).

The U.S. Government Fights Back

This state building enterprise did not occur in a vacuum. Even while the Mormons were building these communities, various factions arose to challenge the power of the LDS Church. The first occurred when newly elected President James Buchanan received word that the Mormons were colluding with native Americans to begin a war against all non-Mormon settlers in the West. Although Buchanan did not seem worried about the Mormons in his election campaign or inaugural address, he decided to send an army to the Utah territory and replace Brigham Young as territorial governor. President Fillmore had appointed Young as territorial governor as part of the 1850 arrangement granting Deseret territorial status (Randall & Donald, 1961, p. 88). The remaining federally appointed leaders in the territory were simply figureheads who exercised no real authority (Arrington & Bitton, 1992, p. 163). When the Mormons got word that the federal government had sent a militia to install a non-Mormon governor and prevent any further rebellion, they feared that once again the U.S. government would drive them from their homes. This time, they fought back. In November 1857, 1,800 federal soldiers were headed to Fort Bridger, Wyoming. Mormon raiders arrived in advance and burned the fort to the ground as well as surrounding forts and some supply wagons. The federal troops were forced to huddle on the brink of starvation through the winter in a charred fort. Eventually—in the spring—the soldiers established a camp on the outskirts of the Salt Lake Valley and peacefully oversaw the installation of half a dozen officials in the territory (Arrington & Bitton, 1992, p. 169).

Although many of the federal appointees did not interfere in Mormon affairs, the size of the Utah territory was pared of all land west of the 39th parallel in 1861, in part because of the discovery of silver in Nevada. As long as they did not obstruct overland travel, most outsiders were content to leave the Mormons alone. However, early in the Civil War, it became vital for President Lincoln to have a northern stage line and the transcontinental telegraph. Each of these passed through Salt Lake City, and unless the Mormon territories sided with the North, Lincoln would lose his connection to California and other western states. When it became urgent for someone to protect the overland route in 1862, President Lincoln bypassed the territorial governor and wired Brigham Young authorizing him to raise, arm, and equip a company of cavalry to protect the telegraph and overland mail companies (Arrington & Bitton, 1992, p. 171).

Hoping to be rewarded for their loyalty, the church established the State of Deseret as a shadow government operating behind the scenes. LDS Church leaders were a little too optimistic in their expectations of reciprocity from the U.S. federal government; they did not receive statehood at this time. Furthermore, during the construction of the railroad, many people who were not LDS members immigrated to the LDS communities in the West and did not like the strong integration of religion and politics in Mormon communities. In addition, the discovery of copper, coal, and iron in various parts of the Utah territory brought non-Mormon entrepreneurs to the region who were intent on breaking the LDS theocracy in the region. Although the non-Mormons working in the mines and on the railroad were too small in number to challenge the Mormons at the polls, they successfully used the courts to challenge the validity of election results. They successfully appealed to sympathetic parties outside the Utah territory for assistance in their fight against the Mormons.

The Mormons successfully tamed the West, remained loyal to the Union in the Civil War, and established patriotic communities who revered the political authority of the Constitution and the U.S. government. In return for this loyalty, the government appointed non-Mormon territorial authorities in positions of power. These judicial and executive appointees slowly diminished the power of the LDS Church over the political and governmental affairs of the communities they had established. The Mormon Church gradually yielded political power to communities of non-Mormon immigrants who felt threatened by the political authority of the LDS Church.

Polygamy and Utah Statehood

U.S. political leaders had long expressed concerns about polygamous marriages among the LDS population. At their first national convention in 1856, the Republicans included in their platform that Congress should prohibit the “twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery” in the Territories.14 Democrat Stephen A. Douglas—who had been friendly with the Illinois Mormons—argued in 1857 that the behavior of the Mormons in Utah resulted in a forfeiture of their rights, that the Utah territory should be abolished, and that Congress should “apply the knife and cut out this loathsome, disgusting ulcer” (Douglas, 1857).

The Edmonds Act of 1882 outlawed bigamy and polygamy, as well as cohabitation (which made it unnecessary to prove that a marriage had taken place). In addition, it prohibited polygamists or cohabitants from voting. It also provided for a five-man Utah Commission appointed by the president to supervise all aspects of the electoral process in Utah Territory. All elected offices were vacated in the territory and only people who denied belief in or had never practiced plural marriage were allowed to run for office. In Murphy v. Ramsey, the Supreme Court ruled that the statute was not ex post facto because people were being punished for disobeying the cohabitation portion of the law, not their prior marriages.

Against this background, Utahans decided to mount another statehood drive. A constitutional convention authorized by the legislature met during April 10–27, 1882, in Salt Lake City and framed a constitution for Utah, abandoning the name Deseret and retooling the document. On May 22, the constitution was ratified by a vote of the people. Although a delegation was dispatched to Washington with the new constitution to present to Congress, no action was taken on the matter until February 23, 1883, when it was introduced in the Senate; a statehood bill was later introduced in the House, but both bills were referred to committees where they were quickly put on hold.

As federal officials in Utah increased their pursuit and prosecution of polygamists under provisions of the Edmunds Act, many polygamists were imprisoned and others went into hiding on the “underground” or into exile in Mexico or elsewhere. On Saturday, May 2, 1885, Mormons held a mass meeting in the Salt Lake Tabernacle to protest the heavy hand of federal authorities. Those in attendance framed a “Declaration of Grievances and Protest” and chose a delegation to carry the document to the president. Similar mass meetings were held in other cities and towns throughout the territory. On May 13, the delegation from Utah, John T. Caine, John W. Taylor, and John Q. Cannon, presented the declaration to President Cleveland.15

The Edmonds-Tucker Act was approved by both houses of Congress in February 1887 and sent to President Cleveland. He allowed it to become law without his signature. Among other things, this act provided that LDS Church property in excess of $50,000 would be forfeited to the United States and abolished woman suffrage in the territory. This discouraging news seemed to galvanize Mormons in Utah to continue their pursuit of statehood, but with a somewhat different proposal. On June 30, 1887, another constitutional convention met in Salt Lake City, and by July 7, it had hammered out a constitution that declared bigamy and polygamy “incompatible with a republican form of government” and made both activities misdemeanors. On August 1, the new constitution was ratified by Utah voters. Many doubted the sincerity of its provisions against polygamy, and newspapers across the country editorialized against statehood based on such flimsy evidence of a turnaround of affairs in Utah. The new constitution was not automatically set aside by Congress, which held hearings on it in 1888, but ultimately it too failed to achieve the desired result for Utah. With the Mormon hierarchy determined to retain polygamy as a tenet and a practice, some members of Congress began agitating for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would ban the practice.

On July 30, 1887, the U.S. attorney for the territory commenced suit to claim all LDS Church assets in excess of $50,000. The LDS Church contested these actions and eventually the case was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court began hearing oral arguments in Mormon Church v. United States in January 1889. More than a year later, in May 1890, the Court upheld the Edmunds-Tucker Act.16 This decision had two immediate consequences. First, there was an immediate national interest in the conduct of the receivership, and second, the president of the LDS Church issued a “manifesto” ending the performance of plural marriages.

It was becoming clear that to remain within the United States, the LDS Church would have to undergo dramatic changes. The Edmonds-Tucker Act, with the subsequent Manifesto by LDS President Wilford Woodruff, marks the beginning of the process through which the LDS Church moved from a completely integrated community to one component of the broader societal structure (Alexander, 1996, p. 5). The federal government seizure of property and the depression of the 1890s caused tithing receipts to fall from $500,000 to $350,000 per annum. The LDS Church responded by taking on debt from bankers outside of Utah. By mid-1898, the church owed $2.3 million to outside banks, which necessitated considerable financial restructuring of LDS-owned business operations and a renewed emphasis on tithing (Alexander, 1996, pp. 7–13).

Once the LDS Church yielded to the authority of the federal government, political changes soon followed. The Manifesto was issued on September 25, 1890, and within two weeks the First Presidency met with and urged the reelection of John T. Caine (People’s Party) as the territorial delegate. The Republican Party was powerful in national politics, and some believed that if more members of the LDS Church were willing to affiliate with the Republican Party, the more likely it would be that Utah would gain statehood. As such, Mormon leaders began counseling rank-and-file members of the church to become Republicans, something that upset both members of the church and non-Mormons living in the territory. Yet, this was politically advantageous. LDS leaders began petitioning Republican President Benjamin Harrison to grant amnesty to polygamists who had been convicted under the Edmunds and Edmunds-Tucker Acts. During the summer of 1891, Joseph F. Smith and John Henry Smith drafted a petition that explained the origins of the Manifesto and stated that the Mormon people had accepted it as the future rule of their lives. On January 4, 1893, President Harrison granted “full amnesty and pardon to all persons liable to the penalties of said act by reason of unlawful cohabitation under the color of polygamous or plural marriage who have since November 1, 1890, abstained from such unlawful cohabitation, but upon the express condition that they shall in the future faithfully obey the laws of the United States hereinbefore named, and not otherwise. Those who shall fail to avail themselves of the clemency hereby offered will be vigorously prosecuted.”17

Although each of these actions may have been necessary to protect the LDS Church from political and financial ruin, they also mark the end of the political might of the LDS Church. Once the only economic, religious, social, and political voice in the lives of its members, the LDS Church now deferred to external political and economic authorities. Mormon leaders seemed powerful because they simply directed their congregants to reaffiliate with a different political party and most of them did so, but in the broader historical context, this change reflected a weakening of the political might of the Church. They gave up their own political party to become members of another.

Political Heterogeneity in the LDS Church

In May 1891, George Q. Cannon of the First Presidency urged the dissolution of the People’s Party because he believed that political solidarity among Mormons was preventing them from achieving statehood. On May 29, Franklin S. Richards (church attorney and People’s Party chair) dissolved the political party and advised the members to join one of the two major national political parties. On July 6, the Democrats held their convention and nominated a slate of candidates for Salt Lake County offices. On July 8, the Republicans met and nominated their first county ticket. The two parties met several times during July to build their organization and to field legislative candidates for the August 3 election. Democrats won most of the offices. At the time, most Republicans in the territory were not Mormons. The dissolution of the People’s Party created the possibility of political division along religious lines in the territory. George Q. Cannon counseled against this division, and two senior members of the Quorum of the Twelve—Francis M. Lyman and John Henry Smith—together with Joseph F. Smith of the First Presidency became Republicans.

Publicly, church leaders argued that they would not seek to control the political actions of their members, but privately they were willing to do so. Moses Thatcher (D) was a senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve who did not believe in a union between the church and politics. He proposed that no member of the senior councils of the church should be allowed to engage in partisan political activity. This proposal was defeated because the majority of the general authorities did not want a rule prohibiting them from participating in political activities. Accordingly, Thatcher, Charles W. Penrose, and Brigham H. Roberts (First Council of Seventy) began laying the groundwork for the Democratic Party in 1892–1893. This was contrary to the existing practice of having high-ranking LDS Church leaders recruit for the Republican Party.

By the fall of 1893, Roberts and Thatcher complained that Francis Lyman and John Henry Smith were interfering with the agency of lay church members by trying to get Democrats to vote for certain Republicans. In the political battle that ensued, Roberts became a Democratic candidate for Congress and Thatcher was the front-runner for a Senate seat. On October 7, 1895, Joseph F. Smith (First Presidency) intimated in a special priesthood meeting that both Roberts and Thatcher had acted wrongly by not consulting ecclesiastical superiors before seeking public office. By November 1895, the First Presidency was uneasy about the political situation in the territory. If they too strongly interfered with the elections, they would risk upsetting church leaders who were working to build the Democratic Party in Utah; if they did not, they risked having too many political offices won by Democrats and perpetuating the Mormon and non-Mormon political divide, which would put statehood at risk. Republicans won the majority of seats in the 1895 election. Both Roberts and Thatcher viewed this as a temporary setback and vowed to become candidates again in 1896. In 1895, the “The Political Rule of the Church” was issued that established a written rule that general authorities of the church must get approval from the First Presidency before seeking political office. In the leadup to the April 1896 general conference, the First Presidency, the Twelve, and the Council of the Seventy questioned Roberts and Thatcher. Roberts yielded to the wishes of church leaders. Elder Thatcher, however, refused to accept the Political Rule and was removed from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. They agreed to allow him to remain a church member only after he recanted his previous statements opposing the Political Rule (Alexander, 1996).

The Final Separation of the LDS Church and State

By August 1898, most general authorities had agreed not to interfere with politics, but the senatorial contest of 1898 was divisive and was the first real test of the Political Rule. Alfred McCune—a marginally active Mormon—had made a fortune in mining ventures and asked Heber J. Grant (Council of the Twelve) to support his candidacy for the Senate. George Q. Cannon (First Presidency) and James M. Moyle also campaigned for the Senate seat and gained support from other members of the Council of the Twelve. In the end, the state legislature was deadlocked, and Utah did not send anyone to fill the Senate seat (Arrington & Bitton, 1992). By the time Reed Smoot was elected by the Utah legislature to the Senate in 1903, the degree of separation of church and state in Utah was tried in the U.S. Senate.

As the first native Utahan and LDS Apostle elected to the Senate, Smoot represented both the potential threat of Mormon political power in the West and the LDS Church as an institution. Democrats and Protestants were determined to end each of these (Flake, 2005, p. 46). Brigham H. Roberts—a polygamist and a Democrat—had been refused his seat in the House of Representatives following the 1898 election, so it was not unprecedented for Democrats to use polygamy as the cause for refusal to seat a member of Congress. It was unusual for the Senate to deny a seat based on religious beliefs (Heath, 2007). Since Smoot was not a polygamist, he may not have anticipated that he would encounter opposition to being seated. Nevertheless, in 1904 the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections initiated hearings to investigate whether Smoot was fit for office. Most of the petitions sent to Washington protesting the seating of Senator Smoot came from evangelical religious organizations. Of the more than 3,000 petitions, less than 100 came from the 11 southern states (Heath, 2007).

The prosecution focused on four main points: First, they would attempt to prove that Smoot was a polygamist. Second, they would prove that Smoot had taken an oath against the State of Utah and the U.S. government. Third, they would show that his duty to the church required him to comply with an order from the church to oppose the government. Finally, they would assert that Utah had violated its compact with the Union by allowing the continued practice of polygamy (Heath, 2007). The questioning surrounding the third point is most relevant for this article. Church President Joseph F. Smith was called to testify before the committee to answer the charge that LDS Church leaders exercised “supreme authority, divinely sanctioned, to shape the belief and control the conduct of those under them in all matters whatsoever, civil and religious, temporal and spiritual.” Smith replied that the guidance the church president receives is no different from that which any other church member may receive. He further argued that all members of the church are free to accept or reject any revelation presented to them by the prophet—that revelation is not binding upon the church by virtue merely of its enunciation by the hierarchy, but only upon acceptance by the congregation. He further stipulated that if the church were to command the people to do something that was forbidden by the law, the people would be at liberty to obey whichever they pleased (Flake, 2005, p. 78).

After three years of hearings, the Senate vote to unseat Smoot failed and he went on to an illustrious senate career, but the damage to the political authority of the LDS Church was permanent. Over the 20th century to 2018, the LDS Church has refrained from endorsing candidates or becoming involved in politics unless it determined that there was a moral issue that demanded a public response from the church. Politically, the Latter-day Saints have behaved much as President Smith suggested they could during the Smoot hearings. At times, Mormons politically mobilize and support the official church position, and at other times, they do not. The remainder of this article summarizes the few noteworthy attempts of the LDS Church to politically mobilize the membership and explains why they succeeded (or failed) to achieve their political goals.

Mormon Mobilization After the Separation of the LDS Church and State


Reed Smoot (U.S. Senator, Apostle, Republican) opposed the adoption of Prohibition in 1917 and persuaded LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith to keep a low profile on the subject. Smoot and Smith feared that active support of Prohibition would renew the religious partisan cleavage in Utah. Apostle Heber J. Grant had a different view, and once he became church president, he worked to strengthen ecclesiastical enforcement of the LDS law of health. Although Joseph Smith had received a revelation in 1833 that alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and tea were not to be consumed, there were no punishments in place for church members who did not comply. Not until 1921—two years into Grant’s leadership—did adherence to the Word of Wisdom become necessary for those who wanted to enter LDS temples (Alexander, 1996, p. 255). At the same time, he used the full force of LDS Church organizations to fight against the repeal of Prohibition. At a conference for young adults in 1931, several church auxiliaries agreed to donate a portion of their funds to support the Betterment League’s efforts to support Prohibition (Alexander, 1996, p. 267). In addition, Grant repeatedly spoke in General Conference in support of Prohibition. Most church leaders fought against repealing Prohibition (Skyles, 1962, p. 70). Even Democrat and Apostle B. H. Roberts changed his opinion on the issue to conform to that of President Grant. The campaign to repeal Prohibition was successful—which devastated President Grant—but active LDS Church members supported their leader. Fifty-five percent of active Mormons voted in line with Grant (Campbell & Monson, 2003).

1968 Repeal of Liquor Laws

Utah allowed the sale of alcohol, but passed the most restrictive liquor laws in the country. In some municipalities, restaurants and bars could not sell liquor by the drink; patrons had to bring their own alcohol with them and mix it with their own drinks. In 1968, a referendum was held on whether the entire state should allow the sale of liquor by the drink in bars and restaurants. While most of America was concerned about the war in Vietnam and crime in the streets, Utah was concerned with money versus morals. David O. McKay wrote a statement in the Deseret News arguing against support of the referendum. In addition, church leaders organized a grassroots voter contact program in every LDS congregation in Utah. Moreover, McKay wrote a statement in the LDS Church magazine urging members of the church throughout the state to take a stand against the proposal. Once again, the Mormon majority voted in line with the position of LDS Church leaders (Campbell & Monson, 2003, p. 610), but this time the outcome aligned with the preference of LDS Church leaders.

Equal Rights Amendment

When the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was up for a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on October 12, 1971, LDS headquarters had not taken a position on the issue. Mormon officials voted along party lines. Mormons in California and Arizona voted for the amendment, while one Utah Democrat voted against and two other LDS Representatives abstained. In the Senate, the Republican Mormons voted against the measure and the Mormon Democrats voted for the amendment (Quinn, 1994).

In 1972, 22 state legislatures approved the amendment. In Hawaii, Idaho, California, and Colorado, where Mormons comprised significant percentages of the population, LDS elected officials voted for the ERA. In Maryland and Massachusetts, Mormon citizens encouraged passing the ERA (Bradley, 2005). A majority of the candidates for the Utah legislature—regardless of party affiliation—supported ratification of the ERA, and in 1975, 63% of the LDS Church members in Utah supported ratification. By 1974, 33 states had ratified the ERA without a contrary word from LDS headquarters (Quinn, 1994). When the legislative session opened in 1975, it appeared that Utah would be the 35th state to ratify the ERA; 34 of the 75 members of the Utah legislature indicated that they would support the amendment. Yet, when the final vote occurred one month later, the ERA was defeated 54–21 (Young, 2007).

LDS Church leaders organized the Special Affairs Committee (SAC) in 1974 for the specific purpose of defeating the ERA. Committee members Gordon B. Hinckley (Republican) and James E. Faust (Democrat) helped Relief Society President Barbara B. Smith prepare a speech delivered in December 1974 in which she publicly opposed the passage of the ERA (Quinn, 1994, p. 106). A week later, an official editorial in the LDS Church News also opposed ratification. Following this, Mormon legislators—including the amendment cosponsor—switched sides, stating that they did not want to vote against the wishes of the church (Quinn, 1994, p. 106).

This was not sufficient, however, to discourage pro-ERA Mormon activists. Church headquarters decided to mobilize forces outside of Utah. In October of 1976, the First Presidency issued a formal statement against ratification of the ERA. Two months later, the president of the Quorum of the Twelve (Ezra Taft Benson) instructed mission presidents and stake presidents to urge the members as citizens of the United States to join others in efforts to defeat the ERA. In January 1977, Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Twelve traveled to Pocatello, Idaho, and spoke out in opposition of the ERA just days before the Idaho referendum that would rescind Idaho’s ratification of the amendment.

The most important element of anti-ERA Mormon mobilization came in the form of organized leafleting and fundraising campaigns. Since Mormon women were the main participants in all local activities against the ERA, the LDS Church claimed that women opposed the ERA because it jeopardized their way of life (Quinn, 1994). LDS Church leaders ran anti-ERA campaigns in 21 states outside of Utah. A letter from President Kimball authorizing Mormons to collect funds for anti-ERA efforts resulted in more than $60,000 being raised and funneled through Families Are Concerned Today to anti-ERA senate candidates in Florida (Gordon & Gillespie, 2012). In addition, under the direction of their leaders, church members founded anti-ERA organizations in dozens of states, distributed leaflets in church describing how to vote on ERA referendums, and organized letter-writing campaigns to invoke public opposition to the ERA (Quinn, 1994, pp. 122–135). The results of this campaign were staggering. Though a minority of the population in many of these states, Mormons wrote a majority of the letters state legislators received opposing the ERA. Mormon women would have socials, special activities, and even gather during church meetings to write letters to local officials. In Las Vegas, one coordinator claimed that within a day of receiving the assignment, they had amassed 4,000 letters (Quinn, 1994, p. 134). Many credit these efforts with defeating the ERA (Bradley, 2005; Quinn, 1994).

1979 MX Missile

Proposed by the Carter Administration in the fall of 1979, the Air Force wished to house 200 newly developed MX missiles on bases in Utah. A new and frightening breed of nuclear weaponry, the MX missile—containing 10 nuclear warheads—was designed to carry five times the destructive power of the Minuteman III, then America’s most deadly nuclear weapon. According to the proposal, the base would contain 9,000 miles of “racetrack” on which the missiles could be constantly moved among 4,200 protective shelters from which the missiles could be launched. The multiple protective shelters (MPS) basing scheme was estimated by some to be the largest construction project undertaken by man, requiring, as a conservative estimate, $54 billion to build, with other estimates ranging as high as $100 billion. After an initial meeting, military and political leaders believed that they had the full support of LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball. Shortly after this meeting, the First Presidency asked the Special Affairs Committee (SAC) to monitor and report on the progress of the MX missile deployment. Once Carter publicly announced the plan to deploy the MX missile in the “Western deserts,” local opposition to the proposal began organizing. In November 1980, the SAC briefed the First Presidency on major technical and moral issues and discussion weighed the possibility of speaking out against the proposed base. In subsequent weeks, the First Presidency unanimously decided that the church should oppose the MX/MPS. In June 1980, as part of a major bicentennial issue of the church’s official magazine for adults, the First Presidency message warned against becoming a warlike people depending on military fortifications for defense. Again, in their Christmas message, the First Presidency spoke against the continued buildup of “huge and threatening nuclear weaponry,” but did not specifically mention MX/MPS. Not until there was unity within the Quorum of the Twelve—in May 1981—did the First Presidency release a specific statement opposing the MX bases (Olmstead, 2007). Following the First Presidency message, opposition to the MX missile base in Utah increased by 21% (Campbell, Green, & Monson, 2014, p. 147). Ultimately, President Reagan canceled new shelters in 1981, but it is unclear whether public opposition galvanized by the LDS Church played any role in the decision.


The LDS Church’s first effort to mobilize Mormons against gambling came in opposing the 1986 and 1988 ballot measures in Idaho that sought to set up a state-run lottery. In 1986, LDS Church involvement was limited to a First Presidency message read to members in all congregations throughout the state a few weeks prior to the election urging Mormons to vote “no” on the referendum (Campbell & Monson, 2003, p. 615). The measure passed, though it was later struck down by the Idaho Supreme Court on the grounds the state’s constitution prohibited gambling. The 1988 referendum amended the state’s constitution to permit gambling. The LDS Church played a more prominent role this time by contributing money to opposing the measure. Despite the LDS Church’s role, this referendum was also approved by voters.

Gambling also became an issue in the LDS Church’s backyard in Utah, as a ballot initiative to legalize off-track horse race betting was on the ballot. LDS leaders based at church headquarters in Salt Lake City invited local leaders of LDS congregations in Utah to meetings where they were asked to recruit volunteers and also help raise money and other resources to oppose the gambling initiative (Costanzo, 1992; Harrie & Stack, 1992). The measure was defeated in Utah. The LDS Church’s last involvement in mobilizing voters regarding gambling came in 1998 in Arizona on a referendum to extend the state’s lottery, which was set to expire. The LDS Church’s involvement was minimal. Again, the First Presidency issued a statement opposing the referendum that was read in religious services just prior to the election. Regardless, the initiative passed and the Arizona lottery was extended.

Same-Sex Marriage in California

The LDS Church received much criticism for its involvement in two same-sex marriage California ballot initiatives in the 2000s. The church’s tactics also changed as its first efforts in opposing same-sex ballot measures in Alaska and Hawaii were based on the church, itself, providing direct financial and organizational support. By the time the Proposition 22 campaign in California came around in 1999–2000, church efforts changed to encouraging individual members to provide financial support and donate their time and talents.18 Local church leaders read a letter in Sunday services in May 1999 sent from the church’s North America West Presidency that stated the church’s stance on same-sex marriage and asked members to participate in a “broad-based coalition” to help ensure the measure’s passage. Church leaders followed up on their political mobilization efforts by having a letter written by Gordon B. Hinckley, president of the LDS Church at the time, read over the pulpit on January 16, 2000, that asked members to “redouble their efforts.”

Church leaders had previously lobbied Congress for legislation and constitutional amendments on national issues, but Proposition 22 and the subsequent Proposition 8, which added a ban on same-sex marriage to the California constitution, is the first time that the LDS Church used its organizational prowess to try to influence a ballot initiative in California (Campbell et al., 2014, p. 144).19 In June 2008, local LDS leaders read a letter from the First Presidency urging members to do all that they could to support the constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. They asked Mormons to donate their time and their means (money) and give their best efforts to “preserve the sacred institution of marriage.” Regional LDS leaders organized grassroots mobilization programs through the local congregations. In church meetings, leaders asked congregants to man phone banks and canvass neighborhoods to identify supporters and opponents. Despite being 2% of the California population, Mormons constituted 80%–90% of the volunteers participating in early door-to-door canvassing. On Election Day, 100,000 volunteers worked on precinct-level get-out-the-vote efforts, a substantial portion of whom were Mormon (Campbell et al., 2014, p. 145). Proposition 8 passed 52%–48%.

Many credit the LDS Church with the passage of Proposition 8 in California. However, the evidence does not support that view. While the LDS Church was instrumental in raising money for the “Yes on 8” campaign, this action may have helped the opposition just as much. The “No on 8” campaign raised more total money than the “Yes on 8” and they also raised $1 million more from out-of-state donors than the “Yes on 8” campaign did. LDS Church involvement motivated some to donate millions of dollars to the opposition (Wildermuth, 2008). In addition, the LDS Church was one part of a broader coalition of Evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Jews, and Muslims working together to support Proposition 8. Crediting the LDS Church with passage of the amendment underestimates the value of the broader religious coalition.20

Rank-and-file Mormons, however, suffered backlash from their involvement in supporting Proposition 8. Names of those who contributed to pro-Proposition 8 efforts were made public by the California Secretary of State’s office, with local news outlets and others making that information easily available on the Internet. News reports indicated Mormon business owners suffered losses as a result of protests against their involvement (Bates, 2009). Other Mormons were targets of vandalism, including a family in the San Jose area who had a message painted in the back windshield of their car that stated: “Bigots live here” (Gonzales, 2008).


In 1999, Utah passed a progressive immigration measure. The “House Bill-36-Driver Identification Law” allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain a Utah driver’s license using a taxpayer identification number in lieu of a Social Security card. This allowed undocumented immigrants to drive legally, acquire auto insurance, open bank accounts, access state services, and shop more easily (Stewart, 2012). However, less than 10 years later, the Utah legislature—in 2008—passed a stringent law penalizing undocumented workers in the state. Among other provisions, the new law made it illegal to fire a U.S. citizen while retaining an undocumented worker and made it a criminal offense to transport an undocumented immigrant more than 100 miles (Stewart, 2012). From 2004 through 2010, the LDS Church repeatedly stated and re-emphasized that there was no official church position on illegal immigration (Mortensen, 2011).

In 2011, the Utah legislature passed several measures that substantially altered the status of undocumented immigrants in the state. Three of the measures authorized the state to designate all undocumented residents as guest workers, assist in the flow of foreign-born guest workers from Mexico to Utah, and allow residents to sponsor undocumented immigrants. Another measure allowed police officers arresting people for committing a felony offense to inquire about the offenders’ immigration status (Petrzelka & Jacobs, 2016). Analyses of competing explanations of why Utah’s immigration policies shifted so broadly in such a short time suggested that the LDS Church played an important role in creating a policy coalition supportive of the 2011 immigration policies. The LDS Church was officially silent on the specific legislation, but supportive of a broad coalition of business leaders, community advocates, politicians, and faith leaders. Although the LDS Church did not officially join the coalition, they issued a statement endorsing its principles (Campbell et al., 2014, p. 148). This coalition was instrumental in passing the legislation (Petrzelka & Jacobs, 2016; Stewart & Jameson, 2013). After the LDS Church released the statement, some active members of the Church softened their political position on illegal immigration, but overall, the statement had little effect on Mormon attitudes (Campbell et al., 2014, p. 148). Furthermore, despite assertions to the contrary (Mortensen, 2011), other evidence suggests that the LDS Church had much less influence over the Utah legislature than expected. The church successfully blocked one bill that might have harmed their ability to proselyte, but the publicly stated immigration position of the LDS Church has done little to change the behavior of LDS legislators in Utah (Stewart & Jameson, 2013).

Mitt Romney’s Presidential Election Campaigns

Romney announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. Although Mormons had been influential legislators and governors, Mormons had not had one of their members seriously contend for a presidential nomination in decades. However, Romney’s Mormon faith was a liability in the 2008 primary election season. Between 25% and 33% of those surveyed stated that they would not support a Mormon presidential candidate on the basis of religion (Campbell, Green, & Monson, 2014). Romney gave a nationally televised speech on religion in December 2007, yet his attempt to reframe perceptions of his Mormonism failed to persuade the Republican base that a Mormon president could be sufficiently Christian to earn their vote (Campbell et al., 2014).

The 2012 presidential campaign was different. This time, Romney was the favorite of the Republican Party establishment, who were ready for someone with his business acumen to lead the country in a different economic direction, and he was seen as the most electable of the candidates (Jones & Cox, 2012). Perhaps because there were two Mormon candidates vying for the Republican nomination, religion was not as dominant a theme in the 2012 race as it had been in 2008. In fact, Romney scored the highest favorability ratings of the Republican presidential candidates by late October 2011 (Jones & Cox, 2012). Evangelicals did not want to endorse Romney’s faith, so many evangelical leaders downplayed his religion while promoting concerns about Obama’s faith and values (Salek, 2014). News coverage focused primarily on Romney’s economic distance from American voters and his 47% comment (Sides & Vavreck, 2014). Ultimately, Romney performed as well as did McCain in 2008 and Trump in 2016. There is no evidence that Romney’s faith had a measurable impact on his electoral support in 2012 (Smith & Martinez, 2016). Although a prominent member of their church was campaigning for U.S. president, the LDS Church did not formally endorse his candidacy. In stark contrast to the campaigns for Proposition 8 and 22 in California, or opposition to the ERA, the LDS Church did not use any resources to support Mitt Romney’s campaign. The day after the 2012 election, the Church issued a public statement congratulating President Obama and commending Romney for “engaging at the highest level of our democratic process.”21


On the one hand, the relative ease with which the LDS Church can politically mobilize its members is impressive. A letter requesting funds or volunteers yields thousands of dollars in donations and hundreds of person-hours almost immediately. In many cases, a simple statement or two read over the pulpit is sufficient to cause a 20% shift in public support for a political issue. In strictly political terms, this kind of power is unmatched by any other religious group.

On the other hand, the LDS population in most states is too small for these kinds of changes to result in any meaningful political outcome. While the LDS Church may have defeated the ERA, the truth is that the Mormon Church was part of a larger coalition focused on the same goals. Perhaps the Christian Right could not have defeated the ERA without the support of the LDS Church, but this conjecture has never been empirically tested. In addition, the LDS Church received most of the credit (and blame) for the passage of Propositions 8 and 22 in California, but many other factors were at play. LDS involvement in Proposition 8 may have actually raised more funds for the opposition than for their side. The LDS Church was part of a broad religious coalition fighting for the same cause. Perhaps LDS Church members constituted the bulk of the volunteers manning phones and canvassing neighborhoods, but to suggest that this was a primary factor in the passage of Proposition 8 ignores the power of the pulpit within the congregations aligned with the LDS Church. The LDS Church may have reminded people to get out and vote, but religious persuasion on the issue likely occurred long before Mormon volunteers contacted California voters.

Compared to the political might the LDS Church once wielded in communities throughout the western United States, the LDS Church is weaker politically in 2018 than at any time in its history. LDS Church involvement in “moral” political issues beyond the boundaries of Utah has virtually no influence on the probability of policy adoption. The LDS Church is most powerful in the state of Utah. With few exceptions, when the LDS Church speaks, faithful members and legislators pay attention and adopt the policy views advocated by Mormon leaders. Yet, when a prominent member of the church was a candidate for the U.S. presidency, he was treated no differently by church headquarters than any other candidate for higher office. Non-Mormon candidates Cleveland, Taft, and Nixon all received stronger endorsements from the LDS Church presidents at the time than Romney received from President Monson.22


Whenever the LDS Church has successfully mobilized its members to fight for morality in politics, it has come at considerable cost. However noble the intentions of the LDS hierarchy in their fight against the ERA, many faithful feminist Mormons became disaffected with the LDS Church. Thousands of believing LDS women belonged to groups supporting the ERA, but within three years of LDS Church involvement in the issue, nearly 20% of them left the LDS Church (Quinn, 1994, p. 143).

LDS involvement in Proposition 8 caused similar negative repercussions. During the LDS Church’s involvement in Proposition 8, protests were held at 10 of their operating temples, several church meeting houses were vandalized, websites were hacked, and LDS Church members and business owners were harassed and boycotted as punishment for their support of Proposition 8.23 If 2008 represented the high point for the LDS Church in American national politics, the fall of 2008 was among the lowest. Although involvement in the “Yes on 8” campaign may have been instrumental for forging a closer relationship with the evangelical community, it proved to be more consequential for the LDS Church than polygamy (Stack, 2008). For many, it raised the specter not just of Mormon weirdness, but also of Mormon financial political power (Stack, 2008).


Despite perceptions to the contrary, the LDS Church of the early 2000s may be more politically weak than ever before. When the president of the church takes an official stance on matters of public policy, very few active members alter their attitudes to conform to that position. On the contrary, Mormon attitudes on public policy today conform to traditional models of political attitude formation. An LDS identity is one of many social identities, and those for whom their LDS identity is strong and salient tend to conform to official church positions on issues. However, those for whom the LDS identity is not as strong or salient as other political identities do not conform to the wishes of the church but find some other justification for maintaining a political position that opposes that of their prophet.24 This limits the political authority of the LDS Church. As such, even when the church might want to mobilize its members in support of a political cause (like immigration), it does so behind the scenes, without specific endorsing statements, and publicly denies having an official position on the issue. Members of the LDS Church may be politically visible and powerful, but the institutional political power of the LDS Church could be at its weakest point in history. The death of LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson in January 2018 might herald another shift in LDS political mobilization. Monson himself was hesitant to speak out on many specific policies.25 His successor, Russell M. Nelson, has been more active in his public opposition to same-sex marriage by speaking out on the subject before Congress and in the church’s twice-annual General Conference meetings (Staff, 2016). The persistent failure of the LDS Church to make any meaningful imprint on the national policy agenda and the price the church pays for intense political involvement may persuade future LDS leaders to stay out of politics.

Further Reading

  • Alexander, T. G. (1996). Mormonism in transition: A history of the Latter-day Saints, 1890–1930. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
  • Arrington, L. J., & Bitton, D. (1992). The Mormon experience: A history of the Latter-day Saints. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
  • Bushman, R. L. (2007). Joseph Smith: Rough stone rolling. New York, NY: Vintage.
  • Campbell, D. E., Green, J. C., & Monson, J. Q. (2014). Seeking the promised land: Mormons and American politics. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • Flake, K. (2005). The politics of American religious identity: The seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon apostle. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Smith, J. (Ed.). (1991). History of the Church. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret.


  • Alexander, T. G. (1996). Mormonism in transition: A history of the Latter-day Saints, 1890–1930. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
  • Arrington, L. J., & Bitton, D. (1992). The Mormon experience: A history of the Latter-day Saints. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
  • Bates, K. G. (2009, March 5). Backers of Calif. gay marriage ban face backlash. Morning Edition, NPR: Wyoming Public Radio.
  • Black, S. E. (1995). How large was the population of Nauvoo? Brigham Young University Studies, 35(2), 91–94.
  • Bradley, M. S. (2005). Pedestals and podiums: Utah women, religious authority, and equal rights. Salt Lake City, UT: Signature.
  • Bushman, R. L. (2007). Joseph Smith: Rough stone rolling. New York, NY: Vintage.
  • Campbell, D. E., Green, J. C., & Monson, J. Q. (2014). Seeking the promised land: Mormons and American politics. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • Campbell, D. E., & Monson, J. Q. (2003). Following the leader? Mormon voting on ballot propositions. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 42(4), 605–619.
  • Campbell, D. E., & Monson, J. Q. (2007). Dry kindling: A political profile of American Mormons. In J. Matthew Wilson (Ed.), From pews to polling places: Faith and politics in the American religious mosaic (pp. 105–130). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
  • Cook, L. W., & Ehat, A. F. (Eds.). (1981). The words of Joseph Smith: The contemporary accounts of the Nauvoo discourses of the prophet. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University.
  • Costanzo, J. (1992, June 1). LDS leaders attack parimutuel betting. Deseret News.
  • Crawley, P. (1997). A descriptive bibliography of the Mormon Church (Vol. 1). Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press.
  • Douglas, S. A. (1857). Remarks of the Hon. Stephen A. Douglas on Kansas, Utah and the Dred Scott Decision: Delivered at Springfield, Illinois, June 12th, 1857. Printed at the Daily Times book and job office.
  • Flake, K. (2005). The politics of American religious identity: The seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon apostle. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Gonzales, S. (2008, October 21). Same-sex marriage debate growing ugly in San Jose and beyond. The Mercury News.
  • Gordon, E. E., & Gillespie, W. L. (2012). The culture of obedience and the politics of stealth: Mormon mobilization against ERA and same-sex marriage. Politics and Religion, 5(2), 343–366.
  • Harrie, D., & Stack, P. F. (1992). LDS Church turns up heat on horse-race betting. Salt Lake Tribune.
  • Heath, H. S. (2007). The Reed Smoot hearings: A quest for legitimacy. Journal of Mormon History, 33(2), 1–80.
  • Jenson, A. (1888). The historical record (Vols. 5–8). Salt Lake City, UT: Self-published.
  • Jones, R. P., & Cox, D. (2012). The Mormon question, economic inequality, and the 2012 presidential campaign. Washington, DC: Public Religion Research Institute.
  • Lipka, M. (2016). U.S. religious groups and their political leanings. Fact Tank: News in the Numbers.
  • Mortensen, R. W. (2011). The Mormon church and illegal immigration. Washington, DC: Center for Immigration Studies.
  • Olmstead, J. W. (2007). The Mormon hierarchy and the MX. Journal of Mormon History, 33(3), 1–30.
  • Petrzelka, P., & Jacobs, P. (2016). Why Utah? The “reddest of red states” and inclusive immigration reform. Social Science Journal, 53(2), 156–166.
  • Putnam, R. D., & Campbell, D. E. (2012). American grace: How religion divides and unites us. New York, NY:Simon Schuster.
  • Quinn, D. M. (1994). The LDS Church’s campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment. Journal of Mormon History, 20(2), 85–155.
  • Randall, J. G., & Donald, D. (1961). The Civil War and reconstruction. Boston, MA: D. C. Heath.
  • Robertson, M. C. (2000). The campaign and the kingdom: The activities of the electioneers in Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign. BYU Studies Quarterly, 39(3), 8.
  • Salek, T. A. (2014). Faith turns political on the 2012 campaign trail: Mitt Romney, Franklin Graham, and the stigma of nontraditional religions in American politics. Communication Studies, 65(2), 174–188.
  • Sides, J., & Vavreck, L. (2014). The gamble: Choice and chance in the 2012 presidential election: Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Skyles, G. H. (1962). A study of forces and events leading to the repeal of Prohibition and the adoption of a liquor control system (Master’s thesis). Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.
  • Smith, G. A., & Martinez, J. (2016). How the faithful voted: A preliminary 2016 analysis. Washington DC: Pew Research Center for People and the Press.
  • Smith, J. (2015). General Smith’s views of the powers and policy of the government of the United States. Nauvoo, IL: John Taylor.
  • Smith, J. (Ed.). (1991). History of the Church. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret.
  • Staff. (2016, January 10). President Nelson explains origins of the handbook change. LDS Newsroom.
  • Stewart, J. (2012). Fiction over facts: How competing narrative forms explain policy in a new immigration destination. Sociological Forum, 27, 591–616.
  • Stewart, J., & Jameson, K. P. (2013). Interests aren’t everything: An exploration of economic explanations of immigration policy in a new destination. International Migration, 51(4), 33–52.
  • Wicks, R. S., & Foister, F. R. (2005). To save the district for the Whigs. In Junius and Joseph: Presidential politics and the assassination of the first Mormon prophet (pp. 36–47). Boulder: University Press of Colorado.
  • Wildermuth, J. (2008, November 16). Wealthy gay men backed anti-Prop. 8 effort. SFGate.
  • Young, N. J. (2007). “The ERA is a moral issue”: The Mormon Church, LDS women, and the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment. American Quarterly, 59(3), 623–644.