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Political Culture

by Wm. Clayton Kimball

Contrary to some popular characterizations, Latter-day Saints do not all think or vote alike on political matters and do not share a distinctive political subculture. American Latter-day Saints tend to be slightly more pragmatic, less cynical, more optimistic, and less alienated than the average American citizen, but only in minor variations from the broad national political culture. The earliest Latter-day Saints were Americans before they became Latter-day Saints. If Latter-day Saints as a group were markedly less or more optimistic or less or more cynical than the average U.S. citizen, that might indicate the presence of a distinctive political subculture, but there is no evidence for this.

A political culture is generally understood to be a patterned set of ways of thinking about how politics and governing ought to be carried out, and a subculture is a somewhat differing view peculiar to a smaller area or group. During the nineteenth century, when Latter-day Saints "gathered" together in well-structured communities throughout the intermountain West, there was a distinctive Mormon political subculture. It was based on a model of consensus politics and a deference to ecclesiastical authority, which set it apart from the dominant American political culture of the time. This subculture slowly dissipated as the intermountain LDS commonwealth was integrated into the larger political and economic patterns of the United States, despite the continued majority status of Latter-day Saints in many communities.

In a strict sense, there is no such thing today as "a Mormon political culture." The mark of such a subculture is the frequency and likelihood of certain political behaviors observable over time and in well-defined situations, not the source of the ideas that it expresses. While various tenets of their faith may predispose many Latter-day Saints to one side of some political disputes in the United States, such a predisposition is not sufficient to indicate the presence of a unique political subculture.

In the late twentieth century, Latter-day Saints are found in many different countries, living under many different political systems. That which ties them together is a set of religious beliefs, not an identifiable set of habits of thinking or acting about politics. Were a cross-polity survey to be taken, the empirical beliefs, likes and dislikes, values, and priorities of Latter-day Saints in political matters would be polity-specific. German Latter-day Saints, for example, would resemble other Germans more than they would Mexican, French, or Samoan Latter-day Saints.

Some maintain, nonetheless, that there is an identifiable LDS political subculture in America, or at least in Utah. This perspective may confuse a regional pattern of attitudes and behaviors with a religious one. It also reflects the ubiquitous disagreements between minorities and the majority in any population. Latter-day Saints in Utah (the only state where they constitute a majority of the population) are no more sensitive to the feelings of alienation and oppression perceived by members of other denominations than are other religious or cultural majorities in other parts of the world.

Since statehood in 1896, Utah has been in the mainstream of American politics. In the twenty-two presidential elections between 1904 and 1988, Utah gave its electoral (and majority) votes to the national winner all but three times. The partisan preferences of Utah voters are essentially the same as those of other intermountain and western voters in presidential and congressional elections. Divisions between voters are essentially partisan, not ecclesiastical, even in strongly LDS areas.

Belief in the LDS worldview does not produce predictable or demonstrable similarities in political habits of thought and expectations, regardless of geographical, economic, or social differences. The often fervent divisions among LDS voters over political issues and candidates cast serious doubt on the existence of any unifying, religiously determined political behaviors.

Latter-day Saints' attitudinal orientations are generally intensifications of typically American attitudes. For example, the idea of political efficacy—the feeling citizens have that they can influence what the government does and the belief that government listens to what ordinary citizens say—is a key indicator of the type of political culture a country has. In all cross-polity surveys, U.S. citizens demonstrate significantly higher levels of political efficacy than citizens of any other country. Perhaps because of the stress in LDS theology on the value of individual effort and the right of individual agency, Latter-day Saints demonstrate higher levels of efficacy than most other groups in American political life. How directly related to religious beliefs such attitudes may be is difficult to establish empirically. However, there may be some overlap or holdover from earlier times.

Latter-day Saints also ascribe a higher level of legitimacy to political leaders, possibly a holdover from the mingling of ecclesiastical and political authority in nineteenth-century Utah. Finally, voting participation statistics indicate that the growing political alienation in America has made few inroads in strongly LDS areas.

A crucial determinant of a community's or a nation's political stability and governmental effectiveness is the extent to which its citizens give their primary political loyalties to it rather than to a particular region, tribe, or religion. Although Latter-day Saints are deeply attached to their religion, for this attachment to affect their political behavior has been the exception rather than the rule. For example, during the 1930s and 1940s the President of the Church and at least one of his counselors were implacably opposed to the policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and expressed their views publicly and privately. Nevertheless, Utah voters joined decisively with national majorities voting for the Democratic candidates from 1932 through 1948. In the ten presidential elections since 1952, only in 1964 did Utah vote Democratic, again joining an overwhelming national majority. This Republican hegemony is found not only in LDS areas but also nearly all the western states.

There is no detectable pattern or set of political behaviors common to Latter-day Saints. Appearances of a unique LDS political homogeneity disappear when regional and national trends are taken into account. No institutional or doctrinal mechanism exists for passing on a political culture, especially in light of the high percentage of converts. The growing international character of the Church and its membership will no doubt produce even greater political heterogeneity among Latter-day Saints in the future.

Bibliography

Poll, Richard D., et al. Utah's History, pp. 97-112, 153-73, 243-74, 387-404, 409-428, 481-96, 515-30, 669-80. Provo, Utah, 1978.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Political Culture

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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