Although Mormons have traditionally been the most Republican religious group in the United States, it appears that they are fleeing this year’s GOP candidate.
This election has proved excruciating for Mormons, who have deep animosity toward Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, both of whom are perceived as not living up to their moral standards. But Mormons may have found an alternative to choosing the “lesser of two evils”: Independent candidate Evan McMullin, a former CIA officer turned policy wonk who also is a Mormon.
The shift of Mormons away from the GOP is stunning, said Quin Monson, a political scientist at Brigham Young University. A Democrat has not won Utah, a heavily Mormon state that holds the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, since 1964.
“In many elections in the last 20 years, Mormons have been neck and neck for the title of ‘Most Republican,’ but that’s not going to happen this time,” Monson said.
Evan McMullin’s run
McMullin’s path to the White House is highly unlikely but not impossible. As FiveThirtyEight explains, McMullin would have to win Utah, which has six electoral votes; both Trump and Clinton would have to fail to receive a majority of votes from the electoral college; and the House would have to choose McMullin as president. The last time an election was decided in the House was 1824, when John Quincy Adams was selected.
Even though McMullin, who will be on 11 state ballots, has an extremely slim chance of becoming the country’s first Mormon president, his candidacy has divided Mormons in Utah. The state appears to be almost split between Trump, Clinton and McMullin, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, with Trump polling just five points ahead. Many Mormons are turned off by Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson’s pro-abortion-rights position, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s policies don’t align with those of conservative Mormons.
Mormons, who make up 1.6 percent of the U.S. population, account for about 60 percent in Utah. When Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was running for president in 2012, more than 60 percent of LDS members identified as Republicans; now 48 percent say the same, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
McMullin’s vice-presidential candidate, Mindy Finn, is a Jewish business executive and tech entrepreneur who touted the ticket’s commitment to religious diversity.
“Neither candidate on the stage at the debate Sunday night stood for religious freedom for all people (Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc.),” Finn told the Forward, a Jewish magazine, after the second presidential debate. “When you don’t protect the religious freedoms of one group, you don’t stand for it at all.”
McMullin’s Mormon roots
Mormon observers say it’s easy to identify McMullin, a clean-cut conservative who always wears a white shirt and tie, as an LDS member because of the idioms he invokes in speeches. In a recent interview with Glenn Beck, who is Mormon, McMullin appeared to reference the Mormon doctrine to seek honest, wise and good leaders. He told Beck, “If we don’t have honest and wise leaders who respect that Constitution, our nation will suffer.”
McMullin, who graduated from Brigham Young University and spent two years in Brazil on a Mormon mission, worked on counterterrorism operations during his tenure at the CIA, going undercover for 10 years. Consistent with Mormon mores, he said he has never imbibed alcohol or used illicit drugs, according to Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin.
Families and marriage are upheld as very important in Mormon communities, and many Mormons note how unusual it is that McMullin, 40, is not married. Some have joked that McMullin’s presidential bid is an elaborate plan to find a wife.
It’s unclear from McMullin’s speeches whether his faith was a driving motivation for his run for office. Some Mormons believe in a “White Horse Prophecy,” a saying from Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of Mormonism, that some interpret to mean that when the Constitution is imperiled, a Mormon will rescue the nation. McMullin’s campaign said he was unavailable for an interview about his faith. The Associated Press reported that McMullin has downplayed his faith, saying his principles are not just Mormon principles.
Republican turned Independent
McMullin aligns with the GOP on most issues, including opposing taxpayer funds for abortion, but he diverges on some issues. He believes human activity contributes to climate change, according to the Guardian, and sees the environment and racism as issues “where the Republican Party is stuck in the past … making it unable to lead the country forward.”
And although McMullin, whose mother is now married to a woman, personally defines marriage as between a man and a woman, he has said he believes that the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage means conservatives should move on from the issue. During his campaign, McMullin has also focused on poverty, criminal justice reform, slavery and sex trafficking and racial reconciliation.
A new conservative movement will be open to people of all faiths, & all races. It will be open to people who don't look like me.
— Evan McMullin (@Evan_McMullin) October 22, 2016
After his time in the CIA, he received an MBA from Wharton and worked for Goldman Sachs. He also volunteered with the Romney campaign part-time and became a senior adviser to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.). In August, McMullin quit his job as chief policy director of the House Republican Conference to run for president.
While he worked in Congress, McMullin focused heavily on the atrocities in Syria. McMullin has published Facebook messages criticizing Trump’s policies, including his plan for a ban on Muslims coming into the country. Mormons are deeply sensitive to issues of religious freedom because of their history of being persecuted.
“As Donald Trump continues attacking Muslims and as a former CIA officer, I’d like all Americans to know the truth: American and other Muslims have played a central role in virtually every counterterrorism win we’ve had since 9/11,” McMullin wrote on Facebook in August. “They are an indispensable asset in this fight.”
Opting out of the GOP — this time
Mormons have previously voted in patterns similar to evangelicals, with both groups concerned about social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Although the election has been divisive, evangelical voters appear to be supporting Trump in similar numbers as previous GOP candidates.
Meanwhile, polls suggest that Mormons will likely diverge from evangelicals in the voting booth this time around. In a 2014 survey, Mormons were the religious group that most identified with the GOP. Now that distinction goes to white evangelicals, 76 percent of whom say they are or lean Republican.
“You see evangelicals who are sticking with Trump, which probably says something about the priority of politics versus religion,” said David Campbell, a political science professor at Notre Dame. “For evangelicals, it’s the politics that comes first. Mormons don’t seem to be making the same conclusion.”
The nail in the coffin
McMullin’s growing popularity in Utah is significant because Trump was already deeply unpopular in the Republican state. Trump finished third in Utah’s GOP caucus in March, 55 points behind the winner, Ted Cruz. Since his entry into the race, McMullin snagged some key conservative endorsements, including from The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg and The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson.
A video of Trump making lewd comments about women was a tipping point for many Mormons. The Deseret News, a newspaper owned by the LDS Church, called for Trump to drop out of the race, writing that it does “not believe Trump holds the ideals and values of this community.”
Hal Boyd, the opinions editor for the Deseret News, said editors had observed “anxiety and stress” among readers but that the video was the last straw. “We had deliberations for a while, but it was so beyond the pale that it provided such clarity that we needed to speak out on the moral issue,” he said.
When Trump was trying to appeal to Utah voters, he completely missed core Mormon values, according to David Holland, a professor of New England church history at Harvard Divinity School and an LDS member. Trump’s “crass” and “bullying” style conflicted with Mormon “values of modesty, self-restraint and simple human kindness,” Holland wrote for the Deseret News. And Trump also dismisses the values of Mormons who believe individuals should work hard and be self-reliant but also should take care of communities.
“When Trump promises to strong-arm us past the wearying competition of personal freedom and community obligation, to relieve us from the burden of this paradox by shifting our sense of priorities, he is also denigrating two of the values that many Mormons hold dear,” he wrote.
The LDS Church as an institution usually does not get involved in individual political campaigns. Still, McMullin’s fast rise to name recognition is a testament to the organizational power of LDS members, said Matthew Bowman, author of “The Mormon People.” Many Mormons believe there’s a moral imperative to oppose Trump, Bowman said.
“Standing against Trump was a way to exhibit religious belief,” he said. “Now, McMullin is presenting himself as the morally acceptable choice.”