correction

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that less than half of Utah's eligible residents had been vaccinated. Less than half of Utah residents overall are unvaccinated, not less than half of the eligible population.

On Aug. 12, the presiding quorum for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — its governing body — strongly urged members to wear face masks in public meetings and get vaccinated. “We find ourselves fighting a war against the ravages of COVID-19 and its variants,” they pronounced, and “we want to do all we can to limit the spread of these viruses.”

The statement followed President Russell M. Nelson, the top LDS leader, publicizing his vaccination in January, encouraging the faithful to follow his example and be “good global citizens.”

These moves expose both the widespread vaccine hesitancy and general skepticism toward anti-virus measures throughout the LDS community. Less than half of Utah residents, where members constitute a majority of the population, are fully vaccinated, placing the state in the lower half of the nation. One study revealed that 33 percent of Mormons were vaccine hesitant, with another 17 percent refusing the vaccine altogether.

This skepticism, despite encouragement from LDS leaders in the typically hierarchical religion, stems from Latter-day Saints’ embrace of political and religious conservatism in the wake of World War II. Outspoken leaders pushing Republican values, widespread anti-communism that increased distrust in the federal government and regional backlash to both the civil rights movement and the liberal factions of the culture wars helped drive this conversion.

Latter-day Saints joined with other religious communities, especially “fundamentalists,” in rejecting what became known as the liberal consensus. Distrustful of big government, skeptical of the modern academy and disgusted with what they believed to be a lack of moral standards, these religious White Americans rejected “secular” truths from history, biology, psychology and other fields of knowledge, and instead created their own institutions and colleges that prioritized fundamentalist values and ideas.

This matrix through which this conservative, religious coalition views the world enables them to summarily and efficiently dismiss arguments that don’t match their beliefs.

The first sphere in which Mormons drew from their evangelical contemporaries to combat secular knowledge was in biblical studies and evolution. “So far as the philosophy and wisdom of the world are concerned,” one apostle, Joseph Fielding Smith, trumpeted in a 1954 anti-Darwin book, “they mean nothing unless they conform to the revealed word of God.” A few years later, Smith’s son-in-law, the prominent author Bruce R. McConkie, published “Mormon Doctrine,” a hefty compendium that was designed to be the definitive overview of the faith. “How scrubby and groveling the intellectual,” the section on evolution proclaimed, “which finds comfort in the theoretical postulates that mortal life began in the scum of the sea.” The book became one of the most influential for modern Mormonism.

Posturing their own authority against that of secular professions was an attractive position for LDS leaders on at least two fronts. The position reaffirmed their own validity — and their own authority — among a world of competing voices, as society fractured into increasingly numerous schisms during the 1960s. For members, skepticism toward secular truths fit into a long-standing belief that the church would remain an isolated bastion of truth among an increasingly wicked world. “Experts” who challenged their ideas were mere examples of this moral slide, and the church leadership’s campaign against these “experts” helped reinforce the importance and attraction of their faith.

The anti-secularism posture bled into other social issues. When civil rights activists pressured the church to change its policies that restricted Black men and women from temple and priesthood privileges, leaders such as apostle Ezra Taft Benson, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture, dismissed them as pushing a “communist agenda.” When the restrictions were finally lifted in 1978, LDS officials firmly insisted that it was the result of divine revelation and not outside agitation.

The rhetoric became particularly useful during the national debates over gender roles in the 1970s and afterward. Proponents for expanding women’s rights and legal protections, culminating in the fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, prompted LDS leaders to denounce any measure to weaken the “traditional family.” They also expressly rejected new studies from the psychological world that argued against classifying homosexuality as a deviant behavior that could be overcome through therapy. The First Presidency released “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” in 1995 to reaffirm their commitment to the ideas that “marriage between a man and a woman” is central to civilization, and that “gender is an essential characteristic.” These principles came with eternal expectations that matched traditional norms.

Today, Mormon congregants are often told to recognize the juxtaposition between “worldly wisdom” and “divine truths.” This dichotomy enables them to dismiss ideas that counter conventional Mormon principles by categorizing them as “secular” and therefore easily discarded. The “world” is not to be trusted, especially when it does not correspond with their religious sensibilities. These teachings help explain why a study found that only 28 percent of Latter-day Saints trust mainstream news sources, a figure quite similar to White evangelicals (30 percent).

Because the LDS Church possesses an institutional hierarchy that is absent in evangelical circles, church leaders have managed to stoke this libertarian and right-wing culture while still reaffirming their claims to authority and avoiding the appearance of partisanship. But as Mormon communities became increasingly conservative and reliably Republican, the need for authorities to step in and reassert their corrective power decreased. Leaders have benefited from this shift because their few instances of political involvement — opposing the ERA in the 1970s and same-sex marriage in the 2000s — were eagerly welcomed by the faithful and generated overwhelming support.

The message from the LDS hierarchy has resulted in a modern Mormon culture that is closely aligned with conservative politics while simultaneously retaining the rhetoric of political neutrality. So while LDS leaders reiterate the church’s official position of political neutrality, even expressing how good people can be found in both political parties, its American membership has interpreted such statements as being accompanied with a knowing wink and nudge, assuming that conservative values would guide voting decisions.

The problem today is that this culture is so entrenched that it threatens to undermine the authority of LDS leaders, instead of buttressing it.

The degree to which Mormons have accepted former president Donald Trump’s post-defeat narrative illustrates this shift. One study found that 46 percent of Mormons say, erroneously, that President Biden fraudulently stole the election, a figure higher than any other religious group except White evangelicals, even though the LDS First Presidency congratulated Biden on his rightful victory.

And the coronavirus presents the ultimate test of whether Mormon leaders possess the capacity to redirect their flock away from right-wing cultural and political positions. The LDS Church has long supported vaccines and other public health measures. But with political conservatives now skeptical of such measures, many members must choose between political and religious allegiances, a decision that previously had been unnecessary.

It’s too soon to tell what the outcome will be and early indications are mixed. Initial reports after the presiding quorum statement are that many, though far from all, local congregations have returned to stricter mask protocols.

Even so, on social media, members have expressed shock and outrage at the directive, especially the leadership’s insistence that the vaccines “have proven to be both safe and effective.” Some local leaders read the statement to their congregations, but then encouraged members to search spiritual confirmation — a qualification rarely associated with other top-down guidance, and one reaffirmed by several prominent conservative LDS authors.

This resistance exposes how entrenched conservative cultural and political views have become in LDS communities.

Generations of Latter-day Saints have been taught to trust their own religious fundamentals over secular authorities. This teaching merged with a broader, evangelical skepticism toward expertise and worldly knowledge. The result is a trenchant commitment to right-wing values that provides the prism through which many Mormons interpret new crises. While the LDS Church has previously benefited from this dynamic, the cultural divide has now grown so large that it may have transcended ecclesiastical control and threatens to weaken the authority of the Church.

If LDS leaders cannot better disengage and disentangle conservative politics from Mormon culture and practice the task may become insurmountable, doing damage to the Church.