After watching his longtime Senate colleague Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) unseated by the tea party movement in 2010, Orrin G. Hatch, who died Saturday at 88, was determined not to fall victim to the same forces.
His efforts worked. In 2012, Hatch decisively defeated his first primary challenger in more than three decades. And although he flirted with another campaign six years later, he eventually retired, marking the end of the longest GOP Senate career in history. As president pro tempore (2015-2019), he was also the highest-ranking Mormon politician in the faith’s history.
If Democrat Harry M. Reid, who passed away in December, represented a bygone past of Mormon politics, Orrin G. Hatch represented its present — in large part thanks to decades of his own unceasing efforts. And barring any substantial and surprising change, Hatch’s 42-year career probably is indicative of the future of Mormon politics, too.
A former Democrat, Hatch ingratiated himself in the GOP by being one of the party’s fiercest defenders. He never shied away from partisan rhetoric, attacking more moderate Republicans or taking on the most divisive issues. In many ways he both foreshadowed and molded the fractured political culture in which we live today.
In 1976, Hatch ran for Senate as a far-right upstart, beating four better-known, more moderate Republican candidates and then upsetting three-term Sen. Frank Moss, the last Democrat elected to the position from Utah. While the thought of a statewide elected Democrat in Utah seems preposterous today, the party had controlled Moss’s Senate seat for all but two terms since 1916, the first election after enactment of the 17th Amendment instituted popular election of senators.
Hatch capitalized on a moment when Mormon politics were changing. Though they had previously hewed more to the political center — the LDS-dominated Utah electorate, for example, voted for Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 — Mormons had begun moving toward the GOP. By the 1970s, prominent LDS church leaders were echoing broader conservative messages opposing liberal consensus, federal power and civil rights, and a majority of Latter-day Saints quickly followed their religious leaders and began voting along those lines.
At the heart of this move was the rise of a culture-war politics centered on traditional gender roles and the heterosexual nuclear family. This led many religious voters — Mormons, as well as evangelical Christians, Catholics and Orthodox Jews — to join the rising conservative wing of the Republican Party the 1970s in opposing issues such as legal abortion, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution and expanded legal rights for the LGBTQ community. These voters began to define themselves as defenders of virtue, proponents of morality and inheritors of what they eventually dubbed a politics of “traditional family values.”
No one exemplified these politics more than Hatch. After his initial victory in 1976, he began cementing the alliance between his religion and his political party.
Indeed, one of Hatch’s first prominent political episodes was a clash with Sonia Johnson, a spirited activist who led the small but passionate caucus of Mormons fighting for the ERA. In a televised hearing in 1979, Johnson accused Hatch of representing both political and religious patriarchy. In response, Hatch accused Johnson of disrupting the traditional family.
The senator soon became known for his vehement, and often partisan, attacks on those who fought for legislation supporting gender equality, LGBTQ rights and abortion rights. After only four years in the Senate, Hatch had a reputation as “an aggressive, ambitious man who, as much as anything, resembles a minister making his rounds.”
But Hatch was hardly some provincial religious leader: Leaning into these issues represented an accurate reading of the broader cultural shifts taking place across America in the late 1970s and 1980s. As society fractured over gender, race and class, Republicans appropriated conservative cultural grievances to buttress their national appeal. Hatch was among a group of far-right Republicans who recognized the potential of a new GOP dominated by culturally conservative members of all faiths — including his fellow LDS members.
Hatch and fellow Latter-day Saints increasingly found themselves defending conservative Republican family values during the 1980s and 1990s, at times producing internal discord. Yet despite some Mormon dissidents, embracing the conservative position on culture-war issues enabled a political assimilation that Mormonism had previously found fleeting. As the GOP alliance with religious conservatives, most especially evangelical Christians, blossomed, the party welcomed Latter-day Saints, who had previously been dismissed as a “cult” or “heretical.”
And Mormons proved themselves helpful allies in the battle against liberalism, none more so than Hatch. The senator’s rising stature in the GOP in the 1980s — leading a push on issues like outlawing abortion and promoting conservative judges — demonstrated the LDS faith’s central place in the party’s new coalition. What Pat Buchanan told fellow conservative religious defenders of “family values” at the 1992 Republican National Convention could have easily been echoed by his Mormon colleague: The GOP was now their spiritual “home.”
In 1995, LDS President Gordon B. Hinkley issued “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” as the Mormon Church’s official embrace of traditional gender roles and the heterosexual nuclear family. It sounded a lot like typical conservative Republican rhetoric and policy doctrine by that era — a statement on the family that just as easily could have been released by Hatch’s office.
This rightward march only escalated. Hatch’s last decade in the Senate was filled with examples of the new era’s increasing partisanship. This was especially true of judicial matters. He supported Sen. Mitch McConnell’s efforts to deprive Merrick Garland of a Supreme Court hearing — asserting that he had only come to that conclusion after meeting with Garland, but in an op-ed that appeared before the scheduled meeting had even taken place. Two years later, he expressed his support for Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination, even if the accusations that he had sexually assaulted a woman were “true.”
While Hatch joined many other Utah politicians in denouncing Donald Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape in 2016, he soon became one of the president’s foremost defenders. Despite his vociferous critiques of Bill Clinton’s moral conduct in the 1990s, he was more than willing to overlook Trump’s many alleged improprieties. “I don’t care,” he responded after journalists questioned him about Trump, “all I can say is he’s doing a good job as president.” Though part of Hatch’s strategy might have been rooted in a desire to retain a hold on power at the end of his career, it was also the natural culmination of decades as a partisan warrior.
Trump, in turn, readily embraced Hatch and awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2018.
While many observers were surprised at the extent of American Latter-day Saints’ embrace of Trump in 2016 and beyond, this trenchant alliance was the result of several generations of work by people like Hatch who labored hard to forge an unbreakable bond between the GOP and their coreligionists.
Trump’s personal peccadilloes mattered less than the party’s stances on prominent culture war issues. Decades of public support for conservative issues — especially opposing same-sex marriage — had made the Mormon cultural religion among the reddest in the nation. The man who replaced Hatch, Mitt Romney, a Mormon who is far more willing to break with and critique Trump, remains an outlier. Utah’s other Mormon senator, Mike Lee, whose recently released text messages demonstrate his collaboration with Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, is far more typical. Lee, more than Romney, is Hatch’s true successor.
Both Mormonism and the GOP underwent foundational changes during Hatch’s four-decade Senate career. Both became wedded to partisanship and culture-war politics — a union shaped and enabled by Hatch’s influential tenure.