Politics

The New Mormon Mission

Mormons led the Republican insurrection against Trump. Next they could help rebuild the GOP.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz leaves a meeting in 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The latest Dump Trump movement may have gone national, but ground zero was Utah. Rep. Jason Chaffetz and the state’s current governor, Gary Herbert, were among the first to pull their tepid endorsements of Trump in the wake of the “grab them by the pussy” videotape leak.* Sen. Mike Lee, who had refused to back Trump, along with former Utah governor and onetime presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr., who had endorsed Trump, both called on their party’s presidential nominee to drop out. Rep. Mia Love, who never backed Trump, also urged him to “step aside,” while for now Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Rob Bishop still support Trump. Elsewhere in the Latter-day Saints diaspora, Idaho’s Mike Crapo, a Mormon, was the first Republican senator to withdraw his endorsement.

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As I’ve written before, Trump’s much-discussed “Mormon problem” is largely rooted in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ past as a persecuted religious community and its present as a church with a growing international—especially Mexican—membership. Mormon politicians, and to a certain extent the Mormon people writ large, have been turned off by Trump’s political platform built on scapegoating Muslims and Mexicans. Earlier this year one poll indicated that Utah—home to the GOP’s most consistent voting bloc—might actually be a swing state. But since the summer, polls showed Utah’s electorate reverting to the mean and rejoining evangelical Christian “cultural war” voters to back Trump, if only reluctantly. As Mormon historian Benjamin Park explained to me, “Mormonism’s attachment to the Republican Party has largely been centered on the conservative values of the religious right.” As long as Trump (and his running mate, Mike Pence) paid lip service to protecting religious liberty and opposing abortion, “They could mostly escape censure on more questionable opinions” on immigrants and minorities.

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Yet on Friday, the swift and definitive Mormon defection from Trump reflected an even more intimate (and particularly male) Mormon impulse than to care for the religious and racial “other”—it was the urge to honor and protect Mormon wives, mothers, and daughters. Chaffetz announced that he could no longer back Trump because he and his wife “have a 15-year old daughter, and if I can’t look her in the eye and tell her these things, I can’t endorse this person.” Likewise, Mitt Romney, the leading Mormon Never Trumper, tweeted, “Hitting on married women? Condoning assault? Such vile degradations demean our wives and daughters and corrupt America’s face to the world.” On Saturday, even the Mormon-owned Deseret News broke with an 80-year tradition of not entering “the troubled waters of presidential endorsement” and called on Trump “to step down from his pursuit of the American presidency.” Trump is unfit for the highest office in the land, the paper explained, because he used his power to sexually abuse women and did so while also espousing the belief that these women actually wanted it.

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To be sure, there is something gallant about these Mormon men coming to the defense of women and girls everywhere. Yet it would be wrong to read these denunciations of Trump as simple and laudable acts of chivalry. They are also rooted in a Mormon culture of patriarchy, which prescribes strict gender roles in the Mormon church and in the Mormon home. In the LDS Church, only men are ordained to the lay priesthood. This means that starting at the age of 12, Mormon boys outrank their mothers and older sisters in church.

By speaking out now against Trump’s misogyny, Mormon politicians who had previously backed Trump are unintentionally highlighting how they had previously silenced the very women they claim to be protecting. As Kate Kelly, who was excommunicated from the LDS Church because of her leadership in the Ordain Women movement, explained to me, “The male-only priesthood structure in the LDS Church conditions Mormons not to actually believe the words of the multiplicity of women who have already come out to denounce the Republican nominee as a predator.” Testimonies from the women Trump abused weren’t authoritative enough. (Earlier this week, the Associated Press published details from Trump’s Apprentice days of the real estate mogul allegedly demanding that female contestants show more cleavage, twirl for his amusement and inspection, and endure talk about which contestant he’d like to bed.) “These Mormon leaders had to hear a recording of Trump’s own voice confessing his vulgar personality and acts before they turned against him,” Kelly said.

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To see the pernicious results of this culture in which male voices are valued over female voices, one need only look at the recent spate of stories of female students at the Mormon-owned Brigham Young University who sought support from the school after being sexually assaulted, only to be disciplined for breaking the school’s “honor code” against premarital sex and alcohol use. And relatedly, one need only look at the case of Elizabeth Smart to see how the Mormon culture of sexual modesty creates a particularly strong “Madonna-whore” complex. After being abducted at the age of 14 from her Salt Lake City home, Smart was raped almost daily during her nine months in captivity. Smart, now an advocate for sexual abuse victims, has explained that despite having many chances to run away, she remained with her captures. Her abstinence-only Mormon upbringing taught her that because she had already had sex, no future husband would want her. She remembered a schoolteacher comparing girls who engage in premarital sex to a used piece of chewing gum. “Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum,” Smart explained in 2013 at conference on human trafficking at Johns Hopkins University. She recalled thinking: “Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life has no value.”

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Of course, like the Mormons, conservative American evangelicals advocate for upholding strict gender roles, abstinence before marriage, and traditional marriage. But prominent evangelicals, including “value vote” leaders Ralph Reed and Tony Perkins, are sticking with Trump, even after these recent revelations. They have even framed Trump’s character failings in biblical terms. King David was a sinner who committed adultery and murder, Franklin Graham told to a group of evangelicals gathered last June to reassure them that a Trump presidency was in their best voting interest. After all, the Supreme Court, the sanctity of the border, and the safety of the American streets from the predations of Black Lives Matter rioters and Islamic terrorists all hang in the balance.

By wedding themselves to Trump, these evangelicals risk reducing American conservative evangelicalism to white, populist nationalism. But this also presents an opportunity for the Mormons. By rejecting Trumpism, the Mormons, whose religion the Republican Party was founded in part to destroy, have begun to replace white evangelicals as the self-anointed defenders of Republican “American” values. In 2016, Utah has become a symbol for America, something that Donald Trump seems to intuitively understand. This is why his failure to win support in that reddest of red states has bothered him so much.

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Hillary Clinton, who in August set up a campaign office in Salt Lake City, also understands Utah’s newfound symbolism. And it’s increasingly possible that, with a four-way split of the vote among Clinton; Trump; Libertarian Gary Johnson; and Evan McMullin, the BYU grad, former CIA agent, and devout Mormon who presents himself as the true conservative alternative to Trump, Utah just might turn blue in 2016. More plausible is that, with much of the rest of the Republican establishment tainted by its support for Trump, Mormon Republicans of Utah will be called upon to rebuild their party.

Correction, Oct. 8, 2016: This article originally misspelled Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s last name. (Return.)

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.

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