Mormon Rejection of Trump Embarrassing for Evangelicals?

Mormons don’t like Donald Trump. That now seems abundantly clear after yesterday’s results in Utah where Ted Cruz trounced Trump, winning nearly 70 percent of the vote. With a paltry 14 percent, Trump landed far back in third place behind John Kasich.

Trump’s Utah loss follows his earlier defeats in the second and third most Mormon states, Idaho and Wyoming, where he lost to Cruz by 18 and 59 points, respectively. To add insult to injury, a recent poll conducted by the LDS Church-owned Deseret News found Utah would vote for a Democratic candidate in November over Trump. Utah hasn’t sided with the Democrats since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide election in 1964.

Why have Mormons rejected Trump? As Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins explained over the weekend, while Mormons are overwhelmingly Republican they diverge from the party’s base on several important issues that have animated Trump’s campaign. In contrast to Trump’s extreme immigration proposals, for example, the LDS Church has long pushed for compassionate immigration reform and Mormons generally hold pro-immigrant views. When Trump proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the United States, the LDS Church took the rare step of responding directly to a political candidate, issuing a statement that affirmed religious freedom and emphasized Mormon-Muslim partnerships in humanitarian causes.

Aside from these political differences, Mormons have recoiled at the personality and style of Trump. Conservative, family-oriented, and devout, Mormons are a sharp contrast to the brash and profane Trump, and they have expressed disapproval for the thrice-married billionaire’s lifestyle and temperament. Mormons have understandably bristled at Trump’s comments from a 2014 interview that have recently come to light where he argued that Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election because many Christian voters were repelled by his “alien” faith. In a recent article for Religion News Service, the popular Mormon blogger Jana Reiss suggested a few more reasons why Trump has a Mormon problem, including his demeaning treatment of women and his inauthentic claim to faith.

The Mormon rejection of Trump also serves to further magnify Trump’s strange success among evangelical voters. While the evangelical magazine Christianity Today recently pointed out that the majority of evangelicals aren’t supporting Trump, that doesn’t change the fact that in the Southern Bible states where Trump has won he has done so in part by capturing the largest share of evangelical voters in the state. Trump nearly doubled Cruz’s share of evangelicals in the Alabama primary, winning 43 percent to Cruz’s 22 percent. (Trump has no doubt benefitted from a divided field. Should the race boil down to a Trump-Cruz faceoff, Cruz would likely win the evangelical vote.)

While there’s a lot more to understand still about evangelical support for Trump, there’s no doubt it has occasioned spirited debate and real soul searching in evangelical circles. The anti-Trump evangelical movement has been robust and active for several months now, doing everything it can to undercut Trump’s standing among evangelical voters, rally behind his opponents, and celebrate any of his political setbacks.

That’s why the near-total silence among anti-Trump evangelicals over his trouncing in Utah yesterday seems so odd. Yet that silence also reveals the complicated evangelical-Mormon partnership. While evangelicals and Mormons have no doubt found themselves allied in many political causes through the years, American evangelicalism also has a long history of attacking Mormonism as a false Christian faith and even a dangerous “cult.”

This has, understandably, made for rather strange (and strained) relations. While evangelical leaders often praised Mormon conservatism, they worried that too much enthusiasm would signal support for Mormon religious beliefs.

Amidst the social upheaval of the 1960s, evangelical outlets like Christianity Today often remarked favorably on Mormonism’s conservative politics and “family values,” but they also argued the LDS Church emphasized strong families as a way of controlling its members and covering up its more unseemly beliefs and practices, including its history of polygamy.

In the 1980s, as Mormons linked with conservative evangelicals and Catholics in the Religious Right to oppose abortion and gay rights, evangelical leaders also cranked out a slew of anti-Mormon materials, books, and the inflammatory “documentary,” The God Makers, because they worried lay evangelicals might wrongly see Mormon conservatism as evidence of it as a “true” Christian faith. All of this worked to educate evangelicals to see Mormons not as likeminded political partners at the Religious Right’s highpoint, but rather as members of a heretical and unchristian faith.

For a number of reasons, including Mitt Romney’s presidential run in 2012, those impulses have been largely diminished. But evangelical worries about Mormonism remain.

That Mormons have so thoroughly repudiated Donald Trump while American evangelicalism wrestles with its complicated relationship with him only elevates evangelical leaders’ concerns about the strength of their faith. Rather than seeing Mormon opposition to Trump as a moment to celebrate, evangelical leaders may understand it as an embarrassing exposure of the messy matters within their own fold.