Today, we Utahns enjoyed the edifying spectacle of seeing our last two Attorneys-General hauled off in handcuffs for political corruption. Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow, who between them were Attorneys-General in Utah for sixteen years, both charged with multiple counts of receiving and soliciting bribes. Chatting with an old friend from Indiana, he asked the obvious question: what’s going on in Utah? Why are all your attorneys-general crooks? And the best answer both of us could come up with is this: Utah’s a one-party state. With veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, the Republican party rules untroubled by any thought of electoral consequences. And that lack of voter oversight can lead to, well, corruption.
That’s the first question, and the first attempt at an answer. Here’s the second question: why do Mormons hate President Obama so much? A recent gallup poll asked people if they approved or disapproved of this President, but also broke down the results by religion. Turns out, Mormons hate him more than any other religion. He got a 18% favorable, 78% unfavorable. So why do we Mormons hate this President so much?
I’m just going to discount the possibility that it’s because he’s a terrible President and Mormons, with our powers of spiritual discernment, saw it before anyone else did. Or that we’re all conservatives because only conservatism is compatible with gospel values. I’m ignoring both those possibilities, because this is my blog and I can say anything I want to on it. And also because that’s silly. Neither political party has any kind of monopoly on truth or values or good policies, and no objective look at Obama’s Presidency could possibly fail to notice that he’s had some successes and some failures, like every President ever. I’m a Mormon, and I think he’s an excellent President. I have also, on this blog, called for his impeachment. I think NSA spying on us violates the Constitution, and that drone warfare is an abomination. I also think Obamacare is a big success story (the evidence for that is pretty well overwhelming), and that he’s been an effective advocate for sensible economic policies. And for the poor, which is my number one issue anyway. So Obama’s a mixed bag. Add it up, and he’s been a good President. Top-tier.
But conservatives hate him, and Republicans tend to froth at the mouth at how much they hate him, and that’s weird. Mormons tend to be conservative Republicans, hence his bad poll numbers. Plus, he defeated a Mormon hero, Mitt Romney (an estimable man, I think.) Plus he’s black. That’s all gotta be in the mix. But mostly, it’s because he’s a liberal and Mormons really really aren’t.
Here’s one theory about why Mormons tend to be Republicans. Mormons disproportionately live in the western states, especially Utah and Idaho. And those states tend to be very conservative. Utah and Idaho are very conservative, and have large Mormon populations, but Wyoming and Montana also tend to be very conservative, and don’t have majority Mormon populations. Western states tend to have large amounts of federally owned land, which is a constant source of friction. We fancy ourselves independent loners, who enjoy wide open spaces. Rural Americans tend to be more conservative than urban Americans, and Utah is really quite rural. Except for Salt Lake City itself, which is also Utah’s one enclave of hard-core liberals. So Mormons are conservatives because Mormons are rural Westerners, who tend to be conservative. It’s entirely demographics; has nothing to do with doctrine or beliefs.
But I live in Provo, and Provo/Orem is really pretty urban, with two major universities, and lots of suburbs. And Provo/Orem are, like, majorly conservative. Democrats are outnumbered in my town at least 10-1. So the ‘independent right-wing rancher’ theory doesn’t entirely hold up either.
We’d like to believe that voters are well-informed and thoughtful and make their decisions based on reason and evidence. I don’t think that’s all that true for most people. There’s a lot of social science research on this; most people respond viscerally and emotionally to political questions, which they’d otherwise prefer not to think about much. In Utah, a Republican named ‘McKay’ is going to do very well in most elections, because LDS people have really positive associations with the name ‘McKay’ and a great many voters will just vote the straight Republican ticket anyway. That name and that party affiliation will generally be enough to win any race that guy enters. Not caucuses, though, because caucus voters tend to be very well informed and passionate, and of course also really majorly conservative.
So why are Mormons such hard core Republicans? I think it’s about one issue above all others. I think it’s because of abortion.
Abortion evokes very powerful emotions for social conservatives, and for Mormons. The argument that ‘The prophet has spoken on this’ is a winning argument in almost any setting, and there’s no question that the Church has taken a strong stance against elective abortions. And it’s an emotional issue. One the one side of it are people who believe, with all their hearts, that women absolutely should be the ones to make the most essential medical decisions regarding their bodies. On the other side of it, you’ve got the ‘baby-killer’ argument. So you can demonize the other side as either ‘anti-women’ or ‘baby murderers.’ Strong stuff.
Of course, it’s a far more complex and nuanced issue than either of those formulations would suggest. While the Church is certainly strongly ‘pro-life’, it does also say that morally defensible abortions can be performed when the pregnancy places a mother’s life at stake, or when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. And in those situations, the person who should have ultimate responsibility for deciding whether or not to terminate the pregnancy should be the woman. That’s one reason that some evangelical Christians protest against the Church at General Conference; we’re soft on abortion, in their view.
And to criminalize abortion would be a catastrophe. We’ve seen it before; young women so desperate to end an unwanted pregnancy that they’ll go to any extreme, including medically dangerous procedures performed by back-alley charlatans. The brilliant Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days captures the agonized desolation of a young woman who will go to any extreme to terminate her pregnancy. Historically, women have always known ways to end an unsustainable pregnancy, secrets passed down by midwives and other older women who know the secret.
As a Democrat, I support Bill Clinton’s formulation: abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. I also love this reasoning, from one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace:
The only really coherent position on the abortion issue is one that is both Pro-life and Pro-choice.
Given our best present medical and philosophical understandings of what makes something not just a living organism but a person, there is no way to establish at just what point during gestation a fertilized ovum becomes a human being. This conundrum, together with the basically inarguable soundness of the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about whether something is a human being or not, it is better not to kill it,” appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Life.
At the same time, however, the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about something, I have neither the legal nor the moral right to tell another person what to do about it, especially if that person feels that s/he is not in doubt” is an unassailable part of the Democratic pact we Americans all make with one another, a pact in which each adult citizen gets to be an autonomous moral agent; and this principle appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Choice.
Abortion is, in other words, a highly emotional issue that isn’t simple and isn’t black and white, but which easily be framed in black and white terms. Especially when we’re talking about something as absolute and fundamental as killing babies. Or denying women basic human rights.
But this isn’t about me being torn. It’s about why Mormons are Republicans. And the emotional power of the abortion issue trumps every other consideration. And as long as the Democratic response to the issue of abortion is ‘it’s a nuanced and complicated question, not a black-and-white one,’ which is perfectly true, we Dems are going to lose a lot of elections in Utah. For a very long time.