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Utah’s Mormons rejected Trump and picked Cruz. Here’s why.

- March 23, 2016
Ted Cruz speaks to supporters at a rally at Provo High School in Provo, Utah, on March 19.

On Tuesday, as expected, Utah’s Republican caucus-goers thrashed presidential candidate Donald Trump. Sen. Ted Cruz walked away with all of Utah’s delegates.

Mormons — Utah’s largest voting bloc — do not like Trump. Commentators have seized on Mormons’ rejection of Trump to suggest they provide ballast to a GOP otherwise careering out of control.

Mormons, some journalists argue, are members of a religious minority who remember being persecuted for their religion, so they support religious liberty for all, including Muslims. So they oppose Trump.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/03/23/winners-and-losers-from-the-arizona-utah-and-idaho-primaries/?hpid=hp_hp-top-table-low_primaries-1105pm:homepage/story”]The Fix: Winners and losers from the Arizona, Utah and Idaho votes[/interstitial_link]

The reality of Mormons’ minority political predicament is quite a bit more complicated — and interesting — than journalists’ recent portrayal of it. In a campaign in which Republicans have consistently politicized religious liberty, it is worth thinking about the difficult political pressures such politicization puts on religious minorities such as Mormons.

The Mormon predicament: Religious minority trying to appear all-American

As members of a minority religion, those in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are stuck in a Catch-22: They are bound by their well-developed fear of persecution to appear as American as apple pie, all the while preserving their radical religious particularity. It is this predicament, rather than a principled concern for religious liberty, that best explains Utah’s caucus results.

Strikingly, Utah’s Republican caucus did not follow Ohio in supporting Gov. John Kasich, even though Kasich is a man of deep religious faith and has a strong record on religious liberty.

Instead, Utah tipped its hat to Cruz, whose attitude to minority religions is suspect at best.

Cruz counts Frank Gaffney as one of his key advisers on national security; the Southern Poverty Law Center calls Gaffney “one of America’s most notorious Islamophobes.” Cruz refused to support a Senate resolution condemning Trump’s proposal to ban the entry of Muslims into the United States. Just today, Cruz defended his proposal to “patrol and secure” ordinary American Muslims in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Brussels. (Cruz handily beats both Democratic candidates in head-to-head polls in Utah.)

If principled defense of religious liberty for all were the main motivation for Utah’s Republican caucus-goers, Cruz was clearly not the right choice.

What’s the Mormon history on religious liberty? Mixed. 

The image of Mormons as principled defenders of religious liberty also founders on Mormons’ less-than-stellar record. The Mormons’ flagship educational institution, Brigham Young University, currently admits non-Mormon students and is perfectly content to allow them to freely practice their religion — or freely convert to Mormonism. Once students do convert, however, or if they are admitted as Mormons, leaving the church is grounds for immediate expulsion, as a well-organized group of former students called “Free BYU” seeks to publicize.

There is a deeper point to these inconsistencies than mere “gotcha” politics. For a minority religious group such as the Mormons, religious liberty is both a necessary condition for their survival and a continuous threat to it. Without it, they could potentially be subjected to coercive restrictions at the hands of democratic majorities — as they were when the federal government outlawed both polygamy and immigration by polygamists in the 19th century. With it, however, Mormons have to deal with continuous and relentless historical examination of their founding theological claims and the ever-present fear that their youths will either leave the faith or radically reshape the way it is practiced and understood.

What about the U.S. history of religious tolerance?

Religious liberty is not the only pressure that minority religious groups face. As the 19thcentury persecutions of Mormons show, constitutional guarantees may turn out to be mere “parchment barriers.” So Mormons have to deal with the threats their own differences pose, in spite of the Constitution.

In the 19th century, the Mormon strategy was to stand on constitutional principle: Joseph Smith asked the federal government to intervene to stop Missouri from carrying out its “extermination order.” The church challenged federal anti-polygamy legislation on First Amendment grounds and lost in the Supreme Court.

After these and other defeats, the church changed its approach: It would conform to dominant American norms about sexuality (and capitalism) in exchange for legitimacy and a degree of self-government. The most powerful symbol of this was Utah’s admission to the Union in 1896.

In the 20th century, Mormons doubled down on this strategy, working on several fronts to out-American other Americans. They are the largest institutional supporter of the Boy Scouts of America. They provide copious, willing, obedient recruits to the military and various national security agencies, sweeping under the rug any religious and ethical questions raised by such participation. And they insist, in the face of their avowed theological radicalism (supercessionism, denial of the Trinity, belief in extra-biblical scripture, and the principle of “continuing revelation”) that they are Christians just like their persecutors — who, after all, make up the majority that, in a democracy, controls their political destiny.

Yet even such over-the-top conformity may not be enough. Most evangelicals refuse to accept Mormons as Christians. Mitt Romney won the GOP nomination but had to downplay his Mormonism to do it. Today, Trump is actively stirring up anti-Mormon sentiment (perhaps because he’s angry at Utah voters’ rejection).

And U.S. national culture has changed dramatically over the course of the 20th century, putting the Mormons out of step again — on homosexuality and gender among other things — despite their attempts at conformity.

Why, then, did Mormons vote for Cruz?

It is deeply mistaken to understand Utah’s decision to support the ultra-nationalistic-religious-liberty-restricting-Muslim-baiting Cruz over the (somewhat) louder and more belligerent ultra-nationalistic-religious-liberty-restricting-Muslim-baiting Trump as motivated by some principled Mormon concern for religious liberty.

What I see instead is the fearful calculus of a minority religious group that has legitimate concerns about the likely implications of the GOP’s increasingly punitive policies toward the religiously different — but does not have the courage to embrace their particularity and leave the party entirely. To do so would be to admit what is obvious to students of Mormonism: They are radically different from the mainstream of American Protestant religiosity. So instead of proclaiming their own difference, they stay, effectively, in the closet: They support the marginally more respectable Cruz over the brash and aggressive Trump.

A growing body of recent political theorizing suggests that there may be no good solution to the Mormons’ — and other religious minorities’ — political predicament. Indeed, such tensions stretch all the way back to biblical texts. Mormons seem to be damned if they do (dissent from majority norms in accord with religious principle) and damned if they do not (conform to American values and ideals).

Such is the politics of religious freedom: A norm meant to preserve the rights of minorities is all too often used to entrench the power and privilege of the majority.

Benjamin R. Hertzberg teaches political theory and religion and politics at Emory University.