One of the more surprising elements of Donald Trump's election in 2016 was how many white, evangelical voters turned out to support him, despite his decidedly un-Christian background. But equally surprising, from my perspective as someone who grew up in Utah, was the more principled stance of another conservative-leaning faith group: Mormons. After the release of the Access Hollywood "grab them by the pussy" video in October 2016, the Mormon Church-owned Desert News broke an eighty-year tradition of staying out of presidential elections and urged Trump to drop out of the race. Trump ended up winning only 45 percent of the vote in Utah--a shockingly low number in a reliably deep red state.
The Mormons' principled opposition to Trump wasn't enough to persuade many of them to vote for Hillary Clinton. (Defectors flocked instead to the Utah-born independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin.) But it was enough to make me reconsider a critical piece I'd written about Mormons back in 2001 in the Washington Monthly.
At the time, President George W. Bush was busy rewarding the evangelicals who had just helped put him in the White House. Claiming that religion had been unfairly pushed out of the public sphere, he created the first federal Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to help funnel more taxpayer money to religious organizations to provide social services to the poor and abstinence-only sex ed programs. He championed religious drug treatment programs and directed funding to groups associated with the Christian prison ministries of Watergate felon Chuck Colson. Civil libertarians raised concerns that Bush was violating long-standing principles of the separation of church and state and forcing Christianity on people as a condition of getting public services.
The public debate about the proper role of religion in government prompted me to write a cautionary tale about what it was like to grow up non-Mormon in Utah, where a single faith already dominated virtually every sphere of public life. Utah is a place where even if you aren't a Mormon, you are often forced to live like one.
"I was born and raised in Utah, and my entire family still lives there," I wrote. "Every time I go back, from the minute I wade past the missionaries in the Salt Lake City airport to my first watered-down beer, I am struck by the fact that, while inmates may be able to duck Chuck Colson, the average Utah citizen has no hope of escaping the Mormons."