The Salt Lake City Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress)

There is a tendency among locals to compare Salt Lake to the Vatican, and the city’s marble-filled downtown certainly evokes echoes of Rome — albeit an immaculately polished, hyper-Americanized version. Much like the Catholic Church’s looming basilicas, the towering, brutalist church-owned buildings that dot the city’s skyline are evidence of very real power: The LDS church now boasts around 16 million members worldwide, roughly 6 million of whom live in the United States, with Utah as their base of spiritual and political operations.

But it’s a power Trump is struggling to engage. The first hint of his Mormon troubles came in December, coinciding with arguably the most controversial moment of The Donald’s already infamously controversial campaign.

In the wake of ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks in France, Republican governors across the country began declaring their intention to ban Syrian refugees within their borders (never mind that they can’t actually do that). Ever the one-upsman, Trump promptly took things a step further by proposing to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, assuming an increasingly Islamophobic Republican Party base would back him.

Most GOP voters did, in fact, end up supporting Trump’s ban — but not Utah Mormons. The exclusionary policy proved wildly unpopular among LDS members in the state, prompting Gov. Gary Herbert to break ranks with his party by publishing a Facebook post condemning the proposal, citing Mormonism’s own history of religious persecution at the hands of the United States government. But an even more striking — and, for Trump, politically damaging — rebuke came a few hours later: In a statement issued from Salt Lake, the LDS church itself blasted the ban and quoted church founder Joseph Smith, who voiced acceptance of Muslims in his community as early as the 1800s.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in regard to party politics and election campaigns,” the statement read in part. “However, it is not neutral in relation to religious freedom.”

Elder Todd Christofferson, member of LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress)

The statement was short, but to Mormons — 94 percent of whom believe their church president to be a prophet of God — it spoke volumes. (As one Mormon Utahn put it, “If our church leaders tell us to do something, we do it.”) Like most American religious groups, the church almost never publicly weighs in on election matters, lest they be chided for violating laws that govern faith-based nonprofits. For them to issue such a declaration, which requires high-level conversations from multiple branches of the church, a candidate would have to endorse a law that directly affronts a core aspect of church teaching.

As it turns out, Trump’s ban appears to have inadvertently violated several key aspects of Mormon theology. Speaking to a delegation of international journalists in August that included ThinkProgress, Elder Todd Christofferson, a member of LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the highest ranking body in the church after the prophet), explained the statement was necessary to reassert longstanding Mormon opposition to infringements on religious liberty — even if the religious group in question is Muslims, not Mormons.


“We have not and do not endorse candidates, and we do not oppose candidates,” Christofferson said, flanked by two other high-ranking LDS officials nodding in agreement. “[But] we have felt we ought to be — and can be — heard on policy matters; things that we feel have a moral basis that needs to be defended.”

When ThinkProgress pressed Christopherson to clarify if the statement emanated from a spiritual need to protect religious liberty — which has been historically cited by the church as a reason to oppose same-sex marriage — he shook his head eagerly in affirmation, saying that was part of it. But he also pointed to the church’s need to protect “civility” in government.

“That’s where it originated,” he said.

Mormon civility is sometimes cast aside as frivolous, dismissed as a peculiar aspect of the aggressive “niceness” that church members often exhibit in person. But the LDS passion for decorum has already played an important role in localized policy debates, facilitating the church’s surprisingly progressive stance on immigration reform — and, this year, support for American Muslims.

For proof, one need only look to the final days of former Utah senator and devout Mormon Bob Bennett. The GOP member articulated a powerful rejection of Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric from his deathbed earlier this year, asking his family if he could speak to any Muslims in the hospital in order to “apologize to them on behalf of the Republican Party for Donald Trump.”

Mormons in Utah explained this desire to maintain civility in government is more than just a cultural norm — it’s an article of faith.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress)

“We didn’t really take a position on the Muslim ban — but if we did it would have been opposed to it,” said Derek Monson, a Mormon and the director of Public Policy at the Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based conservative think tank that sits just across the street from the Salt Lake temple. “If the Mormon faith believes anything, it’s that everyone is a child of God. So, if you’re going to look at someone, whatever heritage, ethnicity, race, national origin they may be, you’re looking at a fellow child of God.”

But the most anti-Mormon aspect of Trump’s Muslim ban — and his campaign in general — is arguably the least discussed. Aside from issues with religious liberty and civility, there’s also a question of whether Trump’s polices respect the U.S. Constitution.

Constitutional references are common in American elections, but they take on an distinctly religious dimension among Mormons: the LDS church believes the U.S. Constitution, similar to holy scripture, is “divinely inspired.”

“Our religion teaches that the Constitution is an inspired document.”

This fusion of faith and patriotism keeps popping up in the statements of the growing number of Mormon politicians who have rejected Trump. When Mormon Republican and Utah Senator Mike Lee was asked in June why he refused to endorse the GOP nominee, he launched into an extended rant, calling Trump “religiously intolerant” before demanding he offer assurances that he will defend the Constitution. Romney also passionately rejected Trump in March, declaring him a “fraud” and accusing him of “twisting the Constitution to limit first amendment freedom of the press” — a line that took on special significance in Utah, where he delivered the speech.

And while Utah’s governor recently agreed to vote for — but not endorse — Trump, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox remains steadfast in his refusal to offer any support for the candidate, rooting his rejection in a belief that he does not respect the Constitution.

“Our religion teaches that the Constitution is an inspired document,” Cox told ThinkProgress in August, leaning across a conference room table to emphasize his point. “We believe that God played a role in establishing this country — that the Founding Fathers were inspired in what they did… So when you have a candidate who espouses the opposite of that, who uses fear and demagoguery, tries to paint everyone as other, sees the worst in people and highlights the worst in other groups…That doesn’t mix with our worldview.”