The spiritual shame is real.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign tumbled into a tailspin this past weekend after the Washington Post released a video in which he gloated about sexually assaulting women. Within hours, former supporters of the businessman began to distance themselves from his candidacy, resulting in an avalanche of un-endorsements that ultimately left one-third of all Republican senators unwilling to back him.
As several commentators and reporters were quick to note, however, many evangelical Christian members of the Religious Right — who have long claimed to be the arbiters of “family values” — refused to abandon the Donald. Some condemned his comments, but leaders such as Ralph Reed (head of Trump’s advisory board and the Faith and Freedom Coalition) and Jerry Falwell, Jr (president of the evangelical Christian college Liberty University) argued that right-wing faithful still had an obligation to vote for Trump, if for no other reason than to guarantee the placement of conservative justices on the Supreme Court. Their dedication drew harsh criticism from faith leaders on both sides of the political and theological aisles, many of whom argued that continued support for Trump amounted to collective abandonment of principle on the part of the conservative faithful.
Except, of course, for one very particular subset of the conservative faith coalition: Mormons.
“It is not acceptable to ask a moral, dignified man to cast his vote to help elect an immoral man who is absent decency or dignity.”
Republican members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) were already disproportionately represented among the GOP’s anti-Trump crowd, but they were also among the first to bail on the candidate after news broke of the tapes. Rep. Jason Chaffetz was one of three Mormon representatives from Utah who either disavowed or un-endorsed Trump, saying his comments were ”abhorrent and inexcusable” before adding, “I’m out.” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who had not endorsed Trump so much as admitted he would vote for him, fully backed away mere hours after the news broke, tweeting, “While I cannot vote for Hillary Clinton, I will not vote for Trump.” And perhaps the most unexpected condemnation came from Glenn Beck, a famously conservative talk-show host — and Mormon — who announced that electing Hillary Clinton could be the result of “moral, ethical choice” made by conservatives who stand against Trump.
“It is not acceptable to ask a moral, dignified man to cast his vote to help elect an immoral man who is absent decency or dignity,” Beck wrote in a Facebook post. “If the consequence of standing against Trump and for principles is indeed the election of Hillary Clinton, so be it. At least it is a moral, ethical choice.”
Things got even weirder on Wednesday morning, when a new poll in Mormon-majority Utah revealed that Trump and Clinton are now neck-in-neck in the state claiming 26 percent of the vote each, with Evan McMullin — an independent candidate for president who also happens to be Mormon — coming in third with 22 percent. Even more shocking: the survey, which was one of the first taken since the tapes were released, reported that a majority of voters statewide — specifically Mormons — believe Trump should drop out of the race. This from Mormons, the most reliably Republican major religious group in America.
The poll results were so dramatic that it left political analysts such as the Washington Post’s Philip Bump aghast.
“There’s not a lot of polling done in Utah, so it’s worth remembering that this is one poll, in isolation,” Bump said. “And that said: Dang.”
The Mormon flight from Trump is markedly distinct from the reaction of conservative Christian voters who have thus far vowed to support the business mogul come election day. Shortly before the tapes were released, PRRI reported that 69 percent of white evangelical Protestants said they would vote for Trump. The group’s post-scandal poll, released earlier this week, showed 65 percent still said the same — a statistically insignificant shift that showed little, if any, actual movement.
“When you have [Trump] … [using] 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.”
This dichotomy isn’t entirely surprising, of course, seeing as Mormons have been expressing fervid disapproval of Trump for months, starting when the LDS church officially admonished his proposed ban on Muslims immigration in December 2015. Since then, Trump has been soundly defeated in the Utah Republican caucus, Hillary Clinton has become the first Democrat in decades (and maybe ever) to launch a robust attempt to court Mormons, and Mormon political leaders such as Mitt Romney, former senator Bob Bennett, and Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox have all voiced their misgivings about the Trump movement.
The key difference between Mormons and evangelicals, it seems, is that Latter-day Saints are embracing a different standard when it comes to choosing their candidates.
For many evangelicals, the potential political gains that a political leader could bring about — namely, Trump appointing conservative Supreme Court justices — outweigh the conduct, character, and faith of a candidate. Mormons, on the other hand, appear to reflect the disposition of a Religious Right from a different age — one that rejected the false choice of faith-over-politics, demanding instead that a candidate express good policies and good temperament, all while rooting their decision in their faith.
“Our religion teaches that the Constitution is an inspired document,” Cox told ThinkProgress in August. “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 [Trump] espous[ing] 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.”
Indeed, Cox’s call for a character-driven candidate sounds eerily similar to what Ralph Reed said in 1998—when decrying Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
‘’Character matters, and the American people are hungry for that message,’’ Reed said a the time, according to the New York Times. ‘’We care about the conduct of our leaders, and we will not rest until we have leaders of good moral character.’’
By contrast, the Reed of 2016 has doubled-down on his support for Trump, dismissing the tape by saying, “I think a 10-year-old tape of a private conversation with a TV talk show host ranks pretty low on their hierarchy of their concerns.”
Mormons are hardly the only religious group rejecting Trump — Clinton currently enjoys record-high support from Catholics, for instance, including often-conservative white Catholics. But they are certainly the closest political cousins of the evangelical conservatives, and thus have the greatest potential to shame their political brethren into reexamining how the politics match their faith.
Time will tell if the rest of the Religious Right follows their lead.