Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, broke with his party in voting to convict President Donald Trump on abuse of power, the first article of impeachment, after the Senate’s trial. In doing so, he became the first senator in American history to vote to remove a sitting president of his own party.
While Romney’s vote isn’t a complete surprise — he was the most outspoken of the Republican senators who were in favor of additional evidence and witnesses — it is a bold move for a politician who has yet to distinguish himself as a political iconoclast in the Senate. And it stemmed, in part, from how he interprets his faith as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
For evidence, one need only look to his public speech defending the vote, during which Romney drew on his private beliefs: “I am a profoundly religious person,” Romney declared in his address, and “I take an oath before God as enormously consequential,” indicating that his religious principles drove his political action. In an interview with The Atlantic (given before but embargoed until his speech), he told McKay Coppins that he “prayed through this process” and said he’d made his decision because “I’m subject to my own conscience,” after quoting both scripture and Mormon hymns.
And then, one of the first people to congratulate Romney was Jeff Flake, the former senator from Arizona, who has used similar language in his public opposition to Trump — and who also shares Romney’s faith.
That Flake and Romney are both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is notable. Though seen by outsiders as stalwarts of the Republican Party (despite notable members like former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.), the LDS faith is not as reliably partisan as other faith traditions with whom they are typically grouped, like white Evangelicals. Indeed, recent studies have shown that Romney and Flake are not outliers in their critical view of Trump, as the president’s approval ratings among Latter-day Saints is lower than among other devoutly religious groups.
This is in part because members of the faith (typically referred to as Mormons) place a higher premium on the moral character of those who govern, whereas many Evangelical leaders (such as Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Franklin Graham) have demonstrated a willingness to overlook character issues in exchange for political partnership — especially on culture war topics like birth control. Mormons have been more reticent to give up the hope for righteous leadership and Donald Trump, despite overlapping with their preferences in policy and politics, is as big an affront to those principles as they have encountered in recent decades.
There are few things that have tested the post-war Mormon-Republican alliance as much as Trump’s campaign in 2016 — at least initially. In their March 26, 2016, primary, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, took nearly 70 percent of the vote in Utah (one of the best showing of any candidate in any state) even as Trump was locking up the nomination; even Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio, beat Trump in the state. And, in the weeks following the release of the Access Hollywood tape on Oct. 7, it appeared there might be a sizable break between Utah and the then-Republican nominee.
A poll taken just three days after the release of the tape showed Trump tied with Clinton for the lead, with independent candidate Evan McMullin (a Utahan and an LDS member) at 22 percent. The LDS church-owned “Deseret News” published a nearly-unprecedented op-ed that called for Trump to resign, and a number of state officials rescinded their support for their party’s nominee. McMullin was part of what siphoned off support for Trump, but journalists noted a much wider antipathy toward the Republican nominee among Latter-day Saints, to the point that some of Trump’s defenders even complained of a “Mormon Mafia” out to get their candidate.
All of this seemed to subside, however, with the election: In the end, many devout Mormons — though still disgusted by Trump the man — couldn’t bring themselves to support Hillary Clinton the politician, who represented the culture wars that had made many of them solidly Republican in the first place. Many of them also likely sympathized with Evangelicals, who viewed Supreme Court picks among the paramount issues of the election — historian John Fea calls them “Court Evangelicals” — thus justifying their vote for Trump. According to one survey, 61 percent of Mormons voted for Trump. And though a small sample size complicates the picture, the fact that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang at Trump’s inauguration makes the alliance between the church and the administration, uncomfortable though it may be for some, clear.
Members of the Mormon tradition once refused to fit into traditional political boundaries: Early members of the church typically threw their votes behind candidates on a case-by-case basis, predicated upon pledged support. And when political circumstances looked dire, they were not afraid of bold actions. Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the faith, ran for president in 1844 and, once the church was settled in Utah, they formed their own political party in opposition to the national establishment. It was only in the 20th century, when the church and its members yearned for credibility and acceptance, that they embraced America’s two-party system.
But as the decades evolved, Utah’s vote transitioned as well. While the state at first featured two vibrant parties, after World War II — and especially following the culture wars of the 60s and the 70s — the “Mormon vote” became more or less synonymous with the “Republican Vote.” This was primarily due to a vocal LDS leadership who echoed anti-communist policies and anti-liberal social ideas, but it was also rooted the demographic makeup of Utah that positioned them with similar red states in the post-war era. Pew polling even revealed Mormons to be the most Republican religion in the nation.
So the fact that entrenched dissatisfaction with the current Republican establishment among the Mormon population has continued well into Trump’s administration is not surprising. A number of Trump’s most prominent Republican critics — including Romney, McMullin and Flake — are Mormon. And polling demonstrates that support for Trump continues to lag among Latter-day Saints voters compared to other Republican constituencies. It appears Mormons are less likely to simply overlook the morality issues that other white Christians broadly ignore, and less willing to make a pragmatic, silent sacrifice of principles for party unity.
There is even a long-standing myth within the tradition, known as the “White Horse Prophecy,” which foretells that a member of the church will save the American government from destruction. Such a cultural belief implies that members of the faith cannot always walk in lockstep with present political parties.
There are, of course, limits to this incipient Mormon rebellion; even Romney only voted for one of two of the impeachment counts. At a debate last week among those seeking the state governor’s office, every single candidate endorsed Trump’s second term. The chances are that Trump will yet again win Utah’s Electoral College votes in November, even if his popular vote margin continues to shrink. So even if Mormons hold their nose while doing it, but they’ll still likely pledge their support to the party headed by Trump. For a community still seeking broad cultural acceptance in the United States, the warm embrace of the Republican Party is difficult to ignore — especially after Romney’s own presidential run openly revealed a streak of anti-Mormon prejudice among a certain brand of Democrats that many of the LDS faith have long felt.
Still, Romney’s consistent — if sometimes understated — opposition to Trump, and the continued discontent among his fellow Mormons toward the president, demonstrate that the relationship between the GOP and those of the LDS faith may not always be so close There are cracks in that union’s façade and America’s homegrown faith — with its quirky culture, quixotic history and unique beliefs — may yet have an unpredictable future in American politics.