You may have heard the news earlier this year – a Gallup poll reporting that President Trump’s “approval [was] highest among Mormons” (compared to other religious groups).
Wow. Shocker, right?
Or maybe not. Maybe, like multiple commentators I’ve read, you thought to yourself something along the lines of, “No Surprise here” or, “Doesn’t shock me in the slightest!”
If that was your reaction, it’s not likely you spent much time whether the evidence actually supported the many expansive claims being made out of that headline, or wondered how the soundbite headline jived with this from Senator Jeff Flake, this from former candidate Evan McMullin, this from future Senator Mitt Romney or lots of other evidence that Mormon people have had deep reservations about Trump from the beginning?
You might not even considered much how consistent this headline was with the values of your Mormon neighbors either…unless you’re one of those people who already knows who those Mormons really are.
A vindication of disdain. Following a story in the Salt Lake Tribune, commentators declared with hardly contained glee a sense of vindication:
- “The flock shows the harmful nature of their ”
- “Doesn’t surprise me in the slightest! Having been raised in the church I know what my fellow Mormons really thought….Mormons are the biggest hypocrites I’ve even had the displeasure of knowing.”
One person sneeringly insisted that Trump perhaps reminded my Mormon community of Joseph Smith. Others affirmed what they claimed were obvious parallels in regards to Trump’s lies and hypocrisy:
- “Mormons back Trump because they share so many of the same values with him in every aspect of their lives.”
- “Yup. I see MANY similarities between Trump’s views and my Mormon neighbors. Despite what they purport to believe and preach from the pulpit, few live that way. I have yet to meet more than a tiny handful of Mormons who live what they say they believe.”
There you have it! Those Mormons are basically as shifty and self-absorbed as President Trump. Who needs any more explanation of the poll numbers when you have such compelling analysis?
Along these lines, one Democrat politician in Utah wrote dramatically in an op-ed afterward: “What does such strong endorsement of Trump tell the world about who we, as Mormons, are?” He went on to suggest that such approval “discloses not just what kind of a leader 61 percent of Mormons will tolerate, it reveals the kind of character many of us venerate. It proclaims to the world the spiritual and religious values of most Mormons” (italics my own).
In addition to calling this latest Gallup poll a “strong endorsement” of Trump, Representative King went on to summarize the result as confirming the reality that “Mormons are Donald Trump’s most reliable supporters” and “among Trump’s most zealous supporters” reflecting what he labeled a “consistent and strong admiration” of the man.
Hmmm. Really? Are we looking at the same report, Brother King? The word “admire” didn’t even show up in the question stem.
Detail aside, however, other news outlets similarly reported the finding with equally dramatic language:
- From Newsweek: “An incredible 61 percentof members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said they approved of Trump in 2017, according to a new Gallup report…Mormons were the only religious group to overwhelmingly approve of the president in 2017.”
- KUTV: “Trump’s job approval is well above average for Mormons”
With the exception of an impressively balanced piece in the Salt Lake Tribune by Thomas Burr, most reports largely ignored the interesting (and relevant) nuance in the Gallup poll results. Instead, many journalists and commentators seemed to quickly seize on parts of the context that contributed to a perception of Mormons as holding special affinity for Trump.
For instance, the Newsweek article compared the 61% figure to Trump’s average national approval rating last year (38%) – without mentioning either (a) the statistically equivalent 60% approval rating among other conservative protestants (with a difference well within the margin of error) (b) the fact that this is the same percentage of Mormons who voted for Trump originally (61%) or (c) the fact that this percentage is far lower than a typical Mormon approval rate for a Republican President.
Relatively low (Mormon) ratings for a Republican President. In November of 2016, when 61% of Mormons voted for Trump (same percentage as in the latest poll), the storyline focused on how Trump under-performed so dramatically in Utah. Indeed, Trump came out of Utah with his lowest margin of victory across the country despite the state being among the most Republican in the country.
But with the latest poll, it’s become a dramatically different story about Mormon’s supposed affinity for Trump.
Why? Why not say that Trump has a much lower approval rating among Mormons than any other Republican president in recent times at this stage of their presidency?
As Jason Perry, the director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics pointed out, Latter-day Saints have given Republican presidents higher marks in the past: “Part of the story is that he’s at 61 percent [among Mormons] but the other part of the story is why is he not higher.” Quin Monson in the political science department at Brigham Young University added, “Actually the numbers are about 20 points lower than they should be,” later pointing out, “With a normal Republican president, I would expect his approval among Mormons to be in the high 70s.”
Maybe that story’s not as interesting to tell? (not compared to the alternative). As Nate Silver from the FiveThirtyEight blog wrote soon after the election, “Be on alert for selective citation of polls that are used to advance a narrative.”
Competing narratives of the Mormon numbers. As professor Justin Dyer notes, “the picture emerging from the chatter is one of Mormons as a monolithic voting block deaf to considerations other than the Republican Party line.”
He goes on to highlight Pew Research data from the 2016 election getting ignored, showing more Mormons abandoning Trump than any other religious group. If you average the percentages that voted for the Republican presidential candidate in the prior four elections, Trump:
- Gained 4 percent of the Catholic vote (that is, as a group, 4 percent more Catholics voted for Trump than had voted for the Republican candidate in the previous four elections [averaged], going from 48 percent to 52 percent of Catholics who voted for the Republican candidate).
- Gained 4.3 percent of the Evangelical vote.
- Gained 1.5 percent of the Protestant vote.
- Gained .25 percent of the Jewish vote.
- Lost 1.5 percent of the unaffiliated vote.
- And most interestingly, Trump lost 18 percent of the Mormon vote.
It would be a pity to water down the headline by pointing out such context, or any other broader qualifications for the results. For instance, compared to prior election statistics (which showed conservative evangelicals voting for Trump at much higher percentages than Mormons), Quin Monson points out this Gallup poll has a “a single category for all Protestant and other Christian faiths that included evangelicals” – which methodological decision inevitably ends up diluting the likely higher numbers of approval among conservative evangelicals.
Extrapolating from a single question. As a second example of relevant methodological nuance, most news reports of the Gallup results use language emphasizing that this was “based on more than 122,000 interviews conducted” – leaving the impression that the results arise from a comprehensive investigation into the psyche of Americans. In reality, there was really just one question asked specific to the finding: “Do you approve or disapprove of the way [president’s name] is handling his job as president?”
How much nuance can one question capture? Not a whole lot.
As public school teachers know, forced choice answers are inherently (and intentionally) simplistic measures of more complex phenomena. In particular, if you’re FORCED to choose between approve or disapprove (with no other spectrum in between), it starts to function more like an analogue to a “conservative” (vs. “liberal”) identifier, akin to a political litmus test like, “Are you still a Democrat? Are you still a Republican?” Dr. Jason Perry from the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics acknowledged as much, saying “the poll shows Mormon loyalty to the Republican Party more than it does support for Trump.”
What would an even more nuanced survey show? In the 2016 election, the exit polling found that many Utahans who ended up voting for Trump held major reservations about Trump’s character. For instance:
- Just 14 percent of Utah voters said that Trump is a good role model for young people, (fewer than half the 31 percent who considered Clinton a good role model).
- And sixteen percent said Trump is a moral person, compared to 25 percent for Clinton.
As reflected here, among the 61% of Mormons voting for Trump, it could be said that only 14-16% of them felt comfortable with / admired the person he was.
What would lead us to conclude that a similar ratio does not apply to the Mormon people today?
Deeply unhappy supporters. Further confirming this crucial nuance, Quin Monson notes that with the latest poll, while Mormons may as a group still back Trump, it’s likely most of them are in the “somewhat approve” category, especially given Trump’s comments about immigrants, the strong language he uses and his tweets: “Even if they’re loyal Republicans, they’re still unhappy loyal Republicans,” Monson said, noting that many Mormon supporters are “reluctant, as in ‘I guess this is better than Hillary [Clinton] kind of approval but I wish he would be better at this.”
Monson went on to note, “At first glance, it seems surprising given everything that we’ve read and seen,” but Monson went on to argue that the poll is measuring support for the president’s policies, not necessarily how he has conducted himself in office — something that has turned off many Mormons: “They’re happy with some of his policies but unhappy with his style — very unhappy in some cases.”
As David Campbell, a political scientist at Notre Dame University noted in late 2016, “His personal background and locker room language are off-putting to Mormons. His anti-immigrant rhetoric runs counter to Mormons’ views on immigration; his plan to either ban Muslims or subject them to ‘extreme vetting’ is radioactive to a population that has been subject to religious discrimination, including federal policies to limit the immigration of Mormons back in the 1800s.”
As one Mormon woman wrote after the election, “the LDS people really struggled…It’s very hard to cast a vote for somebody [like Trump] when you grow up in an atmosphere where women are treated with respect,” she said. “The types of things that he said and did about women, the way he demeaned women, that just doesn’t sit well with LDS people.”
In fact, another recent survey found that those who classify themselves as Never Trump are more likely than other Republican subgroups to identify as Mormon. More than one in ten (11%) Republicans in the Never Trump category are Mormon. As Kathleen Flake said, professor of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia, “(Many) Mormons finally found a Republican they don’t like – and that’s Trump.”
For the plurality of Mormons, their backing of Trump is “sort of lukewarm approval,” Monson went on to say. “This is not the same sort of gung-ho enthusiasm you might get for a Republican president. It’s lukewarm. It’s tepid. It’s begrudging.” He added that Mormons, who are “the most Republican and the most conservative” among faiths, may be pleased with the economy and the president’s Supreme Court pick, but “wish he’d stop saying and doing such awful things.” Illustrating this point, one man wrote, “I don’t like a lot of things about Trump. Really don’t like a lot of things. But I approve of his handling tax reform, Paris accord, Supreme Court Justice, smaller government, less regulations, etc.”
This is confirmed by additional data that documents how “supporters” of Trump are much more divided in various degrees than those who are opposed to him. Given this spectrum of feelings, policy decisions on a single issue may sway the decision. For instance, judicial appointments were reportedly a key reason evangelical Christians supported Trump in the 2016 election. And in that election, many Mormons ended up deciding to “voted for the issues,” as one Mormon said after the election, “and Trump lines up on the issues 95 percent of the time [with] basic Utah and Mormon beliefs — limited government, local control, strong national defense and individual responsibility.”
Thus, Mitt Romney recently said, “I’m with the president’s domestic policy agenda: low taxes and low regulation, and smaller government, pushing back against the bureaucrats. By and large…his policies are very similar to those I campaigned for. I wanted to bring the corporate (tax) rate down to 25 (percent), he got it down to 21.”
But is this willingness to support or “approve” in a general way hypocritical, especially given the apparent concerns?
Another explanation: Mormon pragmatism. Returning to Justin Dyer’s commentary again, some of this may reflect some degree of the Mormon proclivity for pragmatism. Like it was said about Romney’s own “softening” toward the President, it could be said that Mormon “anti-Trumpism may be dormant, but it isn’t dead.”
In a Christian Science article about skeptics “making nice for now” with Trump, a pattern of pragmatic collaboration is documented across general Republican support:
- During the 2016 campaign, Romney was a full-blown “Never Trumper” – regularly denouncing Trump, whose personal conduct and style contrast starkly with Romney’s. But Trump is now president, and he and Romney play for the same team, the GOP. So the two have buried the hatchet, at least for now.
- Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was a Trump antagonist, until they decided to work together on key issues – even playing golf together. Now they’re on the outs again over a disagreement on immigration policy.
- Jeff Flake of Arizona has delivered full-throated denunciations of the president from the Senate floor, and is retiring in January, but he still votes with his party – and therefore Trump – almost all the time.
As Dan Schnur, a professor at the University of Southern California, points out in the article, “Being anti-Trump doesn’t mean being anti-Trump on everything.” Schnur goes on to point out that even the leading Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer of New York, agrees with Trump on some things. So “to be a Trump-era Republican standard-bearer, even one with significant reservations about Trump, means choosing when to disagree and when not.”
I personally hope that explains Orrin Hatch’s baffling statement of admiration at “one heck of a leader” recently. If that helps Utah get what it needs, perhaps Senator Hatch was thinking, why not throw out some strategic political flattery?
Let’s be honest: most Mormons (even those approving of his policy directions) harbor deep concerns about President Trump. It’s fair to say ALMOST ALL have serious concerns about him.
It’s rare that I meet a full-fledged (Always) Trump supporter who also identifies as active Mormon. (Once again, based on the post-election exit numbers, a fair estimate of that number lies between 10 and 15% of Mormons – which is roughly the same as the national percentage of “always Trump” Americans.
Perhaps then, we could have a conversation about the nuances of our disagreements, rather than deceptively proclaiming the Mormon admiration for a porn star sleeping president.
The truth is that many Mormons find themselves uncomfortably supporting a President they have deep reservations about. How to live out this concern is a point of disagreement among my people (and the American people generally).
All of this, of course, begs the question of how or why someone would provide any support to a man who his doing so much damage to our country today? That’s precisely why many Mormons (and conservatives) find themselves in nearly as much opposition to the President as left-leaning neighbors.
I would personally love to see more Mormons stepping away from Trump more vocally. As I wrote in my own open letter to fellow religious Americans prior to the election, “A Wicked Man Is Not Going To Make Our Country’s Problems Any Better.
I was disappointed Evan McMullin didn’t win in Utah – and was a big supporter of him. I join the many in America saying things like this, “As many times as this man has lied to the American people and you still support him? Give me a break!!! Take the blinders off brethren and wake up before it’s too late.”
To those Mormons (and Evangelicals and Catholics and Agnostics) throwing their (full) support behind Trump, I would ask: what ARE you thinking? Even with all I’ve emphasized above, I admit still being confused as to why Mormons and Evangelicals are not rating Trump’s performance lower!
Accelerating hardness. One leader in the dialogue field told me, in private, that “President Trump seems almost custom designed to harden the animosities in our country” – adding her alarm at how quickly the hostilities have intensified just in the last year since his election.”
Perhaps it’s precisely these intensifying feelings that explain some of how this poll is being narrated. Given deep-seated resentments, many people simply cannot help reading a headline and going to the implication they want to make, even if it means significantly overstating the result + ignoring the simplicity of the question.
The idea that Mormons support the President THE MOST is an idea almost too good to not pass along. It’s a notion that will likely follow us and continue to be promoted, whether or not it’s true – because people love the idea.
Beyond the 61% finding, I believe the broader question worth considering are the intense feelings that MAKE this survey result so appealing. In short, this whole conversation may say more about what people think about Mormons, than it does simply about what Mormons think of Trump.
This is consistent with some of the latest psychological research. As social scientist Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, human beings see the world out of deeper emotional attachments and commitments they have – with these feelings influencing what they come to believe.
And the underlying feelings have been very clear. As soon as the Gallup report emerged, OUT came a dark, blubbering hatred from some quarters. And yet in a society with deep concern at any sign of hostility towards racial minorities, women and the gay community, the growing hostility towards religious conservatives is hardly a blip on the radar.
There is a large of Americans walking around disgusted and burning in their venom for conservative religious communities as a whole – far more than anything I see on the right directed at gay folks or the African-American community.
In the presence of these emotions, nuance doesn’t matter. What matters is feeding the resentment more: AHA! MORE EVIDENCE OF WHAT I DEEPLY KNOW IN MY HEART TO BE TRUE OF THOSE MORMONS.
Thus, the endless commentary that followed this survey, such as this:
- “And they ask why fewer people are identifying themselves as Christian. The current brand of Christianity in the USA has no moral compass or grounding. I certainly don’t want to be identified with them.”
- “Duh, Mormons have always been known as racist and sexists.”
- “You forgot to mention how homophobic they are too. they have never been on the right side of any social justice issue – ever.”
- “For a religion that turns a blind eye to just about everything, this isn’t surprising in the least.”
My own big fear. As this political landscape evolves, the time will come when a Trump backlash hits – something I’ve warned many conservatives about recently. When it does, I believe that people on the left won’t differentiate between the spectrum of feelings on the right. I’ve already heard comments from the left that refer to “those conservatives” with phraseology like “you know, the religious folks and white nationalists.”
My larger concern is that this will one day become the norm. And it won’t matter that it’s not actually true.
After all, if none of the foregoing nuance matters much now, why would it in the future?
How will the growing animosity toward conservatives play out over time? For many religious conservatives, we’re now living out a kind of dystopian horror novel, where the popular “face” of our own political tribe acts in such a repugnant, disturbing way that Americans have endless excuses of becoming even more resentful and angry toward us as a people (more than they already were pre-Trump!)
Due to this mounting animosity, I believe that regardless of the complexity of our feelings (and no matter the strong opposition many of us have had to Trump), we’ll all be placed in the same big white nationalist pot.
While there is abundant (and appropriate) concern about the assault on truth happening in the White House, I’m calling for equal attention to the need for truth about the larger divides between us. I believe it’s precisely some of the conservative fears about America’s disdain that Trump took advantage of to win the election.
Please, please, let’s talk about the nuance and complexity. Let’s refuse to let Trump’s American turn us all into cartoon characters (and characaters) of who we really are.
To my friends on the left, I promise to continue fighting against those doing that to liberal-leaning America! Please do what you can to stop the same from happening to us.
 Nor does it line up with the “tremendous problem in Utah” Trump admitted facing during the election given fierce resistance from many Mormons, including fierce opposition from many Mormons, as reflected in this pre-election op-ed from the editorial board of the Church-owned Deseret News, declaring that “we do not believe Trump holds the ideals and values of this community or this paper” and decrying what they call the “evil” that “oozes” from the tape released of Trump’s sexual bragging:
We hear a married man give smooth, smug and self-congratulatory permission to his intense impulses, allowing them to outweigh the most modest sense of decency, fidelity and commitment. And although it speaks volumes about sexual morality, it goes to the heart of all ethical behavior. Trump’s banter belies a willingness to use and discard other human beings at will. That characteristic is the essence of a despot.
Latter-day Saint leaders have taught for decades principles that conflict directly with Trump’s general behavior, from chastity to incivility. And specifically, Latter-day Saints have a painful history as persecuted refugees in America, which explains why Utah is the single state with a Republican governor to take in Syrian refugees and why they have made proactive efforts to encourage the enactment of fair compromises on immigration (see Utah Compact, Church statement on immigration, General Conference talks on compassion toward refugees, etc.). [See video: https://www.lds.org/media-library/video/2016-09-3000-refuge-from-the-storm?lang=eng].
 Responding to King’s piece, one reader said, “Did you read the report? There is a big difference between ‘admire’ and ‘approve the job Trump is doing.’ I don’t like a lot of things about Trump. Really don’t like a lot of things. But I approve of his handling tax reform, Paris accord, Supreme Court Justice, smaller government, less regulations, etc.”
 The Newsweek story called this “an apparent shift from the religious group’s feelings towards Trump during the 2016 election.” Can someone explain to me how this is a shift at all?
 He concludes, “in an era where political affiliation has become a more important identification than almost any other (often including religious identification), Mormons, more than any other group, were willing to abandon the Republican candidate.”
 Schnur adds, “You see Romney trying to establish that ground…Others have too. But what they’re struggling with is a sense of letdown from the Never Trumpers, if they don’t take on Trump on every front, every day.”
 A very similar process at play in how people seize on stories suggesting that Utah uses more porn than everyone else OR a relatively higher teen suicide rate (both of which have been overstated, and taken out of context, with the same notable and disheartening glee).