How Conservative Mormon America Avoided the Fate of Conservative White America

  The Mormon Church’s  Conference Center

The Mormon Church’s Conference Center

Reading Noah Smith’s incisive post “Conservative White America, You Need a New Grand Strategy,” my main reaction is that American Mormons, while predominantly white, and just as conservative in many dimensions, do much better than Noah’s description of Conservative White America in general. So Mormonism might provide clues to the new grand strategy Noah calls for for Conservative White America. Let me pursue that idea in the spirit of the grand research project I recommended in my post “Godless Religion” of trying to figure out how to get the non-supernatural benefits of religion without requiring supernatural beliefs (a research project saw Ari Schulman questions in his Wall Street Journal op-ed “Does Faith Make You Healthier?”).

I do not have all of the sociological facts at my fingertips, but let me give my impressions on each of the issues Noah raises for Conservative White America, subject to correction by readers who do have the sociological facts at their fingertips. (Lest I seem to be cheerleading too much for Mormonism in what follows, let me remind readers that I personally disagree with Mormonism’s supernaturalism, authoritarianism, patriarchy and opposition to gay marriage, and maintain the very different theology of Teleotheism.) 

Here are Noah’s concerns about Conservative White America and my reactions:

1. First, Conservative White America has failing familiesDivorce rates are highest in the “Bible Belt” states where Conservative White America is strongest. While professional whites (who are often liberals) have reversed the trend toward higher divorce, working-class whites are essentially abandoning marriage. While conservatives would claim that this trend is due to the spread of liberal, secular values, the reverse is true; Bible Belters get married more often and earlier than their Northeastern cousins. They just get divorced a lot. Those conservative values are shoving white people, especially working-class white people, into unhappy marriages that cannot last in the modern world. 

Miles: 

With a strong prohibition on premarital sex and its approaches, and social encouragement for marriage as soon as at least the male has served a proselyting mission, Mormons tend to marry young. But after accounting for the inevitable effects of age at marriage, it is my impression that Mormon divorce rates are relatively low. On the supernaturalist side, the notion that with “eternal marriage,” a marriage lasts even into the afterlife may encourage investment in the marriage relationship. In addition, weekly Mormon teaching focuses heavily on trying to help Mormons have a loyal and rewarding marriages and family life.  

2. Next, Conservative White America has failing health. Of course, this is true of all of the United States, and American blacks and Hispanics fare worse than American whites on most health measures. But white Europeans significantly defeat their American cousins on most health outcomes, while Americans pay much more and enjoy much more uncertain access to care. This is due mainly to the success of conservatives in blocking the implementation of universal health care (a case of all America having problems due to CWA policy triumphs). Some small part of it may also have to do with the effect of suburban sprawl and lightly regulated corporate food (loaded with sugar and/or fat) on obesity rates. Additionally, suburban and rural drug use may be rising, even as urban drug use has fallen steadily. And white teens are more likely than black or Hispanic teens to abuse drugs. These trends do not bode well for the health of Red America.

Miles: 

Mormon prohibitions on alcohol and tobacco–and according to many Mormons, all caffeinated beverages–have direct good effects on health, and also make it possible for rebellious souls to express their rebellion with alcohol, tobacco or even caffeinated beverages, instead of through illegal drugs. The scourge of obesity does not spare Mormons, but overall, Mormons on average live much longer than most other American groups.  

3. Add to that failing economic mobility. Much is made of the economic dynamism of Red states like Texas (well, mainly Texas). But white Americans experience the least economic mobility in the South, the most conservative region. And upward mobility for whites seems to be lowest in regions with heavy sprawl.

Miles: 

Although relatively large Mormon family sizes quickly dilute inherited wealth, Mormons are relatively well educated and have standards of honesty and diligence that make them relatively attractive employees for a given level of education. Academically skilled and religiously faithful  Mormon teenagers can get a heavily subsidized college education at Brigham Young University, which is comparable in quality to many top state universities but with lower tuition, regardless of state of residence. Mormon congregations also provide a source of good educational and career advice for young people. And casual conversation in Mormon country often turns to career and even entrepreneurial ideas to get ahead enough financially to support a relatively large family.    

4. Conservative White America, like the rest of America, also has failing economic performance. Sure, rich people - who have done pretty well over the past 13 years of stagnating incomes - tend to be conservative. But the vast majority of conservative white voters are not rich, and have seen their incomes fall along with the rest.

Miles: 

Utah’s economy, where Mormons predominate, has been doing very well compared to the national economy for quite some time. It isn’t just the long-run trend for Utah that is positive. Visiting Provo and Salt Lake City in Utah regularly over the last few years I have seen no signs at all of effects of the Great Recession. 

5. And to some degree, Conservative White America also has failing social lives. Studies show that suburban residents are less satisfied with their neighborhoods than urban residents, with loneliness and social isolation probably to blame. Other research has shown that urban design has a big influence on social connection. It’s just really hard to meet people in the spread-out, isolated non-cities into which conservatives would have us move - and into which much of white America has moved over the past sixty years. Gone are the days of small-town America where everyone knew their neighbors. In the modern suburbs, you are stuck in a box with nobody and nothing.

Miles: 

Mormon congregations insure that any Mormon who is religiously involved will have an extensive social network. It is very hard to be socially isolated as a Mormon, even for those who would like a little more social isolation. Part of the genius of Mormonism is the way a Mormon congregation functions as an ersatz small town, where everyone knows everyone else. But unlike an actual small town, Mormons can move across the country and immediately be integrated into another ersatz small town.    

6. Now finally we get to Conservative White America's failing electoral clout. The poor performance of the GOP cannot, as some hopeful conservatives have claimed, be ascribed to “missing white voters”. Whites for whom race defines politics - i.e. most of the current Republican base - have shut themselves out of future political coalitions. They could have followed the example of liberal whites, who allied with minorities, including poorer minorities (blacks, Hispanics) and richer minorities (Asians), and thus will have a big say in shaping America’s future policies. Meanwhile, stuck in permanent racial panic mode, all Conservative White America can do is pull their veto levers - the filibuster, etc. - to gum up the machinery of American politics and slow the inevitable.

Miles: 

Mormons are still a small minority, so great electoral clout is not to be expected. But despite Mitt Romney’s liabilities as a presidential candidate, Mormons can feel gratified by having passed the milestone of having had their own major party nominee. Even if Mitt doesn’t run again (far from a bygone conclusion), in John Huntsman, the Mormons have a credible candidate should the Republicans lose too many presidential elections due to overly extreme nominees and become willing to nominate someone who (so far) appears relatively moderate.

Where Does Conservative White America Go Wrong?

Noah makes the following strategic judgment for Conservative White America: 

The five big pieces of Conservative White America’s Grand Strategy that I think need reevaluation are:
1. “White flight” to suburbs and exurbs
2. Rigid and inflexible “family values" 
3. Hostility toward immigrants and minorities
4. Excessive distrust of the government
5. Distrust of education, science, and intellectualism

Miles: 

White Flight. 

Mormons were never thick on the ground in areas that had many African-Americans, so "white flight” has not been a big phenomenon for them in the first place. Although racism is not absent among Mormons, most Mormons I know are so embarrassed by Mormonism’s history of having denied the Mormon priesthood to blacks before 1978 that they try extra hard to have good race relations and to have positive attitudes toward African-Americans.  

Family Values. 

Mormons have what Noah would call “rigid and inflexible ‘family values’” but, I think, manage to implement them better. One reason Mormons can implement family values better is that they have high church leaders spelling out the ramifications of those family values in relatively sensible ways, given the overall family-values commitments. Popular culture alone tends to result in a worse version of “family values.”  

Immigration. 

Mormonism’s eagerness to make the whole world into Mormons spills over into a positive attitude toward immigration. If they want people to come into the Mormon Church and become Mormons, why shouldn’t they want people to come into America and become Americans? Moreover, a large fraction of Mormons serve proselyting missions in other countries in their late teens and early twenties. That not only fosters positive attitudes toward people in other countries (and for languages other than English), but also creates personal ties to non-Americans who would like to become Americans. In its official statements, the Mormon Church is remarkably pro-immigration relative to the Republican norm.  

Government. 

Mormons are negative about government, but positive about the Mormon Church, which has the capacity to take on all the functions of a government–as it did when the Mormon settlers first arrived in Utah. Thus,  Mormonism is not at all prey to radical individualism. Collective action is fine, it is just that government is not seen as the best form of collective action. You can see a notion of collective action inspired by the insights I have gained from my Mormon background in my posts “No Tax Increase Without Recompense” and “Yes, There is an Alternative to Austerity vs. Spending: Reinvigorate America’s Nonprofits.” Science, Education and Intellectualism. Overall, Mormonism distrusts education, science and intellectualism only where education, science and intellectualism cause people to stop believing in Mormonism. The Mormon Church has realized that, in practice, science is not the main enemy of supernaturalist religion, Postmodernism is. (There is a post to come on that topic.)

One advantage Mormonism has in its relationship with science is that its founder, Joseph Smith, fully incorporated early 19th century science into Mormonism. Because Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob in 1844, he did not live to see the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species, and so could not fully incorporated evolution into Mormonism, so Mormonism has a testy relationship with Darwinism, but BYU professors are allowed to teach Darwinian evolution.

Mormonism lauds its scientists, as long as they continue believing in Mormonism. And it has many believing scientists that it can point to, among them my great uncle, the renowned (but not quite nobel-laureate) chemist Henry Eyring.     

Summing Up

To me, it seems that Mormons have avoided the major problems faced by the bulk of Conservative White America. It is worth thinking about why. In that effort, this post barely scratches the surface. I would love to see a broader discussion of this question.