For the Washington Monthly’s 50th anniversary issue, twenty former editors revisited one of their most important stories for this magazine. They looked at pieces that had an impact on the world or on themselves; that presaged something big to come; or that were totally wrong in an interesting way. Below is one of the resulting essays. Read more of them here.
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One of the more surprising elements of Donald Trump’s election in 2016 was how many white, evangelical voters turned out to support him, despite his decidedly un-Christian background. But equally surprising, from my perspective as someone who grew up in Utah, was the more principled stance of another conservative-leaning faith group: Mormons. After the release of the Access Hollywood “grab them by the pussy” video in October 2016, the Mormon Church–owned Deseret News broke an eighty-year tradition of staying out of presidential elections and urged Trump to drop out of the race. Trump ended up winning only 45 percent of the vote in Utah—a shockingly low number in a reliably deep red state.
The Mormons’ principled opposition to Trump wasn’t enough to persuade many of them to vote for Hillary Clinton. (Defectors flocked instead to the Utah-born independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin.) But it was enough to make me reconsider a critical piece I’d written about Mormons back in 2001 in the Washington Monthly.
At the time, President George W. Bush was busy rewarding the evangelicals who had just helped put him in the White House. Claiming that religion had been unfairly pushed out of the public sphere, he created the first federal Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to help funnel more taxpayer money to religious organizations to provide social services to the poor and abstinence-only sex ed programs. He championed religious drug treatment programs and directed funding to groups associated with the Christian prison ministries of Watergate felon Chuck Colson. Civil libertarians raised concerns that Bush was violating long-standing principles of the separation of church and state and forcing Christianity on people as a condition of getting public services.
The public debate about the proper role of religion in government prompted me to write a cautionary tale about what it was like to grow up non-Mormon in Utah, where a single faith already dominated virtually every sphere of public life. Utah is a place where even if you aren’t a Mormon, you are often forced to live like one.
“I was born and raised in Utah, and my entire family still lives there,” I wrote. “Every time I go back, from the minute I wade past the missionaries in the Salt Lake City airport to my first watered-down beer, I am struck by the fact that, while inmates may be able to duck Chuck Colson, the average Utah citizen has no hope of escaping the Mormons.”
The most obvious influence of the Mormons is in Utah’s liquor laws, which are some of the nation’s strictest. Hard alcohol and wine can be purchased only in state-owned liquor stores, and until relatively recently, the only way to order a cocktail away from home was to join a private club. Until March of this year, beer sold outside of state liquor stores at supermarkets or convenience stores could be only 3.2 percent alcohol. In March, the state raised the limit after eighty-six years—to a whopping 4 percent.
Utah, where there is often overt discrimination against people who aren’t part of the tribe, seemed like an exemplar of where Bush wanted to take the rest of the country. In my Monthly story, I called Utah a theocracy and described the oppressive culture the Latter-Day Saints (LDS) Church had created in my home state, where seminary buildings buttress public schools and Mormon kids are released early to attend religious classes every day. I highlighted the church’s unhealthy effects on women in the state, leading them to marry young and drop out of college to start having babies, and the pressure it put on non-Mormons to convert.
The piece did not make me especially popular with the folks back home. A cousin who was a Mormon convert was especially unhappy with me—and probably for good reason. I’d written critically about her marriage, at nineteen, to a returned missionary, as an example of the way the church shunted women into traditional gender roles from a young age. But now, looking back at the story almost twenty years later, after Mormons’ surprising pushback on Trump, I have had to wonder: Was I too hard on them?
The Latter-Day Saints have improved their public image quite a bit since I lived in Utah. Mitt Romney, the first Mormon presidential nominee, initially emerged as a Trump critic. “Here’s what I know,” he said in March 2016. “Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.” Now a senator from Utah, Romney has waffled on Trump, but is one of the few Republicans in the Senate to publicly, if gently, criticize the president.
The Mormon Church’s stance on Trump isn’t the only reason I’ve had to reconsider my 2001 views on its dominance of my state. Utah has chipped away at some of its dated laws—this year, for example, it finally raised the legal age for marriage to sixteen, to try to discourage the teen marriages that have been a persistent obstacle to women’s equality. In addition, the church itself has made changes. It has allowed more women to become missionaries, giving them a more significant role, and has made some fitful efforts to become more welcoming to LGBTQ people after spending decades persecuting them. The church was a primary bankroller of long-running efforts to fight same-sex marriage, a nasty campaign that prompted one gay member, Stuart Matis, to commit suicide on the steps of an LDS Church building in 2000. The ugly fight over California’s Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage that the church also helped finance, brought a hailstorm of bad publicity onto the church when its involvement became public.
Since then, it seems to have been trying harder to change, even if it hasn’t yet embraced LGBTQ people as full members. The church chose not to oppose recent Utah laws that banned gay conversion therapy, and supported a major anti-discrimination law in 2015. It no longer refers to people in same-sex marriages as “apostates,” and now allows their children to be baptized.
There are also a few things I’ve come to appreciate about the Mormons, like their ruddy-cheeked healthiness that comes from abstaining from smoking, drinking, and caffeine. Griping about Utah liquor laws is a treasured pastime among Gentiles, as non-Mormons in Utah are known. Drinking, after all, is how we distinguish ourselves from the Mormons. But over time, I’ve come to respect Utah’s alcohol policies, which buck both popular culture and a powerful industry. I’ve learned that while they might be driven by religion, Utah’s booze laws are grounded in pretty solid harm reduction and public health research. Last year, the state became the first in the nation to lower the legal blood alcohol content for driving to .05 percent—an anti–drunk driving measure advocated by a lot of non-Mormons that’s likely to save a lot of lives. Liberal California is considering doing the same.
Since 2001, both the Mormons and I have evolved a bit. But they still have a way to go. Mormon women still pay a high price for speaking out and demanding a bigger role in the church. In 2001, I described the church as having its own version of the “thought police.” That doesn’t seem to have changed much. In 2014, the church excommunicated the activist Kate Kelly for calling for the ordination of women, as it has many feminists before her. The church is also a major contributor to the low status of women in Utah generally, because of its insistence on traditional gender roles that seem ever more out of step with modern life. In August, WalletHub released a study ranking the best and worst states for women’s equality. Utah came in dead last, in part because it has the largest gap between men and women in educational attainment.
Meanwhile, the LDS Church still maintains a stranglehold on politics in Utah—a problem that has actually gotten worse since I lived there, thanks to heavy-handed gerrymandering. Today, even though only about 60 percent of the state’s residents are LDS, nearly 90 percent of state legislators are. Those numbers ensure that nothing happens in Utah unless the church says it’s okay.
Despite all the concerns over civil liberties, George W. Bush’s efforts to insert religion into the federal government never came close to achieving the dominance Mormons have in Utah. But many of the issues I raised nearly two decades ago seem once again relevant, as the Trump administration panders to evangelicals with a “religious freedom” agenda that makes Bush’s overtures seem downright subtle. Trump is working to roll back protections for transgender people and defending health care professionals who refuse on religious grounds to treat LGBTQ people or provide contraception. His administration has forced Planned Parenthood out of the nation’s only federal family planning program and has redirected money to the same sorts of religious, anti-abortion groups funded during the Bush administration.
The Labor Department recently proposed a new regulation that would exempt for-profit companies that contract with the government from complying with anti-discrimination laws on the basis of religion. That means companies could get taxpayer money and refuse to hire—or could freely fire—single moms, Muslims, LGBTQ people, or unmarried people living together by claiming religious opposition. With the addition of Trump appointees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court seems poised to further break down barriers between religion and government. In the end, the venal president that faithful Mormons don’t like very much may prove to be far more successful in turning the rest of the country into Utah than George W. Bush ever was.