Standing before a crowd of Latter-day Saints in Mesa, Arizona, on August 11, Vice President Mike Pence lifted his head and assured the cheering audience that they could count on President Donald Trump to do everything in his power to protect their religious liberty.
More telling than anything Pence said, however, was the fact that he was present to speak at all. At 70 percent Republican and just 19 percent Democratic, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) are the most right-leaning of any religious group in the country. “From the political science literature, you would expect Mormons to be very, very strong Trump supporters,” says Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell. And yet here was the vice president of a deeply embattled incumbent taking the time to shore up the LDS vote with fewer than 100 days to go before Election Day.
From the start, Trump and Latter-day Saint voters and politicians have been caught in a lovers’ quarrel that, Campbell says, has less to do with Trump’s policies than with the president himself. Simply put: “They just don’t see him as the sort of president they’d envisioned in the White House.”
Taylor Petrey, an associate professor at Kalamazoo College and author of Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism, puts it even more succinctly. Between his penchant for crassness and self-aggrandizement, “Donald Trump is the furthest thing from the ideal Mormon masculinity” the faith seeks to cultivate.
FOR AN EXAMPLE OF the LDS ideal of a male leader, one could do worse than look to the example of Utah’s Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. As the Republican nominee for governor, Cox, a Latter-day Saint, will appear alongside Trump on the ballot this November, and the differences between the two couldn’t be more striking.
As a politician, Cox is the “servant leader” to Trump’s autocrat, a Mr. Smith dragged by the nape from his beloved small town of Fairview to Salt Lake by his loyalty and love for his fellow Utahns. While Trump has emboldened admirers with chants of “12 more years,” Cox reportedly cried when Gov. Gary Herbert asked him to be his right-hand man, so distressed was he at the thought of leaving behind life on the family farm. Now, as a candidate for governor, Cox is again adamant: It’s not a job he ever aspired to. This is according to his official campaign website, which cites a belief that he has “more to give” as the one thing preventing him from turning his back on Salt Lake and returning to his small town life.
Cox’s belief in serving his community doesn’t end with public service. For one, he is an Eagle Scout, an accomplishment that, as LDS writer Kristine Haglund explained, “Mormon men have long mentioned as evidence of their bona fides” when it comes to their standing in the faith and larger community. In fact, if the former editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought were to assign a mascot to Latter-day Saints’ conception of masculinity, the scrub-faced Eagle Scout—with his mix of patriotism, piety, and commitment to community—would be it.
Sure enough, Cox was still an undergraduate when he took a leave of absence to serve a two-year LDS mission—coincidentally around the same time in life that Trump was citing bone spurs to avoid service in Vietnam. Cox ended up in Mexico, an experience that, as his campaign website states, instilled in him “the compassion and drive to make a difference that only comes from seeing extreme poverty.” These days, Cox serves his local congregation as the volunteer chorister for the youth choir, teaching children as young as three songs like “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” and “I Am a Child of God.”
Critically, it’s not the Eagle Scout’s service to his community alone that counts, but the dignified way he goes about it. And it’s perhaps here the divide between Cox and Trump is starkest. For while the president champions the “militant cowboy” role described in Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, Cox has branded himself as a “compassionate conservative” who sees unity as an end in itself. Most recently this took the form of teaming up with his opponent to film a pro-civility ad featuring the hashtag #StandUnited.
This dynamic is not lost on Cox, who has spoken up numerous times on the subject. At times Cox is indirect, as in the call for greater civility as part of his official campaign platform. Other times, he is more pointed, including in March 2016 when he said of Utahns, “We care a lot about decorum. We care about our neighbors. We are a good, kind people.” Cox added that Trump represented “neither goodness nor kindness.”
Telling is the fact that, stripped of tone and style, Cox’s platform for governor looks a lot like Trump’s for president. Cox is an anti-abortion, gun-toting conservative who favors a weak federal government and talks about “defending the Constitution.” True, the two have their differences where some policies are concerned. For example, after learning of the Trump administration’s practice of separating immigrant children and parents at the border, Cox tweeted: “I hate what we’ve become. My wife wants to go & hold babies & read to lonely/scared/sad kids.” But rather than blame the Trump administration with its enthusiastic embrace of racism and xenophobia, Cox declared “political tribalism” the true enemy. “We are all part of the problem.” In other words, if we could all get along none of this would have happened.
This trust in the redemptive power of civility is more than a cultural LDS quirk. Rather, it stems from the deeply held belief that those with power—from parents to presidents—ought to lead out of love. This is according to an 1839 revelation given to Joseph Smith, which states that influence “ought to be maintained … by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness … and without guile” (Doctrine & Covenants 121:41-42). This passage, a favorite within those meetings and sermons intended for men only, plays a central role in defining LDS leadership and—by extension—LDS masculinity.
A subplot of this “righteous masculinity,” as Petrey put it, is a kind of paternalistic chivalry. Haglund stresses that it’s difficult to overstate the degree to which Trump’s treatment of Melania and women generally influences LDS views of him. Members of the faith are accustomed to hearing their leaders declare their love for their wives at the pulpit, at times tearfully, and they refer reflexively to women as “daughters of God.” “Mormon men believe opening the car door for your wife is an important duty, both a duty of masculinity and of religion,” Haglund says. “Trump doesn’t do any of that.”
Cox, meanwhile, is married to his high school sweetheart, whose support and insight he is often quick to invoke. In his favorite story to tell, he was working as a lawyer in Salt Lake when he asked Abby if what he was doing made the world a better place. Her response—“Absolutely not”—prompted them to pack up and move back to Fairview, absorbing a steep pay cut in the process, according to the Deseret News. Shortly after, Cox was appointed to fill a vacancy on the city council. Later he ran for mayor and won.
A POLL RELEASED ON September 18 showed Cox with a whopping 33-point lead over his Democratic opponent Chris Peterson. Perhaps even more impressive, however, is just how far ahead he is running of Trump. As of the writing of this article, the site FiveThirtyEight had the president’s lead over Joe Biden in Utah pegged at just 12 points, up from 6.8 in June. By contrast, John McCain carried the state by 28 points in 2008. The LDS Church’s own Mitt Romney, not surprisingly, won Utah by a huge margin of 48 points in 2012. In a state that is 62 percent LDS, and overwhelming Republican, understanding the faith’s expectations of masculinity—and male leadership specifically—may go a long way in explaining Trump’s lag in Utahn support and the jaw-dropping enthusiasm gap of 21 points between him and his fellow Republican Cox.
Campbell is unconvinced it matters much whether or not Latter-day Saints are papering their lawns with “Trump 2020” signs. “They might express ambivalence about Trump but come election day, they’ll come home the way almost all partisans do,” he said. After all, Trump still won Utah in 2016 by nearly 18 points—a narrower victory than recent Republican presidential hopefuls but one that happened despite the fact that 21 percent of the state’s vote went to third-party candidate Evan McMullin, who is a Latter-day Saint (and former Boy Scout).
Where things get interesting, Campbell says, is if the GOP party continues its current embrace of Trumpism after November. In this scenario, Campbell sees evidence for a future, ongoing erosion of LDS support, particularly among younger voters for whom Trump and the Republican Party are increasingly one and the same.
Not that Democrats should start salivating quite yet. “I think these voters will continue to think of themselves as conservatives,” Campbell says. “But to the extent that they are active in the party, that’s a group that you could imagine post-2020 gravitating toward Republican candidates who are the anti-Trump.”
There are indications this may already be happening, at least in Utah, where Cox handedly beat out the more Trumpian candidate—Former Speaker of the Utah House Greg Hughes—on his path to securing his nomination. The question now is whether the challenge was a one-off, a part of a final rally of a dying wing of the Republican party, or a preview of many such fights to come. There is evidence to suggest both. Only one thing is certain: Trump would do well to start opening the door for Melania.
Tamarra Kemsley is a journalist for Reform Austin, where she covers the intersection of religion and politics in Texas. She has an M.A. in Islam and the Middle East from Hebrew University. Find her on Twitter @tamarranicole.