How Mormons and Evangelicals Became Republicans



8 comments
Paul Harvey

Mark Silk of the Greenberg Center of Religion and Politics (whose blog is here) sent me this link to his provocative piece, an extended version of a talk at the Sunstone Symposium last year, and part of a project he's considering for a short book-length work in the future. He considers the revival of restorationism in contemporary evangelical life, its influence with Mormonism, and its impact on the evangelical and Mormon place within contemporary conservative politics. A little excerpt here, and Silk is interested in reactions and other ideas.


Why have evangelicals and Mormons become the GOP’s most devout supporters?

With respect to the evangelicals, the usual answer is that the embrace of civil rights by the national Democratic Party after World War II drove white Southerners—who constitute a large portion of the evangelical vote—into the GOP. But while Southern evangelicals did come to feel alienated from national Democratic tickets, it was not until 1980 that they began to turn to the GOP at the state and local level, and by that time overt race-based politics had become a thing of the past.

As for the Mormons, the answer is that they are simply conservative folks who would naturally flock to the Republican banner. But that begs the question. Through the 1970s, the Democratic banner was planted well to the left of where it is now, yet many Mormons retained their allegiance to the party of Bryan and FDR.

For a sufficient explanation, it is necessary to recognize the importance of the idea of restoration in contemporary conservatism.

During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party became committed to taking America back to an imagined past of traditional moral, economic, and political values. How this happened and why it proved so appealing to evangelicals and Mormons cannot be understood apart from the restorationism embedded in both religious communities.

In the broad sweep of Christian history, there have been various times when reformers sought to reanimate the faith by fostering a return to the days of the Apostles or of the Early Church. The Protestant Reformation, especially, was committed to such a vision, doing away with what were considered unwarranted Catholic accretions to the faith.

8 comments:

Michael J. Altman at: January 22, 2013 at 9:22 AM said...

I wonder what comes to light when we put Silk's restoration narrative alongside discussion of the "evangelical left" that Marcia Pally ignited over at the Immanent Frame. One could read the move left by some evangelicals as a replacement of the "Primitive Americanity" (what a great term!) with a different form of primitivism? Many of the responses to Pally from evangelicals sliding left have been that they are simply returning to the "message of Jesus" or "what we find in scripture." Primitivism and restorationism endures, but shed of its former nationalist hubris? Or is restorationism simply the grammar that all evangelicals must speak regardless of their political/social/theological goals?

Mark T. Edwards at: January 22, 2013 at 12:53 PM said...

How do we square the Religious Right's prophesying of national restoration on a "Judeo-Christian" foundation and its practice of identity politics, or isn't that relevant to the question at hand? In terms of tactics, isn't the Religious Right complimentary to Black Power--close ranks in order to open up an institutionally "secularist" society? Simon Hall's AMERICAN PATRIOTISM, AMERICAN PROTEST suggests the broad reach of pressure-group lessons learned during the long 1960s.

Dusty at: January 22, 2013 at 8:30 PM said...

It seems that restorationism need not entail political conservativism. As Michael pointed out, there is a strong restorationist element in the predominantly liberal emergent church movement, which often labels itself as "ancient-future." And historically the restorationist groups that Richard Hughes and Leonard Allen discuss in Illusions of Innocence were not necessarily conservative in their day. Restorationism may be an important idea in contemporary conservativism, but it is also sometimes an important idea amongst liberal groups, both of whom are reaching back for an idealized golden age to transform our cultural present.

Tom Van Dyke at: January 22, 2013 at 10:44 PM said...

Acid, amnesty, abortion.

Although that was actually a criticism of George McGovern from fellow Democrats in 1972. The nomination of southern evangelical Jimmy Carter postponed the inevitable, but his record in office sealed the deal for the GOP in '80.

As for local politics, the Alabama statehouse didn't go GOP until 2010, the first time in 136 years!

These things take some time sometimes.

Steven P. Miller at: January 23, 2013 at 9:53 AM said...

This is very intriguing analysis of a kind of civil restorationism bridging Salt Lake City and Colorado Springs, Glenn Beck and David Barton. Increasingly, though, I’m thinking that the missing piece in these narratives (including the ones I have traced in my own work) is the transformation of American liberalism, c. 1970s-2000s. This story is almost always told in a negative way—i.e., in a way that explains why some Mormons and white evangelicals left the New Deal Coalition. Yet there is another story, one that might explain why so many of my students have (unknowingly) embraced a Reaganesque critique of the Great Society, but still would never dream of voting for a Republican.

Seth Dowland at: January 23, 2013 at 8:18 PM said...

Paul - thanks for highlighting this fascinating, ambitious piece. Steven - I'm trying to parse your comment and wondering a bit what you mean about liberalism. I get what you mean about contemporary students embracing a Reagenesque critique of New Deal liberalism, but I need some help connecting the dots to the discussion about restoration.

Mike -- agreed that "Primitive Americanity" is a fabulous term. I'd suggest, though, that restorationism is not exactly the term to use when describing the evangelical left. Sure, they quote Jesus, but I don't think they're actively imagining a restoration of biblical times. If anything, you find people like Randall Balmer imagining a restoration of postmillennial 19th c. evangelical social reform, not biblical times. But I think there's a point at which we stretch the term restorationism too far.

Steven P. Miller at: January 24, 2013 at 7:55 AM said...

Seth -- Indeed, and alas, my thoughts strayed into straight political history. I was trying to call attention to how the rightward shift of many evangelicals, Mormons, and others created space for a durable post-New Deal coalition liberalism. From the vantage point of 1980, the political upshot of resurgent restorationism was the successful reconfiguration of a conservative coalition. From a more recent vantage point, the upshot was the successful reconfiguration of a liberal coalition.

Steven P. Miller at: January 24, 2013 at 8:00 AM said...

Seth -- Indeed, and alas, my thoughts strayed into straight political history. I was trying to call attention to how the rightward shift of many evangelicals, Mormons, and others created space for a durable post-New Deal coalition liberalism. From the vantage point of 1980, the political upshot of resurgent restorationism was the successful reconfiguration of a conservative coalition. From a more recent vantage point, the upshot was the successful reconfiguration of a liberal coalition.

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