From the Classroom

How Utah’s politics and religion are intertwined

Congressional redistricting shows the strength of the Mormon church ahead of critical midterm elections.

A picture of Utah's State Capitol building.

Devin Thorpe, an ex-chief financial officer, author of “Superpowers for Good” and speaker, dreams of being a member of Congress.

Despite visiting every single town in his district and donating thousands of pounds of emergency food supplies to Navajo Nation members, Thorpe (D) earned only 27% of the vote in Utah’s 3rd District when he ran against Rep. John Curtis (R) in 2020.

He’s thinking of running again sometime — in Florida.

His dream may never be realized in the state he’s called home his whole life thanks to congressional districts gerrymandered to make it impossible for a Democrat to win.

“You have no idea. I literally sacrificed myself fully for this race, and I cannot imagine doing anything with that kind of effort ever again,” said Thorpe, 57, who describes himself as a “champion of social good” on his website.

The congressional district maps drawn by Utah’s Republican-dominated legislature for the first time divided Democratic-leaning Salt Lake County among all four congressional districts, diluting any chance for Democrats.

Thorpe called the maps “purely political” gerrymandering.

Utah undoubtedly has a long history of being reliably Republican at both the state and federal level. If you’re a Democrat in the Beehive State, you might find better luck running for mayor of Salt Lake City, the so-called blue dot in a red sea, where a left-leaning 41-year-old woman currently holds the seat.

Otherwise, the odds aren’t so great. In fact, Utah hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1980 or a Democratic senator since 1970, or voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964 when Lyndon Johnson won all but six states. All six Utahns currently in Congress are Republican as well.

Of course, the majority of voters in the state identify as Republican, so it’s no shock Utah has a trend of supporting Republicans. But that majority is slim — only 54% of Utahns actually identify as Republican with the rest split between Democrats (30%) and independents (16%), according to Pew Research Center. With such a narrow majority, one might suspect that Democratic candidates would have more of a shot.

That is, until you factor in redistricting. Every decade, the Republican-controlled state legislature sits down to redraw the congressional lines that determine who votes and in which district. The result is typically maps that favor the Republican Party and enhance Republican candidates’ chances of winning their races. The Republican governor of the state is then likely to sign off on those maps.

Because the redistricting of Utah tends to heavily favor Republicans and because members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, otherwise known as Mormons or Latter-day Saints (LDS), staunchly align behind the Republican Party, the result is a state whose politicians are disproportionately Mormon. This phenomenon decreases the likelihood that any non-Mormon candidates will win their races.

For the first time in the 2020/2021 redistricting cycle, Utah implemented an independent redistricting commission (IRC) composed of appointees from Republican and Democratic party leaders. The commission was tasked with drawing maps that accurately reflected demographic changes in the state as well as kept similar interest groups together.

The majority of the IRC’s maps had at least one competitive Democratic district.

“Hundreds of Utahns showed up to speak in support of the fair maps drawn by the Independent Redistricting Commission, and they were ignored by the Republican legislators,” said Ben Anderson, communications director for the Utah Democratic Party.

The Utah legislature chose to ignore the IRC’s recommendations and draw its own map that would make a federal Democratic victory nearly impossible. It did this by dividing up Salt Lake County, home to the state’s Democratic capital city, among all four districts, and splitting Summit County — known for its liberal-leaning ski towns — between two districts. It also lumped together Democratic pockets with some of the most Republican towns in the state.

“It clearly was an effort to gerrymander the state and make sure the Democrats couldn’t win a congressional seat,” said Greg Prince, a social critic and author of “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism.”

Republican Gov. Spencer Cox’s approval of the maps prompted several lawsuits including one on behalf of the League of Women Voters which argues that the new map “sunders counties and unnecessarily splits municipalities and geographic communities of interest.”

“I don’t think anyone anticipated it being quite as egregious as it was,” said Salt Lake Tribune journalist Robert Gehrke.

The new map, by ensuring Republican victories, means everyone in Congress from the state will be Mormon.

After all, at the federal level Utah has only ever elected two non-Mormon House members in the last century. It’s the only state in the country that is dominated by one single religion.

On top of that, there is no other state that has an electorate more split along religious lines than Utah. In 2017, more Mormons approved of Donald Trump than any other religious group, according to a Gallup tracking poll. The group also had the highest disapproval rating of Barack Obama compared to other faiths.

“We have a Latter-day Saints party; We have a non-Mormon party. We call them different — now we call them Republicans and Democrats,” said Rod Decker, author of “Utah Politics: The Elephant in the Room,” in an interview with the Tribune.

The church claims it is politically neutral — it does not endorse candidates or platforms or allow its resources to be used for partisan political purposes.

The official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints website writes, “The Church’s mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians.”

But Thorpe, the former Democratic candidate and self-described churchgoing Latter-day Saint, describes a feeling of unease toward being a Democrat in the church.

“It is an uncomfortable place for me, and I think most of my Democratic LDS friends feel some discomfort or they would acknowledge that they are barely Democrats,” Thorpe said.

Several sources, both Mormon and not, confirmed that their respective churches do not attempt to push its members to vote for certain candidates.

However, the dominance of the church and its values in the state of Utah, whether purposeful or not, undeniably influences the policy that comes out of Utah. And this looks to continue to be the case as long as congressional districts are drawn with Republican interests in mind.

Thorpe explained how the church indirectly influences policy votes. “When the church asks for a vote, they get it the vast majority of the time because there is a real chance in the church that you could lose your standing in an official way,” he said.

The church, according to Gehrke, has a long history of encouraging its members to be active in government.

“Every election year, there’s a statement read by church officials from the pulpit encouraging people to not hold church meetings on the night of the caucuses to encourage people to get involved in local government,” said Gehrke.

This, of course, is far from being a problem, but it illustrates perhaps another reason why the voice of Mormons sounds louder than the voice of non-Mormons.

In an effort to maintain and spread Mormon values and morals, “the church has a very powerful and very low-profile public affairs committee in church headquarters, but it has another one that sits in D.C.,” Prince said.

Through this, the church has been able to influence policy decisions both in Utah and outside the state. For example, in 2018, Utah became the first state to lower the legal blood alcohol limit from the standard .08 to .05. The Utah state representative, a member of the church, who sponsored the bill was accused of trying to legislate non-Mormons. The church widely denounces consumption of alcohol.

The church’s influence has also shown up in the marijuana policy in the state which is much stricter than its Colorado neighbor, and in California’s Proposition 8 in 2008 — an attempt to ban same-sex marriage.

Gehrke, who was raised a Latter-day Saint but no longer practices, said that a lot of non-Mormon Utahns blame the church for the state’s social policies, and he doesn’t think they’re wrong to do so. If the church wasn’t at the table for conversations on alcohol and marijuana policies, he said, there would have never been a bill.

Thorpe believes there exists an unspoken need to conform as a practicing member of the church.

“It’s OK not to be a Republican, but it’s not OK to not vote for Republicans if you’re a Mormon. Basically, if you’re a Mormon, you vote for Republicans. You don’t have to campaign for them. You don’t have to be registered as a Republican. But by golly, you have to vote for Republicans,” said Thorpe.

In essence, in order to maintain a level of influence in the state, Mormons need to hold elected positions. To do so, the state needs to stay Republican.

For now, it is. But some experts see shifts in the state that could push its politics slightly more center.

“Utah is growing up a little bit,” said Gehrke, adding that in the 70s and 80s, the church was hyper-involved in politics and is now slowly backing away.

He explained that the state has become more intertwined in the economic landscape of the country and is no longer seen as a rural fly-over. In fact, it’s one of the fastest-growing states in the nation thanks to its prosperous tech sector and well-known high quality of life.

Anderson is hopeful that young Utahns, even young Mormons, will help drive a change in the state. He explained that one of the biggest shifts in the state was in Provo, home to Brigham Young University, in the 2016 presidential election. Students looked at the ballot and decided that Democrats represented their values better, he said.

One BYU professor surveyed 400 BYU-educated Gen Z and millennial voters and found that over three-quarters said they would not vote for Trump in the 2020 election.

In the 2022 congressional races, however, there are no seismic shifts. All Republicans running for the House are Mormon. And they’re likely to beat out their Democratic opponents come November.

Thorpe remains hopeful. Although he doesn’t see it now, he’s optimistic the church will practice what it preaches when it comes to political neutrality and perhaps Mormon Democrats will find a more comfortable home in the church.

In the meantime, he’s getting settled in the Sunshine State.