Why are so many modern Mormons conservative (Part I)

A recent Pew poll found what was no surprise, that Mormons are as a whole a highly conservative demographic. They are more likely to be conservative even than white evangelicals. As many as 66% of Mormons identify as conservative, and 74% identify as or lean Republican.

The reason why is a bit of a historical anomaly. Mormonism has its roots in 1820s New England and the frontier regions of the western United States in the 1830s and 40s. Its founder, Joseph Smith, was by no means a conservative. Indeed, he was a
religious communalist. His 1830 publication of scripture, the Book of Mormon, proposed and described an ancient, utopian society of Native Americans who “had all things in common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.” (4 Nephi 1:3) In the 1830s, Smith attempted to establish voluntary communalistic orders in Ohio and Missouri. But ultimately, Smith did not have the right political formula to make such economic structures work in antebellum America.

Smith also had little regard for the social and familial conventions of his day. In the 1840s, he quietly introduced the practice of polygamy, himself marrying as many as 30 or more women. While someone in the 21st century might think of polygamy as a conservative institution, in the 1840s, it was considered a form of libertinism, and a threat to the conservative social order. Though Smith lived before the advent of organized feminism, Smith was something of a protofeminist for his era. Though his faith inherited the patriarchal social conventions of his day, by the 1840s, Smith had invited women to join the Anointed Quorum, his closest group of spiritual advisers, as priestesses on an equal basis as men. He also organized a female fraternal and organization, with dreams of making it a parallel, female Mormon priesthood.

It is difficult to imagine what more Smith could have done to upset the conservative social order of his time. And Brigham Young, his successor, took Smith’s radicalism to the Utah territory in 1847. There, Young tried (and sometimes succeeded) to establish communistic or anarchistic economies, and Mormon women managed and published feminist church publications (e.g., the Woman’s Exponent), and agitated for civil rights and the right to vote.

So how did the average modern Mormon become so conservative? I will explore the answer to that question in Part II.

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