The LDS Church’s Waning Influence? Medical Marijuana in Utah Puts Leaders’ Influence Under Spotlight

By Jason Adkins, Montana State University Billings

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a stranger to politics. Throughout much of its nearly 200-year history, church leaders have been involved in national and state politics in some fashion. In recent times, much of that involvement centered on its opposition to same-sex marriage as the LDS Church mobilized members to support ballot measures in California and Nevada by asking members to contribute money and their time to the effort that banned same-sex marriage (measures that were later overturned by state and federal courts). This year, the LDS Church is putting much of its political focus on stopping Proposition 2 in Utah that would legalize marijuana for medical use. The recent push to oppose the law also appears to be working to change public opinion, at least among the most active Mormons [1], but there might be some unintended consequences of the church’s involvement.

The LDS Church tip-toed into the this year’s debate in April by releasing a two-paragraph statement supporting the Utah Medical Association’s public statement criticizing Proposition 2. The LDS Church followed up less than two weeks later with a statement in early May outlining legal issues surrounding Proposition 2, which was developed by a law firm that has done extensive work for the LDS Church on a variety of legal issues. Opposition by LDS Church leaders to legalizing marijuana is not new, though, as letters from the First Presidency (the church’s highest leadership body) were read in worship services in congregations in Arizona, California, and Nevada in the weeks before the 2016 election that asked members to reject legalizing the recreational use of marijuana (such measures were on the ballot). Church leaders also urged Utah legislators to exercise caution in 2016 regarding a proposed law in the Utah Legislature that passed in the state Senate, but failed to get out of committee in the state House. However, this is their first public opposition to a medical marijuana initiative. The LDS Church is trying to influence its members in Utah through direct communications. In a mass email sent to church members, it stated Proposition 2 is “creating a serious threat to health and public safety, especially for our youth and young adults, by making marijuana generally available with few controls.”

With the LDS Church’s opposition to Proposition 2 on the record, will it make a difference come election day on November 6? Maybe yes. Recent polling by Dan Jones and Associates commissioned by UtahPolicy.com after the LDS Church indicated its opposition showed that 64 percent of respondents supported legalizing medical marijuana compared to 33 percent in opposition. In a similar poll conducted in May, 72 percent of respondents favored legalization compared to 25 percent in opposition. This is down from a high mark of 77 percent in favor of legalizing medical marijuana compared to 21 percent against in a Dan Jones and Associates poll conducted in February.

Support for Proposition 2 knowing the LDS Church’s opposition
Religious affiliation % more likely % less likely % don’t know
All Utahns 41 43 17
Active LDS 18 65 17
Somewhat active LDS 48 36 16
Formerly LDS 66 15 19
Catholic 76 13 11
Protestant 69 16 15
Other 69 13 18
None 80 11 9
Source: UtahPolicy.com/Dan Jones and Associates

The August poll also asked respondents if the LDS Church’s opposition to Proposition 2 would make it more or less likely they would support the ballot measure. The results indicate Utahns, in general, are evenly split for or against the initiative, knowing the LDS Church’s stance. The most active Mormons are clearly opposed to Proposition 2 by a wide margin. However, the LDS Church’s stance does not appear have the same effect among somewhat active Mormons and those who used to identify as Mormon as those demographic groups support Proposition 2 (nearly half of somewhat active Mormons support Proposition 2 compared to 66 percent of former Mormons). Likewise with those who identify with a religion other than LDS and the “nones,” as individuals in those groups still overwhelmingly support Proposition 2 despite the LDS Church’s opposition.

For Mormons, public statements from the leadership appears to be moving the needle in swaying public opinion against medical marijuana with a 21-point swing in the direction of opposing legalizing medical marijuana from February to August. The August poll shows most active Mormons (those who pay tithing and can participate in LDS temple ceremonies) now opposing legalization of medical marijuana, with 52 percent against to 45 percent in favor, compared to 59 percent in favor/38 percent against in May and 66 percent in favor/30 percent against in February. Support from those identifying as somewhat active remained stable and higher than active LDS, as is support from those who used to identify as LDS, from whom support for legalizing medical marijuana is above 90 percent.

support

Source: UtahPolicy.com/Dan Jones and Associates

The results indicate a brewing backlash against the LDS Church’s involvement, as Catholics and non-LDS are supporting legalizing medical marijuana in greater numbers through the campaign. Catholic support for legalizing medical marijuana has increased more than 10 percentage points since February, with support among Protestants also slightly increasing during the campaign. The highest support for legalizing marijuana comes from those who do not identify with any religious group and have never identified as LDS, with support hovering around 95 percent.

David Campbell, John Green, and Quin Monson have written about the effectiveness of political cues from LDS leaders in their 2014 book and a 2003 article written by Campbell and Monson. Their argument is that the effectiveness of LDS political cues is tied to two conditions. First, elite opinion within the LDS Church has to be unified. Since the 1960s, the top echelon of LDS Church leaders tends to be quiet on political issues unless the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reach a unanimous consensus. Second, the LDS Church must issue an official statement on an issue to make “it salient for church members.” When LDS leaders have done that in ballot measures ranging from alcohol and gambling, LDS voters generally “follow the leader” by voting according to cues from LDS leaders.

My recent research, though, indicates the effectiveness of political cues from LDS leaders may be waning. In a survey experiment I fielded among college students at several universities across the country, I randomly placed respondents into three groups, two of which received cues from LDS leaders regarding marijuana legalization and third control group who did not receive a cue.[2] The cues were actual statements released by the LDS Church before the 2016 general election in which Arizona voters were asked to approve a ballot initiative favoring legalization of marijuana for recreational use. One cue was a coded political cue outlining LDS principles on drug use, while the other was an explicit cue requesting a response in opposition. I then asked their opinions on marijuana legalization that delineated between support for legalization of marijuana for medical reasons and for recreational use.

The results in the figure below show predicted probabilities in supporting legalization of marijuana for recreational and medical purposes use. Not surprisingly, LDS support for legalization marijuana for recreational use is low, and those who received an explicit political cue are only slightly less likely to support legalization (not statistically significant). What I found, though, is that those who received either the coded or explicit political cues opposing legalization of marijuana from LDS leaders leads non-LDS, religious identifiers to have a higher probability of supporting legalization. LDS political cues also elicit a backlash effect among those who do not identify with any religion, too, at least when they receive a coded cue.

experiment

Note: Error bars represent 90 percent confidence intervals

My research is consistent with the results of the Dan Jones and Associates poll: LDS leaders need to be mindful of not alienating Utah voters who are not active LDS. Utah is becoming more diverse, especially in Salt Lake County (Utah’s largest county), as newer estimates indicate LDS now comprise less than 50 percent of the population in Salt Lake County. Eliciting support of active LDS may not be enough to sway results the way church leaders once expected. This week’s announcement that the LDS Church is seeking legislative action seems to indicate church leaders may realize that their opposition to this particular medical marijuana ballot initiative might not be effective without an alternative on the way. Djupe and Conger (2012) noticed this pattern in their analysis of political mobilization efforts of Christian Right activist groups as they argued that “mobilization seems to beget countermobilization.” In other words, when an interest group mobilizes, it sparks political mobilization for those on either side of an issue.

Now, does this mirror national politics as a whole? It might, but one thing to remember is the LDS Church is a very centralized organization compared to most religious organizations, especially most Protestant denominations. LDS theology is also unique in many respects in that a core belief is the church is led by a “living prophet” who regularly communicates with God and possesses the authority to counsel members (and the world at large) on diverse matters. Utah is also the only state where a majority of the population identifies as being a member of one religious organization. This makes Utah a salient case regarding the influence of religious elites on voting behavior.

Jason M. Adkins is an assistant professor of political science at Montana State University Billings. Reach him at Twitter or his faculty website.


Notes

1. “Most active” means Mormons who attend church regularly, pay tithing, and are able to enter the church’s temples that are only open to members who receive a temple recommend from local leaders.

2. Survey language and political cues:

Regarding legalization of marijuana for adults, which of the following best matches your position?

  1. Legalization for personal and medicinal use
  2. Legalization only for medicinal use
  3. Opposed to personal and medicinal legalization

Coded treatment: In response to the debate regarding legalization of marijuana, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued the following: “Drug abuse is at epidemic proportions, and the dangers of marijuana to public health are well documented. Recent studies have shed light particularly on the risks marijuana use poses to brain development in youth. The accessibility of recreational marijuana in the home is also a danger to children.”

Explicit treatment: In response to the debate regarding legalization of marijuana, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued the following: “We urge Church members to let their voices be heard in opposition to the legalization of recreational marijuana.”

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