By Logan V. Studer and Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University
There is no doubt that the environment (and especially the impacts of global warming) have become a central political issue, and religion can and does play a role in shaping individuals perceptions of environmental care. The Mormon church is an important but often overlooked religious group when it comes to this issue, which is compounded by the reality that they dominate the politics of Utah, a state which has 63% of land owned by the federal government and relies on ranching and agriculture for a significant part of its economy. So, where does the LDS church stand regarding the environment? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is considered a non-traditional Christian religious tradition. One source of this “non-traditional” label comes from the LDS Church’s use of additional scriptures alongside the Bible. Specifically, the LDS Church also teaches from The Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. What does this difference have to do with humankind’s relationship with the environment? When the Bible refers to this relationship in Genesis 1:28, the word dominion is used, which seems to imply ownership. On the other hand, the Doctrine and Covenants, and subsequently the LDS Church, uses stewardship in describing God’s intended relationship between humans and the earth. According to LDS Church’s official website:
God has made us accountable for the care and preservation of the earth and the wise use of its resources. As stewards, we avoid complacency and excessive consumption, using only what is necessary. We make our homes, neighborhoods, and cities beautiful. We preserve resources and protect for future generations the spiritual and temporal blessings of nature. (see D&C 104:13–15; D&C 49:19–21).
Based on this passage, one would assume that Mormons might be open to environmental protection policy. However, Mormons, much like their evangelical counterparts, predominantly subscribe to Republican policies. While these two groups do often vote in tandem and share a similar political partisanship, there is some recent evidence to support the theory that Mormons have differentiated themselves politically from evangelicals. In the 2016 President election, just 52% of Mormons voted for Donald Trump, while nearly 80% of evangelicals cast their ballot for him. Can this disparity be chalked up to a particular disdain for Donald Trump or is it emblematic of Mormons moderating both in vote choice and public opinion? A few questions will guide this research: Given that there may be some divergence occurring between Mormons and evangelicals, is concern for the environment an area where this has shift become evident? Or do Mormons in 2016 still look Republicans on the environment despite the fact that they fled from the GOP in the voting booth during the presidential election?
One of the best sources for data regarding Mormons political attitudes and voting behavior comes from the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election (CCES). This dataset has a total sample size of 64,600 respondents. Of that entire sample, 910 individuals indicated that they were Mormon, which is 1.4% of the total sample size. This is likely one of the largest random sample survey of the Mormon community ever conducted. (Although work by Benjamin Knoll and Jana Reiss have conducted surveys with targeted Mormon populations that have resulted in some interesting findings regarding caffeine and alcohol consumption).
The CCES asks respondents a series of fifteen questions that assess the importance that the respondent places on a number of political issues ranging from defense spending to gay marriage to race relations. The histogram above displays the distribution of responses to the question regarding the environment. Note that two additional groups, Republicans (this includes Republican leaners) and evangelicals (a group that are often compared to Mormons), are included to give a frame of reference for these findings. It seems that, from this angle, Mormon concern for the environment looks somewhat similar to the views of evangelicals. In regards to the importance of the environment, 52.7% of Mormons say they either have “somewhat high” or “very high” concern, compared to 49.3% of evangelicals. That is a stark contrast of the opinions of Republicans, where just 36.3% express high concern. However, 59% of Independents in the sample indicated they were highly concerned with the environment. It seems like Mormons fall somewhere in the midway point between Republicans and Independents on this issue.
In addition to the previous question about environmental concern, the CCES asks a battery of four questions which try to assess how likely a respondent is to support policies that will protect the environment, even if those policies may increase prices or hurt business. Each question is asked in a support/oppose framework and the points above represent the share that is favor of each of these proposals, with the capped lines indicating 95% confidence intervals. It’s interesting to note that in each of the four cases, Mormons are more supportive of environmentalism than Republicans, however they are less supportive than evangelicals. There are some areas in which there is no statistical significance between the two groups, but the trend is clear: Mormons are not exactly stereotypical Republicans on the environment, but they could not be called generally supportive either.
Finally, we wanted to give a broader view of where Mormons stood on environmental concern in relation to other faith traditions that were classified in the 2016 CCES. The x-axis above is an additive index of each of the four environmental items that were referenced previously. The scale ranges from 0 (completely opposed to all environmental protection policy) to 4 (completely in favor of every proposal). The mean for the entire sample was 2.7 and is indicated by the vertical dashed line. Note that only traditions with at least 100 respondents were include in the analysis. In total, that was 61 religious families.
The religious group that was most supportive of environmentalism were Hindus, followed by Atheists. The group that falls the closet to mean are Roman Catholics, which is interesting given a previous post about support for gay marriage which found that Catholics shift in opinion was almost exactly the same as the American public generally. Of the 61 groups included in this analysis, Mormons ranked 59th on environmental protection. Their score of 1.96 is a quarter of a point lower than Southern Baptists and nearly half a point lower than United Methodists. In fact, the only two groups less supportive of the environment were two types of nondenominational Protestants.
While Mormons appear to be less supportive of environmentalism, the truth could be within their theology. There seems to be a disconnect between the official Mormon position on the environment as expressed in the Doctrine and Covenants and what rank and file Mormons believe. It seems possible that this disparity may come down to a survey question wording issue, with Mormons bristling at the possibility of increasing regulations or prices. Or it could be an issue of framing. Note that Mormon theology provides some guidance on environmentalism, but that direction is focused more on the church and individual believers and less on the role of government. A general observation of the LDS church is that the leadership does not emphasize environmentalism as part of their theology, and therefore many Mormons revert to their political partisanship when it comes to the environment. The graph above, which breaks both Mormons and evangelicals into Democrats, Independents, and Republicans, makes that clear. Mormons lean heavily on their political partisanship in this issue area. In fact, they look very similar to evangelicals on the environment from this angle.
To circle back to the questions posed at the beginning, it is clear that Mormons opinion on the environment is very much in step with both evangelicals and the Republican party. Despite the fact that many of them defected from the GOP in the 2016 Presidential election, that did not mean that they began to shift their political perspective in meaningful ways. Instead, this supports the conclusion that Mormons are still a solidly Republican religious group.
To think more broadly about the implications of this analysis, it seems possible that Mormon leadership could have some potential impact on the way that rank and file Mormons feel about the environment if they would make the issue a point of emphasis going forward. The Doctrines and Covenants clearly advocate for a stewardship approach, yet that message is not being transmitted on a regular basis at the congregational level. In the absence of implicit direction from their church, Mormons take cues from political leaders. That seems to be the case here.
Featured Image Credit: Mormon Newsroom
Logan V. Studer is a graduate student in political science at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted on Twitter.