By Quin Monson and Scott Riding
A majority of Latter-day Saint voters plan to vote for Donald Trump for president despite a majority of them also considering him non-religious and dishonest. In an early October statewide survey of Utah likely voters, we asked survey respondents to rate their own religiosity and that of the candidates for president on a 7-point scale with “1 being not religious at all and 7 being very religious.” Considerable distance exists between the way Latter-day Saint voters rated President Trump and the way they rated their own religiosity with self-identified very active Latter-day Saints rating themselves at 6.6 but placing Trump a full 3.5 points lower at 2.9 (with Joe Biden only slightly higher at 3.2). Elsewhere in that survey 58% of very active Latter-day Saint voters said that Donald Trump was “a man of no religious values” (vs. “a religious man”) and 56% said he was “a dishonest man.” Yet in that same survey 59% of very active Utah Latter-day Saints reported they would vote for Trump and in our most recent statewide survey, released on October 30th, 68% of very active Latter-day Saints report they will vote for Trump. In a small oversample of Latter-day Saints in Arizona, also just released, 76% of Arizona Latter-day Saints intend to vote for Trump (see also the Arizona statewide results).
While it is true that support for Joe Biden is higher among both Utah and Arizona Latter-day Saints than the support they gave to Hilary Clinton in 2016, the puzzle remains – how can many Latter-day Saint voters see the President as dishonest and not religious and still support him?
There are no better examples of this puzzle than the contrast of Senator Mike Lee in Utah and former Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. In the spring and summer of 2016, both Lee and Flake strongly opposed the candidacy of Donald Trump. Flake maintained that opposition, eventually leaving the Senate after 2018 and most recently endorsing Joe Biden for president. Lee, on the other hand, converted into an enthusiastic supporter of President Trump. Recently he traveled to Arizona to attend a Trump rally targeting Latter-day Saint voters and took the stage to make a comparison between Trump and Captain Moroni, a military figure from the Book of Mormon, a volume that Latter-day Saints accept as scripture. Pointing to Trump on stage, Lee said, “To my Mormon friends, my Latter-day Saint friends, think of him as Captain Moroni. He seeks not power, but to pull it down. He seeks not the praise of the world or the ‘fake news,’ but he seeks the well-being and the peace of the American people.”
If Lee’s opinions about the President are more widely held by Latter-day Saints, the answer to the puzzle could be that some Latter-day Saint voters subscribe to Christian Nationalism sentiments – a potent fusion of religious and political identity that connects the American founding and history with Christian heritage. Central to Christian Nationalism sentiments is a strong sense that the United States is a Christian nation and that the United States should promote and privilege Christian views. In other words, some Latter-day Saint voters believe God is using Trump to bring to pass a more Christian nation, despite his non-religious demeanor.
Generally, Christian Nationalism sentiment is associated with more conservative ideology and at its strongest levels is associated in national data with much greater support for President Trump (along with many of the President’s most controversial policies on topics such as immigration or the Muslim ban).
It is usually measured with the following survey questions:
Below are several statements with which you might agree or disagree. Please indicate how much you agree or disagree with each statement.
- The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.
- The federal government should advocate Christian values.
- The federal government should enforce separation of church and state. (This is reverse coded before it is included in the calculation so that disagreement means higher Christian Nationalism sentiment.)
- The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public places.
- The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.
- The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.
Respondents to these questions can answer strongly agree(4), somewhat agree(3), neither agree nor disagree(2), somewhat disagree(1), or strongly disagree(0) and then the items can be added up and combined into a single Christian Nationalism scale, ranging from 0 to 24, where a higher value signifies more agreement with Christian Nationalism sentiment. Sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry divide the full scale up into four different groups, labeled to reflect Christian Nationalism support: Rejecters (0 to 5), Resisters (6 to 11), Accommodators (12 to 17), and Ambassadors (18 to 24).
In late October 2020, at the height of the presidential election, Y2 Analytics conducted surveys in Utah and Arizona that included questions to measure Christian Nationalism, including it for the first time among significant samples of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Both surveys are among likely 2020 voters and contained identical questions about presidential vote choice and Christian Nationalism sentiment. Latter-day Saint likely voters subscribe to Christian Nationalism sentiments at high rates in both Utah and Arizona. In fact, as a whole they are comparable to evangelicals nationally (using data from the 2017 Baylor Religion Survey).
When the questions are grouped into the Christian Nationalism scale, a plurality of Latter-day Saint voters in Utah (40%) and Arizona (43%) score in the highest tier of Christian Nationalism, called “Ambassadors.” Another 36% in Utah and 31% in Arizona are “Accommodators,” or those who subscribe to many Christian Nationalist sentiments. Only a quarter (24% in Utah and 26% in Arizona) fall into the lower two categories of Christian Nationalism where few or none of these viewpoints are held. Roughly the same proportions of Latter-day Saints and evangelical Protestants are Christian Nationalism “Ambassadors.” But ironically the most fervent belief in Christian Nationalism among evangelical Protestants is accompanied by a belief in boundaries that exclude outsiders that threaten their belief in the status of United States as a fundamentally Christian nation, whether because of race, ethnicity, or religion. Some of the main proponents of Christian Nationalist rhetoric within evangelical circles comes from religious and political leaders such as Robert Jeffress and Mike Huckabee who do not believe that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are Christians. In short, Latter-day Saints who express the strongest Christian Nationalist beliefs would not be welcomed as fellow Christians by evangelical Protestants who share their sentiments.
|Latter-day Saints (Utah, 2020)||Latter-day Saints (Arizona, 2020)||Evangelical Protestants (National, 2017)|
|Rejecters and Resisters||24||26||23|
High levels of Christian Nationalism sentiment are also strongly correlated with support for President Trump among both Utah and Arizona Latter-day Saints. In Utah among the “Ambassadors,” 88% support Trump with only 11% for Biden and 2% other candidates. In Arizona, among the “Ambassadors,” 96% support Trump with only 3% for Biden and 1% other candidates. Additionally, a strong majority of Latter-day Saint “Accommodators” support Trump (68% in Utah and 84% in Arizona), with about a quarter (26%) in Utah and 15% in Arizona supporting Biden. Among the Latter-day Saint Rejecters and Resisters, two-thirds in Utah (67%) and nearly half in Arizona (47%) express support for Biden and less than a quarter in Utah (23%) about a third (36%) in Arizona support Trump. In sum, those Latter-day Saints that subscribe to Christian Nationalism at the highest level also tend to support Trump at a high rate. The more Christian Nationalistic Latter-day Saints are, the more they favor Trump.
Our surveys also included a question asked by the Pew Research Center in February of this year about whether or not God plays a role in U.S. Presidential elections. The question reads, “Which comes closest to your own views about God’s role in the 2016 election, even if none are exactly right?” Once again, Utah and Arizona Latter-day Saints respond similarly to evangelical Protestants nationally. The most common response among all three groups is that “Trump’s election must be part of God’s overall plan, but doesn’t necessarily mean God approves of Trump’s policies.” Only a small percentage of any group believe that “God chose Trump to become president because God approves of Trump’s policies.”
National observers have often wondered about the gap between President Trump’s behavior and the values held by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This puzzle is partly answered by the fact that like many evangelical Protestants, many Latter-day Saint voters subscribe to Christian Nationalism sentiments and that some Latter-day Saint voters believe God has chosen Trump or that his election is part of God’s overall plan, despite his non-religious demeanor.
Quin Monson is associate professor of political at Brigham Young University and a partner at Y2 Analytics. He is on Twitter at @QuinMonson.
Scott Riding is the managing partner at Y2 Analytics in Salt Lake City and a political science graduate of BYU. He is on Twitter at @scottriding.
 For a full explanation and discussion of Christian Nationalism, see Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (Oxford University Press, 2020). Our survey questions and analysis mirror their work closely. See also their brief introduction to the concept on this blog.
The Utah Statewide survey of 660 likely voters was conducted online and over the phone with live interviewers October 15-24. The survey includes a total of 329 Latter-day Saint respondents. The statewide poll carries a +- 3.8 percentage point margin of error and the Latter-day Saint population has a +- 5.4 percentage point margin of error.
The Arizona oversample of Latter-day Saints of 216 likely voters was conducted online and over the phone with live interviewers October 15-24. To create the Arizona oversample of members of the Church Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we compiled addresses for stake center buildings (a group of 6-10 local congregations somewhat comparable to a Catholic diocese) and temples. A “Latter-day Saint density” measure was calculated for Arizona zip codes and voters were sampled from zip codes with higher densities, including those with multiple stake center buildings and Latter-day Saint temples along with zip codes that included parts of Arizona know to have significant Latter-day Saint populations. The oversample has a margin of error of approximately +- 7 based on an estimated population of 200,000 Arizona Latter-day Saint voters. See accompanying topline reports for more complete details for both surveys, including sampling methodology, full question wording, results, and demographics.