The Conservatism of Mormon Legislators

by John Sides on July 20, 2012 · 14 comments

in Legislative Politics

When it comes to making policy, Mormons take a backseat to no one on conservative ideological purity.
We examined the voting records of every Mormon United States senator serving from 1976 through the early years of the 21st century. (The behavior of senators can give us a good approximation of the decisions that a future president might make because senators routinely deal with issues of national and international importance that governors and even members of the House of Representatives don’t.) There have been a total of 11 Mormon senators—eight Republicans and three Democrats—from seven states since 1976. On average, they are quite a bit more ideologically conservative than their non-Mormon colleagues.

They are also more conservative than evangelicals or Catholics, even among Republicans.  See this piece by Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz and John McTague.

{ 14 comments }

Andreas Moser July 20, 2012 at 3:51 pm

How many of these are from Utah or other generally more conservative states?
If you are the Senator from Utah, you have to be conservative because your base is. Even a Jewish Senator from Utah would have to be.

Scott Monje July 20, 2012 at 4:08 pm

I could be wrong, but it’s my understanding that every elected official from Utah is a Mormon. Not everyone living in Utah is a Mormon, but those that get elected are.

rici July 20, 2012 at 4:23 pm

It says “11 senators… from 7 states” from which we can conclude that the majority of the subjects don’t represent Utah. They might represent other “conservative states” but they presumably don’t represent other Mormon states because afaik there aren’t any, so presumably their election has more to do with their conservatism than their mormonism.

Adano July 23, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Yes, but those 7 states include Utah, Nevada, Idaho, and Arizona. Not exactly liberal bastions. You also get the occasional Gordon Smith (R-Oregon) and the Udall boys, but on the whole Mormon Senators come from conservative states. Andreas makes a valid point.

rici July 24, 2012 at 10:24 am

If Mormons seeking election were scattered randomly about the ideological spectrum, you would expect liberal Mormons to also get elected occasionally in liberal states. If you observe Mormons mostly getting elected in conservative states, you would reasonably suspect that they are elected because they tend to run as conservatives. (Indeed, you might at some point start to suspect that the facts that Utah tends to be conservative and that Utah has a large Mormon population are somehow related, in which case even the case of Mormon representation in Utah ceases to be an exception to the rule.)

Scott Monje July 20, 2012 at 4:19 pm

I have a problem with some of the asumptions in this piece. First, I don’t believe those Christian Evangelicals who oppose Mormon candidates do so because they fear Mormons aren’t sufficiently conservative. They oppose them because they think Mormons are heathens or cultists or something else that’s not truly Christian. Second, I don’t think they doubt Romney’s conservative credentials because he’s Mormon; they doubt him because of the positions he has taken in the past and the policies he enacted as governor of Massachusetts. And I have to say that I agree with them on that part. The composite senator that comes out of that analysis may be the typical Mormon politician, but it doesn’t sound like Mitt Romney (except perhaps on certain days).

RobC July 20, 2012 at 5:59 pm

One wonders how Harry Reid, who converted to Mormonism as an adult, affected the ratings. Say what you will about him, he’s not known for conservative ideological purity.

Am I the only one who finds this kind of analysis based on religion somehow offensive? A similar study of Jewish senators would no doubt find that when it comes to making policy, Jews take a backseat to no one on liberal ideological purity. Does anybody seriously want to conduct that research?

rici July 20, 2012 at 6:28 pm

You don’t have to wonder that; you could just read the linked article, which mentions Sen. Reid by name. It also contains average ratings of Jewish senators, so I guess the answer to your last question is “yes”.

Hideya December 21, 2012 at 7:02 am

Dan, I think you’re giving libarels waay too much credit. I know the stereotype is that libarels are whiny smart people and conservatives are dumb hicks, but I’ve met plenty of libarels who were dumb as a bag of rocks too.And explain to me how opposing a Mormon candidate because them lousy Mormons is all narrow-minded conservative throwbacks is supposedly superior to opposing a Mormon candidate because them lousy Mormons ain’t God-fearin’ Christian folk. I see no practical difference.And I’ve been on plenty of liberal discussion forums where these allegedly open-minded libarels mercilessly mock Mormons for wearing funny underwear, call Joseph Smith an obvious fraud and proclaim all Mormons to be brainwashed retards for believing all that $#%& that Smith was talking about.I think you’re essentially talking about a distinction without a difference. Leftists are every bit as bigoted as Rightists at far as I’m concerned.The only difference is the Rightists are largely keeping quiet about Romney, while the Leftists have been both vocal and vitriolic.Dan, I’m registering as a Democrat this year and I have no intention of giving the GOP another chance. I pretty-much agree with your stance on torture. But your comments are often waay too blindly partisan for me.Is it even remotely possible to you that Democrats might suck too?

RobC July 20, 2012 at 6:50 pm

The ratings are for conservative ideology. Perhaps similar ratings for liberal ideology would be a mirror image, though perhaps not entirely. In any event, the authors chose to describe the measure as conservative ideology; I’m sure they had their reasons. Speculating on presidential candidates’ views based on the historical votes of their co-religionists still seems both offensive and of very dubious predictive value. But I’m sure the authors had their reasons.

John Sides July 20, 2012 at 7:56 pm

RobC: It’s a general measure of ideology that ranges from -1 (liberal) to +1 (conservative). You can see that reflected, e.g., in the fact that the average score for Jewish members of Congress is less than 0 but the average score for Mormons is greater than 0. I think it’s better referred to just as “ideology” (although there is some debate in polisci over whether this measure is truly a measure of ideology — a subject for a different discussion).

I don’t think of this research as offensive any more than I think research that looks for similar patterns (religious, racial, socioeconomic, etc.) among voters is offensive. When we categorize voters or politicians into categories and examine differences across those categories, that’s often descriptively interesting.

Whether it’s ultimately “predictive” is a different and more difficult question to answer, especially since there might be many reasons why a President Romney would favor certain policies that have nothing to do with this religion. But since there’s only one President Romney, it won’t be easy to figure out the precise cause. Incidentally, that is one reason to look at members of Congress, since we have a larger sample to examine.

RobC July 20, 2012 at 10:21 pm

You are of course the expert, so I’ll defer to you. I’d have thought that trying to predict average effects of large numbers of people (for example, research that looks for racial, religious or socioeconomic patterns among voters) was a very different animal from trying to predict the decisions a single member of a racial or religious group might take based on previous (and not particularly analogous) decisions of members of those groups, especially when the population on which those earlier decisions was based consists on n=11. Moreover, attempting to use even good racial and religious statistical data to predict individual behavior seems like a fool’s errand and an invitation to discrimination. Would we predict that as black women, Sasha and Malia Obama have a better than 20% chance of becoming pregnant as teenagers? Gosh, I hope not.

John Sides July 20, 2012 at 10:30 pm

RobC: The predictive value of a characteristic depends a lot on the phenomenon you want to explain. If I want to predict how an individual will vote in a presidential election, knowing that someone is black or a white evangelical Protestant will get me pretty far. But the questions you raise here are well-taken — e.g., a small number of Mormon legislators from which to generalize, the open question of whether religious patterns in the behavior of legislators would be manifest in the behavior of a president, etc. Personally, if a Romney presidency produced many conservative policy outcomes, I’d be more inclined to look for influences within the political system — e.g., from the GOP at large, from the GOP in Congress, from interest groups — than attribute significance to Romney’s religious faith. Especially since that faith didn’t lead him to orthodox conservatism when he was governor of Massachusetts.

kerokan July 21, 2012 at 12:34 pm

I think the relationship between a politician’s religion and his policies is a valid research area. When selecting their representative, voters should use all available information to ensure that their representative will reflect their preferences. And voters do use information about candidate religion in this respect, too. So it is important to know how a candidate’s religion will affect his policies in office. Frankly, I don’t think this is any different than asking “are rich politicians more conservative?”

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