Donald Trump's Mormon PR problem
With nominees Hillary Clinton (D) and Donald Trump (R) tied in the scarlet state of Utah and a new poll showing Mormon independent candidate Evan McMullin in the lead there, it appears that the GOP presidential nominee might actually lose a state that hasn't swung Democratic since 1964.
How can this be?
Certainly, mounting revelations about Trump's taste for sexual assault haven't helped his position in the Latter-day Saint (LDS) bastion. In the days since Trump's "Access Hollywood" video first went public, five Mormon senators and representatives have withdrawn their endorsement of his campaign, joining powerful Republican Latter-day Saints like Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, Utah Sen.Mike Lee, Utah Rep. Mia Love, and former presidential candidates Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney.
With the church-owned Deseret News now calling for Trump to step aside, even the fiercely conservative radio host Glenn Beck, himself a Mormon, has declared his opposition to the Republican standard-bearer.
It's easy enough to chalk up such defections to the Latter-day Saints' deep investment in conservative notions of marriage and family. According to recent surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, 81 percent of American Mormons list being a good parent among the most important things in life, while 73 percent rank being part of a successful marriage just as highly.
Such public affirmations of traditional domesticity certainly don't jibe with life chez Trump. It's difficult, for example, to imagine the average Mormon bishop celebrating his third marriage by attempting to seduce a married woman "like a bitch" or, alternately, contemplating the prospect of dating his own daughter.
Crucially, this wasn't always the case. During the 19th-century, the popular press and even the halls of government teemed with stories about precisely such Mormon depredations — lurid, and generally fictional, tales of polygamous LDS men who savored entire stables of wives, discarding these women long before they hit Trump's 35-year expiration date.
"Like Persians, Hindoos and Musselmen, [polygamous Mormons will] fill their houses with the blooming beauties of the North, and the witching women of the South," New York Rep. Caleb Lyon (I) warned from the House floor in 1854.
"I have been drunk, fascinated, intoxicated with a wild, unholy passion," an LDS polygamist echoed in Maria Ward's popular 1856 novel "Female Life Among the Mormons." (From the sound of it, this wastrel Saint exhausted his stash of Tic-Tacs early on.)
Even after the Latter-day Saints officially relinquished polygamy in 1890, rumors of sexual bacchanalia and violence continued to plague them. At the turn of the century, in other words, the LDS church suffered from a distinctly Trumpian public-relations problem.
This might come as a surprise to those familiar with the Church's modern incarnation. Today, the platonic ideal of a Latter-day Saint is the Mormon missionary — young, healthy and wholesome, this LDS icon doesn't smoke, never drinks, and generally appears to have no vices more serious than a deep attachment to his bicycle and everyone else's front door.
The sharp disparity between this paragon of physical and moral hygiene and the 19th-century stereotype of the lascivious Mormon polygamist is no accident. Instead, it is the result of the post-polygamy Church's sustained efforts to refurbish its public face by repeatedly presenting its members as exemplary citizens.
As the LDS leader George Q. Cannon declared in 1881, "We want men who are cultured; we want women of culture ... so that when visitors come to our land, or our children go to other lands, those who see them will feel there is a superiority about the Latter-day Saints that they did not look for."
Increasingly seizing upon this directive in the years that followed the return to monogamy, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues to broadcast such a vision of Mormon cultural superiority and, with it, American identity.
As we struggle, then, to understand why Trump's latest scandal has the Latter-day Saints defecting en masse while other conservative groups remain, perhaps we should focus less on Mormon views of women and more on the religion's deep anxieties about the prospect of bad P.R.
Having spent the better part of a century branded as a cult of savage, law-breaking libertines, the deeply patriarchal Church has much less tolerance for things that smack of sexual impropriety than it does for gender discrimination. "Such vile degradations demean our wives and daughters and corrupt America's face to the world," Romney tweeted in response to the bus video.
As a member of a faith that still teaches its men that righteous living in the here and now will be rewarded with polygamous godhood in the afterlife — a faith that envisions a celestial plentitude of pristine "wives and daughters" to be the deserving man's heaven — Romney's attention to the circumstances faced by actual women seems secondary to his concerns about the country's image.
More than a hundred years into its campaign to sell itself as unimpeachably American, the Mormon establishment now ironically appears to stand as one of the guardians of conservative America's international brand.