McMullin and the Future of Christian Millennial Politics

With Jason Chaffetz’s imminent retirement at the end of next month, Evan McMullin’s name has been frequently mentioned as a potential candidate for the soon-to-be-vacant House seat (despite his large election debt from 2016). Polling has shown McMullin performing strongly in the Orem-Provo-anchored district, although Utah Valley University President and LDS Apostle’s son Matthew Holland also appears a strong contender. McMullin received his second best county performance nationally in Utah County at 27.9% (virtually tied with Madison County, Idaho, home of BYU-Idaho), and he performed especially well in the immediate vicinity of Provo’s Brigham Young University, the least liberal college neighborhood in the country, winning a number of large precincts outright.

While the largest share of the country’s swings between the 2012 and 2016 Presidential Elections could best be characterized by education-attainment differentials, this does not appear to have been the case among Mormons. While McMullin did perform better among LDS populations with a higher level of educational attainment, there was a stronger determinant: age. Among precincts nationally where McMullin was on the ballot:

Category N Avg. McMullin Vote Avg. D-R Swing
Precincts with Zero LDS Meetinghouses 20,843 1.18% -5.23%
Precincts with >Zero LDS Meetinghouses, Median Age > 35 2,292 6.79% 3.68%
Precincts with >Zero LDS Meetinghouses, Median Age < 35 2,551 16.69% 19.53%

 

Compare this to the much less stark divide along educational lines, especially in terms of McMullin’s vote share:

Category N Avg. McMullin Vote Avg. D-R Swing
Precincts with >Zero LDS Meetinghouses, All College Degrees < 0.38 2,668 10.43% 6.25%
Precincts with >Zero LDS Meetinghouses, All College Degrees > 0.38 2,199 13.91% 19.08%

 

While there are other variables which can generate a similar divide to age (e.g. average household size, reported English ancestry), no other possible divide cuts across as basic and apparent of a cleavage as median age does. Younger Mormon voters were much more reluctant to hold their nose and vote for Trump, a candidate who eschewed most Mormon political and cultural mores, while older Mormon voters mostly “came home” for the Republican nominee due to a strong anti-Clinton sentiment. Broadly speaking, McMullin’s importance may not be as an individual candidate himself, but as a Strom Thurmond-esque harbinger of future partisan dis-alignment.

Mormons have a division within their church by age–in fact, the LDS Church itself enforces a type of age segregation as young, unmarried Mormons are assigned to wards (and therefore meetinghouses) with other similarly-unwed members of their age cohort–but the age divide within Mormonism manifests itself rather differently than among other groups, where millennials tend to be more liberal and Democratic. According to a 2011 Pew national survey of Mormons, Mormons age 18-29 were easily the least Democratic age cohort at only 2% (7% for the 30-49 cohort) and the most likely to describe themselves as either “very conservative” or “conservative” at 72%. This age cohort was also the least likely to identify as Republican (50% vs 55% for 30-49) and most likely to identify as Independent or no preference (45% vs 35% for 30-49); however, this was not driven by young Mormons actually being more extreme as the young age cohort was the least likely to identify as “very conservative,” the least likely to agree with the Tea Party, and the least likely to support a “smaller government” with fewer services. This age group generally agreed that immigrants were a strength rather than a burden, but were equally adamant as their elders that homosexuality and abortion are morally wrong and/or should be discouraged by society. They were the mostly likely group to attend church at least once a week (84%) and were equally or more likely to hold temple recommends than all other groups.

Evan McMullin’s large vote share among younger Mormons was at least in part due to an increased feeling that the Republican Party doesn’t really represent them, but the Democratic Party certainly doesn’t either. There isn’t much room for the left to make gains as it stands; this group is still firmly to the right on non-immigration social issues (perhaps even more so than their parents) and only marginally more to the left on some fiscal issues (although there’s a pretty vocal libertarian subgroup as well). While the Trump-ian secular right doesn’t appeal to them, neither does the even more secular left. What remains is an ideological void which independents like McMullin–or perhaps the newly announced United Utah Party–may become ever more necessary to fill, barring a major shift in one of the major parties.

This decline in economic conservatism without a symmetric decline in social conservatism among Mormon millennials is not unique among religious youth. A recent 2017 Pew study showed evangelical millennials believe in the illegality of abortion as much as or more so than previous generations, but are substantially more favorable to active government policy and to accepting gay individuals. Younger evangelicals are much less likely to identify as Republicans, but are also slightly likely to identify as Democrats than their parents. A small scale version of McMullin’s candidacy manifested among millennial Catholics through the American Solidarity Party, a communitarian party which did best around Steubenville, Ohio’s Franciscan University.

Part of this gradual shift of views on the role of government among Christian millennials may be due to the de-coupling of anti-communist messaging from the culture wars post-1991. Ezra Taft Benson, President of the LDS Church from 1985 to 1994 and US Secretary of Agriculture under Eisenhower, steered Mormonism in a highly anti-communistic direction, praising the John Birch Society, writing several anti-communist manifestos, and regularly preaching about how communism was incompatible with their faith. Following his death and the fall of the Soviet Union, communism almost vanished from the mention of LDS leadership in favor of social issues. Similarly, Pope John Paul II actively fought against communist rule in Eastern Europe and especially in his native Poland, but subsequent Popes have expressed higher levels of comfort with active government intervention in economic matters, culminating in Pope Francis who has denounced austerity and encouraged the United Nations to actively fight income inequality. Freed of the anti-theistic Red Menace, Christian leaders of all stripes have become more open to moderate levels of government intervention in the economy as a mechanism for aiding “the least of these;” this transition has played out simultaneous with the transition from Generation X to Millennials, who may have gone their entire lives without hearing anti-communist statements, sermons, and homilies from their church leaders and who may now wonder whether the old political alliances still hold merit today without the communist threat when they so often require sacrificing what many see as fundamental Christian principles.

Anti-communism inspired conservative economic attitudes in previous generations of Christians; similarly, the anti-war and counter-cultural attitudes of the 60s and 70s gave rise to anti-higher education attitudes. Millennials of all types, including Christian millennials, have earned college degrees at a rate higher than any generation prior, but this rising education level among religious millennials has not dampened religiosity. In fact, college educated Christians are far more likely to attend church weekly than those with lower levels of education: 68% of evangelicals with degrees attend church weekly vs 55% without, 45% of Catholics with degrees vs 37% for those without, 85% of Mormons with degrees vs 72% for those without. Millennial Christians “are actually more likely than older generations to say the Bible is the literal or inspired word of God,” “know their Bibles just as well—and sometime better—than their parents and grandparents,” and were the most likely to strongly disagree with the idea that science and religion are incompatible (a number increasing in education level). The stage seems set for a political Great Awakening among religious millennials which breaks free of the political confines inherited from prior generations.

The future of overall millennial-era politics seems fractured. The broader rise of the “nones” and the non-religious millennial has most prominently manifested as Bernie-ite democratic socialists, Paul-ite libertarians, the Trump-ian alt-right, and college-campus gender identity politics (most predominate among secular college women). But while many millennials abandon organized religion, the rump religious core remains as fervent as ever, reduced in size to true believers who, like their secular counterparts, despise the status quo. Catholic millennial anti-Vatican II and pro-Latin Mass backlash against the Baby Boomer generation bears the same hallmarks as the Bernie-ite criticisms of a “rigged economy.” The common thesis of all these movements is simple: the institutions and the politics we’ve inherited are broken. Just don’t ask us how to fix them; we haven’t decided yet.