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A small church in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, illustrating the influence of Latter-day Saints on Trump’s re-election.

A Small Church’s Big Bet on the U.S. Constitution

Is a church the key to saving democracy? Latter-day Saints' beliefs could prove pivotal in the outcome of the next election.

The fate of American democracy rests squarely in the hands of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

America’s Quilt of Faith is an apolitical, civic nonprofit that champions the idea that religion is indispensable to the American experiment in self-government. For a decade and a half, the organization has engaged with the founding generation’s vision of religion’s necessity: the unique capacity of religious communities to build virtuous citizens. This capacity rested on, in the language of the times, the various denominations’ and faiths’ “future state[s] of rewards and punishment.” That is, religions, wielding divine authority, tell adherents that if they do God’s will while on earth, eternal rewards await them in the life to come. Certainly, religions have advanced alongside society since that time but the basic idea remains valid: religions possess a unique power of persuasion in encouraging their people to live virtuous lives, upon which lives our constitutional democratic republic depends.

Since 2008, America’s Quilt of Faith has explored how America’s religions are fulfilling this mandate. The results are mixed. While affiliation with organized religion is down (something America’s Quilt of Faith sees as harmful to America’s present and future vitality), many, if not all, religions as institutions continue to maintain that theirs is a unique and needed role in society, which they will not give up and for which they will fight. While several of what one might call “traditional” religious commandments are not emphasized from as many pulpits as they once were, chastity before marriage and Sabbath-keeping being two examples (something America’s Quilt of Faith also sees as harmful to America), American religion generally seems to be more aware of marginalized and vulnerable populations and is acting in accordance with that more expansive vision.

The constitution contains a critical and world-changing religious freedom framework.

While religiously motivated people can and do have reasonable debates about the candidates’ various public policy positions, there is one distressing phenomenon that is anti-constitutional: large numbers of American religionists have given strong and unwavering support, in religion’s name, for Donald Trump, who attempted to stay in power after losing in a free and fair presidential election by overthrowing the United States Constitution. Among the constitution’s key purposes is to ensure the peaceful transfer of power. The constitution instructs that the Vice President “shall” count the electoral votes from the states. Trump, however, strategized to get Mike Pence to ignore that duty and declare Trump reelected instead, preventing the peaceful transfer of power the Constitution dictates.

As the founder and president of an organization that has for years been shouting from the housetops that religion is essential to American democracy and the fulfilling of its purposes in the world, it is extremely distressing when religion is now implicated in the support of a politician who so brazenly tramples American democratic institutions. Because the constitution contains a critical and world-changing religious freedom framework in its Article VI “no religious test for office” clause and First Amendment free exercise and no establishment clauses, religion is biting the hand that feeds it!

Enter The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a church with only 6.5 million members in the United States, but exerting a larger influence than would be expected by its size because of the organization’s structure, doctrine, religious life, and its members’ robust activity. I have come to believe that this young, American-born Christian denomination (incorporated in New York in 1830) is uniquely situated to break the chokehold the former president has on the Republican party and save the Constitution. 

Members are historically a politically conservative bunch, at least in the United States. Furthermore, they provide significant support for Trump: 45% of Utahns supported him in 2016, and an August 2023 NPI poll found 48% of Republicans in Utah support him now.

A diverse congregation under the American flag, symbolizing the role of religion in democracy
Religion has played a key role in the history of American democracy

However, it also turns out that this group believes in Old Testament-type prophets with a New Testament message, called by God to preach Christ and His Kingdom, and that they should follow these prophets’ counsel.

Religionists are the ones that can save it.

One of these, Dallin Oaks, spoke “for” the United States Constitution on Easter Sunday 2021, just three months after the former president of the United States attempted to subvert that very document. In that sermon, emphatic because of its delivery during the holiest period on the Christian calendar, Oaks made it clear that mobs may not “intervene to intimidate or force government action,” which is exactly what Trump had instigated just months earlier. Prophet Oaks also reminded members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that their “loyalty is to the Constitution and its principles and processes, not to any office holder,” addressing what looks to us like a personality cult regarding the former president, and warned that ignoring such political cults allows autocrats to gain power and corrupt democracy.

Significantly, he also told church members, traditionally and strongly Republican in recent decades, that they should always consider switching parties, even from election to election, depending on the most important issues. This suggests that the Republican party’s embrace of Trump should be repudiated, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ can take the lead. Finally, he shared with the world the doctrine that the U.S. Constitution is divine—that Jesus Himself had a hand in bringing it to fruition—and that those who “recognize” Him are called to “uphold and defend its great principles.”

There are many complaints about Donald Trump. They range from complaints about his temperament, to his policies, to the degree of corruption in his administration, among others. Complaints of these types are made about all politicians, and it’s up to voters to weigh the relative merits of those concerns in the voting booth. But because Trump took proactive steps to prevent the peaceful transition of power based on a legal election by overthrowing the Constitution, he represents a grave threat that Oaks seemingly points to as unique and prioritized. Latter-day Saints who have entrenched concerns with other candidates may wonder who else they can vote for if Trump becomes the Republican candidate. It seems Oaks’ urging is rather straightforward: choose among those candidates who do not subvert the Constitution in attempting to prevent the peaceful transition of power, even if you oppose them in other significant ways. There is nothing more foundational to American democracy than that document.

From our vantage point, it appears that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and indeed the entire country, have been given a clarion call to protect the Constitution by emphatically rejecting any and all anti-constitution candidates, including Donald Trump, at the ballot box. If a significant percentage of members in the United States follow Oaks’ counsel (as America’s Quilt of Faith interprets it) and suddenly withdraw their support, stating that his re-election would both harm the Constitution and put it in the gravest of dangers, a political earthquake would be underway. This could initiate a break in the chokehold the former president has on the Republican party that deprives American democracy of life-sustaining breath. Such a movement would have national ramifications by providing both inspiration and cover for millions of religionists to follow suit.

I am in no position to tell members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to heed their prophet in the ways outlined above. But I can say that the United States Constitution has been severely damaged and is threatened once again by certain religionists and that certain religionists, summoning uncommon courage and humility, are the ones that can save it.

About the author

Chris Stevenson

Chris Stevenson is the President and Co-Founder of the National Museum of American Religion. He co-founded the Community Levee Association, which champions virtue to the American experiment. He wrote "Letters from an American Husband and Father."
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