During Wednesday’s vice president debate, Kamala Harris accused Mike Pence and the Donald Trump administration of curtailing democratic rights through authoritarian means. In response, Mike Lee, Utah’s senior senator, tweeted, “We’re not a democracy.”
After several hours of backlash, Lee doubled down: “Democracy isn’t the objective,” he further tweeted; “liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
It has become common in recent years to hear Americans, especially those of a conservative bent, proclaim that America was founded as a “republic,” not a “democracy.” The argument is one based on a superficial understanding of political philosophy and buttressed by a partisan agenda.
But the fact that a devout evangelical, Pence, and a dedicated Latter-day Saint, Lee, are found linking arms on the skeptical side of the democracy debate is an ironic one, especially when considered in historical context. Because not only did white evangelicals and Mormons have a quixotic path toward their current political alignment, but their current alliance could have hardly been fathomed until very recently.
One of the primary reasons that evangelicalism thrived in America’s earliest years was because of the newly established democratic culture. The ethos embedded within democracy — that individuals took priority over establishments — allowed previously unrecognized religious communities like the Methodists and Baptists to seize control of the developing society.
Riding this democratic wave, membership in these enthusiastic denominations exploded. Eventually they became so numerous, especially on the expanding frontier, that they took control of all aspects of society, including politics. They managed a majority of votes and bullied groups that diverged from popular opinion. French observer Alexis de Tocqueville called it the “tyranny of the majority.”
Among those who received the most serious browbeating, of course, were the Mormons, who challenged traditional forms of religious and political power. In Ohio, in Missouri, in Illinois, and finally in the Mountain West, the Latter-day Saints and their “peculiar” practices drew the ire of their neighbors, who in turn threatened, and in some cases enacted, violence.
While settled in Nauvoo, Ill., Joseph Smith, the faith’s founder, denounced this majoritarian culture as tyranny over the oppressed. Granting total authority to communities at the local or state level, he argued, was what fed mobs. Eventually, in his final months, Smith was ready to give up on the democratic experiment altogether, and he organized a new political council designed to install a new theocratic government. The voice of God, he argued, was more important than the opinions of men.
Smith’s death in June 1844 only escalated the Mormon distrust of democracy in general, and America in particular. When The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints settled in the Great Basin, its hope was to introduce a form of governance much more stable and powerful than America’s democratic empire.
Neither the Mormons nor the evangelicals maintained a consistent political stance for the next century, however. As the American nation diversified due to an influx of immigration during the Progressive Era, and liberated African Americans sought political equality during the mid-20th century, white Protestants recognized that they could no longer maintain majoritarian control. And when the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s weakened evangelicalism’s grasp over societal values, they became desperate to find a way to retain some form of political power.
The calculated union around 1980 between the Republican Party, which had been losing national control since the liberal consensus of the post-World War II era, and white evangelicals, eager to once again exert partisan strength, created a new coalition known as the religious right. From that point on, white evangelicals were willing to embrace the GOP’s political policies as long as the GOP, in turn, agreed to aid in white evangelicals' cultural wars. The marriage has proved to be particularly insoluble.
Perhaps the most surprising passenger on the voyage toward the religious right were the Mormons who, due to demographic factors and a handful of outspoken leaders, had embraced the conservative cause during the mid-20th century. Participation in this new political partnership provided the previously marginalized faith new prominence and power, from its Tabernacle Choir singing at presidential inaugurations to a number of its men holding significant political positions.
But the Faustian bargain that the Mormons and evangelicals made with the GOP has now led them to hold deeply ironic political positions: white evangelicals, previously the group that most successfully wielded populist control, are now dedicated to parroting undemocratic positions that privilege the interests of the few over the rights of the many; Latter-day Saints, who historically had complained that a democracy trampled on their minority rights, are now part of the privileged class using undemocratic measures to overrule the opinions of the majority.
Joseph Smith may have shared Mike Lee’s fear of a “rank democracy,” but the gulf that exists between the two figure’s political philosophy demonstrates the change over the past 150 years. And the fact that Lee’s position is shared by the same religious faction that Smith had denounced only highlights the irony of that journey.
Benjamin E. Park (@BenjaminEPark) teaches American religious history at Sam Houston State University and is author of “Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier.”