How Mormons and
Evangelicals Became Republicans
In November, 78 percent of white evangelicals
and 78 percent of Mormons voted for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, demonstrating
once again that they are, by far, the most Republican of America’s
numerically significant religious communities.
But this has not always
been the case.
Through the middle of
the 20th century, many evangelicals were dyed-in-the-wool Democrats. In the
South—the evangelical heartland—the allegiance was a product of the partisan
divide of the Civil War but owed its survival to more than the pull of the
hard-pressed evangelicals supported the three Democratic presidential
candidacies of William Jennings Bryan because they liked his anti-Wall
Street populism. They embraced Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal because
it rescued them from the misery of the Depression.
Since the 1970s,
however, evangelicals have moved inexorably into the GOP, transforming much
of the old Confederacy into a bastion of Republicanism.
For their part, Mormons
were once fairly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Their
political transformation is evident from the electoral history of Utah—the
only state in the union where a majority of the population belongs to a
single religious body.
statehood in 1896, Utah voted for the Democrat in eight of the next 18
presidential elections, but since choosing Lyndon Johnson over Barry
Goldwater in 1964, it has gone Republican 13 times in a row. Of Utah’s first
11 U.S. senators, five were Democrats; but the state hasn’t elected a
Democratic senator since Orin Hatch defeated incumbent Frank Moss in 1976.
Why have evangelicals
and Mormons become the GOP’s most devout supporters?
With respect to the
evangelicals, the usual answer is that the embrace of civil rights by the
national Democratic Party after World War II drove white Southerners—who
constitute a large portion of the evangelical vote—into the GOP. But while
Southern evangelicals did come to feel alienated from national Democratic
tickets, it was not until 1980 that they began to turn to the GOP at the
state and local level, and by that time overt race-based politics had become
a thing of the past.
As for the Mormons, the
answer is that they are simply conservative folks who would naturally flock
to the Republican banner. But that begs the question. Through the 1970s, the
Democratic banner was planted well to the left of where it is now, yet many
Mormons retained their allegiance to the party of Bryan and FDR.
For a sufficient
explanation, it is necessary to recognize the importance of the idea of
restoration in contemporary conservatism.
During the presidency of
Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party became committed to taking America back
to an imagined past of traditional moral, economic, and political values.
How this happened and why it proved so appealing to evangelicals and Mormons
cannot be understood apart from the restorationism embedded in both
In the broad sweep of
Christian history, there have been various times when reformers sought to
reanimate the faith by fostering a return to the days of the Apostles or of
the Early Church. The Protestant Reformation, especially, was committed to
such a vision, doing away with what were considered unwarranted Catholic
accretions to the faith.
The Puritans who settled
in New England in the early 17th century brought this Reformation ideal with
them. The emigrants embarking on the Arbella in 1630, for example, heard the
famous preacher John Cotton urge that their new colony be in harmony with
“the first Plantation of the Primitive Church.”
Protestant Christianity’s American project from the beginning, its
motivational force has been episodic. What concerns us here is its revival
during the first decades of the 19th century, during the Second Great
At the time, a number of
new religious groups formed with restorationism at the core of their
identity. Notable among them were the followers of Thomas and Alexander
Campbell, who were so determined to recover the basic tenets and practices
of the Early Church that they insisted on calling themselves just
“Christians.” (Today the denomination they founded is known as the Disciples
of Christ.) There were also the Landmark Baptists, who claimed to be
descended through an unbroken succession of congregations practicing adult
Baptism back to the time of Jesus.
Like the other groups,
the Mormons began by seeking to revive Primitive Christianity, in their case
through the restoration of prophecy and the discovery of a new testament of
Jesus Christ. But under Joseph Smith’s continuing prophetic inspiration,
they went beyond this apostolic restoration.
As the contemporary
scholar of Mormonism Jan Shipps has shown, the next step in the Mormon
restorationist project was to revive the religious economy of ancient
Israel, through an Abrahamic restoration that included the building
of a temple, the specification of twin priesthoods, the establishment of
patriarchy, and the physical ingathering of the faithful as a sacred
Finally, the Mormon
prophet imparted a set of esoteric tenets—tiered heavens, proxy baptisms,
celestial marriage, and eternal progression toward godhood—that would lead
humanity back to a celestial existence through what came to be called “the
restoration of all things.” All in all, it is fair to say that no American
religious community embraced the restorationist ideal more thoroughly or did
more to make it a reality than the Mormons.
Not surprisingly, there
was intense conflict among the 19th-century restorationists over what
exactly was to be restored—doctrinally, organizationally, liturgically, and
otherwise. After the Mormons began attracting a significant number of
Campbellite defectors, Alexander Campbell called Joseph Smith “as ignorant
and as impudent a knave as ever wrote a book.”
The Landmark leader J.R.
Graves, one of the most truculent characters in all of American religious
history, had no use for any denomination but his own and devoted much of his
energy to attacking the others.
What the antebellum
restorationists shared was the conviction that, as Richard Hughes, its
leading historian, puts it, the “first times” were “in some sense normative
or jurisdictional for contemporary belief and behavior.” In addition, they
all embraced the millennarian conviction that getting the program right
would prepare the way for Christ’s second coming. In this respect, they
shared a profound spiritual optimism.
They also shared the
view that America itself would play an important role in their respective
religious projects. Alexander Campbell nurtured the hope that the basic
Christianity he was promoting would come to serve as the nation’s civil
religion, such that the United States would become the foundation of the
millennial age. Graves promulgated a form of Christian republicanism that
saw America as “the hope of the world” and “pre-eminent among the nations of
And in Joseph Smith’s vision of the New World, the founding
of the nation prepared the way for the renewal of prophecy. As the prophetic
allocution recorded in Smith’s 1835 Doctrine and Covenants puts it:
“And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by
the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose.”
To be sure, persecution
would lead the Mormons to see the United States as a more problematic order
of the ages, and send them on a journey to build their restored Zion in what
was then Mexico. But in the beginning they, along with other antebellum
restorationists, embraced a millennarian Christian vision of American
exceptionalism. From it, subsequent American missions to redeem the world
and remake it in their image—whether through expansion according to Manifest
Destiny or by going to war to promote our values—derived much of their
Within the religious
traditions we’re concerned with here, however, the restorationist sun went
into eclipse in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The forebears of today’s
evangelicals were drawn to the dark world of dispensational
premillennialism, scrutinizing current events for evidence of the End Times,
when the Antichrist would come to power and the battle of Armageddon take
place. To avoid this imminent Tribulation, the saved would be raptured to
heaven to await Christ’s second coming and his subsequent (ergo pre-millennial)
thousand-year rule. Given what lay ahead, the premillennialists abandoned
hope of restoration in favor of hunkering down and getting their personal
spiritual acts together.
For their part, the
Mormons were compelled to abandon a major portion of their lived
restorationist project during their final push for statehood in the early
1890s. To join the union, they gave up both plural marriage and the LDS
political kingdom—including the People’s Party that all Mormons belonged to
(as opposed to the Liberal Party, to which those they called Gentiles
This caused, in the
words of Jan Shipps, “an enormous wrenching within Mormon culture.” What
followed was a period of assimilation to the norms of American society and a
consequent weakening of the distinctiveness of Mormon life.
In Age of Fracture,
his important recent account of America in the latter part of the 20th
century, Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers determines the dominant
characteristic of the 1980s to be nostalgia: “As the very language for
society threatened to break into fragments, the past became a sphere onto
which desires for community and cohesion could be projected.”
Even as he recognizes
this longing for an idealized if not utterly mythical America, Rodgers
laments the impulse to escape from history with all its complexities and
confusions, and it is easy to share his exasperation. But as an engine of
change, nostalgia alone cannot account for the transformation of American
political culture that the 1980s brought about.
What the decade marks is
the beginning of a new restorationist era—one powered by the tradition of
Christian Primitivism but dedicated now to the restoration of America
itself. In this New Restorationism, the place of the Apostles has been
assumed by the Founding Fathers. The object of the exercise is the recovery
of what might be called Primitive Americanity.
That the era features a
religious dimension is plain enough from the rise of what was first termed
the New Christian Right. Rodgers identifies it with an End Times theology
that, he writes, “swept through evangelical Protestant culture by the 1970s
and 1980s.” That characterization, however, obscures the shift in
evangelical sensibility from the one decade to the next that made the New
Christian Right possible.
The evangelical 1970s
were emblemized by the runaway bestseller, The Late Great Planet Earth.
Written in 1970 by Hal Lindsey, a staff member of the Campus Crusade for
Christ, it was a book that presented premillennialism in its classic form,
reading the signs of the times to prophesy the imminent arrival of the
Antichrist. America, according to Lindsey, was immersed in sin and
depravity, and fated to suffer along with the rest of the world; he had
nothing to offer but gloomy forebodings about its fate.
The 1980s, by contrast,
showed evangelicalism marching confidently back into the center of American
culture—a culture it sought to reclaim. Suddenly the End Times did not seem
so imminent, or so dire. What had happened?
Embedded even in the
depths of separatist fundamentalism there was, as the historian Joel
Carpenter puts it, “a yearning to recapture Christian America” derived from
“Protestant memory and hope of millennial dimensions.” Indeed, the leading
fundamentalist of the mid-20th century, Carl McIntire, believed that the
Founding Fathers had “known the ‘mind’ of God”; he conceived of himself as
embroiled in a “fight to the finish in the interests of our heaven-sent
Christian faith and the Bible-inspired American way of life and
It was by drawing on
this restorationist undercurrent in fundamentalism that a new political
movement came into being. In the late 1970s, two books by prominent
evangelical authors, Peter Marshall, Jr.’s The Light and the Glory
and Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live, helped
persuade large numbers of their co-religionists that America’s founding was
the embodiment of religious purpose that needed to be recovered.
In The Battle for the
Mind, a book written under the influence of Schaeffer in 1980, a
fundamentalist Baptist pastor and political activist from southern
California named Tim LaHaye took on the End Times problem directly.
While the Tribulation—the seven-year reign of the Antichrist—was
unavoidable, the “pretribulation tribulation,” that would “engulf this
country if liberal humanists are permitted to take total control of our
government” was “neither predestined nor necessary,” LaHaye wrote.
According to him,
Christians needed to get involved in politics in order to prevent the
“humanist onslaught” from destroying America’s ability to promote worldwide
missionary activity. Evangelical activists could thus have their
premillennial cake and eat it too.
Armed with the historical and theological rationales of
Marshall, Schaeffer, and LaHaye, the New Christian Right burst on the
national scene in the person of the fundamentalist Baptist preacher Jerry
Falwell, whom LaHaye had encouraged to found Moral Majority, Inc. in 1979.
In Listen America!, a tract for the times published in 1980,
Falwell sounded the restorationist clarion: “I believe that Americans want
to see this country come back to basics, back to values, back to biblical
morality, back to sensibility, and back to patriotism.”
These basics, it’s worth
noting, included low taxes, small government, free market principles, a
strong defense, and support for the State of Israel. Most importantly for
Falwell, America was again a sacred enterprise, established under God.
“I am positive in my
belief regarding the Constitution,” he wrote, “that God led in the
development of the document.”
Pat Robertson, the
religious broadcaster who succeeded Falwell as the religious right’s most
important figure in the late 1980s, was even more of a restorationist. In
1986, he gave a talk at Yale Law School (his alma mater) titled, “Restore
America to its Jeffersonian Ideals.” When he ran for president two years
later, his campaign slogan was, “Restore the Greatness of America Through
“We will not rest,”
Robertson concluded his address to the 1992 Republican National Convention,
“until we restore the greatness of America through moral strength.” The
instrument for the Robertsonian restoration was the Christian Coalition,
which he launched in 1989.
In The Christian
Coalition: Dreams of Restoration, Demands for Recognition, Justin
Watson distinguishes between the founder’s vision of restoring a Christian
America and the more secular restorationism of Ralph Reed, the young
political operative who served as the organization’s first executive
director. Both rhetorical approaches served the Republican Party well,
bringing evangelicals into the fold via year-round grass-roots mobilization
and election-time voter guides that were widely distributed in conservative
churches around the country.
evangelicals traded in their premillennialism for postmillennialism—the
classic 19th-century Protestant conviction that Christ would come again
after good Christians had spent 1,000 years making the world a better
The answer was no. But
by re-sacralizing the American project, evangelical leaders softened the
harsh portrait of irreversible corruption that, according to classic
premillennialist thinking, doomed America to suffer the fate of the rest of
It thereby became
possible, for example, to adopt the teachings of dominionism, an explicitly
postmillennialist theology that accorded Christians a divine mandate to
control all social and cultural institutions, a God-given duty to claim
political power. Dominionist thinking drew heavily on the work of the
Calvinist theologian R.J. Rushdoony, who advocated the re-institution of Old
Testament law in modern society—a Christian “reconstruction” of politics and
law that would attest to God’s dominion over society and prepare the earth
for Christ’s return.
Dominionism has been the
source of some hyperbolic fears on the left—most recently during the past
election cycle, when Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann were reported to have
close associations with noted dominionists. There can be no doubt, however,
that it has played a significant role in the home schooling movement, and
among the professorial elite educating young evangelicals for positions of
power in American business and government. (See Seth Dowland, “The New
Dominionist Politics,” Religion in the News [Spring 2012]).
At the same time, by
formally holding on to premillennialist eschatology, evangelicals found
themselves committed to an image of America as their own beleaguered
Christian (or perhaps Judeo-Christian) domain—an ecclesial, even a familial
community of the saved.
It is worth noticing
that the progression of preeminent national religious right organizations
went from the Moral Majority to the Christian Coalition to Focus on the
Family. The last of these, founded by child psychologist James Dobson,
catapulted itself to the top by supplying evangelicals with instructions on
traditional child-rearing and that old-time domesticity.
When Dobson moved the
organization from Southern California to Colorado Springs in the 1991, it
joined Navigators, Young Life, the International Bible Society and nearly
100 other evangelical organizations there at the foot of Pike’s Peak. Some
have called it the Vatican of American evangelicalism, but as an evangelical
Zion, Colorado Springs is better thought of as the Salt Lake City.
What of the denizens of
Salt Lake itself? Just as, after the destruction of the Second Temple, the
rabbis of Palestine restored the religion of ancient Israel by replacing the
Temple cult with a set of elaborate rules and practices governing worship
and daily life, so in the latter part of the 20th century did LDS leaders
undertake to reestablish the distinctiveness of their faith tradition.
In The Angel and the
Beehive, sociologist Armand Mauss describes how the Mormons’
post-statehood adaptation to American society’s cultural and intellectual
norms gave way after World War II to a period of “renewal and retrenchment.”
In this “retrenchment Mormonism,” Mauss saw an effort to set the faithful
apart in five ways: renewed emphasis on continuous revelation through modern
prophets; a focus on temples, temple work, and genealogical research;
expansion and standardization of the missionary enterprise; family renewal;
and expansion of formal religious education in the service of parochial
This period of “renewal
and retrenchment” can best be seen as a revival of the restorationist
project that had suffered so serious a setback in the 1890s. Key elements
were a re-emphasis on the Book of Mormon, which centered the Mormon
experience on the redemptive American experience; and the practice of
Correlation, which, by establishing uniformity in religious practice,
ensured that an increasingly globalized church—the Mormon diaspora—could be
kept under control as a virtual geographic kingdom.
In one important
respect, this revived restorationism represented a departure from old-time
Mormon values. As is regularly pointed out with some glee by liberals, the
primitive LDS approach to economic life was communitarian if not
socialistic, with property held in common and a social welfare system
dedicated to taking care of those in need.
Nor did statehood, which
altered so much, make for a sea change in LDS economic philosophy. During
the New Deal, Utah’s Mormons were as likely to avail themselves of
government assistance programs as the citizens of any other state. It was
only after World War II that laissez-faire economics, accompanied by staunch
anti-Communism, began to spread among the Saints.
The key figures in the
shift were Ezra Taft Benson, the former Secretary of Agriculture in the
Eisenhower Administration who became president of the LDS Church in 1985;
Benson’s son Reed, an active member of the John Birch Society; Ernest
Wilkinson, president of Brigham Young University; and W. Cleon Skousen, a
sometime member of the BYU faculty who worked for the F.B.I. and later
served as chief of police in Salt Lake City.
By the 1970s, writes
Matthew Bowman in his new book, The Mormon People, Benson’s
“moralistic libertarianism had gained a vocal following in the church.”
Concurrently, LDS leaders Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce McConkie wrote
influential theological works that incorporated elements of Protestant
premillennialism into the traditional Mormon idea of the End Times.
Smith’s and McConkie’s
approach was adopted by Skousen in a series of popular books that made much
of the Book of Mormon’s sacralization of the American continent. In such
late works as The Majesty of God’s Law: It’s Coming to America and
The Cleansing of America, he went so far as to predict that
America would be reborn as a “Zion society” with the entire population
organized into Mormon wards and a restored Constitution that eliminated
political parties and popular voting for the president. The latter volume,
written in 1994 (though published posthumously only in 2010), portrayed an
America purged of wickedness and serving as a refuge for Mormons from around
the world while the rest of Planet Earth suffered through an End Times
scenario culminating in the Battle of Armageddon.
To be sure, Smith,
McConkie, and Skousen were not always in tune with what the top leadership
of the LDS church wanted, and from time to time they had to be reined in.
But at a popular level, their ideas proved difficult to control. Among other
things, they prepared the way for the restoration of Mormon political
unity—within the Republican Party.
Moving along parallel
lines, the ascendant restorationism of both evangelicals and Mormons must be
seen as a response to that raft of changes in American society conveniently
denominated “the Sixties”: the civil rights movement, the War on Poverty,
Medicare, Medicaid, women’s liberation, gay rights, abortion—to say nothing
of long hair, sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. The argument here is that these
social disturbances activated the restorationist gene in both religious
traditions—the way environmental factors interact with a genetic
predisposition to cause cancer in an individual.
Or, to switch metaphors,
both traditions had in their intellectual armories the conviction that
progress requires a return to an earlier, pristine time, and the belief that
the American project is intimately connected with such progress. Faced with
unwanted changes in society they were anxious to reverse, both reached for
the same weapons, and in Ronald Reagan found a politician who understood
where they were coming from.
Reagan’s favorite trope
came from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says to the disciples, “Ye are
the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”
Its source in American
rhetoric is the well-known shipboard address given by John Winthrop to the
same Puritan colonists who heard John Cotton’s injunction to recreate the
Primitive Church. In latter-day political discourse, it was first employed
by President-elect John F. Kennedy in a speech to the Massachusetts
legislature in 1961.
But Reagan made it his
watchword, using it in announcing his candidacy for president in 1979, in
accepting the Republican nomination in 1984, and in bidding farewell to the
nation in 1989. The image perfectly embodied his project of restoring
America after the country’s defeat in Vietnam and the so-called malaise of
the Carter years.
Being a city on a hill
meant serving as that “light unto the nations” that Isaiah identified as
Israel’s special role in the world and that the antebellum restorationists
had long since attributed to America. As Reagan put it in his 1979
announcement, “A troubled and afflicted mankind looks to us, pleading for us
to keep our rendezvous with destiny; that we will uphold the principles of
self-reliance, self-discipline, morality, and, above all, responsible
liberty for every individual that we will become that shining city on a
It’s important to
recognize is that this ideal was not grafted by Reagan onto his political
program as a mere rhetorical device. It was rooted in his own religious
Although Reagan’s father
was a Roman Catholic and his parents married in a Catholic church, his
mother had herself baptized into the Disciples of Christ the year before he
was born, and she brought him up in the church. At the age of only 11, he
decided that he was ready to be baptized as well—as the result (he later
recalled) of reading That Printer of Udell’s, a novel published in
1902 by a devout Disciple named Harold Bell Wright.
Written in the spirit of
Charles Monroe Sheldon’s 1897 best-seller In His Steps, That
Printer of Udell’s advances a conservative social gospel program of
helping the poor, but with distinctly Campbellite elements. It is laced with
criticism of doctrinal differences among the Protestant churches, and in
contrast to Sheldon’s focus on the regeneration of individuals, Wright is
concerned to show how Christ-like activity can make one’s community into a
model for others.
The story centers on
Boyd City, a prosperous Midwestern industrial town suffering from the ills
of urban life—alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. Thanks to the efforts of
two men, a noble journeyman printer of lower-class origins and the pastor of
“Jerusalem Church,” it is by the end of the novel transformed into “an
example to all the world, for honest manhood, civic pride and municipal
virtue.” Boyd City was, simply, Reagan’s first city on a hill.
The influence of the
Disciples did not cease after Reagan formally joined his hometown church as
a pre-adolescent. Ben Cleaver, the minister, became a kind of surrogate
father, giving him advice, teaching him to drive, and helping him get into
Eureka College, the Disciples’ institution of higher learning in Illinois.
Cleaver spoke of how deeply impressed his own father had been by hearing
Alexander Campbell give a speech in Missouri before the Civil War.
There can, in short, be
little doubt that Reagan’s adult worldview harked directly back to what
historian Joe Creech has termed the Disciples’ “unashamed city-on-the-hill
Nothing better expresses
the restorationist vision that Reagan brought to the 1980s than his famous
1984 campaign ad, “Morning in America,” which was expressly designed to
convey the idea that under him the nation had experienced a new beginning—or
more precisely, was re-experiencing its beginning: “It’s morning
again in America,” the voice-over intones. “Why would we ever want to return
to where we were, less than four short years ago.”
The restorationism of
the Reagan presidency was anything but one-dimensional. Along with
traditional social mores and old-time religion, it included a return to
19th-century capitalist ideology via deregulation, union-busting, and a
revived belief in “the magic of the market.” Nothing, however, was more
emblematic of the era than the embrace of constitutional originalism.
Originalism derived from
the plausible proposition that if the intent of the framers of the
Constitution were not taken seriously, then the document would amount to
little more than whatever a given Supreme Court wanted it to mean. So far as
conservatives were concerned, that was just the problem with the Court’s
determination that prescribed prayer and Bible reading in the public schools
violated the First Amendment and its discovery of a constitutional right of
privacy that guaranteed a woman’s right to obtain an abortion.
In 1985, the new
attorney general, long-time Reagan aide Edwin Meese, announced that the
administration would henceforth pursue a “jurisprudence of original
intention,” resurrecting “the original meaning” of constitutional
provisions—“the plain words as originally understood.”
To be sure, the
originalist jurisprudence of the 1980s was not an actual yearning for the
late 18th century. That was a time of slavery and indentured servitude, of
the taxation of religious dissidents to pay for the standing clergy of the
dominant faiths, that, Daniel Rodgers writes, “hardly resembled the early
1950s that the Warren Court’s critics actually yearned to restore.” Yet over
time, originalism would be used to make the case for such 19th-century
doctrines as the right of states to nullify federal laws, and even for a
return to the election of U.S. senators by state legislatures.
originalism strengthened belief in the sacrality of the Constitution—what
First Amendment scholar Sanford Levinson called “constitutional faith” in a
book of that name published in 1988. For Levinson, it made no sense to treat
the Constitution as the equivalent of the tablets vouchsafed by God to Moses
on Mt. Sinai. But a quarter century later, constitutional faith is stronger
The most conspicuous
restorationist movement in America over the past several years has been, of
course, the Tea Party. Its very name addresses a founding vision
of the country: patriotic
revolutionaries protesting taxes imposed
by an alien oppressor. In the restored version,
Democrats are the occupying force of Redcoats; President Obama, King George
early message of the Tea Party was that it
was a secular movement
concerned with taxation, not
religion. As surveys of the movement gradually made clear, however, Tea
Partiers were not the libertarian army they were first reported to be, but
for the most part the same foot soldiers who had made the religious right so
a force in the Republican Party. They included not only many evangelicals
but also a significant portion of the Mormon population—as evidenced by Sen.
Bob Bennett’s third-place finish behind two Tea Party candidates at Utah’s
GOP nominating convention in 2010.
spring of 2010, the allegedly
secular ideology of the Tea Party
had acquired a powerful theological spin, as conservative
media star Glenn Beck toured the country with David Barton, the evangelical
publicist devoted to demonstrating that America
had been founded as a Christian nation. This year’s strenuous literary
effort by Barton to reclaim Thomas Jefferson for Christianity, titled
Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson,
would have astonished
Jefferson’s contemporaries, to say nothing of the sage of Monticello
himself. Beck, who wrote the introduction, is himself a convert to Mormonism.
He has revived the
works of Skousen—or at
least ones like
The Five Thousand Year
Leap: 28 Great Ideas That Changed the World,
which soft-pedals distinctly Mormon messages. (Writes Beck in his forward,
“Promise me that you will read this book cover to cover in the next 30
days.”) The twenty-eighth great idea is: “The United States has a manifest
destiny to be an example
and a blessing to the entire human race.”
disguised sluicing of Mormon influences into today’s conservative movement
is an interesting phenomenon
in itself. Beck, for example, once aired an excerpt of an anti-Communist
speech by Ezra Taft Benson without so much as
mentioning that Benson had been president of his church. The neo-realist
painter Jon McNaughton has achieved viral fame for works such as “One Nation
Under God,” which shows Jesus standing
in front of a host of American worthies with a
copy of the Constitution as a group of ordinary
Americans look on piously from his right, and a collection of impious
elitists to his left turn away. But although he is a devout Mormon,
McNaughton does not advertise his religious identity.
Central to the restorationist project of the Tea
Party has been an explicit appeal to American exceptionalism. A concept
something like Reagan’s city on a hill and Skousen’s 28th great idea, it was
now pressed into service
against allegedly anti-exceptionalist Democrats
bent on inflicting their godless socialism on the country.
2010 Beck-Barton tour, billed as “American Revival,” had Beck telling his
audiences that they had been born to “save American
exceptionalism.” Over the past couple of years, Republican politicians
have come to believe that that’s indeed what they were born to do.
August of 2010, Mike Huckabee said, “To
deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of
Marco Rubio, the Tea
Party insurgent who succeeded in winning election to the U.S.
Senate from Florida, brought David Barton along with him to rallies around
the state where he campaigned on the promise to protect American
“To renew American
exceptionalism, we must recognize that our present
crisis is not merely
economic, but moral in nature,” Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana
the Economic Club of Detroit in November. “As we seek to build
national wealth, we must renew our commitment to the institutions that
nurture the character of our people—traditional family and religion.” In her
2010 book, America
Sarah Palin asked, “How do we embrace our exceptionalism at
home and abroad? How do we take this great awakening among the American
people and turn it into a positive force for reclaiming our country and our
The most enthusiastic
Republican exceptionalist proved to be Newt Gingrich. “President Obama’s
secular socialist philosophy is profoundly in conflict with the heart of the
American system and is a repudiation of the core lessons of American
history,” Gingrich told an audience at Liberty University in October of
2010, explaining that American exceptionalism was “a term which relates
directly to our unique assertion of an unprecedented set of rights granted
The following year,
Gingrich came out with A Nation Like No Other: Why American
Exceptionalism Matters, a book that systematically set out to make
exceptionalism work as a political wedge issue. While Americans “still
overwhelmingly believe in American Exceptionalism,” writes Gingrich, there
is a “determined group of radicals in the United States who outright oppose
One of their fellow travelers was Barack Obama, who was
judged woefully lukewarm when he declared at an overseas news conference
early in his presidency, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I
suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks
believe in Greek exceptionalism.” In his book, Gingrich allowed that since
that time the president had begun speaking as if he really did believe
America was exceptional. But speaking without acting to shrink the size of
government was not enough.
revolutionaries,” wrote Gingrich, “did not shed their blood for the welfare
state; nor did they aim to replace the arbitrary rule of King George and his
‘multitude of New Offices’ and ‘swarms of Officers,’ as stated in the
Declaration of Independence, with their own oppressive bureaucracy. Instead,
they fought for individual liberty—and that made America an exception among
all other nations.”
If Gingrich was the most
verbose, American exceptionalism did service on the lips of all the 2012
Republican presidential aspirants. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry regularly
appealed to it, as did Herman Cain, who in March 2011 published a short
manifesto in its defense in the American Spectator.
“We have a president
right now who thinks America’s just another nation,”
Mitt Romney declared at a debate in South Carolina.
“America is an exceptional nation.”
The extent to which
restorationism had embedded itself in the Republican Party was difficult to
Gingrich’s campaign book
ends with the lines: “The fight to renew America begins in 2012. I ask you
to join us in this effort to restore America as a nation like no other.” In
July of 2011, Rick Perry told the Western Conservative Summit in Denver,
“Let us restore the nation’s principles. If we don’t, who will? If not Now,
On October 1, 2011, Fox
News host Bill O’Reilly filed an application to trademark the slogan
“Restore the USA,” which his company quickly proceeded to affix to bumper
stickers, keychains, mugs, t-shirts, and jackets.
Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign
slogan was “Restore America Now”; his platform, the “Restore America Plan.”
Amazon had on offer a “Michele Bachmann for President” pin that read,
“Restoring constitutional conservative values.”
As for the 2012
Republican Party Platform, its first two sections were titled “Restoring the
American Dream: Rebuilding the Economy and Creating Jobs” and “We The
People: A Restoration of Constitutional Government.” “Restore” and its
cognates appeared no fewer than 21 times in the text of the document. The
title of the last section? “American Exceptionalism.”
And then there was the
name of Mitt Romney’s Super-PAC: “Restore Our Future.” In a New York
Times Magazine article in July, Bill Burton, the former Obama aide who
was in charge of the president’s Super-PAC, expressed frustration that the
Republicans had registered every conceivable PAC name for themselves.
“Romney’s Restore Our Future—that doesn’t even make
sense,” Burton said. “That’s probably why they were able to get it.” But
“Restore Our Future” made perfect sense if you recognize that for Mormons
and evangelicals alike, restoration has everything to do with bringing about
the future you want to happen. It is the millennial expectation that lies at
the heart of American restorationism.
As Romney put it after
laying out a portrait of an idealized American past at the end of his
nomination acceptance speech: “If I am elected President of these United
States, I will work with all my energy and soul to restore that America, to
lift our eyes to a better future.”
Republicanism had a strong religious dimension was evident enough.
Televangelist James Robison, who helped preside over the launching of the
national religious right three decades ago, concluded his 2012 book,
Indivisible: Restoring Faith, Family, and Freedom Before It’s Too Late,
with a plea for “the renewal of our culture and the restoration of our
nation.” In October, Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, whose slogan
is “Restoring America’s Greatness & Founding Principles,” sent out a “Dear
Fellow Christian” email that read:
“If you believe that the
United States of America was founded by God to be a beacon of light to a
darkened world, then don’t let this opportunity go by without signing up to
Get Out the Vote on November 6, 2012. We need you to stand in the gap to
restore this country and this government to our founding principles. If we
put God first and turn to Him again, we will be restored to our rightful
place as a leader to the world.”
In August, Rep. Todd
Akin won the Republican senatorial primary in Missouri with strong backing
from religious conservatives, including a campaign ad by David Barton. Like
Barton, Akin had long been committed to the view that the founding fathers
were deeply religious Christians who expected the country they established
to remain so.
In 2009, he made a video
for an online evangelical ministry calling on Americans to emulate the
Pilgrims in using the Bible as a “blueprint” for economics, education, and
government. He is well known in Missouri for donning colonial garb to host
annual Fourth of July picnics at his home.
“This campaign is about
reclaiming our God-given values, rebuilding the American Dream, and
restoring the America we love,” he declared in his victory speech after his
primary victory. “This is our call. This is our vision.”
It is important to
understand that restorationism is a vision, not a political theory or
an economic ideology. To ask a Todd Akin how he can believe both in
preventing the government from regulating the economy and in enabling it to
enforce moral values is beside the point.
“Restoring the America
we love” has everything to do with bringing back a world we have
(supposedly) lost. To be sure, restorationists are not the only Americans
called to a vision of the future. But the vision has special force when it
is also a dream of the past.
Recognizing that the
conservative movement of our time is restorationist helps explain its
strength, longevity, and diversity. If the 1980s had merely been a nostalgic
reaction to “the Sixties,” the movement would have played itself out a long
time ago. But because it draws on a deep-seated religious tradition, it has
lasted longer than any multi-issue political movement in American history.
Just as in the
antebellum period, the new restorationism is capable of accommodating
strange bedfellows. That is why evangelicals and Mormons, theological
adversaries and competitive proselytizers though they are, have been able to
associate their futures so readily in the same political party.
Lest any of his
co-religionists thought otherwise, Franklin Graham devoted his October
column in the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s magazine to the
question, “Can an evangelical Christian vote for a Mormon?”
“We need something like
what Jerry Falwell did in the 1980s,” wrote Graham. “We need a ‘moral
majority’—made up of Christians, Jews, Mormons, Catholics and many others of
faith—to come together to take a stand for our religious freedoms and
“In recent days,
President Clinton said that President Obama ‘has a plan to rebuild America
from the ground up.’ But God-fearing Americans have no desire to see America
rebuilt—but rather restored. To ‘rebuild it’ would be to create a new nation
without God or perhaps under many gods. This was never the intent of those
who shed their blood for the freedom to worship as ‘one nation under God.’
“I pray that all
Christians and God-fearing Americans, will put aside labels and vote for
principles—God’s principles—that for many years have resulted in His
blessing upon our nation.
“So, can a Christian
vote for a Mormon? My answer is yes.”
Thus could a
21st-century Mormon become the agent of the restorationist hopes of American
evangelicals. How well the new restorationism would survive the 2012
election, however, was another question.
With the defeat of Mitt
Romney by a demographic coalition that seemed like an ascendant majority,
conservatives were seized with a sense that the country was moving
inexorably away from its god-fearing, free-market past. Hopes disappointed,
hundreds of thousands of citizens signed petitions to the White House asking
that their states be allowed to go off on their own.
“We do not want to
secede from the Union to destroy the republic,” conservative radio host Alex
Jones declared November 15, “but to restore it.”
restorationist dreams die hard.