McMullinmentum!

Photographer: George Frey

Utah Is the Political Conscience of the Nation

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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An extraordinary poll released Wednesday showed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump both losing in Utah to Evan McMullin, a conservative Mormon ex-CIA officer only on the ballot in 11 states.

The best explanation for the rise of this independent candidate is that Mormons, who tend to have deeply conservative values, are genuinely repulsed by Donald Trump. And not just by the crude comments and allegations of sexual assault that recently came to light, but also by Trump’s anti-Muslim sentiment, which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints implicitly condemned 10 months ago.

Mormons’ moral consistency has been striking when compared with other religious Republicans. Values evangelicals like the Family Research Council have continued to support Trump despite the mounting evidence that he doesn’t share their ethical or religious values. Some have tried suggesting he’s had a Christian conversion -- but there’s no indication that he’s undergone a spiritual transformation from the man he has been for the last three or four decades.

The LDS church is not a Johnny-come-lately to condemnation of Trump. In December 2015, after Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., the church issued a pointed statement on the importance of religious liberty.

The first paragraph made it pretty clear that it was aimed at Trump: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in regard to party politics and election campaigns,” it read. “However, it is not neutral in relation to religious freedom.” Then, the church went on to quote an ordinance passed by the city of Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1841, when the prophet Joseph Smith was on the city council. The ordinance extended equal religious liberty to a long list of denominations -- including “Mohammedans,” which the church statement helpfully glossed as “Muslims” lest there be any confusion.

Mitt Romney, the most prominent Mormon in national politics, called Trump a “fraud” in March, and announced in June that his conscience wouldn’t let him vote for the nominee. And Romney hasn’t wavered.

And more recently, the church-owned Deseret News, which hadn't endorsed a presidential candidate in 80 years, called for Trump to resign his candidacy after the revelations of his boasting about groping women to Billy Bush. The editorial quoted scripture to reject partisan loyalty: “The belief that the party and the platform matter more than the character of the candidate ignores the wisdom of the ages that, ‘when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.’ (Proverbs 29:2).”

You don’t have to agree with the sentiment to be impressed by it. There’s a word for this moral non-hypocrisy: It’s called sincerity. And it deserves to be acknowledged.

The proof is in the polling. No Democrat has won Utah since 1964, and Hillary Clinton still may not win the state -- because most Mormons don’t agree with her on a range of policy issues. She drew 24 percent in the Emerson College poll of likely voters released Wednesday -- most likely from the 40 percent of Utah’s population that isn't Mormon. The poll, with a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points, actually put McMullin in the lead. He may do still better in the general election as more people find out who he is.

Maybe McMullin can win the state as a protest candidate who embodies Mormon values. But it almost doesn’t matter whether that happens or whether Clinton wins a plurality after McMullin, Trump and libertarian Gary Johnson split the anti-Clinton vote. Just the reality of widespread disgust at Trump should make us realize that somewhere in this land, there are people who actually act on what they believe. For Trump to lose Utah would be a tiny sliver of moral redemption for the rest of us.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net