I will handle this topic as gently as I can. In this post I wonder whether Mormons who choose to leave the church are disproportionately likely to lean left politically. As most of you know, I’m a political conservative, so I’m afraid this topic will make some readers defensive. That is not my intention. It would be easier to treat this subject delicately were someone else — someone who’s left of center — to raise it. (Only Nixon could go to China; only Bill Cosby could chastise black parents.) Anyway, let me emphatically say from the outset that I know someone can be a Democrat and a good member of the church. I know many of you are loyal members of the church and lean left politically. I know those of you who lean left are as faithful as any other members. None of what I’ve written below implies otherwise.
The sensitive stuff starts here: Of the few people I know who have deliberately left the church, they have all been political liberals. For the three years I attended Harvard Law School, there were about 60 Mormon students whose time there overlapped mine (about 12 students per year). I probably knew 45 of them. I’d guess the political affiliation of the Mormon students was about 2 to 1 in favor of right-leaners, which means I knew approximately 30 right-leaners and 15 left-leaners.
Five of the Mormon students at HLS left the church. I know that three of them — all returned-missionaries — had their names formally removed. The other two no longer affiliate with the church, but I don’t know if they are still on the records. (It’s a question I don’t plan to ask.) For whatever reason, all five — three men and two women — were among the 15 left-leaners. I would also guess that their political intensity was higher than the average Mormon HLS student.
The odds against this pattern occurring randomly (all five students being from 15 out of 45) is 407 to 1.
My only friend from high school (also an RM) who no longer affiliates with the church is also a politically active left-leaner.
A selection of essays in Sunstone last year, Why We Stay, suggests my personal experiences aren’t coincidental. Five prominent Sunstone members were invited to explain their reasons for remaining active in the church. I assume that the title was inspired by the book Why We Believe; a collection of testimony-essays written by well-known Mormons like Steve Young and Orrin Hatch. Anyway, four of the five Sunstone essayists, all of whom have held responsible church callings, mention liberal politics in their short essays about why they remain in the church.
Essay 2: we attended the “liberal” Sunday School class . . . I was concerned about moving to a more conservative Church environment . . . we enjoyed the association of liberal Mormons
Essay 3: I stay in spite of listening to a brother giving the lesson about humility in our high priests group who says, “Why, even in our Republican Party, we occasionally make a mistake.” “Mistake, thy name is legion,” I mutter under my breath . . . You may believe I’m made of such stern stuff that on returning home after such experiences, I never rant or rave. You would be wrong.
Essay 4: My parents stressed the importance. . . to think critically, be concerned about the well-being of others, work in the community — in other words, be good, committed Democrats.
Essay 5: A fellow high priest . . . recently asserted that what annoyed him more than anything else were “liberals.” I found occasion then to take him aside and let him know that how he feels about the view of liberals exactly mirrors my equally strong feelings about those of political conservatives . . . I like to confront ultra-conservatives these days — who you can count on being both anti-abortion and anti-gun control — with the conundrum: “Which then is your preferred form of murder?”
[I was surprised by my friend’s call to be a mission president because he] “incurred considerable displeasure from various ultra-orthodox conservatives” and had “dubious political correctness.”
Why do these conflicted Mormons dwell so much on their political beliefs? I haven’t read Why We Believe, but I can’t imagine many of the writers mention their political beliefs in their testimonies.
Here are some possible explanations for why the people I’ve known who’ve chosen to leave the church are politically-active left-leaners:
1) there is no correlation between politics and leaving the church, you’ve projected your views on to the data
2) there is no correlation between politics and leaving the church, but it appears that way because left-leaners have the courage to leave openly, whereas right-leaners go inactive quietly
3) left-leaners leave the church because the church imposes a double standard when dealing with them. Were they right-leaners, they wouldn’t be pressured out of the church
3) left-leaners are alienated by other Mormons for their unpopular political views and therefore have weaker social ties
4) personality traits that cause one to lean-left (i.e., skepticism of authority) make left-leaners more likely to resent or question church
5) influence of political peers — political left is less religious, so those who associate with political left are more exposed to unbelievers
6) Mormon principles coincide with conservative principles, so people who reject one set of principles are more likely to reject the other
Let me again stress that I know that most left-leaning Mormons are exceptionally devout and loyal church members. Good people can have very different views about the proper roll of government and still be good people. Everyone must be on best manners in the comments.
If there is a correlation between political opinions and leaving the church, what should the church do? What should right-leaners do? What should left-leaners do?
Several of the early comments note that my sample size is very small and wonder if that isn’t the best explanation for my experience. Here is some information that suggests that in law school I was merely witnessing the extreme end of a general trend: The question from the 2000 Voter News Survey exit poll that best predicted whether someone voted for Bush or Gore was how many times the person attended religious services each month. Bush support went from a high of 63 to 36 percent among weekly attenders, down to a low of 32 to 61 percent among those who never attend religious services. Religious attendance was more predictive than race, gender, income or religious affiliation. So unless Mormons run against this dominant national trend, the less frequently a Mormon attends church, the more likely they are to lean left.