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Onward, Mormon soldiers (continued)

OF COURSE, in their attempts to shape public policy from a faith-based point of view, Mormon leaders and rank-and-file believers are hardly unique. For example, most conservative Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants vehemently oppose abortion, gay marriage, and stem-cell research. During the 2004 presidential campaign, the US Catholic bishops created and distributed a nominally nonpartisan voter guide for the Catholic electorate; fundamentalist Protestants are also old hands at the voter-education game. (The LDS Church’s official position on abortion is relatively liberal: it opposes abortion, but makes an exception for rape and for danger to the mother’s health.)

The difference is, Mormons do it better. According to J. Quin Monson and David Campbell — professors at Brigham Young University (BYU) and Notre Dame, respectively, and Mormons both — the Latter-day Saints are the political equivalent of "dry kindling." The demands made on individual Mormons by their culture, Monson and Campbell claim, give them an unusually high aptitude for political activism.

To make their case, the professors cite a lengthy list of distinctive Mormon traits and habits. First, the overwhelming majority of Mormons vote consistently for Republicans; in 2000, for example, 88 percent of Mormons voted for George W. Bush. (Among other observant white Christian evangelicals, the number was 84 percent.) In addition to voting as a bloc, Mormons make greater sacrifices for their faith than members of many other religions do. The typical adult Mormon spends three hours in Sunday services; complements this with periodic worship in Church temples, which fulfills obligations that Sunday worship does not; visits a pre-established network of congregation members each month to discuss their satisfaction with the Church; and volunteers in some other capacity for his or her congregation. (One study found that 60 percent of Mormons volunteer annually for a church-related group, compared to 36 percent of Southern Baptists and 27 percent of Catholics.)

The list goes on. While the LDS Church is intensely hierarchical, its members are intimately involved in its day-to-day functioning; Monson and Campbell cite statistics showing that 53 percent of Mormons reported giving a speech or presentation at church in the past half-year, compared to 14 percent of Southern Baptists and four percent of Catholics. On top of that, most males also spend two years as missionaries just as they enter adulthood, journeying far from home to plug their faith to an often-hostile audience. Then there’s the unusually rigorous Mormon tithing guideline, which instructs adults to donate 10 percent of their income to the LDS Church. (In contrast, the Catholic Church asks adherents only to contribute to its upkeep; the average Catholic giving rate is about 1.5 percent.)

Imagine how all this might play out in the 2008 presidential campaign. The stock method for predicting a given demographic group’s electoral impact is to look at its presence in key states. By this standard, it’s not clear how influential Mormon voters would be in the Republican primaries. The Latter-day Saints grew at a remarkable 20 percent clip in the 1990s and are now the nation’s fourth-largest religious group, but they’re still underrepresented in Iowa and South Carolina and barely register in New Hampshire. In several states with larger Mormon populations — such as Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and Washington — the Saints could be a major factor in the general election. However, they scarcely show up in classic battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.

But this framework underestimates the potential of the Mormon electorate. Of the 5.5 million Mormons in America, suppose only 50 percent are regular churchgoers — a conservatively low estimate — and then adjust for children, who won’t be voting. At a minimum, this leaves one million practicing Mormon adults who — according to an index devised by Monson and Campbell — are significantly more likely to be politically involved than their Catholic and Southern Baptist counterparts. These one million would give Romney a ready-made fundraising base heading into the campaign. If they gave an average of $100 to the Romney-for-President Committee, the governor would have a quick $100 million — a healthy chunk of the war chest he’d need to run a competitive campaign. And given Mormon tithing habits, they might well give more: Mormons tend to be affluent, and to give larger amounts to their church — and with greater frequency — than Southern Baptists and Catholics do. (Monson and Campbell found that 22 percent of Mormons give more than $5000 for church-related causes annually; nine percent of Southern Baptists and two percent of Catholics do likewise.)

Furthermore, imagine the Mormon community’s untapped value as a nascent campaign organization. Start, once again, with one million committed adult Mormons. If just one in 50 were willing to travel to a couple of high-value states to knock on doors or make phone calls for Romney — not an implausible figure, given the long-standing Mormon missionary obligation, and the examples of their civic involvement in the ERA and gay-marriage battles — he’d have a volunteer army of 20,000. And these wouldn’t be the chronic volunteers or wide-eyed college kids who labored for liberal candidates like Howard Dean and John Kerry last year. More often than not, they would be mature, successful, persuasive individuals used to taking orders, working as a team, and persuading the unpersuadable.

In other words, they’d be a force to be reckoned with.

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