Phyllis Schlafly and the Modern Mormon Political Image

(Yes, I know, Phyllis Schafly wasn’t Mormon. But bear with me.)

News leaked out yesterday that Schlafly, one of the most prominent figures of America’s Religious Right, passed away at the age of 92. There will be plenty of excellent historians who will explain her significance to America’s political history. (That is, if there are any American political historians left. Sigh.) When I taught Religion and American Politics we spent an entire week dissecting Schlafly and the religious opposition to the ERA; it was one of the most vibrant discussions of the semester. I am looking forward to covering her in my American religious history class later this fall.

But I just wanted to say a few words about Schlafly’s importance to the history of modern Mormon conservatism. It is well known that a number of LDS leaders were both sympathetic to and involved with the rise of the Religious Right. Most notably, Ezra Taft Benson was a prominent John Bircher, and he helped articulate a Mormon political theology that was steeped in both the Culture Wars and anti-communism. Mormon Utah mostly followed the political and demographic trends, with important distinctions, with the American South during the second half of the twentieth century. But in general, the Mormon political voice remained predominantly elite and male.[1]

What changed this was the Church’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The ERA, which seemed destined to passage during the early 1970s, ended up losing in the wake of an immense conservative backlash that was driven by prominent members of the Religious Right, especially Schlafly who was the most vocal spokeswoman. Mormon leaders spoke out against the amendment as well, and volunteers from local congregations were bused out to conventions and rallies to assure its demise. While modern historians and liberal Mormons alike typically look to this moment as a turning point toward Mormon conservative mobilization, it should be noted that the anti-ERA protest provided a venue for LDS women to participate in the political arena—something that had otherwise been forfeited in an age when the Church’s renewed patriarchal structure relegated them to the domestic sphere. In a sense, Schlafly provided a model through which Mormon women could engage—and influence!—the partisan world while retaining their conservative, domestic credentials. It’s one of the great ironies that Schlafly and the anti-ERA movement embodied the very type of gendered expansion their actions sought to stifle.[2]

Even more, Phyllis Schlafly and the anti-ERA proponents provided the discourse for Mormons to translate their conservative beliefs into an efficient political vehicle that was effective in the modern political age. The same lessons learned during those late-1970s battles—namely, the identification of a “moral issue” theoretically outside the realm of a partisan divide—provided the foundation for later political battles, most notably those over same-sex marriage starting in the 1990s and through Obergefell last year. The local mobilization, organization based at ward levels while following instructions from higher up, led to a number of victories at the voting booth. In that way, Schlafly’s fingerprints were also over Proposition-8 in 2008. And though she is now gone, her shadow will likely still be seen for quite some time.[3]

_____________________

[1] See Gregory A. Prince, “The Red Peril, the Candy Maker, and the Apostle: David O. McKay’s Confrontation with Communism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 37, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 37-94; Patrick Q. Mason, “Ezra Taft Benson and Modern (Book of) Mormon Conservatism,” in Patrick Mason and John Turner, eds., Out of Obscurity: Mormonism Since 1945 (Oxford UP, 2016): 63-80. For the general transformation of the period, see David E. Campbell, John C. Green, and J. Quin Monson, Seeking the Promised Land: Mormonism and American Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[2] The general history of Mormonism’s opposition to the ERA is Martha Bradley-Evans, Pedestals and Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority, and Equal Rights (Signature Books, 2005). For the anti-ERA movement given Mormon women a political voice, see Neil J. Young, “‘The ERA is a Moral Issue’: The Mormon Church, LDS Women, and the Defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment,” American Quarterly 59, no. 3 (September 2007): 623-644.

[3] For the connection between the ERA and Proposition 8, see Joanna Brooks, “On the ‘Underground’: What the Mormon ‘Yes on 8’ Campaign Reveals About the Future of Mormons in American Political Life,” in Randall Ballmer and Jana Riess, eds., Mormonism and American Politics (Columbia University Press, 2008), 192-209); Neil J. Young, “Mormons and Same-Sex Marriage: From ERA to Prop 8,” in Mason and Turner, eds., Out of Obscurity, 144-169.

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