Evan McMullin is running for president of the United States. A Mormon from Utah, a former CIA undercover agent, he represents what the Republican Party ought to look like this year but does not. Convinced, like many of his co-religionists, that Donald Trump is a disgrace, he speaks with quiet confidence about restoring dignity and respect to American conservatism.
So far he’s on the ballot in just eleven states, and showing most strongly in the Rocky Mountains. He may actually win in the Mormon stronghold of Utah. He’s just forty years old and his running mate, Mindy Finn, a Jewish high-tech entrepreneur and conservative feminist, is only 36. They won’t win the whole thing, of course, but they’re enjoying themselves by telling the truth and deploring Trump and Clinton with equal vigour.
Among all the normally solid Republican voting groups, the Mormons have shown the strongest aversion to Trump. One of their own, Mitt Romney, was the Republican candidate in 2012, exhibiting most of the typical Mormon attributes of hard work, sobriety, and prosperity, while espousing traditional family values. Trump, in their view, represents a horrible decline. Their church-owned newspaper, the Deseret News, recently condemned the ‘hucksterism, misogyny, narcissism and latent despotism that infect the Trump campaign’. A Utah congressman said, after the release of the notorious groping tape, that he would be unable to look his fifteen-year-old daughter in the eye ever again if he continued to support Trump.
Ironically, McMullin has more political experience than Trump, who’s never worked in government and never run in any election. McMullin served as a CIA officer in Jordan and other middle-eastern countries, then became a Republican foreign-policy advisor on Capitol Hill. He’s savvy about the benefits of free trade, has a nuanced (as opposed to rabble-rousing) approach to immigration reform, and favours lower income taxes. On the other hand, he’s still a virtual unknown, with zero name-recognition in most of the Eastern states. His shoestring funding, a few thousand dollars here and there, is almost comically insufficient side-by-side with the tens of millions pouring into the major parties’ treasure chests.
It makes sense that the challenge should come from Utah. Mormon history is chock full of suffering and conflict in the name of an unbending faith. The most distinctive of all religions started in the USA, its full name is the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. It began when an upstate New York farm-boy named Joseph Smith was visited by the angel Moroni in 1823. Moroni gave Smith a set of golden tablets whose writings, when translated into English from ‘Reformed Egyptian’, comprised the Book of Mormon. The book tells of how Jesus, after his life, death, and resurrection in Roman Palestine, lived again in America, where an ancient civilisation thrived.
The early Mormons, polygamists, hated and reviled by their neighbours, moved repeatedly to escape persecution. When Smith was killed by an Illinois lynch-mob in 1844 his successor, Brigham Young, groom to fifty-one brides, vowed he would lead them to a place where they would never be molested again. He chose the edge of the Great Salt Lake, a blisteringly hot, dry, arid, and seemingly dead land. Through fanatical hard work, and under Young’s stern theocratic tutelage, the Mormons created Salt Lake City, an irrigated oasis that has thrived now for 170 years.
Abandoning polygamy in 1890, the Latter Day Saints proceeded to convert themselves into ultra-patriotic, ultra-conservative Americans. Wholesome, virtuous, and philanthropic, they offer individuals special religious duties at every stage of the life cycle. Young men, either just before or just after college, are expected to undertake missionary work, at their own or their families’ expense, for two years. (McMullin, the presidential candidate, spent two years after high school in southern Brazil, learning Portuguese and trying to convert the local people.) As a result, many of them get to know people from different parts of the world, making them sensitive to the plight of refugees and war-victims rather than xenophobic.
Teenagers, before their missions begin, participate in vicarious baptisms, in which they temporarily take on the identity of now-deceased non-Mormons, in order that these souls can aspire to enter Heaven. The practice caused ill feeling in the early 1990s when Mormon teens were surrogates for Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust and for its perpetrators: not only Anne Frank but Adolf Hitler too was given a Mormon baptism in this way.
The church places an extraordinarily high value on family life, and organizes most of its events around families. Birth rates are high, big families common, and divorce rates low. Church membership requires the donation of ten per cent of pre-tax annual income to the church, which runs a comprehensive welfare system for its less fortunate members. Abstemious, eschewing coffee, tea, tobacco, and all other stimulants, Mormons are repaid with greater longevity than the rest of the American population—an extra seven or eight years each, on average.
Mormonism demands complete commitment from its members—in that respect it’s at the opposite pole from the lukewarm Church of England. Latter Day Saints are either all the way in, or all the way out—there are no half-measures. Drop outs are shunned, and the memoirs of disillusioned ex-Mormons are a familiar staple of American literary history.
Still, it’s difficult in October 2016 not to admire the Mormons’ principled abandonment of Donald Trump and their gathering behind McMullin. That’s particularly true since they must know they’re increasing the chance that Hillary Clinton will win, a candidate whose pro-choice, big-government principles most of them deplore. McMullin himself speaks of throwing off the incubus of bureaucracy, of restoring liberty, and of taking seriously the rights of America’s diverse minority groups.
By a quirk of the electoral system, it is technically possible that McMullin could become the next president. If neither of the major candidates achieves a majority and McMullin wins Utah, the election would have to be decided by the House of Representatives, a contingency that was only ever put to the test once, back in 1828. If the Congressmen, disliking both the major candidates, sought a compromise figure, McMullin would be that man—eligible because his Utah victory would have given him at least a few votes in the all-important electoral college. He’s too level-headed, and has too firm a grip on reality, to think it’s actually going to happen, but the possibility keeps hope alive among his faithful followers.
The Republican loser from 2012, Mitt Romney, could probably do more to make this fantasy come true than anyone else. If he made a strong statement in support of McMullin (something he’s hitherto failed to do), he would sway tens of thousands of Utah voters. He made a scorching denunciation of Trump in March, but party loyalty, and concern for the prospects of his politically ambitious son, have kept him out of the McMullin camp.