Editor's note: This article from commentator Boyd Matheson is a response to Taylor G. Petrey's recent piece "The failures of Mormon conservativism." These opinion articles are part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.
The Deseret News recently published an op-ed by Taylor Petrey, a visiting associate professor at Harvard Divinity School. Petrey offered a rather abstract and mildly manipulative set of musings about the failures of Mormon conservatism. While his seemingly sophisticated arguments would likely score points in an academic echo chamber, the realities show he has clearly missed the mark. The proof of Mormon conservatism’s success is not to be found in debate halls or philosophical academic journals, but in the human flourishing and functional communities it has fostered in the place where it has had its fullest application: Utah.
Petrey claims Mormon conservatism is a political failure. Mormon conservatism in Utah has produced unparalleled political success with practical, balanced solutions to social problems that are paralyzing the political class everywhere else. Utah is where significant reforms have not just been hypothesized or hyped but actually delivered and enacted. On critical issues including immigration, LGBT equality and religious freedom, Mormon conservatism has been able to incorporate the strongest aspects of views from across the spectrum to create meaningful solutions.
During the 2016 presidential election cycle, national and international press flocked to Utah in an attempt to understand why citizens seemed to reject what both of the candidates from the major political parties were promoting. What the press discovered was a society that favored a more functional type of conservative politics. Mormon conservatism in Utah has unleashed a strong free-market economy and parlayed the robust institutions of civil society into something powerful. Mormon conservatism’s success was also recognized by the fact that federal elections are less consequential to Utahns’ lives because the federal government is less consequential in Utahns’ lives.
According to the Family Prosperity Index (FPI), Utah is producing the most stable and secure homes for women and children in America and leads the nation in bringing economic prosperity into families, neighborhoods and communities. The fruit of this kind of conservatism also lands Utah at the top of the upward mobility chart, according to a Harvard study, with the highest rates for children in poverty being able to climb the economic ladder into the middle and upper classes. Utah also boasts the nation’s top economy and lowest unemployment and is at or near the top for charitable giving, volunteerism and quality of life, just to name a few. Further, the principles of Mormon conservatism are driving innovative reforms to criminal justice, such as those proposed by Sen. Mike Lee and transformational training programs for those trapped in the penal system like those espoused by The Other Side Academy.
Mormon conservatism should never be conflated or equated to the platform of the Republican Party or any other political party. In the same way, compassion for the poor, caring for the homeless or empowering those who are neglected or discriminated against in society should not be contorted to be the equivalent of the Democratic Party. While Utah is primarily a one-party state, when it comes to Mormon conservatism oneness is definitely not sameness. Mormon conservatism is actually at its best when it promotes big ideas and facilitates open, honest and elevated debates on public policy.
Mormon conservatism recognizes that government does play a role in caring for the most vulnerable among us and that individual citizens and private organizations play equally vital roles. Mormon conservatism also knows from experience that the closer necessary care and services are to the people in need, the more likely they will be to make such circumstances temporary instead of tolerable.
Mormons do have a history of being maligned, persecuted and robbed of their rights for their uniquely unified politics. But that political unity is just one part of what makes Utah such a wonderfully peculiar phenomenon to the world. Mormon conservatism has baked into it a fundamental understanding of what it is like to be attacked and marginalized as a political and social outsider, and we know the solution to such attacks is not to attack back, but to go to work voluntarily improving the lives of people and showing the world how our social — and political — values build strong communities, families and economies.
Utah is far from perfect, but as a laboratory of democracy it is doing exceptionally well. Mormon conservatism will continue to be a certain trumpet out to the world on principles and policies that produce real results. Utah will continue to provide a window in where the world can come and see those conservative principles in action.