After Encouraging Conservatism for Decades, LDS Leaders Struggle to Get Mormons VaccinatedRoundup
tags: conservatism, mormons, religious history, Latter Day Saints, COVID-19
Benjamin E. Park is the editor of A Companion to American Religious History (Blackwell), co-editor of Mormon Studies Review and assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University. His award-winning book, Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier, is now out in paperback.
On Aug. 12, the presiding quorum for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — its governing body — strongly urged members to wear face masks in public meetings and get vaccinated. “We find ourselves fighting a war against the ravages of COVID-19 and its variants,” they pronounced, and “we want to do all we can to limit the spread of these viruses.”
The statement followed President Russell M. Nelson, the top LDS leader, publicizing his vaccination in January, encouraging the faithful to follow his example and be “good global citizens.”
These moves expose both the widespread vaccine hesitancy and general skepticism toward anti-virus measures throughout the LDS community. Less than half of eligible residents of Utah, where members constitute a majority of the population, are fully vaccinated, placing the state in the lower half of the nation. One study revealed that 33 percent of Mormons were vaccine hesitant, with another 17 percent refusing the vaccine altogether.
This skepticism, despite encouragement from LDS leaders in the typically hierarchical religion, stems from Latter-day Saints’ embrace of political and religious conservatism in the wake of World War II. Outspoken leaders pushing Republican values, widespread anti-communism that increased distrust in the federal government and regional backlash to both the civil rights movement and the liberal factions of the culture wars helped drive this conversion.
Latter-day Saints joined with other religious communities, especially “fundamentalists,” in rejecting what became known as the liberal consensus. Distrustful of big government, skeptical of the modern academy and disgusted with what they believed to be a lack of moral standards, these religious White Americans rejected “secular” truths from history, biology, psychology and other fields of knowledge, and instead created their own institutions and colleges that prioritized fundamentalist values and ideas.
This matrix through which this conservative, religious coalition views the world enables them to summarily and efficiently dismiss arguments that don’t match their beliefs.
The first sphere in which Mormons drew from their evangelical contemporaries to combat secular knowledge was in biblical studies and evolution. “So far as the philosophy and wisdom of the world are concerned,” one apostle, Joseph Fielding Smith, trumpeted in a 1954 anti-Darwin book, “they mean nothing unless they conform to the revealed word of God.” A few years later, Smith’s son-in-law, the prominent author Bruce R. McConkie, published “Mormon Doctrine,” a hefty compendium that was designed to be the definitive overview of the faith. “How scrubby and groveling the intellectual,” the section on evolution proclaimed, “which finds comfort in the theoretical postulates that mortal life began in the scum of the sea.” The book became one of the most influential for modern Mormonism.