By Howard Berkes
When Gallup pollsters looked back in aggregate at last year's daily surveys, they found evidence of something many had already concluded.
Mormons, the surveys indicate, are more conservative than members of other major religious groups.
This is no surprise given significant Mormon involvement in Proposition 8, the ballot measure in California that banned gay marriage. Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rallied members in support of the measure and thousands responded by volunteering time and contributing millions of dollars.
Mormon leaders also campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970's and other initiatives since seeking to liberalize gambling, gay marriage and abortion.
"Although it is assumed that Mormons are conservative," Gallup reports on its website, "their relatively small numbers in the U.S.... make routine survey analysis of their political and ideological leanings difficult."
And there are liberal Mormon Democrats, such as Senate Majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who confound the conventional wisdom.
But an analysis of Gallup's daily 2009 surveys, which included 350,000 respondents, provides statistical evidence. The surveys also included 5,819 interviews with people who identified themselves as Mormons.
Fifty nine percent of the Mormon respondents labeled themselves conservative. That compares to 46% for Protestants (including non-Catholic Christians) and 39% for Catholics. Jews, Muslims and agnostics were the most liberal and moderate respondents.
Burrow down into the numbers further and Mormons top the "very conservative" category (16%) and scrape the bottom of the "very liberal" barrel (one percent).
Another Gallup analysis found close to two-thirds of Mormons identify themselves as Republicans, almost 20 points higher than any other major religious group.
Now, Gallup lumps all non-Catholic Christian denominations in the Protestant group and it's certainly possible that some Protestant denominations or sub-groups might come close to the conservatism rate among Mormons.
But the findings are a challenge for Mormon leaders, who are officially non-partisan but wade into politics when moral issues are at stake. In the 1890's, Mormons were so overwhelmingly Democratic, "church leaders encouraged some to take up the Republican banner," according to Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton, in The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints."
Arrington and Bitton add a bit of "folklore" that had Mormon "bishops standing before their congregations and assigning the right half of the chapel to one party and the left to the other."
Nearly 100 years later, in 1974, Mormon Apostle Ezra Taft Benson was asked if it was possible to be both a good Mormon and a liberal Democrat. John Heinerman and Anson Shupe reported the response in The Mormon Corporate Empire. "I think it would be very hard," Benson replied, "if he was living the gospel and understood it."
Today, Republicans are so dominant in Utah politics, the Democratic caucus in the state Senate could meet in a minivan.
These lopsided conservative and Republican numbers make it difficult for the faith to appear non-partisan, which could limit a fundamental religious tenet of the faith. "This gospel must be carried to every nation, kindred, tongue and people," wrote Gordon B. Hinckley, the late Mormon president and prophet, in 1995.
Mormons want everyone to be open to their religious message. And the conservative bent will attract some "investigators," as Mormon missionaries call those interested in learning more. But it's just as likely to turn others away from the faith, and the gospel Mormons believe all "kindred, tongue and people" desperately need.
(Howard Berkes, NPR's rural affairs correspondent, is based in Salt Lake City.)