Referring to white evangelical Christians and Mormons as "the twin pillars of the GOP," author and scholar Mark R. Silk told some 300 Sunstone Symposium attendees that although the two groups are often at odds theologically, their members both tend to embrace a political ideology he called "restorationism."
"The restorationist ideal is as old as time," said Silk, professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and author of "Spiritual Politics: Religion and America Since World War II."
"It has at its heart the desire to return to the golden age, whenever that was," Silk continued. "Restorationism recreates the world as its devotees imagine it once was."
And for the most part, Mormons and evangelicals both embrace it, Silk said, although he observed that "no religious group has embraced restorationism more thoroughly than the Mormons."
The notion of faith-based voting is of growing significance in America today because of the emergence of what Silk and others have called "the God gap."
"For the first time in American history we have a two-party system in which one party is clearly identified with religion, the other not so much," Silk said, citing statistical research that demonstrates that more reliously oriented American tend to vote with the Republican Party, while less religiously oriented Americans tend to vote with the Democratic Party.
And he warned, "the divide may become even more pronounced because of the increased religious polarization in America today."
Historically, Silk said, it has not always been this way. Latter-day Saints, he said, "have gone from being fairly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats to being the most heavily Republican voting block among all religious groups" in a relatively short period of time.
"The state of Utah has gone to the Republican presidential candidate for 12 consecutive elections," Silk said. He drew chuckles from the audience when he added: "I'll bet my life standing here at this podium that it's going to be 13 consecutive elections this November."
Silk traced the notion of political restorationism back as far as the Protestant reformation, for which restorationism was central. But in his view, the 1980s were the critical time when restorationism focused on the revival of America itself.
"The 1980s were a time of nostalgia, with a view of an idealized and almost mythical America," Silk said. "Evangelicals were on the march, crusading to recapture Christian America."
With Ronald Reagan as president and Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson, the return to patriotic nationalism became an article of religious faith, something that was embraced by evangelical Christians and Mormons with similar ferver.
Today, restorationism is called "American exceptionalism," but it's still bascially the same thing. And Silk sees delightful irony in the fact that despite their theological differences, "a Mormon will serve as the agent of evangelical restorationist hopes and dreams."
Silk's lecture was the featured presentation during the opening day of the four-day 2012 Sunstone Symposium at the Olpin Student Union building on the University of Utah campus. According to the symposium program, the annual event focuses on "the diversity and richness of Mormon thought and experience," and features "rigorous inquiry" into the "past, present and future of the unfolding Restoration."
With the philosophical viewpoint that "both the cause of truth and the society of the Saints are best served by free and open exploration and discussion," topics covered during the first day of symposium sessions included "When One Spouse Experiences a Change in Beliefs: Strengthening Your Marriage Through Shared Vulnerability," "The Bottom Line on Integrity – Or, Is Lying Sometimes the Right Thing For an Honest Person to Do?" "Addiction: A Gospel Perspective," "Talks With Heavenly Mother" and "Yes, It Has Happened! LDS + ACLU Lawsuits and How They've Expanded Civil Liberties for All Americans."
Upcoming sessions during the four-day symposium will include, "J. Golden Kimball: Missionary Father," "A New Social and Political Movement Grounded in Mormon Sensibilities," "The Health Care Crisis: A Gospel Perspective," "My Agnostic Testimony: Why Leaving the Church Was Right For Me," "Exercising Dominion: Section 121 and the Abuse of Power," "Occupy Zarahemla," "Finding Your Mormon Shaman" and "Mormons and the FBI."