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Mormons: A Rising Force?

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Mitt Romney has emerged from a bruising primary as the only serious Republican presidential candidate. The small field of Republican hopefuls also included fellow-Mormon Jon Huntsman. Is this a coincidence?

Maybe not. Look at the candidates' family histories. Romney, from a family of six, has five children, while Huntsman has eight siblings and is the father of seven. Only the conservative Catholic, Rick Santorum, can match this: a major reason he offered for pulling out of the Republican race is the fatal condition of his seventh child, Bella.

Consider the power of population change to shape politics. With little fanfare, steady differences in birth rates between conservative and liberal white Protestants in the 20th century have virtually doubled the relative heft of evangelicals in the US. Conservative religious women and other Americans continue to change America as whites gradually become more evangelical and Mormon.

At the same time, Mormons have become solidly Republican. Though 70% of Jews back the Democrats, fully 75% of Mormons now tick the Republican box. With their conservative family values, Mormons are both natural Republicans and naturally growing. When demographers undertook a state-by-state plot of white birth rates against the vote for George Bush in 2004, they discovered an 80% correlation. Fecund Mormon Utah occupied the top right hand corner of the chart, followed by the evangelical states of the Deep South, with relatively infertile liberal New England holding down the lower left corner. As Michael Lind commented in 2005, "Among white Americans fertility differences reflect a gulf between the religious and the secular. In largely Mormon Utah, there are 90 children for every 1,000 women of child-bearing age, compared to only 49 in the socially liberal Vermont of Howard Dean."

Mormons have maintained a one or two-child fertility advantage over other white Americans for over a century, and as this growth compounds, they are slowly emerging as a political force.

Their membership has expanded at the rate of at least 40% per decade since their inception in 1830 to the point where sociologist Rodney Stark predicts they will become the newest major world religion. Natural growth has helped Mormons maintain their population share in their Utah heartland in the teeth of considerable non-Mormon immigration.

The share of non-Mormons in Utah peaked at 40% in 1920, declining to around 25% by the late 20th century. Today, Latino and Asian growth has reduced Utah's white share to 80 percent, but among whites, Mormons account for three-quarters of the total. Mormons are also a significant and rising share of the white population of nearby Idaho (27% Mormon), Nevada, Arizona and Wyoming. In contrast to the pattern among other denominations, highly-educated Mormons like Mitt Romney are both more religious and have larger families than less-educated Mormons.

As the community expands, they are beginning to flex their political muscles. Mormon activists have played important roles in anti-gay rights measures like Proposition 8 in California, and have joined hands with conservative Catholics, Protestants and Muslims to limit American support for worldwide family planning at the United Nations.

Nationwide, their six million-plus American members exceeds the country's four million Jews. Though less influential in the nation's culture industries than Jews, Mormons are wealthy, highly-educated and well-organised. As the proportion of non-Hispanic whites - the bedrock of the Republican Party - ebbs toward 50% of the American population in 2050, Mormon clout within the Republican Party is bound to rise. In this, they will be emulating or even exceeding the role played by Jews within the Democratic Party.

Can demography really shape a country's political destiny? Mormons feel notoriously warm towards the people of the Book, and a comparison with Israel reveals what is possible. There, the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews have three times the birth rate of other Jews.

In 1960, they made up only a few percent of Israeli Jewish first graders. Today they comprise a third. The 400 draft exemptions granted by David Ben-Gurion to them in 1948 have swollen to 70,000. Since the Haredim tend not to work, their projected increase has prompted Stanley Fischer, Governor of the Bank of Israel, and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, to issue warnings about the continued viability of the Israeli welfare state. Once content to keep a low profile, the ultra-Orthodox are increasingly assertive in challenging the declining secular majority. They have elected their first mayor of Jerusalem. Their activists rip away faces of women on Jerusalem's billboards, spit on short-sleeved schoolgirls, demand gender segregation on buses and are contesting the legitimacy of Israel's secular judiciary.

Meanwhile religious zionists, a group whose birth rates and sympathies lie between those of the ultra-Orthodox and other Jews, form a sharply rising share of the Israeli Defence Force's officer corps. Mormons are neither as conservative nor as fertile as the ultra-Orthodox Jews, but like the Haredim, their demographic and political ascent seems certain.

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