The wind howls on a blustery Sunday morning in the White Mountains of Eastern Arizona, as well-dressed families pull into the parking lot of a Mormon church.
Mormon pioneer roots run more than a century deep in this part of the state, an isolated spot between two Indian reservations.
Karen Johnson is among the Mormon faithful, passionate about God and country.
“I have the gene,” Johnson said, laughing. “It’s the gene of freedom and liberty. In our faith, we have been taught that the Constitution is like unto Scripture. That we should know and understand the Constitution as well as we understand the Bible, that we should support it, and we should look for and uphold righteous men.”
For Johnson, that righteous man is GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — perhaps the nation’s highest profile Mormon — may have the support of many Mormons here, but Johnson sees little to like.
Johnson said many of her fellow Mormons are “not thinking for themselves. … If they did, they would be supporting the one that supports the Constitution.”
Johnson has a laundry list of complaints against Romney. She calls him a big-government conservative. She slams his foreign policy, especially Romney’s stance that he’d be willing to bomb Iran.
“It’s right there in black and white in the Book of Mormon. We are supposed to be a people of peace,” said Johnson, who lives in Linden, Ariz., in Navajo County.
“A lot of people believe that libertarianism actually lines up better with Mormon doctrine than the mainstream political parties do, and they are quite vehement,” said Matthew Bowman, a religion professor at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.
Bowman called opinions like Johnson’s “a kind of moralistic Mormon libertarianism.”
There’s a noticeable streak of Mormon libertarianism in the West, and the Ron Paul campaign has actively courted that vote, Bowman said.
Paul made small inroads in this year’s Nevada caucuses, getting 5 percent of Mormon support — higher than he received in 2008.
Meanwhile, Romney lost 7 percent of the Mormon support he enjoyed four years ago in Nevada. Romney is still overwhelmingly popular among Mormons. But he’s paying attention to voters like Johnson.
The nation’s founding documents “were either inspired by God, or written by brilliant people, or perhaps a combination of both those things. But we have in those documents the way forward for America,” Romney said this week, during a campaign event in Mesa, Ariz.
Romney’s a formidable candidate in the White Mountains. In Arizona’s 2008 primary, he beat home state Sen. John McCain in just three counties — all in eastern Arizona.
Janette Larsen and her teenage son are Romney supporters. “We love to discuss politics at our house,” said Larsen, who plans to vote for Romney in Arizona’s Feb. 28 Republican primary. Not because he’s a fellow Mormon, she said, but because she considers him a moderate.
“I would hope that people would put a lot of research and thought and even prayer into the person that they choose to support. I don’t think it needs to be based on our religion, because obviously within any religion there will be differences of opinion on how to get things done,” said Larsen.
But for Larsen’s husband, John, religion plays a bigger role in the way he’ll vote. He’s a church leader, a social conservative, and still undecided on a candidate. Just like many Mormons, he has a religious respect for the U.S. Constitution and its authors.
“I believe they wrote it under influence, inspiration, whatever word you want to use, of the Almighty for this land to be set aside as his nation, as his promised land,” he said.