The Church’s Political Neutrality

During the last Presidential election season, I wrote the following letter to the editor, which was printed in a prominent newspaper:

Lost amid the hype about Mitt Romney’s religion speech and Mike Huckabee’s surge is a story about a church that, unlike most contemporary Christian organizations, does not participate in partisan politics. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormon Church, has stated for years that it does not “endorse, promote or oppose political parties, candidates or platforms.” The Mormon Church also does not allow its church buildings to be used for partisan political purposes; nor does it tell its members whom to vote for.

When many evangelical leaders are eager to blur the line between church and state by endorsing candidates and tacitly (and sometimes explicitly) telling their followers whom to vote for, and when many churches allow candidates to use their pulpits, it is refreshing to know that at least one church is honoring a principle established by the Founding Fathers by keeping religion out of politics. As a practicing Mormon, I am a product of this political neutrality. (By the way, I will not be voting for Mr. Romney.)

Every American member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints should read the Church’s statement on political neutrality. It makes clear that the Church does not engage in partisan politics nor attempts to dictate to its members how they should vote. And it specifically calls for tolerance of diverse viewpoints, even within the membership of the Church. For example, the statement notes, “the Church does expect its members to engage in the political process in an informed and civil manner, respecting the fact that members of the Church come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences and may have differences of opinion in partisan political matters.” (emphasis added)

Regarding LDS politicians, the statement reads, “Elected officials who are Latter-day Saints make their own decisions and may not necessarily be in agreement with one another or even with a publicly stated Church position. While the Church may communicate its views to them, as it may to any other elected official, it recognizes that these officials still must make their own choices based on their best judgment and with consideration of the constituencies whom they were elected to represent.” (emphasis added)

Of course, the Church “reserve(s) the right as an institution to address, in a nonpartisan way, issues that it believes have significant community or moral consequences or that directly affect the interests of the Church.”

This latter point is well illustrated by the Church’s advocacy for legislation supporting traditional marriage. While discussing traditional marriage in the context of changing societal norms is entirely appropriate for Sunday School and Priesthood, personal opinions about politicians, political parties, and most political issues should not be expressed during sacred Church meetings. When you consider the smorgasbord of issues that American politicians and political parties deal with — everything from guns, health care, and education to social security, immigration, economic and trade policy, and national security — you realize that the Church has taken a stance on very few of them. Perhaps surprising to some, the Church has not taken political positions on issues such as abortion, capital punishment, and embryonic stem cell research. (For more in the difference between the Church’s political and moral positions on abortion, see this old post.) This all comes down to the Church’s mission, which is to “preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians.”

When you find yourself in a Church meeting where someone, either a speaker, teacher, or congregant, begins to pontificate their political views, what should you do? I have been in plenty of Church meetings where members freely expressed their political opinions about specific politicians, where they heaped praise on former President George Bush while denigrating Democratic politicians, and where they generally regurgitated standard Republican talking points. Church meetings are sacred and when someone brings up impertinent contentious civic issues, they detract from the Spirit. Church leaders have made it clear that speaking about politics during Church meetings is not appropriate. And anyone present in a meeting where such viewpoints are aired (whether conservative or liberal), should not be content to just let it slide, but should speak up, and point out that such discourse is unbecoming of a Church meeting. In one of my next posts, I’ll make some specific recommendations for how to successfully handle political rants at Church.

About the author

I have been an active Latter-Day Saint all of my life and have also been an enthusiastic Democrat and progressive since my days as an economics undergraduate student at Brigham Young University. The hostile climate towards progressives at BYU inspired me to get involved with the BYU College Democrats, where I served as president during my senior year. I have since obtained a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Oklahoma. I served a full-time mission to the Philippines. I’m active in my local ward, happily married and have two rambunctious little boys and an infant daughter.