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.

15 Replies to “The Church’s Political Neutrality”

    1. Joseph, yeah, I had testimony meetings in mind when writing that paragraph. But I’ve also observed this problem during sunday school and priesthood sessions. In my experience, the problem has been even more severe during classes than in sacrament meetings. I wrote about some personal encounters with politics in church meetings here: http://www.mormondems.com/archives/144. Hopefully we can foster some change. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  1. Amen! As a fellow Mormon Dem., nothing makes me angrier than when people ignore the Church’s political neutrality at church. I get so disgusted when it creeps into Sunday School comments or even affects the youth. My daughter 13-year-old daughter was in a Sunday School class recently where the boy who gave the closing prayer prayed for Mitt Romney to win the election. Really?! The teacher tried to smooth things over afterwards, but then the kid only said, “My dad said I have to pray for Mitt Romney in every prayer.” Later, I contacted the boy’s mother and told her about how uncomfortable my daughter was and asked her to please have her son remember to keep politics at home. Why do people assume that just because we’re Mormon that we’re automatically Republican, not to mention Mitt Romney supporters?

    1. Thanks for sharing this comment. It really is so frustrating when people bring up their politics in church, and assume that everyone else in the ward agrees with them. I really hope that we see some more direct pronouncements from church leadership on the issue, directing people to keep their political opinions out of church meetings. I applaud you for standing up and speaking out on this, by asking the child’s parents to instruct their children to keep their politics at home. If more of us take action like this, we will indeed see some change in the spiritual quality of our meetings.

    1. ADigorantium- That’s a fair question. I know and respect your position on gay marriage from your comment on my other post, even though I may disagree. In the Church’s statement on political neutrality (http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/official-statement/political-neutrality), it notes that 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.” All churches likely feel that they have a right to speak out on what they feel are moral issues. The Mormon Church did not spend any of its money on the Prop 8 campaign, but it did encourage its members to get involved. The so-called “Mormon money” that supported Prop 8 was all privately donated by members of our church. I think what the Church did wrt to Prop 8 was really fair game insomuch as the Church spoke out on what it saw was a moral issue with important consequences. You may not agree with the Church’s stance, but I think it is important to recognize that this is a rare example of where the Church speaks out on a politically and morally contentious topic. Unlike many other churches in the U.S., the Mormon Church doesn’t endorse, even tacitly, political candidates or parties. The Church does not allow politicians to speak from its pulpits or allow campaigns to use church buildings or member lists. This is really quite significant because there are so many other churches that do these things. As a result, members of my Church have risen to prominent levels in both major parties (i.e. Democrat Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader, or Mitt Romney, GOP Pres Nominee). I’m a product of that political neutrality. I’ve been a co-author on this blog and have passionately written about my progressive views on a plethora of issues. At the same time, I’m a fully active member of the Church.

  2. We here in California remember how the “nonpartisan” Mormon Church sank millions of dollars into promoting Proposition 8. That does not strike me as recusing itself from political matters. Or is there some definition of politics that the church uses to justify such forays into the political landscape?

    1. Joel, that’s definitely a fair question to task. In the Church’s statement on political neutrality (http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/official-statement/political-neutrality), it notes that 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.” All churches likely feel that they have a right to speak out on what they believe are moral issues. The Mormon Church did not spend any of its money on the Prop 8 campaign, but it did encourage its members to get involved. The so-called “Mormon money” that supported Prop 8 was all privately donated by members of our church. I think what the Church did wrt to Prop 8 was really fair game insomuch as the Church spoke out on what it saw was a moral issue with important consequences. You may not agree with the Church’s stance, but I think it is important to recognize that this is a rare example of where the Church spoke out on a politically and morally contentious topic. Unlike many other churches in the U.S., the Mormon Church doesn’t endorse, even tacitly, political candidates or parties. The Church does not allow politicians to speak from its pulpits or allow campaigns to use church buildings or member lists. This is really quite significant because there are so many other churches that do these things. The Mormon Church did not endorse Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon, during his presidential run. So in essence, the Church will not get involved in partisan campaigns where political parties and candidates are involved. It will, on occasion, speak out on controversial ‘moral’ topics.

  3. The church may say it is neutral, but it is not. I was so disappointed with their blatant encouragement of Prop 8. It’s great for the church and it’s members to create and live by their own moral standards, but when they entered the political game to limit legal rights of others, they crossed a line. Prop 8 was not about whether or not homosexuality is a sin, but whether a same sex couple can be legally married and receive rights of a legally married couple. At its core, that is political, and the church inserted it’s members in the center of that political arena.

  4. I agree with Hank. Being politically neutral means not promoting or financially backing (either directly or indirectly) a particular legislation or bill. It is not just about candidates or parties.

  5. The Church has changed its stand considerably since its ‘Prop 8’ days. Evangicals have bemoaned the fact that they now stand only with the Catholics in their political opposition to marriage equality; the LDS Church has backed out of that debate. The Church’s position on the morality of same-sex marriage hasn’t changed; but it no longer (as far as I know; this isn’t doctrine, just my observations) opposes same-sex marriage as it did just a few years ago. Let’s give it credit for evolving.
    By the way, I’m an active member who fled the U.S. after the 2004 presidential election. I now hold dual citizenship: US and Canada.

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