Devoutly Neutral

A Look at the Mormon Church’s Political Neutrality

A statue of Brigham Young outside a Mormon Church

Mitt Romney’s candidacy for President of the United States could be the most important event so far in the history of the Mormon Church. The Church, though, has played a minimal role in the current presidential race. Due to their tax-exempt status, religious institutions are rarely overtly partisan. Yet political groups associated with certain religions, such as Moral Majority and Christian Voice, have been instrumental in convincing religious voters to support certain candidates and getting church members elected to office.

Given this trend, the strict political neutrality of the largest Mormon denomination, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), has been especially conspicuous in the cur- rent presidential campaign. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is a follower and former bishop of the LDS Church. Even so, the Church’s pre-existing political neutrality policy prevents the Church and its leaders from using their influence to support a presidential candidate either directly or through a political organization. According to an official statement from the LDS Church, this policy specifically prohibits the Church from telling any of its members or officials to support a certain candidate or party, allowing its resources to be used for partisan politics and/or controlling government leaders in any way. The reasons behind this neutrality policy, though, are not completely clear due to the Church’s complex history with politics.

Dr. Matthew Bowman, a professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College and author of The Mormon People: TheMaking of an American Faith, said in an interview with The Politic that the Church’s stance on political neutrality is relatively recent. He cited Heber J. Grant, the Church’s president during the 1930s, who actively opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1936 presidential campaign. Various Church leaders have also run for political office with LDS support in Utah and other states. Bowman asserted that the Church’s new stance on political neutrality is a product of historical difficulties it has had with being politically active. Most of these political obstacles had to do with public disapproval.

“Much of the criticism of the Church getting involved in state elections in the early 20th century was from perceptions that the leaders of the Church were rigging elections, favoring one candidate over the other, and telling people who to vote for,” said Bowman. There was often truth behind the criticism, though the attacks were sometimes unfounded. The Church had further difficulties with political activism when its members voted differently from the wishes of their leadership, causing embarrassment on the part of Church officials. Moreover, Congress repeatedly denounced the virtual Mormon theocracy in Utah. The practice of Church leaders holding state office and influencing state elections, according to Bowman, stopped after WWII as a result of these nuisances. “The LDS Church is well aware of this past and thus does not want to arouse these traditional suspicions,” said Bowman. This especially holds true in the current election. Romney’s candidacy is “testing this resolve to not get involved in politics,” Bowman asserted. “A Pew Forum released a survey that found that over two-thirds of Mormons in the US are Republicans, so there is a real propensity on the part of Mormons to support Romney.”

“The Church has been forced to respond to criticism of the religion and clarify its views,” Bowman added. Dr. Newell Bringhurst, coauthor of The Mormon Quest for The Presidency and a history professor at the College of the Sequoias, agreed that LDS officials’ reluctance to endorse a candidate with donations and verbal support is a result of weariness from past controversies. Bringhurst noted that the Church had been politically active even under the leadership of its founder, Joseph Smith, who ran for president himself in 1844. Bringhurst estimated that the Church’s current neutrality policy started around the time of the unsuccessful 1968 presidential bid of Michigan Gov. George Romney, an LDS high priest and father of the current GOP nominee. After George Romney failed to make it through the primaries with the support of Church president David O. McKay, the LDS allowed presidential candidates Richard Nixon, Herbert Humphrey, and George Wallace to hold separate rallies in church facilities.

“[The LDS church] received storm and fury over the [George Wallace] incident because he was a segregationist,” said Bringhurst. The general public also responded poorly to the Humphrey and Nixon rallies.The condemnation convinced Church leadership to remain on the sidelines in future presidential contests, a position that McKay reinforced when he denied apostle Ezra Taft Benson’s request to run for vice president with the third-party candidate, George Wallace. Concerning Mitt Romney’s campaign, Bringhurst said that LDS spokes- men “are even uncomfortable acknowledging that political campaigns are going on … because so many Latter-day Saints members are overwhelmingly Republican.” The Church, Bringhurst believes, fears even the perception that they are implicitly encouraging Mormons to vote for Mitt Romney.

Stephen Weber, Yale University’s chaplain for the LDS Church, views the Church’s political neutrality in a different light. Weber said that the Church’s policy stems from a belief in free agency and a move to avoid alienating Church members due to their political opinions. While there are certain issues on which the Church has taken a moral stance, such as gay marriage, he notes that he has met both Mormon Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, it seems that there are certain moral referendums on which the Church takes a stance. Yet, in all other areas, Mormons are given little direction from the Church in deciding their political views. Weber also noted, “We are very supportive of the United States government, and we are very supportive of the Constitution.” He asserted that it is the duty of Church members to be politically active by helping and voting for candidates who share their values.

Both Bringhurst and Bowman noted that even though less than two percent of the US population is Mormon, LDS members have a great deal of influence in the fields of business, politics, and entertainment. So if the Church ever does stray from its stance on not supporting partisan candidates, it could potentially have a major effect on future elections.

The spotlight that Romney’s campaign shines on the Church, however, is unprecedented in LDS history. The attention may determine whether this new approach—neutrality to political activism—helps or hinders the Church’s public image.

 

Aaron Mak is a freshman in Berkeley College.

 

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