The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is planning to use “specialists” to help its members become more politically involved, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
Church spokesman Doug Andersen told the Tribune that high-ranking church leaders, including general authority Seventy Elder Craig C. Christensen, directed Utah-based stake presidents to “assign specialists who can assist church members to better understand and participate in the civic process.”
The specialists will help members register to vote, request mail-in ballots, find their polling places and attend their party caucus meetings. Andersen also noted, however, that the Church will continue to be neutral concerning political parties, candidates and platforms.
Utah House Democratic leader Rep. Brian King, however, is concerned that these specialists will strengthen Utah’s Republican views. “Without doing something more than just a statement of political neutrality, what you’re going to get is an intensification, a magnification, of that identity that exists between LDS Church membership and affiliation with the GOP,” King told the Tribune.
Former Democratic Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson also expressed concern to the Tribune over the specialists, saying the announcement comes after “we’re starting to find out there are more Democrats who now tip the scale in Salt Lake County.”
Despite some concern, Utah Senate President J. Stuart Adams, said any effort to improve political involvement is a positive action for the state.
“Getting more people involved is better for the process,” Adams, R-Layton told the Tribune. “It’s really great when we have a full caucus in the caucus-convention system. It would be really great if we get 80-90% of the people to vote. That’s not happening. Anything to improve that is welcome.”
BYU political science professor Richard Davis sees potential benefits and concerns.
“The idea of encouraging church members to participate in their communities is a good one,” Davis said. “I was concerned, however, that this program could be a means to push a certain political agenda on the part of a local leader or the local specialist. For example, if that person was active in a particular party or group, they might use that role to advocate for that party or group.”
If certain specialists were to advocate for their personal political views it would “reinforce a perception that church members need to be monolithic politically,” which would ultimately be harmful to the Church, he said.
Davis believes church leaders may be concerned that a growing number of Utah residents are not going to follow any church statements regarding politics. He used last year’s Proposition 2 vote on medical marijuana in Utah as an example, a bill that passed with a 52% majority even after the Church released a statement encouraging its members to vote against the initiative. He said using specialists could cause resentment among some people who think the Church is trying to build its political influence.
“There may be a sense that political activity by LDS Church members may restore LDS Church political dominance,” Davis said. “Then again, it may have the opposite effect. Those who are non-LDS may resent this effort to restore LDS Church political role, and even some members may react negatively to someone in their stake playing this role.”