Where is the Church on political neutrality?

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintains a politically neutral stance in party politics. (Preston Crawley)

The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sends a letter during national election years in the United States to be read by each bishop regarding the Church’s politically neutral stance.

The Church’s official statement on political neutrality says the Church does not “endorse, promote or oppose political parties, candidates or platforms,” or allow church buildings or membership lists to be used for partisan political purposes. The statement also says the Church cannot direct members in choosing which candidate or party they should vote for.

“The Church’s mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians,” the statement says.

With this politically neutral stance, all General Authorities and general officers of the Church “should not personally participate in political campaigns, including promoting candidates, fundraising, speaking in behalf of or otherwise endorsing candidates, and making financial contributions.”

Recently this section of the policy received large amounts of media attention when donations to President Joe Biden and other Democratic politicians’ campaigns were made under Quorum of Twelve Apostles member Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s name.

Elder Uchtdorf gave KSL a statement saying he regretted such an “oversight” on his part. He said a family member donated through a family-shared online account associated with his name but he “fully supports” the Church’s policy regarding Church leaders and political donations.

Reasons for neutrality

One of the reasons the Church stays politically neutral is to retain the Church’s tax exempt status as a nonprofit organization.

According to University of Notre Dame political science professor David Campbell, it is particularly critical for the Church to be neutral because it is so centralized. “It wouldn’t be just a ward or stake, it would be the entire Church” that would lose the exempt status, Campbell said.

Besides the tax exemption, the Church stays neutral to keep away from complications with partisanship.

“If the Church were officially to line up or semi-officially line up with one party, it would alienate its own members and potential converts,” said Utah State University Mormon history professor Patrick Mason.

University of Utah history professor Paul Reeve said he thinks the Church favors neutrality because of the changing dynamics of party politics. He said a dynamic of divisiveness is entering some congregations and families and it is amplified by party politics becoming a religion for some people.

“The politics of the major parties shift overtime, and to be so firmly wedded with one party or the other, then as those party politics shifts, creates the very dynamic we are witnessing,” Reeve said.

Campbell also said being too aligned with one party would weaken the Church’s credibility when it speaks on issues. “The Church has sought to be above the partisan fray, and that’s viewed by Church leaders as important so they can speak prophetically to what they consider key moral issues.”

The Church does “reserve 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,” says the neutrality statement.

Mason said the Church must be careful walking the “very fine line” speaking out on issues or expressing support for policies without violating the tax exemption requirements.

The Church’s political involvement has ranged from abortion and immigration to prohibition and gambling, with gay marriage and medical marijuana as the most recent prominent examples.

While there is no uniform agreement on what constitutes a moral issue, Campbell said the Church typically gets involved with nonpartisan ballot initiatives where there are less restrictions.

The Church’s political history

Historically, the Church has not always had a neutral stance politically. In the 1870s, the members in the Utah territory formed the People’s Party, and all non-members were part of the Liberal Party. The Church ran candidates and pushed policies, and party politics were strictly divided along religious lines.

According to Reeve, the People’s party, along with the use of polygamy and theocracy, was a source of tension between the settlers and the federal government and was one of the reasons Utah was kept out of statehood for so long.

The Mormons began to abandon polygamy and theocracy in the 1890s, giving up the People’s Party and adopting the two party system. Reeve said at this time the Republican Party was “ironically” seen as the “Anti-Mormon” party, so Church leaders would preach it was OK to be a member and Republican.

The Church made peace with the Republican party when Republican apostle Reed Smoot was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1902. Throughout the 20th century, Reeve said the Church started embracing political pluralism and encouraging members to choose for themselves on political issues.

General Authorities in the 20th century varied on political beliefs, with Hugh B. Brown active in the Democratic party and Ezra Taft Benson vocal in the Republican party.

Utah, and most voters in the Church, swung to the right in the 1970s along with various other Western states when the nation’s political map was “dramatically realigned” during the Reagan Revolution, Reeve said. “Utah went red and has been red ever since.”

The Church exerts “a lot of political influence in the state of Utah, but it does so in the State Capitol by quiet lobbying” that follows the restrictions for tax exemptions and making its views known to the government, Campbell said.

Issues like gay rights, the equal rights amendment and abortion accounted for religious minded people to start associating with the Republican party which was aligning the South and many Mountain states into the Religious Right, Reeve said.

Church leaders became “somewhat disconcerted” in the late 20th century because Utah politics were “back to where it was in the 19th century where Republican is the Mormon party and the Democratic party is the non-Mormon party,” Reeve said.

To try to combat this, the First Presidency had General Authority Seventy and Democrat Marlin Jensen fulfill a request for an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune in 1998 discussing the Church leaders’ viewpoint of the political imbalance in the Church.

In the interview he said the imbalance concerned Church leaders because they are not a “one-party church.” Jensen also claimed while most members are Republican, the notion that good members cannot be Democrats is wrong.

A conservative majority Church

Mason said it’s “absolutely true” that the Church lines up with conservative ideals on most issues. In politics, the Church allies with other religious groups on issues of “common cause.”

The majority of U.S. members in the Church today lean Republican despite the Church’s neutral stance. A study in 2018 found that 67% of members voted Republican in that year’s midterm election, and in 2014, the Pew Research Center found 71% of members identified as Republican.

“The Church’s official position is one of neutrality but that’s certainly not the way many voters, including many members of the Church itself, perceive the Church’s positions,” Campbell said.

Because so many members are Republican and the issues General Authorities tend to stress lean conservative, Campbell said “the Church is often viewed as a heavily Republican institution, in spite of the Church leaders’ efforts to try to dissuade people from that view.”

Campbell said the Church is not in the middle of the political spectrum, but it is also not far right. The Church typically speaks out for the conservative sides of issues, but the Church’s positions are moderately conservative compared to some Utah legislators or individual members on issues such as immigration and LGBTQ rights, he said.

“The Church can be a moderating influence on Utah politics and the politics of Church members,” he said.

BYU political science professor Lisa Argyle gave a lecture titled “Reflections on Political Disagreement in Latter-Day Saint Communities” and said the Church tries to stay politically neutral, but politics still affect the society of the Church.

In the Church, she said the pressure of religious community affects people’s comfortability in discussing their political views. As political beliefs increasingly become part of one’s identity, she said members need to start having discussions with those who think differently so everyone can start sharing their “full selves” instead of avoiding difficult conversations.

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