neu-tral /ˈnutrəl, ˈnyu-/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [noo-truhl] -adjective: not taking part or giving assistance in a dispute or war between others. (Random House Dictionary.)
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Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
-Jesus (Matt. 10:34-35.)
Although much, probably too much, has already been said about the Church’s endorsement of Proposition 8 in California, as well as similar ballot measures in other states, I can’t help making some observations about what an interesting case study it has presented on the issue of the Church’s political neutrality. I get the feeling that the Church’s overwhelming support for Proposition 8 signals either the beginning of a series of major political battles in which the Church will involve itself in the future with increasing frequency, or the Church’s last political stand of its kind. I’m just not sure which it is yet.
I’ll be honest: when I heard the announcement that the Church was officially throwing its hat into the ring in support of Proposition 8, I was deeply puzzled. With a few rare exceptions, the LDS Church has a longstanding policy and practice of not endorsing or opposing legislative proposals, even if important moral issues that affect the family are involved.
For example, even on the literally life-and-death issue of abortion, the Church’s official position statement states:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes in the sanctity of human life. Therefore, the Church opposes elective abortion for personal or social convenience, and counsels its members not to submit to, perform, encourage, pay for, or arrange for such abortions. . . .
The Church has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion.
(Source.) In essence, the official position statement says that although the Church opposes elective abortion and counsels its members against it, the Church has been neutral on legislative proposals concerning that important moral issue. Or in other words, although the Church believes and teaches X, the Church doesn’t feel compelled to endorse or oppose legislation to ensure that X is made the law of the land.
In the few instances when the Church has made an official statement on a moral/political issue, oftentimes the official statement simply states that we don’t take a position on that issue. For example, the Church’s official position statement about capital punishment (another moral life-and-death issue) concludes: “We neither promote nor oppose capital punishment.” (Source.) Likewise, the Church’s official position statement about stem-cell research states: “The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not taken a position regarding the use of embryonic stem cells for research purposes.” (Source.) (See here to read the seven official position statements the Church has posted on its official website.)
The Church’s default position of political neutrality on moral issues sometimes frustrates members of other faiths who would like the Church to take a more active role in politics, as other churches do. I have a friend who used to work for the Church in Public Affairs. She often received angry phone calls from members of other faiths who were outraged that the Church wouldn’t get involved politically with abortion, capital punishment, stem-cell research, and other moral issues. The Church’s political neutrality on moral issues upset them and, in their minds, cast doubt on the Church’s claim to share the same concern for upholding traditional moral values as other Christian churches.
Because I was aware of the Church’s default position of political neutrality on these and other important moral issues, I was confused as to why–out of all the important moral issues being debated and legislated today–the Church came out so strongly and decisively against same-sex marriage. It seemed to be a departure from our longstanding policy and practice of saying, essentially, “although we believe X is morally wrong (e.g., elective abortion), the Church does not feel compelled to ensure that its moral views are enacted into legislation.”
During the Proposition 8 campaign amongst Church members, we often heard the refrain that Proposition 8 must be passed because the Proclamation on the Family states that “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God.” This oft-repeated argument intrigued me because, as we see in so many other examples, the fact that we believe “X” does not automatically lead to the conclusion that the Church must ensure that “X” is enacted into law. We certainly don’t take that position when it comes to our beliefs about the Word of Wisdom, abortion, adultery, etc.
The fact is that California law already departs from the Proclamation on the Family in numerous ways. For example, the Proclamation on the Family also states that “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” Yet existing California law directly contradicts Church doctrine by allowing any individual to essentially re-define his or her gender at will. I’m unaware of any plans to ensure the Proclamation on the Family’s doctrinal declarations about gender are enacted into California law. So the fact that the Proclamation on the Family says “X” does not automatically compel the conclusion that the Church must work to ensure that “X” is reflected in the law.
Why? Because as members of the Church, we have long been accustomed to the reality that there are two competing standards of morality, i.e., the standards of the Church, and the standards of the world/society/culture/government. I was raised to look to the former and not the latter for my personal definition of right and wrong. I was never raised to use the laws created in Washington, D.C. or Sacramento as my moral compass. To the contrary, I was taught to abstain from fornication, adultery, abortion, alcohol, tobacco, pornography, and a host of other things that my Church teaches are 100% immoral, and yet are 100% legal under the laws of the United States of America and the Republic of California.
There are, always have been, and always will be, significant ways in which my Church’s standards depart from the government’s standards. For example, the fact that government says two people are effectively “married” simply by virtue of their having shacked up and fornicated for several months is, to me, a terrible perversion of the sacred institution of marriage. And yet that legal concept of “common-law marriage” has existed for decades in numerous states. To my knowledge, however, the Church hasn’t fought against laws regarding common-law marriage, even though such laws deviate from the traditional religious definition of “marriage.”
This most recent election in California presented another interesting contrast between the Church’s positions on two moral issues that were both on the ballot. California’s Proposition 4 was a proposal to require parental notification before a minor could obtain an abortion. This was certainly an important moral issue concerning the family and, in particular, parental rights and responsibilities. However, the Church sat silent on Proposition 4 while it encouraged its members to donate thousands of dollars and man-hours to pass Proposition 8.
All of this seems to create the appearance that over the past 25 years, the Church’s de facto position on political neutrality is that the Church abstains from endorsing or opposing legislative proposals even when important life-and-death moral issues affecting the family are involved, except in cases where same-sex marriage is at issue. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think we have to go back to the ERA to find a political issue other than same-sex marriage in which the the Church was so heavily involved.
The purpose of this post is not to advocate any particular position, but simply to share my process of seeking to understand the reasoning behind when the Church decides to depart from its default position of political neutrality and enter the political fray. I can’t help wishing I could have been a fly on the wall to overhear the discussions that resulted in the Church’s decision to become embattled in an issue that has now thrown the Church into the national spotlight. I can’t help wondering: what was it about same-sex marriage that made it more intolerable to Church leaders than, say, partial-birth abortion?
If our friend Bruce Nielson is correct, only one thing is certain: We will never know.
So what do you think? Of all the moral issues affecting the family that are being debated today, why was same-sex marriage the one that caused Church leaders to break from the Church’s default position political neutrality? And does the Church’s overwhelming endorsement of Proposition 8 signify a shift in Church leaders’ attitudes towards political neutrality, foreshadowing increased involvement in major political battles to come? Or was it the the dying moans of an out-of-touch mindset that is going the way of the do-do bird, as some have suggested? Or neither?