The general election is looming, which means that soon, we here in the U.S. will be hearing an official First Presidency statement in our wards regarding the Church’s political neutrality. You’ve heard the mantra before: the Church does not get involved in political issues, but it does take a stand on moral questions. Despite its seeming simplicity, this statement raises a host of unanswered questions regarding the wisdom of Church involvement in domestic political movements, and its seeming unwillingness to get involved in issues affecting Saints in other parts of the world.
As I recall it from years past, the statement will encourage members to vote their consciences, while emphasizing that the Church does not, and will not, endorse any particular candidate. Going one step further, Church leaders have gone out of their way lately to make clear that members in the U.S. may be active participants in any of the major political parties (video of Elder Ballard making this point). But in stark contrast to its reticence to campaign for individuals, the Church currently is involved in a number of political movements. The most prominent example is the fight against homosexual marriage (aka the movement to preserve the sanctity of marriage). Of course, this is not a new development; for nearly 40 years, the Church was fully engaged in legal and political wrangling in a failed bid to preserve plural marriage.*
Over the past few decades, the Church has developed an interesting formula for justifying its involvement in such movements: “Strictly political matters should be left in the field of politics where they belong. However, on moral issues, the Church and its members take a positive stand.” (1962 First Presidency Statement; emphasis added). As a life-long member, I have heard this “moral vs. political” dichotomy repeated numerous times in talks and lessons, without much thought or guidance being given to as to how differentiate between the two. The entire line of reasoning raises two as-yet-unanswered questions: (i) how does the Church determine whether a political question is sufficiently “moral” to warrant the Church’s full attention and involvement, and (ii) what, if any, application does the “political vs. moral” discussion have to Saints outside the United States?
Question #1: Where is the dividing line between “political” and “moral”?
In my mind, this is a particularly gray area. The current official statement from the Church attempts to answer the question as follows: “The Church does . . . [r]eserve 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.” (emphasis added.) Unfortunately, this statement only raises more questions. By their very nature, all political decisions — from which potholes get filled to whether abortion is legalized — have an effect on the surrounding community. When are those consequences “significant” and/or “moral” and what factors are to be examined in making this determination? In the absence of a definitive answer, all we can do is look to past examples of Church activism. In my lifetime, the Church has been involved in all manner of seemingly political fights, such as:
- Equal Rights Amendment: This is well-trod ground, so I won’t say much here, other than that the Church was one of the main opponents of the ERA, with many crediting the Church’s involvement with its ultimate defeat. The Church justified this protracted fight on the ground that the ERA presented a “moral issue with many disturbing ramifications for women and for the family as individual members and as a whole,” including “encouragement of those who seek a unisex society, an increase in the practice of homosexual and lesbian activities, and other concepts which could alter the natural, God-given relationship of men and women.”
- MX Missile base: In 1978-79, President Carter & the Department of Defense announced Utah as the site for a system of thousand of intercontinental ballistic missiles (known as “MX Missiles”), with the stated goal of serving as deterrent against a first-strike attack by the then-menacing USSR (doesn’t the Cold War seem a bit quaint now?). After initially remaining silent, the Church (in 1981) issued a strong statement objecting to the proposal on the ground that it implicated “the pressing moral question of possible nuclear conflict.”
- Legalized Gambling: In 1992, the First Presidency issued a statement condemning “renewed and vigorous attempts to legalize gambling, including a state-operated lottery, charitable gambling and pari-mutuel betting.” The Church regarded this as “a moral issue and unalterably oppose[s] such proposals on grounds of private and public morality, as well as a threat to the cultivation and maintenance of strong family and community values.”
- Flat Tax in UT: In 2005, the Church (through its phalanx of lawyers) lobbied in favor of maintaining Utah’s state tax exemptions for charitable donations. The issue arose in the context of the long-since-abandoned “flat tax proposal.” Again, public statements did not frame the issue as “moral,” but arguments were founded in scripture mandates to care for their poor” (e.g., Moroni 4:26).
- Sale of Alcohol in Utah Convenience Stores: In January of this year, the Church issued a statement condemning the sale of distilled spirits (aka alcopops) in grocery and convenience stores. While not specifically defining the issue as a “moral” one, the statement took the position that the sale of alcopops anywhere other than liquor stores “promotes underage drinking and undermines the state system of alcohol control.”
Quite frankly, it is difficult to cull out any guiding principles from these examples. I can see the “moral” underpinnings to the marriage and gambling issues, but for the life of me, I cannot argue the “moral” implications of selling booze at Smith’s Food King or adopting a flat tax with a straight face. It seems that issues that directly impact traditional notions of the family, or that deal with potentially dangerous addictions cross the line. But if this is true, why don’t we take these principles to their logical end? If the Church is worried about the detrimental effects of intoxicants such as alcohol, shouldn’t it also have taken steps to oppose local initiatives (like those in California and Oregon) to legalize medical marijuana?
Question #2: How does this discussion apply outside the U.S.?
Thinking about the “moral vs. political” dilemma, I came to a eye-opening realization: all of my discussions, and all of the materials I have read, on this subject relate exclusively to U.S.-based issues (and, more often than not, local Utah politics). This strikes me as an extremely myopic focus. Certainly the Church cannot get involved in every potential “moral” issue across the globe. But if we are to become a truly international church, shouldn’t we be at least as involved in foreign “moral” issues as we are in local ones? Put another way, why are our problems so much more important than those of our brothers and sisters in other countries? Here’s just one example: the Church has spent millions of dollars spearheading anti-gay-marriage initiatives across the country. At the same time, however, as I understand it, the Church didn’t lay out one thin dime to fight against the ultimately successful gay marriage movements in countries like Canada and Spain, countries with active LDS populations and temples. Don’t families there merit the same “protection” as American families?
In a 1979 statement, the First Presidency indirectly addressed this issue, saying (in pertinent part): “The many and varied circumstances in which our Church members live … make it inadvisable for the Church to involve itself institutionally in every local community issue. These challenges are best responded to by members as they meet their obligations as citizens—preferably in concert with other like-minded individuals.” That’s an understandable sentiment, but in light of the Church’s efforts on behalf of its American members, is it fair to push the full burden of political activism back onto non-U.S. members? Speaking for myself, I’d rather see the money being spent to thwart the evils of “alcopops” in Utah County 7-11’s directed to rebuild the infrastructure of Central American countries (like Guatemala where I served my mission) ravaged by decades of civil war.
* * *
Thinking about all of this, I’m really torn. One thing I appreciate about the Church is that no one (in an official capacity, at least) tells me how to vote. I am free to pick the candidate I deem to be the best choice (Obama ’08, baby!), and feel no obligation to vote in a way pleasing unto the Church or my local leaders. So, I am very much in favor of neutrality. Similarly, some of the stances the Church has taken in the past make me uncomfortable. I find our opposition to the ERA to have been short-sighted and, ultimately, ill-directed. If we spread our political influence to a broader array of problems, the likelihood that we will “get it wrong” statistically increases, which makes me want to simply drop the whole endeavor out of fear. At the same time, I would like to see the Church get more involved in global issues that I think may rightly be classified as “moral.” If we are truly Christians, why aren’t we denouncing this God-forsaken war in a much more direct manner? Why don’t we lend our voice to the chorus of organizations fighting to stop genocide in Africa? Sending humanitarian packages is a good start, but there is so much more we could do. And what better way is there for us to truly adopt the mantle of an international church? We have so much to offer; it would be shame if we were to simply hide our collective light under a bushel. Focusing exclusively on issues affecting only the few (percentage-wise) Mormons in Utah seems so 19th century to me.
What do you think about this? Where should we draw the line between “political” and “moral” issues? Is attempting to do so a worthwhile exercise at all? Does this discussion have any applicability outside the U.S., or am I totally missing the boat?
*For a great treatment of this subject, I highly recommend “The Mormon Question,” by Sarah Barringer Gordon.