In a previous post, I explored the idea of defining “political” vs. “moral” issues for purposes of deciding when (and how) the Church should get formally involved. A related issue is whether we, even without formal instruction from the Church, are obligated to cast certain, pre-determined votes on select issues. Put another way, does my Mormonism require me to vote in favor of all manner of local referendum banning homosexual marriage? If so, how far does this unwritten rule go? And what about my free agency?
Years ago, I taught an Elders’ Quorum lesson about our duties as good citizens (of the U.S.; I have no idea whether this lesson was/is taught internationally). One of the main points, reinforced in the manual by several quotes from General Authorities, was that we, as faithful Latter Day Saints, have an obligation to vote our consciences. The lesson was clear that the Church does not endorse any particular candidate, but that we each have a responsibility to do our part by casting a vote on election day. We talked about this idea – using our free agency as part of the election process – at some length. In the course of that discussion, an attendee, a faithful, conservative “Peter Priesthood” type in the ward, made a comment that has always stuck with me. He said, in essence, that active Mormons “have to” vote certain ways on “some specific issues.” Though I prodded, he refused to provide any further clarification. However, given current events, it wasn’t too difficult to figure out what he meant.
This was Southern California, circa 2000, and we were all in the throes of a pitched battle over Proposition 22 (aka the California Defense of Marriage Act) which sought to revise California law, which already explicitly prohibited same-sex marriage, to close a purported loophole which would have required California to recognize such marriages performed in other states (read: Massachusetts). Prop. 22 added the following sentence to the books: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” Strikingly similar to the political climate of the last few weeks, seemingly every other local news broadcast and L.A. Times article dealt with the potential social and moral implications of allowing homosexuals to marry.
I don’t recall all of the hoopla over the ERA, so the level of Church involvement in this fight was new to me. We regularly heard sermons about the matter from over the pulpit and in classes. Some members of the ward were formally called by the Bishop to play an active role in campaigning for Prop. 22. While I never got such a call, I and many other Priesthood holders were assigned neighborhoods to canvas. We were to pass out literature and gauge public opinion about the Proposition. This was, without question, the most uncomfortable Church assignment I have ever fulfilled (although choking down chicken feet in the wilds of Guatemala comes in a close second). To begin, I am opposed to a too-easy mixture of religion and politics. Even worse, this particular issue put me in league with folks with whom I have very little else in common, politically speaking. For example, we were enthusiastically greeted by one older woman who said she not only supported Prop. 22, but also she always donates money to right-minded politicians such as Bob “B-52” Dornan. I think I physically cringed.
Thanks to the California Supreme Court, Prop. 22 has gone the way of the dodo, and same-sex marriage is set to become a reality here in a matter of weeks. But the fighting has not stopped yet, with opponents hoping to get a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot in November. I know this because (i) twice in the past several weeks, people have stopped me in the halls at Church to ask that I sign a petition, and (ii) I have received several e-mail blasts from ward members attaching another petition begging me to “help save traditional marriage.” That means that, in all likelihood, I soon will have a chance to “vote my conscience” about this issue in a state-wide election.
All this has me thinking about what role my Mormonism has in determining how I vote. My spirituality necessarily affects my world view and therefore will impact, to some degree, the manner in which I view political issues. That’s not what I’m talking about. The question is, was the class member right all those years ago? To put a finer point on it, does my membership in the Church compel me and every other California Mormon to vote for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, regardless of how we/I personally feel about the issue? My initial reaction is “no” — we all have free agency and my temple recommend has never been conditional upon a favorable review of my voting record. But on the other hand, if my vote is not required/assumed, why does the Church go to such great lengths to get me and other members involved in the political fight? If I am free to vote contrary to the Church’s position, why do my Priesthood leaders have authority to call me to a position designed specifically to push the official agenda?
Of course, same-sex marriage is just one issue that raises this question. Here are three more where a Mormon’s vote arguably could be determined solely on the basis of his/her faith:
Medical marijuana: In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 215, known as the Compassionate Use Act, which permits the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Since then, other Western states have followed suit.
Legalization of marijuana: For many folks, this is the logical extension of the medical marijuana debate. California is certainly headed in this direction. In 2000, California voters passed Prop. 36, which changed state law to allow first- and second-time nonviolent, simple drug possession offenders the opportunity to receive substance abuse treatment instead of incarceration. In other words, possession is now treated as a sickness, not a crime.
- Limits on abortion rights: Thankfully, this is not one that I have to vote on, but members in other states have. In the constant back-and-forth since Roe v. Wade, nearly every state in the U.S. has passed restrictions on abortion rights, ranging from bans on partial-birth abortions to parental consent laws. Pro-life camps are constantly pushing for putting further restrictions in place through proposition or referendum. And just as surely, pro-choice advocates are engaged in high-energy opposition to those movements.
All of these issues are likely be on your local ballot sooner rather than later. I am opposed to SSM, but in other instances, I find myself running contrary to the assumed “correct” position for LDS folks. For example, the older I get and the more I read about the increasing levels of incarceration in this country, the more persuaded I am that we should decriminalize possession of small quantities of marijuana (or, at a minimum, drastically reduce the tax money and man hours spent in arresting, prosecuting and detaining small-time users).
At the end of the day, I believe that I can vote however I want on these and any other issue. But, as I was shown in that EQ lesson many years ago, this is not a unanimous opinion. So, what do you think — are faithful Mormons required to vote en masse on certain issues? If so, how does one go about determining which issues those are, and what are/should be the consequences for failing to fall in line? If not, should a pro-SSM member refuse a priesthood canvassing on the ground that he/she is politically opposed to the cause?