The hot church-related news of the week involves this year’s variant on the traditional statement on political parties. In addition to the standard instructions about not using church buildings for political purposes and participating in the democratic process, this year’s statement contains something new. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the statement says:
Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in the platforms of all major political parties.
Most discussion, in blogs and in the media, has focused on the implications of this statement for the Democratic party in Utah. However, the way the statement is worded suggests that it is intended for more general application — even that its primary audience is outside the United States. After all, the United States has only two major political parties, and has had the same two major parties since the days of the Civil War. So the phrase “all major political parties” is somewhat bizarre in the U.S. context! It would be far more grammatical to have simply said, “both major political parties.”
Thus, the statement seems to have a global intent and application; both the Democratic and the Republican parties reflect some “principles compatible with the gospel,” but so also do the PRI, PAN, and PRD in Mexico, Hugo Chavez’s MVR party in Venezuela (as well as the opposition movements there), the Socialist Party, Christian Democratic Party, and UDI Party in Chile, the Scandinavian Socialists, and so forth. In other words, from a U.S. perspective, the statement reads as a simple nod to church connections with the Democratic party (not in itself a trivial matter in a year when a Republican president has approval ratings of about 35% and a Republican Congress has even lower ratings). But from an international perspective, the statement may be even more valuable because it ends long-running debates about which of these many parties the church supports.
Countries where a Socialist party is among the major parties have had a particularly long-standing and divisive version of this debate. Throughout the Cold War, church leaders occasionally made statements about the incompatibility of Socialism with the gospel. Ezra Taft Benson during the 1960s was especially vigorous in such proclamations, on various occasions announcing that no Latter-day Saint could, in good conscience, vote for a Socialist candidate.
Of course, such statements are innocuous enough in the U.S., where few Socialists of any kind have ever received more than marginal electoral support. However, there are Mormons in Scandinavian countries, where, from about the 1930s until the 1970s, working class individuals voted Socialist as a matter of course. Since a great many Mormons in Europe have been working class, it is difficult to imagine that there weren’t Mormons supporting Scandinavian Socialists during the Cold War period. While the conflict of loyalties created by Benson’s statements is somewhat hypothetical, I see no reason to think that it would be anything but a severe dilemma. Under the newly-announced political party policy, Scandinavian Mormon Socialists can retire that identity conflict and vote their consciences.
In one case, I don’t have to speculate about the conflict that the lack of a clear position on political parties created for the church. As most readers probably know, the current president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, has been a remarkably conflictual and divisive leader. The middle and upper classes (with cooperation from unionized labor) have organized multiple national general strikes against him, have signed various petitions asking him to resign, and have forced an (unsuccessful) recall referendum. Some of the same people also supported a coup d’etat that briefly removed Chavez from power and replaced him with a dictator, Pedro Carmona.
During the peak of these tensions, my wife and I were living in Caracas, Venezuela. The ward we attended was seemingly split down the middle in political terms. This division was by no means a matter of guess-work on our part; members used every fast-and-testimony meeting and many regular sacrament meeting talks to debate the issue — focusing specifically on whether the church was pro- or anti-Chavez. The major pro-Chavez arguments were: 1) that the church tells us to support and honor the government, whatever it might be, and 2) that, during the temple Endowment ceremony, the prayer always specifically asks that Chavez be given the wisdom necessary to govern the country. There was only one important anti-Chavez argument: the church is from the U.S., and Chavez opposes the U.S., so Chavez and the church are natural enemies.
Our ward was evenly divided because it included poor members and middle- and upper-class members. When we visited wards in poorer areas, no real division was evident: everyone supported Chavez. But for those wards with some social diversity, the political conflict over Chavez became an important religious conflict, as well. If the new political parties statement is indeed intended for worldwide use, then the impact in Venezuela will be dramatic. The large contingents of Chavista and anti-Chavista Mormons will have to accept that both groups reflect “principles compatible with the gospel.”