What We Didn’t Hear at #LDSConf

On Saturday and Sunday, we heard messages on a myriad of topics. Some resonated deeply with me; others, not so much. But (nearly) as interesting to me as what we heard was what we didn’t: nobody told us to vote for (or against) Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, or even Evan McMullin.[fn1]

So what? you rightfully ask. Does the church ever endorse candidates?

No. But last Sunday was a special day: 

Sunday was Pulpit Freedom Sunday.[fn2]

What is Pulpit Freedom Sunday? Some background first: 1954 saw a fundamental reform of the tax system. One part of that reform (a small part, fwiw) introduced a prohibition into section 501(c)(3): organizations exempt from tax under that provision (including, among others, churches, universities, museums, and nonprofit hospitals) can’t endorse or oppose candidates for office.[fn3]

I don’t plan here on discussing whether this prohibition is good or not; academics (including me), journalists, politicians, and others have spilled a ton of ink arguing for and against the prohibition. For our purposes, the prohibition exists.

At least some pastors and other church leaders, however, feel that this limitation prevents them from doing their duty; they don’t believe that their beliefs can be separated from the political sphere in which those beliefs interact.

Since 2008, the Alliance Defending Freedom has sponsored Pulpit Freedom Sunday; basically, it designates one Sunday in October for preachers to explicitly violate the prohibition by endorsing or opposing a candidate in their sermons. Then they’re to send copies of their sermons to the IRS.

By endorsing a candidate, these churches no longer qualify for their tax exemption. In theory, the IRS should revoke their exemptions, which will allow the church to sue, and ultimately (the ADF believes), the Supreme Court will hold the provision unconstitutional.

In practice, the IRS has only ever revoked one church’s exemption for endorsing (or, in that case, opposing) a candidate for office, and that revocation predated Pulpit Freedom Sunday by several years.

In spite of General Conference falling on Pulpit Freedom Sunday, and in spite of the contentious US election, speakers on Sunday were silent about candidates for office. And frankly, I’m glad they were; I prefer that our church leaders exercise their prophetic duties, calling out unrighteousness and power and preaching Christ, and Him risen. I prefer that they trust us to understand our values, and to vote accordingly.

And so the message they didn’t deliver was exactly the message I hoped not to hear.

[fn1] (though clearly at least some on that list deserve to be voted for or against)

[fn2] Btw, the date of PFS was basically impossible to find online this year; it’s been a whole lot easier in previous years. If anybody from ADF is reading this, could you please make it a little clearer next year? Pretty please?

[fn3] They can, on the other hand, lobby and endorse political positions (except where those endorsements are essentially endorsements of candidates), as long as their lobbying isn’t a too-substantial part of their activities.


  1. “the message they didn’t deliver was exactly the message I hoped not to hear” — that’s a sentence almost on par with David Brooks’s recent triple negative in the NYT!

  2. Thanks, john! But now I’m going to have to try to write something with two more negatives. #goals

  3. To not read a sentence that did not contain more negatives than David Brooks’s piece, did not, in any way, not impede my lack of enjoyment about what was not said. So, Sam, if you do not not add two more negatives, my lack of enjoyment impediment will not be unaffected.

  4. Clark Goble says:

    While part of me wishes they’d condemn Trump in general that’s pretty rare regardless of what they may feel behind the scenes. At best they deal with particular issues like abortion, gambling or the like. The most political I’ve seen them, outside of the SSM issue, was back during the run up to the second Gulf War. Even that talk by Hinkley was hardly what one might expect from an OT presentation. LOL. Pres. Hinkley was much more focused on the contradictions inherent to the political debates of the time.

  5. Hmmm… I also am glad they didn’t endorse any candidate. But on the other hand, Pulpit Freedom Sunday seems an opportunity to fight for religious freedom. Why weren’t they all over that?

  6. Though the church refrains from directly endorsing political parties or candidates, the conservative slanted and church-owned Deseret News does it for them (at least presenting almost entirely conservative viewpoints). There is, however, a notable difference this election compared to the 2012 election when Romney was a daily story in the Deseret News.

  7. I’m glad that they didn’t endorse any candidates. But I did kind of wish that they would have said something which would apply to any election. Say something like “If you’ve though ‘I know there’s no logical reason to vote for Candidate X, but I’m voting for them anyway.’ You’re not allowed to vote for them.” Or perhaps something along the lines of “We notice that in this specific election, people tend to be holding the candidates from the two major parties to different standards. Stop doing that.”

  8. Lois, which means that the DN is doing exactly what it is supposed to do (whether or not I agree with its political bent). A number of years, a handful of people worried about the future of newspapers bandied around the idea of making them nonprofit. (It wouldn’t be impossible: some investigative journalism resources, like ProPublica and Voice of San Diego are exempt under 501(c)(3).) It was ultimately a nonstarter, though, since a traditional role of newspapers is to endorse candidates for office, and 501(c)(3)s can’t do that.

  9. Clark Goble says:

    … Pulpit Freedom Sunday seems an opportunity to fight for religious freedom. Why weren’t they all over that?

    My sense, perhaps incorrect, is that they have finally come to the realization of how much religious freedom is tied to social norms. That is the current fairly great religious liberties are very much an artifact of a particular period of time when the nation was still religious and pluralistic. It’s not apt to survive the rapid social changes even if the country doesn’t move to the type of secularism one finds in Europe.

    Given that reality and recognition, politicization would be the absolute worst thing they could do. It’d be at best a temporary victory that ends up hurting in the long term. (That’s what I think Prop-8 was, for instance) Right now for better or worse the religious are almost entirely on the right. Politicize that more and you end up pushing that polarization more. That means you’ll do OK when your party is in power but not so great when it’s out of party or worse when some new faction pushes you out within your party.

    My guess, which is far more speculative, is that outside perhaps of the SSM issue, you’ll see the brethren trying to build up more support more broadly among the various coalitions within American politics. There are ways they can do that right now with major figures like Harry Reid. You see that with other groups such as Wall Street that has arguably been trying to ensure their success regardless of which party wins. The difficulty with this is their individual political consciences combined with the problem that some coalitions on both the right and the left are very opposed to their goals.

  10. PassTheChips says:

    “Right now for better or worse the religious are almost entirely on the right. ”

    Clark, according to Pew, 59% of Democrats identify as Christian. I’d say that qualifies as being religious. Less Christian than the right (83%), but it’s still a big number.

  11. Clark Goble says:

    PassTheChips, the polarization has been underway but isn’t finished yet. For instance African Americans are religious but overwhelmingly are Democratic. Further their attendance is quite good. Among other groups you start to see more of a right/left break depending upon attendance. According to Pew among those who self-identify as highly religious 36% are Democratic or lean Democratic. 51% are Republican or lean that way. That’s a big gap – especially when you consider that the GOP has massively alienated the African American community and to a degree the Latino community who are religious. Had GOP racism been less pronounced then that gap would almost certainly be much larger.

    I couldn’t find figures with race and attendance controlled for well. The closest was this recent Pew study. There among white Evangelicals 78% are for Trump (albeit often not strongly) while only 17% are for Clinton. Among unaffiliated this is inverted. 23% are for Trump and 67% are for Clinton. Now admittedly this is a pretty unusual election due to both candidates being profoundly unpopular. But I think it highlights the problem. For those who regularly attend though (and this makes your point more) 49% say they are for Trump and 45% for Clinton. However historically (going back to last year) regular attendees were rather opposed to Trump. So there may be artifacts here. In 2012 Romney beat Obama by 20 points for those who regularly attend services. Again though looking at the breakdown by faith, this is biased by Catholics which probably reflects latinos and some African Americans. Obama didn’t lead in Catholics who regularly attend services whereas this year Clinton leads in that demographic by a staggering 19 points.

    When you break it down by party 8% of Dems are white evangelical, 11% are white mainline protestant, but 16% are black protestant. A staggering 28% of Democrats are unaffiliated. Among GOP 35% are white evangelicals & 18% are white mainline with 12% unaffiliated.

    My point isn’t to say there aren’t religious people on the left. Clearly there are and even in positions of power as Harry Reid shows. However you don’t see the political influence on policy like you do on the right. Further, all the trends point towards great polarization. The exception is really due to race. However given race you don’t tend to see leadership matching the base. (You can see that for instance on the SSM issue where the African American base tends to oppose SSM more than whites but that’s not reflected in their representatives)

  12. Interesting – thank you

  13. Sam, I always enjoy (and learn something!) from your posts. Thanks for writing this up :)

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