The Church Should Remain Politically Neutral

Today’s guest post is from Carolyn Homer. Carolyn Homer is an attorney and religion constitutional law enthusiast in Washington, D.C.

The silence is eerie.

Ever since Donald Trump became a serious presidential contender, Sunday meetings (at least in my wards) have been free of passing references to politics and thinly-veiled endorsements of the Republican platform. Instead there’s been a renewed focus on love, Christ, repentance, and refugees.

I love it. And I hope it stays that way.

The Church is politically neutral — it has to be, by law — but its members decidedly aren’t. Mormons are the most Republican-leaning religion in America. When that fact is mixed with our lay clergy . . . suffice it to say that although I’ve never heard a Republican candidate explicitly endorsed over a pulpit, it has often been implicit. And partisan advocacy is frequent in chapel halls and at social events.

Among religious groups in America, Mormons also rank at the top of church attendance and regularly take the strongest stances on sexual moral issues. We take our faith seriously. So seriously that Mormons often view Democrats as inherently suspect and unworthy. Senator Harry Reid recently admitted, “[N]o group has been more difficult and hard on me than [LDS] church members — sending letters to my bishop saying I shouldn’t get a recommend.”

But last election cycle, Mormons’ dual “God and party” loyalties came into sharp conflict. Even if they ultimately voted for him, few Mormons could call President Trump a “righteous and moral leader” with a straight face. Even the First Presidency seemed to tacitly recognize that, deleting this sentence from their 2016 election letter: “Latter-day Saints as citizens are to seek out and then uphold leaders who will act with integrity and are wise, good, and honest.” [1]

It’s been refreshing to watch Mormons realize that an alignment between God and party is no longer viable. What began as a break over immigration and refugees has expanded. We’ve begun to re-center ourselves on core gospel values of compassion and caring for the poor and needy. Slowly, the Church has begun extricating itself from the cultural wars in order to promote cultural peace.

But if President Trump has his way, that political disengagement trend could rapidly reverse itself.

This past week at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump repeated a campaign promise and vowed “to totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.” In another BCC post on Friday, Sam Brunson provided background: Passed in 1954, the Johnson Amendment is the provision of the tax code which forbids all 501(c)(3) nonprofits (charities, schools, museums, churches, etc.) from participating in partisan elections.

Evangelicals have long complained that this provision limits their ability to encourage moral decisions from their worshippers. There’s even an annual “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” where they intentionally violate the law. The left has long defended that it prevents churches from turning into political action committees. The IRS has responded by hiding in a corner and pretending the provision doesn’t exist.

In short, the Johnson Amendment is a legal mess at the center of charitable regulation, campaign finance, free speech, and religious liberty. Without delving into a full First Amendment and political analysis, it’s likely that either a Gorsuch-bolstered Supreme Court will strike it down, or Congress will repeal it, within the next couple of years. Churches will be free to endorse candidates without consequence.

Which brings us back to the LDS Church. Assuming the Johnson Amendment falls, what should the Church do?

I hope the answer is nothing. If the backlash from Proposition 8 taught us anything, it’s that overt involvement in contentious elections does more harm than good.

I hope the Church instructs its Bishops and Stake Presidents and General Authorities that any political endorsement from the pulpit, even if legally permitted, risks our moral authority. Especially with our doctrinal emphasis on deference to Priesthood leaders, endorsements will only divide rather than perfect the saints.

Lest there be any doubt, Mormons have learned this lesson before. The first 100 years of Mormon history is replete with political alignments and endorsements. This includes the Church literally assigning “Republican” and “Democratic” labels to its members after Utah achieved statehood [2], and President Joseph F. Smith endorsing Taft in 1912, which “was immediately interpreted as an appeal to Church members to vote for Taft.” [3] The same decade as the Johnson Amendment, President David O. McKay both told Mormons that political parties would be treated impartially by the church, and made a “personal” endorsement of Nixon. [4]

The Church’s modern stance — that its leaders should not even make campaign contributions to a political candidate in their personal capacities — has been a long time coming. No matter what happens with the Johnson Amendment, we should reiterate Joseph Smith’s declaration from 1843: “I am not come to tell you to vote this way, that way or the other. . . . The Lord has not given me a revelation concerning politics.”

—————————————
[1] Compare First Presidency Issues Letter on Political Participation (Sept. 22, 2008), and First Presidency Issues Letter Encouraging Political Participation, Voting (Oct. 29, 2014) with First Presidency 2016 Letter Encouraging Political Participation, Voting in US (Oct. 5, 2016).

[2] Church History In The Fulness Of Times Student Manual, Ch. 34, “An Era of Reconciliation.” (2003).

[3] James B. Allen, Assistant Church Historian, The American Presidency and the Mormons (1972). Taft won Utah.

[4] Id. See also Michael D. Groote, Deseret News, Richard Nixon campaigned in Utah 50 years ago today (2010). (“This comment by President McKay was taken as an endorsement by the media. The Ogden Standard-Examiner’s headline trumpeted “President McKay Gives Nixon Full Endorsement.” United Press International called it “the almost unprecedented endorsement of the spiritual leader of the Mormon church,” but noted it was “informal” and “unofficial.” The church issued a clarifying statement the next morning that said President McKay was speaking as a Republican and as a personal voter.”). Nixon won Utah.

Comments

  1. There is a difference between neutrality concerning party politics and political neutrality.

  2. I didn’t catch the letter paragraph omission. It’s somewhat disturbing to me.

  3. I think the Johnson amendment probably should be repealed, since it does not seem to be enforced (“IRS hiding in a corner, pretending the provision doesn’t exist”). I also agree that the church and its members functioning in their various lay callings should keep political opinions out of our meetings. Thanks for this post! It feels like the calm after the storm.

  4. I agree in principle, but would make three additions or qualifications:
    1. This ought to be a worldwide discussion, and that would add some additional arguments in favor of neutrality.
    2. Neutrality is very difficult to accomplish. Direct explicit endorsement is just the beginning. Dog whistling is actually very common in the Church–not always intentional (perhaps not ever intentional) but every time the Church releases a statement I hear from members “I know what they’re really saying.” Dropping the traditional “wise, good and honest” line in the 2016 election was seen in my circles as an implicit endorsement, a “for those who have ears to hear” it’s OK to vote for Trump.
    3. I assume the Church will continue to speak on moral issues, matters of principle. Parties and candidates (around the world) will forever associate themselves with one side or the other on such issues, making every principles statement from the Church functionally an endorsement for a candidate or a party (for those who choose to hear it, whether intended or not).

  5. Thanks, Carolyn. I agree—irrespective of the rules that apply to tax-exempt entities, the church is well-served to avoid endorsing candidates or effectively aligning itself with any political party.

  6. Alpineglow says:

    I often find myself wishing our leaders would speak out more against the horrible things that happen in politics and current events.

    And then the searing memory of living at the epicenter of Prop 8 returns, and institutional silence seems like a decent option. Teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves. It is not meet that I should command in all things, etc.

  7. Allison Flynn says:

    Since the 115th congress wants to abolish the IRS and income tax, any argument regarding religious/political neutrality will become moot. See H.R25 and S.18 https://congress.gov/search?searchResultViewType=expanded&q={%22source%22:%22legislation%22,%22search%22:%22irs%22,%22congress%22:%22115%22}

  8. Does every country that the church is in have their own Johnson amendment? For those that don’t, does the church do any endorsing? Or is the church even aware of countries other than the US?

  9. jader3rd, I’m not sure what other countries, if any, have an equivalent prohibition. But the Johnson Amendment’s prohibition on endorsing candidates isn’t limited to just US candidates—it also would prohibit a US tax-exempt (including the church) from endorsing a foreign candidate.

  10. “This includes the Church literally assigning ‘Republican’and ‘Democratic’ labels to its members after Utah achieved statehood”.

    I have heard this repeatedly, but cannot find a legitimate reference. Can anyone help?

  11. ^^ click on Footnote 2!

  12. As a more conservative member, I completely agree. If Trump’s time as President accomplishes one good thing, maybe it will be helping Christians of all stripes to disentangle their religion from the politics of their country.

  13. Aussie Mormon says:

    Jader:
    Australia appears to have a similar rule https://www.acnc.gov.au/ACNC/Reg/Charities_elections_and_advocacy_.aspx
    “It’s okay for a charity to:
    —have a purpose of advancing public debate – including promoting or opposing a change in law – where this furthers or aids another charitable purpose.
    —have a purpose to promote or oppose a change to a law, policy or practice in the Commonwealth, a state or territory or another country where this furthers or aids another charitable purpose
    It’s not okay for a charity to:
    —have a purpose to promote or oppose a political party or a candidate for political office.
    —have a purpose to engage in or promote activities that are unlawful.
    —have a purpose to engage in or promote activities that are contrary to public policy (which, in this context, means the rule of law, our constitutional system, the safety of the public or national security).”

  14. Aussie Mormon says:

    As a related incident: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-09-15/victorias-catholic-education-commission-tax-free-status-threat/7848554
    “The charities regulator has threatened the tax-free status of the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria (CECV) after it urged parents not to vote for the Greens at the federal election.”

  15. “Politically neutral” and “nonpartisan” are not the same thing.

  16. John Mansfield says:

    The assumption is that if the LDS church were politically active, then its politics would be that of its conservative Republican members. That may be, but repeal of laws on religious political neutrality could also open a scenario where the Mormon bloc truly is for sale. Church leaders might decide that particular deliverable interests of the LDS church are more important than broader culture wars against communism and sexual immorality. The LDS church’s endorsement and the millions of votes that would follow it would go to whoever makes the right credible promises to help out with visas, or land use regulation, or cannery inspections, or boundaries between family history research and privacy concerns, or whatever is of concern in a given year. A politically active LDS church might be like a politically neutral LDS church, but with more to offer those politicians who will come to its aid.

  17. This is the guidance for charities in Britain: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/434427/CC9_LowInk.pdf
    Key points on p3.
    Picking out some of them:
    “• Legal requirement: to be a charity an organisation must be established for charitable purposes only, which are for the public benefit. An organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are political.
    “• Legal requirement: however, political campaigning, or political activity, as defined in this guidance, must be undertaken by a charity only in the context of supporting the delivery of its charitable purposes. Unlike other forms of campaigning, it must not be the continuing and sole activity of the charity.
    “• Legal requirement: however, a charity cannot exist for a political purpose, which is any purpose directed at furthering the interests of any political party, or securing or opposing a change in the law, policy or decisions either in this country or abroad.
    “• Legal requirement: in the political arena, a charity must stress its independence and ensure that any involvement it has with political parties is balanced. A charity must not give support or funding to a political party, nor to a candidate or politician.”

    And perhaps most importantly:
    “• The principles of charity campaigning and political activity are the same, whether the activity is
    carried out in the United Kingdom or overseas.”

  18. Postmodern Egg Roll says:

    Interesting read, but the typo is paragraph 6 “duel” is killing me.

    What are your thoughts on the increasing trend away from religiousness in the United States? I feel if anything that may lead toward a strengthening of the Johnson Amendment, and perhaps even the loss of tax exempt status regardless of political neutrality. It may be at some point we have to forgo that luxury in order to maintain our ability to teach doctrine that is becoming increasingly viewed as outdated and even bigoted.

    I also find the quote from Joseph Smith somewhat troubling as he most certainly did advise the early saints on political matters, and his control over the Mormon voting bloc was one of the primary agitators against the Church in Illinois.

  19. Kullervo makes an important point. I’d prefer non-partisan. The other thing I wish more church members understood is that in the US, we have the right and the left. In the rest of the western world, the right is usually to the left of our left.

  20. @Postmodern:

    (1) re: Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith was all over the place on overall neutrality. I mean, clearly he ran for President and cursed Governor Boggs. So…I totally get that the quote seems out of context. I debated what to do about that, and decided that the sideshow around “the complex and conflicting political statements of Joseph Smith” was an entirely separate blog post. So one quote about the best of his positions, following my other mentions of early Mormon history being “replete” with such political activity seemed sufficient.

    (2) I find it unlikely though that any religion which is NOT deeply engaged in politics (i.e. whose issue advocacy is directly in line with its religious mission, and does not take up a substantial part of its overall activities) would ever be forced to lose its tax exempt status. There would be all sorts of other constitutional problems if religions couldn’t claim tax exempt protections while other charities/nonprofits/mission-focused organizations could.

    (3) thanks for the typo catch! We fixed it.

  21. Last Lemming says:

    In the rest of the western world, the right is usually to the left of our left.

    Ahem…Marine LePen, Nigel Farage, and Jörg Haider are not to the left of Bernie Sanders.

  22. Lemming: Yeah, well, that USED to be the case before the rise of nationalism in the last few years. But, yes, point taken. And if anyone is seriously thinking Marine LePen is a role model for US politics, they should get their head examined. But if they do think that, they probably voted for Trump in which case they should definitely get their head examined.

  23. Last Lemming: economically, they are. Most of the European xenophobic-nationalists build their cases around the preservation of their countries’ welfare states.

    (Never mind that most European countries have birthrates far below replacement level; while automation might solve the problem of declining labor forces, it might be a generation or more, and during the interim the dependency ratio in many of these countries will reach dangerous levels.)

  24. Geoff - Aus says:

    I am in Australia. Many of my fellow HP would vote for Trump if they could. As Last Lemming !@.25 says our mainstream conservative political party is to the left of the Democrats, though they have some extreme members who are controlling the agenda, so that makes our members very extreme in the local environment.
    We have already had a HP quote Trump on “ripping babies out of the womb at 9 months, without it raising a comment.
    We have a strange position that it’s OK to make comments like that, but to actually discuss the facts about abortion is seen as political.
    I would like to see a statement that you can be equally good member whether you vote right or left, but to be careful of extreme. It would be good to actually discuss the facts of political points like abortion. Apparently members voted for Trump so he could make abortion illegal, but how would the church policy be possible if it is illegal. We should be discussing these problems.
    Many members want to be more Utah than Utah, in every way, including politics.

  25. Geoff-Aus,
    The quote that you condemn about an abortion at 9 months describes something that is rarely, if ever, practiced, but is legal in much of the USA.
    Also, the members are correct that Trump’s election may eventually lead to more abortions being illegal in the US. If this were to occur, the church policy would likely be the law in the states of Utah & Idaho, with several other states having similar policies. This is most probably 4-6 years away at a minimum if the supreme court changes some more beyond the current open seat.

    A repeal of the Johnson amendment would lead to no major changes in the LDS church policies for quite a while.

  26. You’ll never hear this from a source like BCC. You will have to turn to a more politically neutral source like NPR to get this information:
    “A 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found that black Protestants have been more likely than other Christian groups to report having heard their clergy speak out clearly on the merits or faults of a particular candidate. The study found that 28 percent of black Protestants heard their clergy speak in support of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign, while about 1 in 5 black Protestants, about 20 percent, said they had heard their ministers denounce Donald Trump.

    By comparison, just 4 percent of white evangelicals reported having heard their clergy speak in favor of a presidential candidate (2 percent each for Trump and Clinton), while 7 percent heard their clergy speak against a candidate (mostly Clinton).”
    http://www.npr.org/2017/02/03/513187940/the-johnson-amendment-in-five-questions-and-answers

  27. Meanwhile, this past weekend I heard plenty of right-wing talking points over my very very white, LDS stake conference pulpit. Including “they’re taking our guns,” gay marriage stuff, prayers in school, and about how evil protesters are.

    I know the church itself is typically politically neutral (gay marriage stuff excepted), but individual wards and stakes don’t necessarily hold to the same standard. Sometimes they seem to heed their talk radio gods more than the prophets.

  28. Mike W.,

    You’ll never hear this from a source like BCC.

    Two things: first, that’s probably right, in large part because few, if any, of us belong to black Protestant churches. What they do is outside the scope of our general posts.

    Second (and relatedly), huh? What does the political activity of various other churches have to do with the OP, which makes a normative assertion about what the Mormon church should do if and when the so-called Johnson Amendment goes away? (Also, btw, Carolyn explicitly mentions that many churches do, in fact, endorse candidates, as did I when I posted on this same topic last week.)

  29. @Sam and Mike W.

    I think the point was that the OP was based around the fact that repealing the Johnson Amendment is a cause celebre of the right, and Mike was saying that the left (i.e. historically black churches) would benefit too. That’s an eminently fair point.

    Also, I’ll never protest further linking to Pew. Considering that my opening post linked to it 3 separate times!

  30. I do not see any good reason for the LDS church to be anything but politically neutral.

    The Black protestants are by far the most egregious violaters of the law on this topic.

  31. I agree that the Church should not endorse candidates, but if a candidate and his/her stances on issues are morally repugnant, I am not opposed to the Church opposing a particular candidate. It would have been easy this past election, and it is even easier now that Trump has had a couple of weeks to show his true colors.

  32. Aussie Mormon says:

    The only problem with the church opposing a particular candidate, is, given the two-candidate nature of the US federal elections, it will be ultimately be seen as an endorsement of the other, even if the church explicitly says it isn’t.

  33. Stirling Adams says:

    “I despise the use of Church influence in politics as I despise the gates of hell.” Pres. Lorenzo Snow, from. Quinn’s notes of 1 page summary of “Statement in Private Against Use of Church Influence in Politics—1901,” D. Michael Quinn Papers, Uncat. WA MS.98, Beinecke Library, Yale University.
    -Stirling Adams

  34. A Duke Law tax professor gives an Interesting take on how this could affect the perceived religious validity of churches in general:

    “Individuals can participate in campaigns, and contribute to parties, candidates and action committees, but they get no deduction for doing so. The same is true of businesses, labor unions, chambers of commerce — really, it’s true for everyone.

    It does not take a great leap of imagination to realize that if wealthy people and institutions can deduct the cost of their political activities, but only if those activities are funneled through a church, they will do precisely that. If for some reason they cannot find a cooperative church to be their mouthpiece, they can easily create one. While most charities must fill out an exhaustive application to the IRS for recognition of their exempt status, churches alone are not subject to that requirement. They enjoy a presumption of exempt status.”

    Full article, http://www.jsonline.com/story/opinion/2017/02/06/schmabeck-dangerous-temptation-churches/97559660/

  35. “Even the First Presidency seemed to tacitly recognize that, deleting this sentence from their 2016 election letter: ‘Latter-day Saints as citizens are to seek out and then uphold leaders who will act with integrity and are wise, good, and honest.'”

    I don’t think I can express how angry this makes me.