On Sunday, Carolyn Homer wrote a thoughtful post about why, even if Donald Trump manages to “totally destroy” the so-called Johnson Amendment, the church shouldn’t start publicly endorsing or opposing candidates for office. On almost every level, she is certainly right: anything else opens the door to real discomfort and mischief.
And yet, I want to propose that, if Trump succeeds, the church (or, rather, members of the Quorum of the Twelve) should start endorsing candidates.
Stay with me—this isn’t any kind of modest proposal, and I’m being completely serious. But my proposal requires some explanation and significant caveats.
As I’ve previously explained, the tax law prohibits tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates for office. One of the platforms Donald Trump ran on (presumably to help shore up the Evangelical vote) was to eliminate that prohibition. And, if he succeeds, churches and other tax-exempt organizations will have at least a limited ability to start endorsing candidates.
Which brings us to the church. While it currently eschews supporting candidates, the language in the church’s political neutrality statement follows the tax prohibition decently carefully. If the prohibition goes away, it’s at least possible that the church’s neutrality as between candidates for office goes away.
And that could be a good thing.
Of course, its being a good thing depends on two things being true. First, it is only a good thing if there is political diversity among the upper echelons (let’s say Q12, though it could be defined differently) of Mormonism. And second, it is only a good thing if most or all of those upper echelons are willing to share their political leanings.
Imagine if, in October conference, Elder Oaks, as part of his talk, told us that protecting religious liberty was absolutely essential, and that he believed that Evan McMullin best embodied the value of religious liberty.
In a different talk, Elder Renland spoke about our duty to care for the poor, and mentioned that he believed that Hillary Clinton’s tax plan would provide the poor with what they needed most.
I see two significant benefits to this: first, it signals to the body of the church that the church isn’t aligned with the Republican party. Or, for that matter, with the Democratic party. (This is why my first condition is that there be political plurality among the top leaders of the church. And Pew says 66% of U.S. Mormons say they’re conservative, and 74% consider themselves Republicans. That leaves 26% who don’t identify with Republicans. If the Q12 follows those numbers, that means 9 Republicans and 3 non-Republicans. Of course, there’s no reason to believe that the Q12 is a representative sample of Mormonism at large, but there’s no reason to believe it isn’t.)
Second, it models respectful disagreement to members. And that modeling is tremendously important. Two quick stories.
The first: I was in a Sunday School lesson once, and the topic was predestination vs. foreordination. I don’t remember exactly how the lesson went, but suddenly, somebody made asked what the difference was between the two. Somebody else answered defensively. And then there was yelling.
And the thing is, I’m pretty sure nobody in that room really cared about the difference between predestination and foreordination, at least not enough to start a fight. But what could have been an interesting and valuable discussion turned into a way that members could let out steam—because we have a social norm against disagreement, we have to bottle it in (or maybe mutter under our breath to our neighbor, if we like our neighbor). So when the disagreement gets out, it sometimes really gets out.
The second: a friend has told me that, in her Relief Society, every time there’s disagreement, somebody mentions how the Spirit has left the room. Her RS can’t function unless everybody agrees. But, for everybody to agree, either the discussion has to be bland or obvious (or, I guess, both).
I realize I’m biased, as an attorney, but I believe that confronting and engaging opposing viewpoints helps us to improve our thoughts and beliefs, and can, frankly, bring us closer to God.
But we’re probably not going to start spontaneously disagreeing; our culture of avoiding even the appearance of disagreement runs deep.
And it even runs deep among leaders of the church. They claim that they disagree on various things, and I believe them (because I don’t believe a group of 12 people can agree on everything, even if they want to). But they don’t make statements unless they do so on a unified basis.
But light political disagreement is a safe place for them to model disagreement. In most elections, there’s little moral valence to the choice of candidates.[fn2] That our leaders disagree on the best candidate for office doesn’t call into question the nature of God, the truth-claims of the church, or even the apostolic mantle. It reflects individuals with slightly different political preferences.
It’s true that our ability to disagree doesn’t require that church leaders model anything. (My HP group, for example, does really well at productive and civil disagreement.) But it would certainly help.
Of course, for many reasons, even though I think that in theory, church leaders endorsing candidates would be a good thing in a post-Johnson Amendment world, it also carries significant risk, and that risk may ultimately make Carolyn’s assessment the better choice.
For it to work, the endorsements have to be basically throw-away lines (and maybe, my hypothetical notwithstanding, that’s not the best place for them). We don’t need our church leaders to preach sermons on the reasons we should vote for Jeb Bush. Not only is such a sermon outside the scope of the apostolic mantle, but it also provides the wrong model: like you (probably), I don’t want to listen to talks on the benefits of Rahm Emanuel.
It’s also necessary that many or all of the leaders actually do use those throw-away lines. We have a history of political statements by individuals who feel really strongly about politics (*cough*Elder Benson*cough*), while those who feel less strongly either don’t want to comment or don’t want to disagree. The church leadership, most of whom grew up in the same conflict-averse culture that still exists, would have to get comfortable with public disagreement. If the permission to support candidates is only exercised by one person, the potential benefits go away (even if that one person shares my political preferences).
And, as I said earlier, it’s essential that there actually be political disagreement. My whole proposal backfires if it turns out that all of them are behind Gary Johnson.[fn3]
So the risks are big. But, if all of my criteria are met, the rewards might be big, too. At the very least, the person sitting next to you in Sunday School wouldn’t be able to assume that all good Mormons share her or his political preferences.[fn4]
[fn1] Note that, in each of my hypothetical talks, the mention of a candidate is basically a throw-away line; a full talk about a candidate would go offensively far from the ideal of preaching nothing but Jesus, and him crucified.
[fn2] 2016 was uniquely unique in that respect, I think.
[fn3] A couple other caveats: this is totally a US-centric thing. That’s unfortunate, but the church, in spite of its international aspirations, is basically a US church. Our leadership is by and large American, and, to the extent they’re familiar with politics, it’ll be US politics. Also, for pragmatic reasons, they should probably continue not endorsing candidates in Utah, or maybe in the Mormon corridor broadly. I’m not worried about the church’s ability to move the needle on national elections; there just aren’t enough of us. But unless the church wanted people to think of Utah as a theocracy, it should probably largely stay out of party politics in Utah.
[fn4] One final note: I’m not arguing here that the prohibition should or shouldn’t be removed, and I’m not arguing that the church’s moving to endorse candidates would be good or bad for the body politic (though frankly, I don’t think the church is powerful enough that its endorsing candidates would be either good or bad). What I’m saying is, modeling disagreement would be valuable for Mormon culture and religion, and that, if the Johnson Amendment goes away, politics would be a good place to model that disagreement.