What If the Church Didn’t Remain Politically Neutral?

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.

And Elder Cook spoke about the importance of the Word of Wisdom and pointed out that, as a teetotaler, Donald Trump represented the country’s best chance to reduce the dangers of alcohol.[fn1]

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.


  1. J. Stapley says:

    I tend to agree, but there is so much invested in unanimity that it would take a revolution far greater than the repeal of the Johnson Amendment to realize it.

  2. J., I think you’re probably right, but, without the Johnson Amendment, this strikes me as one of the easiest places to introduce public disagreement, given how orthogonal it is to the church’s central mission(s).

  3. Well said, J. But one can hope. A public model of respectful disagreement at the top would be very helpful.

  4. Very interesting. I think it would be a good development if your hypothetical were realized. I would go further and lobby for open disagreement or differing views on Church administration too. I’d love to hear that the vote was 8 to 4 in favor of siting a new temple in xyz neighborhood, and would argue, similar to the OP, that would be good for everybody.
    However, I think your very reasonable requirements make this a “never happen” proposition. (See J.Stapley, above.) And that even a whiff of unanimity or orchestration would be more damaging than strict neutrality.
    Also, for a fully developed plan you have to deal with the Stake President problem. It’s at the Stake President level that I hear most of the current muttering (for and against) about endorsements and promotion of policies. If Stake Presidents (and to a lesser extent bishops) aren’t strictly neutral, there is much less opportunity for diversity or plurality in contrast to the SP. A High Council is not parallel to the Q12 despite superficial similarities.

  5. At the risk of labeling this post as naive, I’ll just say that there is no such thing as “light political disagreement” at the ward level. The Q12 could pull this off, sure. But if ordinary members are allowed to follow their example then fast and testimony meeting will turn into WWIII (at least in my ward).

    I do agree that our church culture could stand to learn how to deal with disagreement constructively. Things are pretty bland. But politics – especially with Trump – is way too heavy a place to to start. A better approach would be to invite thoughts on “which hymn is best” or “what was the alcohol content of the wine Jesus drank.” You have to start small. Better yet, let the youth run things for awhile (e.g., a 5th Sunday lesson). By and large, the youth are capable of constructive disagreement. They have yet to be jello-fied into blandness by the adult auxiliaries.

  6. There has got to be a better way to model disagreement. You note this, but as a non-American I am already pretty annoyed by the Church’s level of engagement with and reactivity to U.S. politics. It ripples to where we are, which sometimes feels plain silly, and often feels alienating. Even the idea that political affiliation is so divisive that it needs to be managed and modeled among church members feels very 2-Party System/American to me – which is fine, but then maybe it should be modeled on an Area-Authority level, rather than by the Q12.

  7. Thanks for your comments so far, everybody. I should probably clarify something: Mormons clearly know how to disagree. Even with each other. The problem is, some of us don’t know how to disagree at church.

    Sara, I totally agree that this is suboptimal (and, perhaps, way suboptimal). I’d actually rather they modeled public disagreement with something nonpolitical that is, at the same time, relevant (that is, I don’t see any value in their modeling the fact that they like different kinds of chocolate, because who cares?). The problem is, they’re enmeshed by a culture of unanimity. The reason I chose politics is that, if Congress actually gets rid of the so-called Johnson Amendment (and I don’t know how I’d handicap the chances of that), we get an external shock in the political realm. The (or at least a) reason they didn’t discuss specific politicians would go away, which might disrupt the inertia they currently face in a way that the inertia around other topics wouldn’t be disrupted. Still, like you said, it’s not the optimal place for disagreement.

    And Dave K, that may be a risk. I think this would reduce the chances that someone launches WWIII at church though. There’s already no legal constraint on members sharing their political beliefs at church. And I assume that those who already do feel implicitly that their political leanings are the same as the church’s. But if church leadership publicly disagrees with each other, it’s a whole lot harder to maintain that the church is in line with your personal political preferences (though I suspect that the Mormon versions of Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer could do it anyway, though I suspect that they’re already doing it).

  8. imagineinspireinquire says:

    I agree. Living outside America, church feels US-based but not US-centric. It would seem jarring to hear reference to US politics in General Conference, unless speaker was telling a personal experience to make a point, perhaps. Interesting article, though

  9. Also, Sara, just to clarify, in case I wasn’t clear enough in the OP: it’s not that party politics is so divisive that it needs to be modeled. The predestination vs. foreordination debate didn’t follow any kind of two-party lines, and my friend’s RS isn’t split on political issues, but on anything that varies from the blandest of statements. It’s not that we need to learn to disagree politically; it’s that we need to learn to disagree, period.

  10. I think the same end can be accomplished without mentioning names. In fact, this effectively happens. Pres. Uchtdorff, for example, mentioning the importance of caring for refugees or the Church’s statement about religious freedom in light Trump’s proposed Muslim ban during the campaign.

    The problem is that the name represents a huge mix of positions, many of which may not be supported by the GA mentioning the name. But by saying the name, he would effectively be endorsing ALL of those candidates’ positions, even if they only call out one position in particular.

    And imagine the fallout if a GA endorses a candidate who gets mired in a moral scandal of some kind.

    There’s really no upside to supporting candidates but tons of downside.

  11. I think we’d have to learn/grow a lot more in the ideas of using councils to make decisions, counselling together to get multiple viewpoints for this to be feasible. We’ve too much “the authority has spoken, so let it be written, so let it be done” still very much in use, at every level, Bishop, SP, and AA. Q12 and Q70s may be able to move and direct through concils, but it’s not really filtered down well yet.

    I could too easily imagine the fires that would pop up if the leashes were truly loosed. The small (yet very painful) fires we currently get regarding abuse, LGBT, “chastity”, are already more than enough for me, tyvm.

  12. I agree with mjb33. Specific references to candidates, even throw-aways, would be seized upon, scrutinized, and repurposed for all sorts of purposes. A throw-away that was meant to signal political diversity and model disagreement could easily upstage one’s more serious efforts to preach Christ crucified. It seems that these same objectives could be reasonably accomplished if general Church leadership spoke openly, albeit perhaps not specifically, of political disagreements within Presidencies and quorums (e.g. from the pulpit), as well as actively modeled real disagreement (e.g. in training modules).

    By speaking openly and frankly, but not specifically (i.e. referring to specific candidates), you do a few things, I think. You preserve some of those global aspirations of the Church. I served in a third world country on my mission, and was pained when General Conference talks relied heavily on idiosyncratic characteristics of the American West. Additionally, by omitting specificity there’s less need, then, to worry about limiting who can or should authoritatively opine on how to manage disagreement in leadership settings (especially when there is no guarantee that political diversity is present in any particular presidency or quorum). General relief society presidents, area authority seventies, presiding Bishopric members, and so on, can and should share their insights on how to navigate difference.

    I’d be very interested in seeing disagreement modeled in local settings. My experience with Church videos (granted it’s been a couple of years) on ward councils has been pretty underwhelming: they present ideal forms, with little or no meaningful disagreement. This may have changed since I last watched one. The same could be said for SS/RS/EQ classes. I would love to for the Church to produce a meaningful training video that captures a real discussion in RS and EQ where serious disagreements emerge, where several sides are heard, and where parties walk away having understood each other and feeling edified while not in full agreement.

  13. I’m not a sociologist, but my observation of non-LDS churches suggests that political discussions at church are much easier when members are free to choose the congregation (or the denomination) they will join. Mormons’ unusual practice of requiring members to attend wards based strictly on geographical boundaries virtually eliminates the margin for comfortable disagreement at church. If we absolutely have to attend church with people we don’t agree with, then the practical way to make it work is to accommodate the least tolerant among us; that means that we must always avoid contentious points.

    If we had some freedom to select the people with whom we attend our meetings, it would be much easier to work out norms for the types of discussion that are acceptable in different groups. I’m not suggesting that Mormon practice should change in this regard; I’m just proposing an observation about one effect of this unusual practice.

  14. Elle, I guess my problem with broader issues is that, in many (though clearly not all) cases, they’re not (initially, at least) going to feel comfortable introducing disagreement. Who’s going to argue against refugees, for example? (I mean, among church leaders.) Or who’s going to argue for same-sex marriage, or against democracy, or whatever? The very benefit to specific candidates is that they bring a host of ideas (and baggage) with them, and disagreement about the best candidate doesn’t represent fundamental disagreement about goodness and morality. (Well, again, in normal US election cycles.)

    I agree about the training videos. I’m no connoisseur, of course, and I’m sure there are more I haven’t seen than there are that I have, but the ones I’ve seen, when they model councils, have somebody ask a question, somebody answer it, and then we’re good.

    And, ftr, I totally hear everybody who’s hesitant about bringing politics into religion (or who’s hesitant about bringing US politics in), and I acknowledge that my proposal is potentially risky. And I’d love for someone to suggest a better topic that top leadership could break with unanimity on, or, at least, a topic of some import. Because honestly, we as a church culture really need to get past the idea that disagreement is somehow inconsistent with the Spirit.

  15. Something needs to be done; there are wards and stakes in the church that are so politically uniform that it’s just assumed everyone shares the same politics. The problem here is that church culture promotes conformity, and that includes political conformity. My concern is that history indicates that the leaders of the church most likely to introduce political diversity are also the least likely to speak up loudly about what they support. Elder A quietly stating support for a Democrat, for example, would be overshadowed by Elder B repeatedly shouting support for a Republican.

    In 2013, President Uchtdorf spoke in General Conference about there being political diversity in the church, and about how that political diversity helps the church. That surprised my EQP at the time, and he changed his views from “only Republicans can be good Mormons” to grudgingly admitting that others may also be able to be good Mormons. Still, though, especially in places like rural Utah and Eastern Idaho, the political diversity angle needs to be taught more frequently because the message just isn’t getting through. In many of these wards and stakes, it’s not okay to be a Democrat. Republican politics is taught at church as gospel truth (and I wish I was just talking about abortion and gay marriage). Unsurprisingly, those who are Democrats in these areas struggle to stay active.

  16. I’m completely with you on this Sam. If Zion is people of “one heart and one mind” then we will never get there if we are too afraid to talk about those areas where we aren’t of one heart/mind. How will that ever be achieved if we are so enamored with unanimity that we are unwilling to voice our disagreements in civil ways?

    Though I suppose we disagree on why we think it might be a good thing. You say it is because you want it to be shown that disagreements are okay. I say it is because I think that talking about our disagreements is the only way to influence each other enough to mold each of us into having one heart/mind – my end game being the elimination of those disagreements.

  17. nothing assumed about your food allergy says:

    A model of disagreement is fine. But if one result of this is that we hear more about political opinions at conference or at church, I will stop going to both. I couldn’t care less what the idiots in my ward or stake leadership think about politics, nor do I frankly care what the Q12 thinks.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    I really hate our culture of and governance by unanimity. Our top leaders think this is a feature; I view it as a bug. It’s an historical accident stemming from the 1844 succession crisis, and that crisis was so traumatic for the Church that it is absolutely loathe to veer from it in even the least degree. However we manage to get there, more recognition of diversity of perspective and opinion would in my view be a very good thing.

  19. I can’t say what the historical origins of governance by unanimity are, but there are some clear statements in the Doctrine and Covenants that point that way, from 38:7 “I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.” to 107::27, 29 ”

    And every decision made by either of these quorums must be by the unanimous voice of the same; that is, every member in each quorum must be agreed to its decisions, in order to make their decisions of the same power or validity one with the other . . .

    Unless this is the case, their decisions are not entitled to the same blessings which the decisions of a quorum of three presidents were anciently, who were ordained after the order of Melchizedek, and were righteous and holy men.

  20. The one example of this that I recall, as a biology student, was the “debate” between Elder BH Roberts and Elder Joseph Fielding Smith on evolution, pre-Adamites, death before the fall, and other questions around our theology of creation. Before my BYU days, I believed that Mormonism was decidedly young-earth creationist. But then the professors of my evolution class began the course with a brief review of Elder Hodge’s (and others’) views that were more old earth creationist. It can be a pretty hot topic, but I wonder if it would cool down if top level leadership would talk about their personal beliefs around creation and the fall and the origin and evolution of life (and maybe whether Noah’s flood was truly global).

  21. Sam, ah, I mean to suggest that leaders stay VERY broad in these remarks, such as simply noting from the pulpit instances when he or she has had serious ideological or political disagreements with someone in a presidency or quorum, and how they moved forward in love in spite of those continuing differences. I agree, talking about a broad singular political issue in particular would be less than helpful.

    I can see how some might find this broad approach as bland; I think it would, however, provide members with another resource for creating cultures of healthy disagreement, no matter what their political situation. (Tangentially, I’m thinking of a moment when Elder Oaks noted that he and his wife’s marriage had been filled with wonderful arguments…he didn’t get into the content of the argumentation, but acknowledged publicly that a Christ-centered marriage can include healthy and vigorous disagreement…I don’t have the source for that.)

  22. I like that, Dave; I think their laying out their views on the relationship of science to scripture would be a wonderful place to model disagreement, and it has the benefit of not being US-centric.

    That said, that seems like a more-difficult place to broach disagreement, if only because of the history the church has with it and the inevitable questions of the intersection between these questions and religious veracity.

  23. Okay, I get where you’re coming from, Elle. That makes sense.

  24. Its simply not a good idea from a practical perspective for local church leaders to be pushing their personal political views. I do not see any value in doing so and many pitfalls. Its really hard to see how this could possibly work in a typical ward. Most folks are not schooled on how to debate like lawyers are and cannot handle the emotions that can arise in political debates with fellow ward members.

  25. I can’t envision any scenario in which this works out to the Church’s benefit. Had some of the GAs openly come out in favor of Trump before the election, it would only have added fuel to the fire that has me convinced that there’s something seriously wrong when almost 2 out of 3 of the LDS people are determined to have voted for Trump in the election and when Utah’s Electoral College votes end up in the Trump column. Where was personal revelation on this one? Or am I the only one who finds this distressing in the least?

  26. Mark N.,

    Personal revelation is well… personal. Maybe the personal revelation that many mormons received on the matter gave them the impression that they should, or at least that they could, vote for Trump. Their personal revelation does not have to line up with what you or I received.

  27. The Church isn’t politically neutral. You must be terribly naïve.

  28. millermsrm60aol, if that’s your level of rhetoric upon disagreeing, you may benefit from more than just GAs modeling disagreement.

    It’s probably also worth asserting things a bit less categorically, especially since you’re wrong. The church has not, in my lifetime, officially endorsed a candidate or political party. Hence, political neutrality.

  29. I would find it really hard to go to church and have my leaders voice support for political leaders that I dislike. As a long-time democratic voting Mormon I am aware of all of the “subtle” ways that many church leaders show their support for the Republican party in general, and for some Republican candidates specifically. It is hard enough as it is. I take refuge in the fact that our meetings are usually free of political rhetoric. Not always, but usually.

    The issue around disagreeing at church is a tricky one. Starting with political disagreements strikes me as a crazy place to start. One of the reasons that I find shows about lawyers interesting (The Good Wife, for example) is that I am fascinated at the idea that you can like some-one, but then go after them in court in an aggressive and unkind manner. That takes some sort of professional distance and understanding that I would find difficult to manage. I’m not trained to do it.

  30. sch, that’s almost precisely my point: disagreement (whether political or theological) doesn’t require us to go after each other aggressively and unkindly. Civil and kind disagreement is beneficial, and can help us see beyond our own limited perspective.

    And I’ll repeat that I’m not suggesting that I’m out wards and branches we need to starry arguing politics. That’s unnecessary—we already can (and sometimes do) that. I’m saying that at the highest levels of the church, we should do away with the illusion of unanimity in all thoughts, and mentioning political leanings in a post-JA world may be the easiest way to do that.

  31. I would applaud doing away with the illusion of unanimity. However, when political disagreements were articulated, by Apostle Ezra Taft Benson, for example, they have sometimes included what amounted to both name-calling and denying the righteousness or gospel understanding of other apostles. (The other examples of such name-calling, etc. by apostles I can think of were not on politics.) I wonder if some of the leading brethren are any more capable of modelling civil and kind disagreement than others. I learned a great deal from Hugh B. Brown’s civil contradicting of Ezra Taft Benson. But it seems to me that the Benson style may be more often taken as a model. I don’t see how to dispel the illusion of unanimity without significant risk of the brethren modelling the wrong kind of disagreement as some of them have in the past. Maybe I’m just more tired than hopeful. Note: To my perception Elder Benson’s politics and style with respect to his conflation of politics and the gospel were not repeated after he became president of the Church. Maybe someone more diligent than I about detailed research can confirm or correct that impression.

  32. It would never work because the Q15 are pretty much all Republican or Republican-leaning. The Trib did a piece on the political affiliation of the “Brethren” not too long ago, and there wasn’t a Democrat in sight. Maybe Trump will convert one or two of the more open-minded ones to the “other team,” but I highly doubt it. Long gone are the days when Hyrum Smith could say he’d had a revelation that Mormons should vote for a particular candidate (Democrat Joseph P. Hoge, all because of the perceived favor Governor Ford, also a Democrat, granted Joseph). Joseph told the people that he’d never known Hyrum to have a failed revelation. So, just like mindless puppets, the Saints voted for Hoge 1,083 votes to 90 for his opponent, who likely would have won had Hyrum not had his “revelation.” Those days are long gone, but Mormons still tend to vote as a bloc, just without a revelation telling them to do so. And who knows what kind of revelations we might get if your idea were to fly. I’m pretty sure E. T. Benson would have proclaimed a couple. So you would really need to have not only diversity but some strong dissenting voices in the leading ranks, and that ain’t going to happen except by edict.

  33. brenttubbs says:

    I’m not sure we really need to go as far as candidate endorsements to achieve what you’re after here. I highly doubt that a GA would ever get in trouble under the Johnson Amendment for saying something like “I vote for the candidates that I think do most to help the poor.” (Or insert the political issue of your choice there.) Other GAs could express their intent to vote based on different issues.

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