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Mormon stake president gets political at church, laments election results

Published March 1, 2013 11:06 am

Religion • Speech over pulpit wins cheers on right, jeers on left.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

An LDS stake president in Sandy did something in a speech earlier this month that other Mormon leaders have done many times: He warned that evil is corrupting the world.

Then President Matthew DeVisser did something few LDS leaders ever do over the pulpit: He rattled off a number of Republican talking points, lamenting that voters last year chose "socialism over capitalism, entitlements over free enterprise, redistribution and regulation over self-reliance."

DeVisser, who oversees a number of LDS congregations in the south valley, never referred to President Barack Obama or his Mormon opponent, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, in his speech Feb. 3 to the Hidden Valley Stake Conference but did say 2012 would "prove to be one of the more significant years in our lifetime."

He cited evidence of the nation's declining values, including an effort to raise taxes during "the worst economic times since the Great Depression," some states legalizing same-sex marriage, government-funded abortions and the frenzy leading up to the "fiscal cliff."

"The U.N. ambassador," he added, "was instructed by the White House to cover up what happened in Libya, attempting to minimize the deaths of four Americans who were murdered."

In the speech, DeVisser — who did not return calls seeking comment for this story — said he did not intend to be controversial or political, but was directed in his thinking by the "Holy Ghost."

He later emailed a copy of the speech to a Mormon in his stake and, within days, it was being forwarded, posted and linked online. Soon it had gone viral on the Internet, appearing on more than 200 websites, blogs and Facebook pages, generating heated debates between believers on the political left and right.

Among the first to post the talk was LDS Freedom Forum, a website for mostly conservative, libertarian and politically independent Mormons, where it met with approval. Mormons for Obama, however, put it on their site, outraged that an LDS leader would use his church post in such a way.

"He tries to say it is not a political talk," said Crystal Young-Otterstrom, chairwoman of Utah's LDS Dems Caucus, "but then he uses buzzwords of the Republican Party."

Young-Otterstrom reiterated Thursday that neither Obama nor the Democratic Party is socialistic.

"He may not have said go out and vote for Republicans," she said, "but he is clearly biased. Where in the Scriptures does it talk about capitalism as a great economic system?"

Steve Olsen, vice chairman of the LDS Dems, said DeVisser's speech was "way out of line."

"As a former bishop, I believe we who have been given the awesome responsibility to preside in an organization that believes in revelation must approach that responsibility with great humility and restraint," Olsen wrote in an email. "I believe there is nothing that displeases the Lord more than claiming revelation for something over which we have no authority."

But those on the other side of the political spectrum applauded DeVisser's assertions.

"It being a pro-freedom talk, with multiple statements in favor of free enterprise and self-reliance and against socialism, is something members of this forum are very interested in," Brian Mecham, LDS Freedom Forum administrator, wrote in an email. "They like to see that leaders of the church, at various levels, continue to sound the warning voice against those things that are destructive to freedom."

Even so, Mecham said DeVisser's second counselor in the three-member stake presidency asked Freedom Forum to take down the speech.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a strict policy of political neutrality, a stance it reaffirmed repeatedly throughout the 2012 campaign as a Mormon candidate headed a major party ticket for the first time. The Utah-based faith forbids members and leaders from using church buildings, membership lists and other resources for partisan political purposes.

"Stake presidents and other local leaders," says the church's leadership Handbook, "should not organize members to participate in political matters or attempt to influence how they participate."

LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter did not comment Thursday directly on DeVisser's speech but reiterated that "messages and statements from lay leaders are intended for the local congregations they oversee, and are not binding on the whole church."

Mecham, who is Mormon, does not think DeVis­ser crossed the church's line on politics.

"He wasn't promoting a political party or any partisan politics. President DeVisser was only promoting correct principles, the principles that make people free. Modern prophets from [Mormon founder] Joseph Smith until today have all been teaching us correct principles, even regarding the proper role of government," Mecham said. "That is not politics; it is simply truth as it relates to government."

Mormon libertarian Connor Boyack agrees.

"The LDS Church's position of political neutrality deals with candidates, not issues," Boyack, author of two books dealing with Mormonism and politics, wrote in an email. "DeVisser did a good job of connecting the dots that, to many Latter-day Saints, might be unrelated. Political machinations and current events, both at home and abroad, have as much relevance to our faith as do the breakdown of the family and rampant immorality."

To Boyack, LDS leaders "need to speak much more about our faith's application to these things, and not less."

Everyone agrees that DeVisser's starkly political wording doesn't happen often in the LDS Church.

"It is fair to say it is very, very unusual to see this kind of thing in an official church meeting," said Brigham Young University political scientist Quin Monson, who has asked about it on surveys he has conducted. "Personally, I can't remember specifically in my 10 years in Orem hearing something political over the pulpit."

While DeVisser's approach isn't unprecedented, Monson said, "you'd have to go back to the 1960s with speeches by [then Mormon apostle] Ezra Taft Benson to find some examples."

Federal election records show that a Matt S. DeVisser, of Draper, gave at least three campaign contributions to Romney between May 2011 and June 2012, totaling $950.

LDS stake presidents are allowed to donate to campaigns, because they are not full-time church leaders, but speaking about partisan politics over the pulpit "gives extra weight to their position and implies some kind of officialness that isn't there," Monson said. "What I see generally is the church bending over backwards in the other direction."

During Romney's White House run, Monson said, "it was almost like [LDS officials] were playing a game of Twister to try to avoid commenting or engaging on any topic that seemed to tie the church to the campaign."

pstack@sltrib.com

Tony Semerad contributed to this story. —

The LDS Church's policy

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in matters of party politics. The church does not:

Endorse, promote or oppose political parties, candidates or platforms.

Allow its church buildings, membership lists or other resources to be used for partisan political purposes.

Attempt to direct its members as to which candidate or party they should give their votes to. This policy applies whether or not a candidate for office is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Attempt to direct or dictate to a government leader.

Source: lds.org