Recently, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement on political neutrality. While encouraging church members to attend the caucus of the party of their choice and reiterating that principles of the gospel are present in the platforms of most political parties, the church itself expressed its own neutrality “in matters of party politics.”
There are several reasons for that political neutrality. One is the fact that the church’s tax exempt status would be removed if the church played a role in partisan politics. While religious leaders can express individual views, churches as organizations cannot do so and remain tax exempt. However, unlike some ministers of other faiths, general authorities of the church today do not endorse candidates or parties, either.
There is a reason for that approach. Too many church members misunderstand the fact that church leaders are human and, like other citizens, hold their own political biases. General Authorities who are U.S. citizens may be Republicans or Democrats based on their own family traditions, background, and experiences.
That misunderstanding has been manifested at various times when LDS Church leaders in the past have taken positions on partisan politics. For example, in 1960, President David O. McKay separately hosted in Salt Lake City both major party nominees for president — then Sen. John F. Kennedy for the Democrats and then Vice President Richard Nixon for the Republicans. President McKay wished them both well, but added to Nixon that he hoped he would win. That statement was picked up by the press and repeated widely in Utah.
Dean Mann, a political science professor, surveyed 297 LDS priesthood holders after the statement and found that 83 percent were aware of President McKay’s personal endorsement. But how did these priesthood holders respond to the endorsement? Did they think President McKay was inspired by the Lord to make that endorsement?
Forty-three percent of them said no, he wasn’t. However, 30 percent said he was inspired, while 27 percent said they weren’t sure whether he was or not.
President McKay explained that his statement was only a personal endorsement and that he spoke “as a Republican and a personal voter.” But even with that clarification, nearly one-third believed God had inspired him to make that endorsement, while over a fourth were not sure how he was speaking: Was it as an individual voter or a prophet?
Another example is when President Ezra Taft Benson declared in 1974 that a liberal Democrat could not be a good member of the church and, at a different time, said a far-right political party was closest to the church’s views. Many members still consider such personal opinions of President Benson to be tantamount to church doctrine rather than an expression of his personal political views.
There was a time when LDS Church leaders publicly expressed their personal views on a range of issues of the day. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, they articulated differing opinions on the League of Nations, the right of women to the vote, and the role of government regulation. Some campaigned for Democratic candidates (and one even ran and won as a Democrat), while others campaigned for Republican candidates (and another ran and won as a Republican). But those days have passed.
Yet, it is a shame. LDS Church leaders, like other citizens, ought to be able to express their own personal political views on a variety of topics just as other citizens do without others misinterpreting their statements. Since LDS Church leaders do not agree on everything politically, church members could see that individuals can be good members of the church (even leaders in the church) and hold differing opinions, belong to differing political parties, and vote for different candidates based on their own views of who would best serve in office.
But that would require church members appreciating that an individual leader’s personal political preference is just that and not the word of the Lord. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be there yet; but perhaps someday.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily represent those of BYU or its sponsoring church.