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McEntee: Top Mormon leaders should drop political party labels

Published December 7, 2012 1:04 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Let's get this much straight: Every voter has the right to decide which candidate, of which party, she or he is going to vote for.

Like most of my colleagues in the news business, I vote, but I don't register with a party, plant lawn signs or participate in political polls and surveys. Although I am now an opinion writer, for 27 years I was a reporter or editor devoted to keeping my political preferences to myself.

It was no surprise to learn that LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson, his first counselor, Henry B. Eyring, and nine Mormon apostles are registered Republicans in this GOP-dominated state.

It does seem a bit odd, though, that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is fiercely nonpartisan even as so many of its top leaders — and members — decidedly are not.

The global faith's political neutrality statement says its "mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians … [the church] is neutral in matters of party politics."

Nor does the institutional church promote parties, candidates or platforms, allow its church buildings to be used for partisan purposes, try to tell its members for whom to vote or attempt to sway a government leader.

The Salt Lake City-based LDS Church says it does "reserve the right as an institution" to speak out on so-called community or moral issues. It has done so on Proposition 8, gambling, alcohol, immigration and the faith's backing of ordinances protecting gay and transgender residents from housing and job discrimination.

It also urges its followers to become informed about issues and to vote, and expects them to be civil to those with differing political opinions.

In addition, its full-time general authorities (including the governing First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve Apostles), general officers and their spouses and other ecclesiastical leaders rendering full-time church service are not to campaign, fundraise, endorse or make financial contributions to candidates.

Given all that, why would so many LDS leaders register — and remain registered — as Republicans?

Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Monson's second counselor in the First Presidency, wisely got around that by registering to vote in Utah's closed Republican primary (something the Democratic Party doesn't require to vote in its runoffs), then changed his status back to unaffiliated.

It's no secret Utah leans heavily GOP, but there have been times when Democrats were ascendant. One was during the Great Depression, when they supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Democratic state lawmakers enacted bills on relief, assistance, unemployment and open primaries. In 1948, Democrat Reva Beck Bosone became the first Utah woman elected to Congress.

But, as always, the political pendulum keeps swinging. These days, Republicans hold strong majorities in the Utah Legislature, our congressional delegation and in state executive offices from governor on down.

And, of course, Republican Mitt Romney got 90 percent of the Mormon vote in Utah (78 percent nationwide) in his failed bid to unseat Democratic President Barack Obama.

An LDS Church spokesman has cautioned people not to read too much into voting-registration records. After all, those records say nothing about which candidates these high-level LDS leaders voted for.

But how can we not? (Even though those records say nothing about which candidates these high-level LDS leaders voted for.)

If I were a member of a religious institution, I'd certainly pay attention to the positions held by faith leaders on matters of the day — social and environmental issues, the economy, education, the cost of war and, yes, party politics.

But sometimes a bully pulpit can be too persuasive. As Max Perry Mueller of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University told The Salt Lake Tribune: "As the prophet goes, so goes his flock."

Like every action, every label has meaning.

By remaining defined in part by political affiliation, LDS leaders could, however unintentionally, be sending a message to the faithful. It may be best to drop that label, and let their wisdom and good works speak for themselves.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter: @pegmcentee.