Virtually every year, Latter-day Saint leaders read a statement over the pulpit, reaffirming the faith’s political neutrality while encouraging members to be informed about issues, vote in elections, run for office and support candidates who represent their values and views.
Apparently, that hasn’t been enough for Utah officials with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so they have devised a more hands-on approach.
Recently, high-ranking church leaders in the Beehive State, including general authority Seventy Craig C. Christensen, directed Utah-based stake presidents — who supervise groups of about six to 12 congregations each — to “assign specialists who can assist church members to better understand and participate in the civic process,” according to church spokesman Doug Andersen.
That can range from helping members register to vote, request mail-in ballots, attend their party caucus meetings and find their polling places.
The church will continue to be neutral, Andersen noted in a statement, “with regard to political parties, candidates or platforms.”
While groups across the political spectrum applaud any move to improve voter turnout and participation, Rep. Brian King, the leader of Utah House Democrats, worries it may only deepen how heavily Republican the Beehive State — and its Latter-day Saint populace — is.
“Without doing something more than just a statement of political neutrality, what you’re going to get is an intensification — a magnification — of that identity that exists between LDS Church membership and affiliation with the GOP,” he said. “I think that's disastrous for both the church and for its membership.”
To illustrate how and why, the Salt Lake City Democrat said he talked with a GOP lawmaker this year who told him Utah will always be Republican because of one word: abortion.
“That frustrates me to no end because the reality is the LDS Church policy on abortion is nuanced, and it reflects the complexity of the situation,” which King — an active Latter-day Saint who is a former bishop — said fits well with the Democratic philosophy of keeping abortion rare, safe and legal.
While the official policy of Utah’s predominant faith permits abortion in the case of incest or rape, when the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy or if the fetus has defects that will not allow it to survive beyond birth, King said, “People in the LDS Church don’t know that. They think, ‘Well, church policy is abortion should be made illegal.’”
Unless top church leaders more often stress the nuanced official policy in General Conference talks and other communication to go along with a push for more political participation, King fears too many Latter-day Saints will continue to assume GOP stands on abortion and other key issues from immigration to the environment are more in line with the church.
King worries that despite church statements of neutrality, some new specialists may go rogue — or political activists may lobby for the assignments — and promote their own views and solidify strong GOP majorities among rank-and-file members.
“That will be the effect,” King said. “I can’t imagine that’s what the leadership of the LDS Church would want. … In fact, when I’ve talked to them at times in private conversations, they’ve said just the opposite.”
Losing its grip?
Democrat Ted Wilson, former mayor of Salt Lake City and former director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said the church’s action may be a sign that it wants to maintain its influence “amid the coming wave of changes occurring in the political balance in Utah.”
New immigrants and growing minorities are making the state — and especially Salt Lake County — less Mormon and Republican over time.
“We’re starting to find out there are more Democrats who now tip the scale in Salt Lake County,” Wilson said, especially last year when ballot initiatives on medical marijuana and expanding Medicaid attracted them to vote.
“If I were running the Mormon church, I’d probably be thinking I want to make sure … we continue to have a wholesome community, as we see it,” he said, and urge members to be more politically active.
Of note last year, the church opposed Proposition 2 to legalize medical marijuana. Christensen sent an email encouraging members and all Utahns to vote against it, calling it a serious threat to health and public safety. The measure passed anyway but was quickly reworked by the Legislature, where nine of every 10 members are Latter-day Saints.
At times, the church has made a big difference in political participation in Utah when its encouragement was strong and consistent.
In 2012, for instance, two years after delegates to the Utah Republican Convention dumped three-term Sen. Bob Bennett — critics said extremists used light attendance at neighborhood caucus meetings to elect delegates who were far more to the right than most voters — church leaders for weeks read letters urging members to attend party caucuses.
For the first time, it ordered the cancellation of any church meetings that conflicted with those gatherings. Attendance at the caucuses soared among Republicans to 60,000 to 70,000, 50 percent above average — helped also because then-Sen. Orrin Hatch spent millions to boost caucus turnout to avoid Bennett’s earlier fate. Democratic caucuses that year attracted 15,000 to 20,000.
More recently, when church appeals were not as consistent, attendance dropped. And GOP conventions took some stances seen as not truly representative of most voters — including Gov. Gary Herbert and Sen. Mitt Romney finishing second there, but winning later primaries by landslides. (In 2014, Utah law was changed to give conventions less power by allowing candidates also to qualify for primaries by gathering signatures.)
No ‘red flags’
Despite some concerns, the church’s new move in Utah to assign political-participation specialists drew praise from several groups across the political spectrum.
“Getting more people involved is better for the process” and will make it more representative, said Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton. “It’s really great when we have a full caucus in the caucus-convention system. It would be really great if we get 80-90% of the people to vote. That’s not happening. Anything to improve that is welcome.”
Utah did set a 50-year high for a midterm election last year. Still, only 55% of the voting-age population cast a ballot.
Adams said he is not worried that the church or specialists would try to favor one party over the other.
“My experience with the church is it’s nonpartisan. I mean there’s a lot of good Democrats in the church and a lot of good Republicans,” Adams said. He said the church pushing its members to be more politically involved is not “any different for me than the PTA or League of Women Voters encouraging it.”
“It doesn’t raise any red flags,” said Chase Thomas, executive director of the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah. “We would encourage people to be active in politics or their community and no matter what their religion.”
He added that the church “has always pledged to be politically neutral. I think the church really tries to stick to that.” As long as individual specialists do also, Thomas has no problem with its move.
On the other end of the political spectrum, Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Eagle Forum of Utah, also praised the action. She said the extra effort may be needed because other messages — such as reading letters from the pulpit — didn’t help much.
“I’m always surprised when I go to the caucus meetings, look around and think, ‘Nobody’s here, not even the people who made the announcement from the pulpit,’” she said. “We’ve tried these other things. We need to get more people out to vote. So I’m for that.”
Other churches, Ruzicka noted, historically are even more active in pushing their congregants to be involved politically.