The ruling First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged its U.S. members Tuesday to vote in the upcoming election and, in contrast to last week’s chaotic presidential debate, to be civil and Christlike when it comes to politics.
“Please strive to live the gospel in your own life by demonstrating Christlike love and civility in political discourse,” its letter to members says as it urges them to cast well-informed votes.
The letter comes three days after Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, gave a speech in the church’s twice-a-year General Conference that called for a cease-fire in political rancor. The letter also comes just before ballots in Utah are mailed to voters next week.
“We live in a time of anger and hatred in political relationships and policies. We felt it this summer where some went beyond peaceful protests and engaged in destructive behavior,” Oaks said Saturday. “We feel it in some current campaigns for public offices. Some of this has even spilled over into political statements and unkind references in our church meetings.”
Oaks added, “As followers of Christ, we must forgo the anger and hatred with which political choices are debated or denounced in many settings.” He urged members to let go of anger, which sows “division and enmity,” and instead to listen and even learn from their opponents.
In that sermon, Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, also criticized those who threaten to reject results from the upcoming U.S. election. President Donald Trump has come under fire for expressing reluctance to accept ballot counts and has suggested that widespread use of by-mail ballots may lead to fraud.
“We will not participate in the violence threatened by those disappointed with the outcome,” Oaks said Saturday. “In a democratic society, we always have the opportunity and the duty to persist peacefully until the next election.”
The latest letter reiterates that the church, as an organization, is neutral on partisan matters and that principles compatible with its teachings are found in multiple political parties.
In short, it suggests, although not stated explicitly, for instance, that some rank-and-file members who have argued in recent years that it’s impossible to be a good Latter-day Saint without also being a Republican are wrong.
“That is a folk doctrine that has arisen in the last 30 or 40 years. It’s certainly not true,” said Richard Davis, a political science professor at church-owned Brigham Young University who chairs the United Utah Party, which bills itself as a middle ground between Republicans and Democrats.
“My sense from these letters and other communications from church leaders," he said, “is they do want to send the message that we are not a Republican church and members should not see themselves as having to belong to one party exclusively in order to be good members.”
The letter repeats a phrase similar to other letters for years, which says, “Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties, and members should seek candidates who best embody those principles.”
It adds, “While the church affirms its institutional neutrality regarding political parties and candidates, individual members should participate in the political process.”
A poll released Monday by Y2 Analytics shows a lopsided margin of active Latter-day Saints who are Republicans in Utah. It found that more than 70% of them reported being Republicans or independents who leaned Republican. Only 4% were Democrats, and 8% said they were independents who lean Democratic. Another 13% said they were true independents.
Davis said many Latter-day Saints migrated into the Republican fold in recent decades because of high-profile stands the church took on abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment and gay rights that were largely mirrored by the GOP.
“Because the church did take positions on those issues, there was a sense that those were the only issues that were even important, and that’s not the case at all,” Davis said. The church’s letter Tuesday invites members as they prepare to vote to look at a wide range of issues where it has taken stands at www.Newsroom.ChurchofJesusChrist.org.
“There are a plethora of other issues that affect people on a day-to-day basis that the Democratic Party is striving to see advanced and moved forward in this country” from protecting the environment to treating immigrants well, said Jeff Merchant, chair of the Utah Democratic Party.
In Utah, “the reality is that there are a lot of people, particularly politicians, who would like to tie the church closer to the Republican Party than it needs to be,” he said. “We’ve got Republicans in this state who want to make every issue about reproductive rights and about LGBTQ issues.”
While he said repeated letters on neutrality from the church helps, Merchant would like to see the faith’s top leaders be even more explicit about how parties besides Republicans reflect key church priorities.
“As the chair of the Democratic Party and as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints," he said, “I wish that the church would be a little bit more clear on that standard of neutrality.”
Derek Brown, chair of the Utah Republican Party, did not immediately respond to a phone call seeking comment for this story.