Commentary: LDS Church claims neutrality while affecting Utah politics

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jack Gerard of the LDS Church, with Lisa Harkness and Craig Christensen, announces the church's opposition to Utah's medical marijuana initiative at a news conference in Salt Lake City, Thursday Aug. 23, 2018.

Frustrated Utahns worry the fate of medical marijuana is to become yet another issue decided by the LDS Church, while members seem unconcerned with the hypocrisy.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ official political stance is neutrality, as members of the church are well aware. However, many Utahns disagree and have long concluded that the church is biased, even asking members to vote in line.

In 2018, the church released a statement on political neutrality claiming it does not, “endorse, promote, or oppose political parties, candidates, or platforms” but does, “reserve the right as an institution to address, in a nonpartisan way, issues that it believes have significant community or moral consequences or that directly affect the interests of the Church.”

The church has reserved the right to address a long list of issues even joining coalitions, investing money on ballot and legal matters and calling members to political action.

Perhaps the most well known example of LDS Church bias is its 2008 support of Proposition 8 in California. Officials sent an email to California members asking for political support through donations of “means and time to assure that marriage in California is legally defined as being between a man and a woman.” The church also funneled $1.5 million into an effort to gather signatures ensuring Prop 8’s spot on the ballot and instructed California LDS leaders to encourage member donations of $30 each.

Even now, as Utah prepares to vote on Proposition 2, the legalization of medical marijuana, the church sent an email to LDS members encouraging them to vote no.

LDS officials praised the Utah Medical Association in its attempts to prevent the inclusion of Proposition 2 on November’s ballot, formally joined Drug Safe Utah coalition in August, and called upon high-profile Utahns to do the same. LDS officials also filed a lawsuit claiming Proposition 2 would restrict freedom of the religious “right not to consort with, be around, or do business with people engaging in activities which their religion finds repugnant."

Though blatantly biased, the church appears to be justifying its political fight against Proposition 2, saying, “we do not object to marijuana being used in medicine,” but only as prescribed by a doctor and filled at a pharmacy. Utah Patients Coalition called it an “impossible scenario,” a “non-proposal,” and claims Prop 2 is the “best chance” for Utah patients, and has “heavy safeguards and protections to minimize abuse.”

Supporting medicinal use while opposing the only realistic option for patients in need is a thinly veiled effort to appear politically neutral while influencing the fate of medicinal marijuana in Utah.

The emails issued to church members on Prop 2 and 8 reference potential dangers to society. The email regarding medical marijuana claimed a “serious threat to health and public safety, especially for our youth and young adults." While the email on same-sex marriage even calls for action stating that efforts by LDS members “are required to preserve the sacred institution of marriage.”

Political movements with particular importance to LDS officials are framed as dire matters of morality and evoke emotional responses from members and a sense of duty to support the church’s political goals. Warnings of imminent threats to families — and more poignantly, children — purposefully incite action and donations from members, and garner political power for the church.

With Proposition 2 officially on the ballot and a legal battle pending, non-members will go to the polls in November and hope their LDS neighbors vote according to their own opinions — not their church’s.

Chelsea Hull is an aspiring freelance writer, Utah Valley University graduate and politically involved Utahn.