Ties to group pushing a Constitution celebration raise questions about LDS Church’s political neutrality

Backers insist the education effort isn’t partisan, but many key players are ultraconservative.

(National Archives via AP) This photo made available by the U.S. National Archives shows a portion of the first page of the Constitution. The Utah Area Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is urging members in the Beehive State to participate in American Founders Month and to learn more about the Constitution.

Within a month of a First Presidency letter warning Latter-day Saints against straight-party voting, the faith’s top Utah leaders have endorsed an organization that includes at least one 2020 election denier and no known Democrats to teach members how to love the U.S. Constitution.

The group, called “Why I Love America,” also has invited a controversial evangelical speaker associated with Christian nationalism to address Utahns on the 236th anniversary of the Sept. 17, 1787, final signing of the Constitution.

And that’s the group that the Utah Area Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encouraged all congregations in the Beehive State to use in preparation for American Founders Month in the fall.

Such events would “rekindle a spirit of patriotism by educating our Saints on the inspired principles of the Constitution,” area President Kevin W. Pearson and his counselors, Evan A. Schmutz and Hugo E. Martinez, wrote in a June 15 letter, “and/or build a spirit of appreciation for our Founding Fathers who were raised up by the Lord.”

[Read the Utah Area Presidency’s memo to local lay leaders in the Beehive State.]

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) General authority Seventy Kevin Pearson, Utah Area president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, provides a media tour of the new 95 State meetinghouse in April 2022. He is urging Utah members to become more education about the U.S. Constitution.

Why I Love America established a Founders Month planning committee, led by Tad Callister, an emeritus Latter-day Saint general authority and a former churchwide Sunday school president. The 18-member committee also included Joy Jones, former worldwide head of the faith’s Primary organization, who wrote a booklet titled “Why I Love America.”

These connections — plus the letter from the Utah Area Presidency — can leave the impression of general church approval of this campaign.

Callister, however, vehemently denies any such backing and the church did not comment specifically on the group.

“The church has always held the Constitution as important in the founding of this nation and encouraged our members to study its origins and understand its principles,” says spokesperson Doug Andersen. “We do not believe that doing so is a partisan issue.”

Indeed, Callister insists that it is definitely not a partisan group. He invited several people he knew to be part of his Founders Month committee, including former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, and Lew Cramer, who worked in the Reagan administration, he says, while others — including “22 influencers, mostly millennials” — asked to be involved.

“Not once did we discuss their party affiliation,” Callister says, “nor do we care.”

For the emeritus general authority, this is simply a project to promote patriotism. Everyone is welcome.

Constitution is ‘one of the least understood documents’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tad R. Callister speaks during General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City in April 2019. He is now an emeritus general authority.

Callister sees an urgent need to educate Utahns about the Constitution.

He cites a Wall Street Journal poll showing that 70% of respondents in 1998 deemed patriotism to be very important compared to 38% in 2023.

He was delighted when Jen Brown, founder of Why I Love America, worked with Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, to craft the legislation setting apart September as American Founders Month. “Our youth need to be taught intentionally and deliberately about the founding of this country and our form of government,” Brown said during a House committee meeting in February. “The state has a compelling interest to educate the rising generation about our constitutional republic to ensure it continues.”

The bill passed 25-0 in the Senate and 72-2 in the House, Callister notes, which is “about as nonpartisan as is possible.”

These activities are crucial because, he says, the Constitution is “one of the least understood documents in the United States.”

This group hopes to “rekindle not only a spirit of patriotism…[but also that] God’s hand was in the origin and destiny of America…as expressed by the Founding Fathers themselves.”

“The Founding Fathers said the Constitution would not be effective unless you had a moral people,” Callister says. “And they said you can’t have a moral people unless you have a religious people, because that’s the prime source for morals.…[The purpose of] religion is to seek the will of God, and do it. And then they said: Where do you seek the will of God? In the Bible.”

Does he believe that the Founders’ principles were based on Christianity? Absolutely, Callister says.

Far-right ties

(National Archives via AP) This photo made available by the U.S. National Archives shows a portion of the first page of the Constitution. The Utah Area Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is urging members in the Beehive State to participate in American Founders Month and to learn more about the Constitution.

The educational materials about the Constitution offered on the Why I Love America website were created by people with no academic background or particular academic expertise in the nation’s founding document and appear to be influenced by fringe theories about the Constitution.

Brown, a dentist by trade, wrote a one-page summary that includes “The 5 P’s of the Constitution” — principles; protect; pulverizes power; prolific; and patriotic.

“I’ve spent many years reading books about the Constitution,” Brown says of her qualifications.

Why I Love America is another name for The Constitution Education Foundation, founded in 2021. She also created another nonprofit, Utah Citizens for the Constitution, on the same day.

The Constitution Education Foundation’s purpose is to “educate the citizens of Utah about the Utah Constitution and verify election integrity,” according to Brown’s filing with the Utah Department of Commerce. The organizations share some of the same board of director members.

Those organizations advocate for an expansive view of federalism in which the national government is severely constrained compared to the expansive authority for individual states.

Brown says the study materials for a “Constitution Bee” competition targeted at school-age children were provided by the Freedom’s Light Foundation, which is staging a festival in September as part of Why I Love America’s Constitution Month celebration.

Dalane England, who is listed as the chair of Freedom’s Light in documents registering the group with the state, is on the board of Why I Love America. England, who is on the executive board of the Utah Eagle Forum, is a host of the “Liberty Moms” podcast. A recent episode focused on conspiracy theories about the use of digital IDs by the United Nations as a tool for enslaving humanity

England’s podcast is part of the “Loving Liberty Network.” It offers a constitutional study course from the National Center for Constitutional Studies, which used to be known as The Freemen Institute, founded by ultraconservative author W. Cleon Skousen. A 2010 seminar presented by the NCCS taught that the Constitution came directly from a blueprint adopted by Moses and that the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, violated states’ rights. A 2011 Southern Poverty Law Center report said the fringe NCCS teachings attracted a number of anti-government “patriot” groups like the Oath Keepers and outlier “constitutionalist” groups such as the John Birch Society and Eagle Forum.

Another sponsor of the “Loving Liberty Network” is the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, a group that sprang from the far-right Posse Comitatus movement in the 1970s and ‘80s. This association wrongly believes that county sheriffs are the supreme law enforcement authority in the United States and have the ability to ignore laws they deem unconstitutional.

Several members of the Founders Month committee for Why I Love America, including Carolyn Phippen and Brooke Johnson, participated in a December 2020 march in Washington, D.C., after the presidential election.

A way to bring balance

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU emeritus political science professor Richard Davis, shown in 2017, says the ties within the Constitution campaign pushed by the Utah Area Presidency "seems like a contradiction with the church’s recent statement on political neutrality.”

Utah Citizens for the Constitution is bringing David Barton of the ultraconservative WallBuilders organization to be the keynote speaker for the Constitution Day event on Sept. 17.

Barton, who has no academic credentials in history, asserts the Founding Fathers never intended for the separation of church and state but wanted to construct a Christian nation. His 2012 book, “The Jefferson Lies,” contained so many inaccuracies it was pulled from shelves by the publisher.

Brown brushes off any concern about Barton’s lack of academic credentials and any criticisms that he often makes up facts to support his political agenda and interpretation of the Constitution.

“He’s a constitutional expert,” Brown says. “He’s spent his whole life studying this material.”

Celebrating the Constitution is fine, says Richard Davis, emeritus professor of political science at Brigham Young University, “but not an explicit recommendation of this particular group, which is quite right wing in their interpretation of the Constitution.”

Why not mention an array of groups like the American Constitution Society, the American Civil Liberties Union or other groups without ties to partisan politics? asks Davis, who says he is no longer involved with the Democratic or United Utah parties. “It seems like a contradiction with the church’s recent statement on political neutrality.”

With the Utah Area Presidency’s letter, “church endorsement is explicit,” Davis says. “That doesn’t fit with where the church seems to be headed.”

Callister does hope to expand the involvement to include “everyone who loves the Constitution. The group is sponsoring a video contest, he says, which is “an opportunity for people to just share what it is about America that they love — the positive things.”

Cramer, who is on the planning committee, recognizes some of the country’s weaknesses but wants to spotlight its strengths.

Right now, there is “no indispensable nation except the United States,” he says, and the next generation “needs to be up to the responsibilities that come with these many rights.”

Clarification, July 21, 2:30 p.m. • This story has been updated to clarify that Why I Love America and The Constitution Education Foundation share some board of director members.

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