The Church’s “Political Neutrality”

As we enter a new election cycle, here’s a link to the Church’s statement about the Church itself being “neutral” to matters of “party politics,” even as it encourages its membership to be responsible civic citizens and voters.

The caveats are that the Church does:

  • Request candidates for office — “not to imply that their candidacy or platforms are endorsed by the Church.” (Can someone please explain this to me?)
  • 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.”

In other words, the Church is not politically neutral at all, and the title of the article (“Political Neutrality”) is a misnomer. Instead the title might read something like, “Political Partisanship Neutrality.”

But even this seems unreasonable.

I remember when I first started out in politics, during my first election cycle where I could vote (2004), my Democratic precinct included in our platform support of same-sex marriage. In 2004, the national Democratic Party platform did not include same-sex marriage (John Kerry came out against it, but has recently flip-flopped), but it’s not hard to imagine a 2016 national Party platform including it (at the end of Obama’s second term). The Party was in 2004 averse to amending the US Constitution, though, and instead supported the rights of states to resolve the question.

Conversely, the Church supported (still supports?) amending the Constitution. (Just like all of those NOM-hooked GOP candidates.) So much for “Political Partisanship Neutrality.”

In 2008, during Prop 8, it was somewhat possible for the Church to label its actions to be neutral to party politics on a national level. But on levels more local than national, it was/is acting in a partisan way. For example, the Massachusetts Democratic Party platform includes

We affirm our commitment to the Massachusetts constitutional guarantee to same-sex marriage; and all of its rights, privileges and obligations; and reject any attempt to weaken or revoke those rights.

The Church has argued that certain issues stand “outside” the realm of partisanship, but this could be said of any issue, or host of issues. It’s a convenient “out” from acknowledging the fact that party politics isn’t just about putting individuals into places of influence, but is also about the issues themselves. A candidate is basically a host of issues with a skin casing. The Church should probably take a good hard look at its doctrine of “Political Neutralityas we enter a new election cycle — beyond simply telling its GAs (and their spouses) to not engage in fundraising or campaigning.

12 thoughts on “The Church’s “Political Neutrality”

  1. Request candidates for office not to imply that their candidacy or platforms are endorsed by the Church. (Can someone please explain this to me?)

    They’re asking that no one put “Alan, endorsed by the CoJCoLDS” or “Alan, the Latter-day Saint choice for President” on their campaign materials.

  2. Oh, okay, thx. I guess was reading the word “request” wrong. I thought it meant “to ask for,” as in “to request permission to speak” — or “request a candidate for office.” But I guess it means “to ask to do,” in this case “not to imply.”

    All right. I guess that’s not a caveat after all. Still, the Church addressing issues in a nonpartisan way,” goes a long way against the idea of “political neutrality.”

  3. Alan, did you read BiV’s post over at FPR? It’s interesting maybe to read alongside yours here. Here’s how it starts:

    Have you ever listened to an entire talk on a subject wherein the subject was determinedly left unmentioned? I heard such a talk last Sunday night: Dallin H. Oaks CES devotional broadcast to single adults. The talk was titled Truth and Tolerance, but another, more intrepid Apostle might have named the same talk, A Defense of the LDS Position on Gay Marriage.

  4. Alan,

    I think your reasoning with regard to candidates being a “host of issues in one skin” might be fallacious (Fallacy of composition, maybe?). Let’s assume the state of Floribraska has a two-party political system. One political party in the state was opposed to homosexual marriage, but proposes that gambling ought to be legalized. The other party wants to recognize homosexual marriage, while at the same time arguing against gambling. If the Mormon church opposes both homosexual marriage and gambling and its leaders speak out against both at the pulpit, which party would they be supporting? Using your logic, they would be both for and against each party. How could that be considered partisan?

    Furthermore, far being a convenient “out” or “the exception that swallows the rule,” the reason behind such statements has much more to do with IRS rules regarding tax-exempt status for churches and a lot less do with “Church doctrine.” And its not the Mormon Church that has said that certain issues fall outside of partisan politics. The IRS has. Churches are free to discuss issues of public concern over the pulpit. Check out IRS publication FS-2006-17. I strongly recommend you read the “Issue Advocacy vs. Political Campaign Intervention” section. The most pertinent part states that “[u]nder federal tax law, [churches] may take positions on public policy issues, including issues that divide candidates in an election for public office.”

  5. Chino, thanks for that link. I actually agree with Ardis’s notion of Oaks providing “education” on all the issues versus “job training” of the specific issue of same-sex marriage. Once you get past the idea that the Church has been anti-gay marriage for a long time, it makes sense that when Oaks talks about “tolerance,” he’s talking about a general way Mormons ought to do politics while using SSM as a subtextual example.

    Dpc, it’s not a matter of whether the Church is “partisan” or not; it’s the fact that its “political neutrality” is not neutral at all, and so hiding behind “partisanship neutrality” seems silly. Sure, it’s an IRS matter, but one wonders these days just how much the Church actually supports the Church/state boundary, given how it endorsed the Federal Marriage Amendment. The Church seems anxious to tie itself to the state, and in doing so, will have a harder time separating itself from individuals running for offices.

  6. I actually agree with Ardiss notion of Oaks providing education on all the issues versus job training of the specific issue of same-sex marriage.

    Meh. I agree more with the following comments from that thread:

    Hes a a former lawyer and judge. Hes trained in the ability of saying one thing and acting as if he is saying something else.

    The other major address that Oaks has given on this topic was a little less that two years ago at BYUI.
    http://newsroom.lds.org/article/oaks-religious-freedom

    He spoke about religious freedom explicitly in the context of SSM, where he infamously compared opponents of SSM to blacks in the civil rights struggle. He was highly criticized for that remark, and so it makes sense that he would want to avoid saying anything explicit on the topic, and instead emphasize the principles for the relationship between religion and the public square at work.

    If he were talking about general principles for the sake of talking about general principles, that’d be fine. But in this case, I get the very strong impression that he started from specific principles (“Defend the LDS political actions towards gay marriage while making it clear that it’s not OK for Evangelical Christians to impose religious restrictions on Mormons”), and from there derived general principles. Then he (mostly) erased his starting specific principles from the talk and found alternate examples, to avoid the earlier controversy.

  7. If he were talking about general principles for the sake of talking about general principles, thatd be fine. But in this case, I get the very strong impression that he started from specific principles and from there derived general principles.

    Any talk on principles should intermingle general and specific. Does it really matter whether one begins with the general or the specific? It only makes sense that the specific principles be ones the Church is currently engaged with.

    In terms of whether there’s a “retreat” to subtext for the specific, I think it’d be hard to prove. First off, church leaders regularly use subtext when speaking to Mormon audiences, not just Oaks. Secondly, after the Prop 8 backlash, one might think that every church leader would subtextualize SSM in their talks (if they wished to address the topic at all). But I seem to remember Oaks expressing that the Church received gratitude after Prop 8. Yes, he also received personally-directed criticism after his black/opponents-of-gay-marriage analogy. But I guess I’m less inclined to wager on whether there’s more subtextualizing going on now than before. Because in the end, subtext isn’t going to win the argument on gay marriage, and church leaders know this.

  8. Any talk on principles should intermingle general and specific. Does it really matter whether one begins with the general or the specific?

    It’s important to keep in mind that, in general, people tend to derive general principles from specifics. From what I’ve read about moral reasoning, people tend to believe that they derive their specific beliefs from some lofty, abstract, general principles — whereas, in reality, people tend to start with specific beliefs that are important to them, and build a framework of general principles around those specific beliefs, and then (if they care about consistency) they alter their less-important specific beliefs to match their general principles.

    In that sense, I agree with you that it doesn’t matter which one (general or specific) you started from. I’ll even take it a step further and say it’s foolish to imagine your general principles aren’t informed by protecting cherished specific beliefs.

    However, in this case, I feel like he’s pretending to loftily provide education on all the issues versus job training on a specific issue, when, really, his motivation is to build a case for his specific takes on certain specific issues — that is, to build a framework to justify his positions on certain specific issues.

    I know people will protest that I can’t read Oaks’ mind and know his true motivations, and I don’t claim that ability. However, the fact that he didn’t openly discuss the obvious specific example (but rather dog-whistled it: “evil acts that used to be localized and covered up like a boil, are now legalized and paraded like a banner) makes it look like he’s playing rhetorical games.

  9. Well, his next sentence is full of specifics:

    Persuaded by this philosophy [moral relativism], many of the rising generationyouth and young adultsare caught up in self-serving pleasures, pagan painting and piercing of body parts, foul language, revealing attire, pornography, dishonesty, and degrading sexual indulgence.

    It’s no longer fashionable to link homosexuality outright in a list of “evils,” so, yeah, it gets subtextualized these days in that regard. But if the FPR post and comments are any indication, Mormons themselves have to step back to read homosexuality in his subtext, and many would probably disagree that homosexuality is even there as a specific. So, Oaks can sneak in his own old-school specifics if he wants, but I think he’s losing his audience.

  10. “Pagan” painting and piercing of body parts…? Is “evil”…?

    I like how he throws in “dishonesty” to make it look like he’s listing off universal moral absolutes (as opposed to listing off “morals” that are relative to his particular generational/cultural moment).

  11. Very cool!

    But, seriously, I think he means to call the whole idea of tattooing “pagan” (hence demonic or at least morally suspect). Otherwise, how would tattoos be even remotely a “moral” issue — as opposed to being simply a matter of generational trends?

    Personally, I’m enough of an old fogey to think that tattoos are generally ugly and a bad idea. But to treat it as a moral/ethical issue? Absurd! To treat it as a moral/ethical issue is to say that you have trouble distinguishing between things that matter vs. random reactions that come out of your gut.

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