Saturday, November 5, 2016

Why the LDS Church has the Right to Speak Out on Political Issues

Q:  Is it typical for the church to [speak out] for or against voting for something [specifically in letters regarding impending state votes on the questions of doctor-assisted suicide and the legalization of recreational marijuana]? Does the church feel like the congregations can't make informed decisions on their own without out an official statement? Do they believe that…we have to be spoon fed our opinions?
A:  The church does not endorse any particular candidate or political party, however:

“The Church 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” (Official Statement on Political Neutrality,

This has been the case throughout the church’s history.  For instance, the church expressed support for the so-called (and much praised) “Utah compromise” (Utah senate bill 296) which contained language designed to protect LGBT individuals from discrimination, while also protecting and preserving religious freedoms.  In the case of California Proposition 8, the church sent a letter to congregations in California encouraging members to get involved in efforts to pass the proposition, but the church was not directly involved, nor did it donate any money to those efforts.  Less recently, church leaders encouraged members to speak out against ratifying the proposed Equal Rights Amendment in the United States.  There are many other examples of the church urging members to speak up on one issue or another on “issues that it believes have significant community or moral consequences or that directly affect the interests of the Church.”

Note the careful wording in the passage quoted at the top of this article.  The church reserves the right to “address” issues.  In the recent letter about marijuana, the strongest language used by the first presidency is that they “urge” the members to speak up in opposition to the legalization of marijuana.  (Note that nowhere in the letter is anyone specifically told to vote one way or another). That’s because such letters constitute counsel rather than commandment.  As such, they do not represent any kind of direct mandate to the members to vote one way or another.  That means that you are left to reason for yourself as to what the right course of action should be.  Even if they could force the members to vote a certain way, the brethren would not do it.

“Some may believe that reason is not free when religious leaders have spoken, but I doubt that any religious leader in twentieth-century America has such a grip on followers that they cannot make a reasoned choice in the privacy of the voting booth. In fact, I have a hard time believing that the teachings of religions or churches deprive their adherents of any more autonomy in exerting the rights of citizenship than the teachings and practices of labor unions, civil rights groups, environmental organizations, political parties, or any other membership group in our society.” (Dallin H. Oaks, “Religious Values and Public Policy,” address given 29 February 1992, Brigham Young University Management Society,

I believe that the leaders of the LDS Church would echo “New York governor Alfred Smith, the first Catholic to receive the presidential nomination of a national political party, [who] felt compelled to assure voters in 1927, ‘I recognize no power in the institutions of my Church to interfere with the operations of the Constitution of the United States or the enforcement of the law of the land.’” (Viteritti, J. (2007). The last freedom: Religion from the public school to the public square. 16. Princeton: Princeton University Press).

If you did happen to choose to vote for the legalization of Marijuana in one of the elections in question, there would be no institutional consequences whatsoever.  You could continue to be a member in good standing, and it would never be mentioned at any rate, because voting is seen as a matter of personal choice. (It might be a different question if you decide to advocate your political opinions over the pulpit, but that is a separate issue).

Why would the church choose to address (what appear to be) secular issues like the legalization of marijuana for recreational or medicinal purposes, or doctor-assisted suicide?  While it is my opinion that the first presidency feels that the passage of such laws would affect the moral fabric and character of our society, they also happen to concern subjects that fall into the purview of religion.  Specifically, suicide has eternal consequences if you believe that there is a life beyond this one.  Also, the church teaches that its members should follow the word of wisdom, and they have interpreted the word of wisdom to include a proscription against the use of recreational drugs.  It is only natural that the church would encourage its members to oppose a law that would make it easier to use and abuse substances which the Lord has commanded them not to use.

However, “while the political argument against [legalizing recreational or medicinal marijuana use, or doctor-assisted suicide] is rooted in religion, one does not need to rely on religious teaching to have a morally based position against [these issues]” (Viteritti, J. (2007). The last freedom: Religion from the public school to the public square. 218. Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Thus, the leaders of the church have expressed concerns based on the science (or lack of reliable scientific data) surrounding these issues, and general concern for the moral welfare of our society, and they have encouraged members to speak out on this basis. At any rate, such expressions are protected by the constitution as political speech, regardless of the source from which they came.

Unfortunately, there is an idea that is current among contemporary secularists and popular in internet forums and among the ignorant, that religions should be forced to stay out of politics.  However, this has no actual precedent in the laws or the history of our country.

The first amendment to the constitution states only that:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Nowhere in the constitution or bill of rights does it state that religion must never be involved in politics.  The phrase “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in the founding document of our society.  The language in the first amendment can in no way be construed to support the idea that religion should have no part in public discourse.

“The [founders]…did not create an impenetrable wall to prevent any relations between government and religion.  Nowhere in the constitution are the words “wall of separation” to be found.  However, subsequent misinterpreters of the Constitution and its Founders have embraced the now-proverbial “separation of church and state,” with some advocating a government that is indifferent to the role of religion in our society.” (Wallace, J. C. (2005). Challenges and opportunities facing religious freedom in the public square. Brigham Young University Law Review, 2005(3), 597-610).

However, because churches have been granted tax exempt status by the IRS, they are subject to certain restrictions if they wish to maintain that status.  They are forbidden from endorsing candidates for public office, or advocating for or against such candidates over the pulpit.  Tax exempt religious organizations cannot make donations to a particular candidate for public office, nor can they distribute campaign literature or place campaign signs for a candidate on church property (

That said, churches are allowed to do the following and still maintain their tax-exempt status:

“Under current law, churches, as well as other 501(c)(3) organizations, may engage in nonpartisan campaign activities, primarily consisting of voter education. Thus, they may organize and coordinate nonpartisan get-out-the-vote and voter registration drives; sponsor nonpartisan candidate debates or forums, so long as all legally qualified candidates are invited to appear and wide spectrum of issues are covered; educate all candidates on issues of public interest; and create legislative scorecards or voter guides. All of these permissible activities must be done on a nonpartisan basis” (

In short, even under the more stringent requirements for tax exemption, churches are not forbidden from engaging in politics and addressing political issues.  If you care to read the first presidency letter regarding the proposed legalization of marijuana, you will find that it is extremely brief (only three short paragraphs), but it points out that “the dangers of marijuana to public health and safety are well-documented.  Recent studies have shed light particularly on the risks that marijuana use poses to brain development in youth” (First Presidency Letter, Oct. 12, 2016).  Whether you agree with this statement or not, the language employed by the First Presidency serves mainly to introduce the members to the issue so that they can do more research on their own, and as such falls squarely under the heading of “voter education,” which is perfectly acceptable under the law. (Nobody is being spoon-fed anything, in fact so little is being offered that it almost requires the reader to do more research in order to understand the letter itself).

As American society becomes increasingly secularized, the idea that the Church should have no right to speak out on controversial public issues (or to advise its members to speak out) has gained increasing acceptance. This view has become particularly popular among disaffected church members. Hostility to religious involvement in public discourse seems to have infected much of the conversation surrounding religion and politics in Utah in particular, as well in the rest of the nation in general.

“Some public policy advocates have attempted to intimidate persons with religious-based points of view from influencing or making laws in our democracy. One part of this effort is the recent characterization of the free exercise of religion as limited to the privilege of worshipping in the protected space of our own homes, churches, synagogues, or mosques. Beyond those protected spaces, the argument goes, religious believers and their organizations have no First Amendment protection—not even normal free speech guarantees.” (Dallin H. Oaks, “Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Society,” Claremont Graduate University Religious Freedom Conference, March 25, 2016)

In the wake of the church’s most recent letters regarding marijuana and doctor-assisted suicide I saw many individuals who complained about the LDS church getting involved. Some even going so far as to claim that the church is “corrupt” for interfering in public matters, as if the church was doing something unlawful, or unethical by expressing an opinion on a subject that affects many of its members.  I have found that many Americans seem willing to tolerate religion, only so long as religion stays in the segregated corner they have constructed for it, and keeps quiet about anything important or about anything which might affect their daily lives. 

“Americans seem to be most tolerant of religious viewpoints when these opinions are without consequence.  Even the clergy are expected to act like good secularists when entering the political sphere” (Viteritti, J. (2007). The last freedom: Religion from the public school to the public square. 31. Princeton: Princeton University Press).

“Apparently, churchmen can preach morality and religion as long as they do not suggest that their particular brand of religion has any connection with morality or that the resulting morality has any connection with political policies. Stated otherwise, religious preaching is okay so long as it has no practical impact on the listeners’ day-to-day behavior, especially any behavior that has anything to do with political activity or public policy.” (Dallin H. Oaks, “Religious Values and Public Policy,” address given 29 February 1992, Brigham Young University Management Society,

Despite the protestations of ignorant voices on the internet, religion has long held an important place in the United States as a voice for reform and moral courage.  For instance, the abolitionist movement was led by churches and their leaders (mostly mainline protestant and Quaker).  The civil rights movement of the twentieth century similarly was led by religious leaders, and found shelter in churches.  We tend to forget that “reverend” is an important part of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr’s title.  He was a practicing pastor and minister in the American Baptist church.

“Advocates who seek to banish religious arguments from the public square should answer this question: How would the great movements toward social justice in the United States, such as the abolition of slavery or the furthering of civil rights, have been advocated and pressed toward adoption if their religious proponents had been banned from participating on the issue by the assertion that private religious or moral positions were not an acceptable basis for public discourse or lawmaking?”  (Dallin H. Oaks, “Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Society,” Claremont Graduate University Religious Freedom Conference, March 25, 2016)

Moreover, religion has long played a central role in activities that advance social welfare, such as giving food and aid to the poor, teaching people to read, contributing to and participating in disaster relief efforts, and so forth.  The positive effects that religion has on our society are plentiful and well-documented, and to force religion to cease all involvement with the civic and political sphere would be to the detriment of American social and civic welfare.

“Generations of social science research has informed us of the positive effect that religion has on civic and political life.  It is indispensable in both spheres.  It has always served as a source of strength for those who are otherwise disadvantaged.  The same religious convictions that incline people towards moral judgment…incline them to do good deeds” (Viteritti, J. (2007). The last freedom: Religion from the public school to the public square. 204. Princeton: Princeton University Press).

“Religious institutions have always been at the heart of American civic life, serving as incubators for social activity that benefits society and maintaining a sphere of individual and group freedom outside the control of public authority” (Viteritti, J. (2007). The last freedom: Religion from the public school to the public square. 216. Princeton: Princeton University Press).

The assertion that religion has no place in the political or civic life of our country is just plain wrong.  Those that make such claims are typically threatened because the religion in question happens to disagree with them.  However, in a “free and robust” democracy, disagreement is bound to happen.  One might even say that disagreement and the resulting argument is important to the democratic process.  Just because a view differs from your own does not mean that it should be disqualified from public discourse.  Similarly, just because a view is expressed by a religious person or organization does not mean that view is automatically disqualified from democratic expression. Or, in a favorite quote of mine:

“In a democracy that is free and robust, an opinion is no more disqualified for being ‘religious’ than for being atheistic, or psychoanalytic, or Marxist, or just plain dumb.” (Richard John Neuhaus, “A New Order of Religious Freedom,” First Things, February 1992,

“In a democracy…all arguments deserve a hearing.  The problem with contemporary secularists is their determination to disqualify faith-based arguments from public discourse as an accommodation to a normative framework on which we can all agree.  Their position suggests that if they do not find a point of view persuasive, it does not deserve to be included as a part of legitimate public debate.  Taken to its logical end, secularism would confine all expressions of religiosity behind the church door” (Viteritti, J. (2007). The last freedom: Religion from the public school to the public square. 34. Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Efforts to silence religious voices in the public sphere amount to nothing more than censorship, which has no place in a pluralistic society.  As Dallin H. Oaks once said, “In a nation committed to pluralism, this kind of hostility to religion should be legally illegitimate and morally unacceptable” (“Religious Values and Public Policy,” 1992).

This movement to silence religious voices was predicted years ago by Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, as explained by Jeffrey R. Holland, also of the Quorum of the Twelve:

“We should be genuinely concerned over the assertion that the single most distinguishing feature of modern life is the rise of secularism with its attendant dismissal of, cynicism toward, or marked disenchantment with religion. How wonderfully prophetic our beloved Elder Neal A. Maxwell was—clear back in 1978—when he said in a BYU devotional:

…Your discipleship may see the time come when religious convictions are heavily discounted. . . . This new irreligious imperialism [will seek] to disallow certain . . . opinions simply because those opinions grow out of religious convictions.
My goodness! That forecast of turbulent religious weather issued nearly forty years ago is steadily being fulfilled virtually every day somewhere in the world in the minimization of—or open hostility toward—religious practice, religious expression, and, even in some cases, the very idea of religious belief itself.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “Religion: Bound By Loving Ties,” BYU Devotional, Aug. 16, 2016).

This open hostility is no longer contained to ignorant and intolerant voices in the public sphere.  It has spread to the highest levels of government.  Recently, an interfaith coalition, which included The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sent a letter addressed to President Barack Obama, President Pro Tempore of the U. S. Senate Orrin Hatch, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, “in response to a report issued by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.”

“We wish to express our deep concern that the Commission has issued a report, Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Non-Discrimination Principles with Civil Liberties, that stigmatizes tens of millions of religious Americans, their communities, and their faith-based institutions, and threatens the religious freedom of all our citizens.

The Commission asserts in its Findings that religious organizations “use the pretext of religious doctrines to discriminate.”

What we find even more disturbing is that, in a statement included in the report, Commission Chairman Martin Castro writes:

    “The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.” (Interfaith Group Asks US Government to Reject Report that Stigmatizes Religious Americans, October 12, 2016,

These church leaders are right to be “deeply concerned” by the language of this report.  It is essentially laying the groundwork to deny the validity of appeals to religious freedom when religious people seek to act out of conscience based on their faith.  By labeling religious freedom a code word for discrimination and bigotry, Martin Castro is changing the lexicon, and by so doing he is building a case by which others can ignore the bill of rights and perhaps even prosecute those who appeal to their freedom of religion for protection in the exercise of their faith when it happens to clash with the political orthodoxy.

When numerous voices among the people and even from within the government call for religious voices to be silenced, all free-thinking people should be alarmed.  This is a clear and present threat to all who seek to exercise their rights of conscience and to preserve the free exercise of our rights to free speech, religious establishment, and free assembly as guaranteed under the Bill of Rights.

While you are not required to agree with the Church leaders on political matters, you should be fiercely protective of their right to express their opinions.  If religious voices are silenced, they won’t be the only ones to be silenced.  Our democracy depends on the free exchange of ideas and respect for others, even when you do not agree with their opinions.  Become educated on the issues, learn to understand the importance and value of our rights as citizens, and do not be afraid to speak out when our rights are in danger.  There has never been a more important time for people of good faith (including people of religious faith) to speak out in defense of religious rights.

You may also be interested in my article "God's Truth Is The Truth, Even If You Disagree With It."

Here is a related video on religious freedom from the LDS Church:

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