Mormonism and politics/Church involvement

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Mormonism and involvement in politics

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Question: Why does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) take a stance on certain political issues?

The Church will become involved in a political matter if it is deemed to have a moral consequence

Church leaders encourage members to be active in politics and to exercise their right to vote. The Church does not, however, specify how members should vote or which political party they ought to belong to. Occasionally, however, the First Presidency issues a letter which is read over the pulpit urging members to act upon some political matter. Why does the Church choose to do this? President Gordon B. Hinckley answers this question:

We try to follow a very strict course in political matters. We observe the principle of the separation of church and state. We do concern ourselves with matters which we consider of moral consequence and things which might directly affect the Church or our fellow churches. We try to work unitedly with other people of other faiths in a constructive way. We hope we can use our influence for the maintenance and cultivation of the good environment in which we live as a people in these communities.[1]

The Church will become involved in a political matter if it is deemed to have a moral consequence. President Hinckley reiterated the same point while speaking at a conference in Japan:

We believe in the separation of Church and state. The Church does not endorse any political party or any political candidate, nor does it permit the use of its buildings and facilities for political purposes. We believe that the Church should remain out of politics unless there is a moral question at issue. In the case of a moral issue we would expect to speak out. But, in the matter of everyday political considerations, we try to remain aloof from those as a Church, while at the same time urging our members, as citizens, to exercise their political franchise as individuals. We believe, likewise, that it is in the interest of good government to permit freedom of worship, freedom of religion. Our official statement says, "We believe in worshiping God according to the dictates of conscience, and we allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may."[2]

Upon which issues might the Church take a stand? President Hinckley specifically mentioned issues involving alcohol, gambling and "thing[s] of that kind."[3] On June 30, 2008 the First Presidency under President Thomas S. Monson issued a letter urging Church members living in California to "...do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of your means and time to assure that marriage in California is legally defined as being between a man and a woman." (See: Latter-day Saints and California Proposition 8)


Question: What is the Mormon position on abortion?

Except in certain circumstances, the LDS Church opposes abortion and denounces it as a serious sin

LDS Newsroom, "Abortion"

LDS Newsroom,  LDS Newsroom
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes in the sanctity of human life. Therefore, the Church opposes elective abortion for personal or social convenience, and counsels its members not to submit to, perform, encourage, pay for, or arrange for such abortions.


The Church allows for possible exceptions for its members when:

  • Pregnancy results from rape or incest, or
  • A competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy, or
  • A competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.


The Church teaches its members that even these rare exceptions do not justify abortion automatically. Abortion is a most serious matter and should be considered only after the persons involved have consulted with their local church leaders and feel through personal prayer that their decision is correct.

The Church has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion.

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Except in certain circumstances, the LDS Church opposes abortion and denounces it as a serious sin. However, unlike some movements, the Church does not equate abortion with murder. Further, the Church acknowledges that women and men who have been involved in abortions can be forgiven and become members in good standing. The exceptions to the commandment prohibiting abortion highlight the Church’s commitment to women’s rights and to our intrinsic value apart from our biological roles as mothers.

Question: Are there exceptions where abortion may be appropriate?
Answer: Yes.

The Church has not adopted a simple, all-or-nothing approach to abortion. While the Church stands firmly by the commandment “Thou shalt not . . . kill, nor do anything like unto it” DC 59:6 and Church members are cautioned that participating in abortion will usually bring their membership under scrutiny, allowances are made for situations where abortion may be appropriate.

The Church recognizes there are cases when abortion is medically necessary. When a woman or girl’s health would be severely threatened by carrying a pregnancy to term, the Church offers counsel and support while mothers themselves decide how to proceed. The same approach is taken even when the mother's life is not at risk but a pregnancy is medically deemed to have no chance of being viable. In such cases, the Church leaves the final choice of whether an abortion will be performed to the parents themselves. There is no universal formula for how the exceptions to the Church's usual stance on abortion must be applied.

The list of situations where abortion may be appropriate showcases the Church’s commitment to women’s rights to make choices. In cases of rape or incest (crimes sometimes known by other names but likely meant to describe any non-consensual sexual intercourse brought on by force or by the abuse of a position of power), the Church does not require victims to accept pregnancies arising from someone else’s abusive choices. If a woman does not consent to sexual contact, the Church does not consider her morally obliged to accept the consequence of it.

At a gathering of university students, Member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Dallin H. Oaks quoted the following:

The woman’s right to choose what will or will not happen to her body is obviously violated by rape or incest. When conception results in such a case, the woman has the moral as well as the legal right to an abortion because the condition of pregnancy is the result of someone else’s irresponsibility, not hers. She does not have to take responsibility for it. To force her by law to carry the fetus to term would be a further violation of her right.[4]

The fact that an impending threat to the mother’s health is accepted by the Church as a valid reason for opting for abortion suggests that the Church prefers the life of the adult woman to the life of the unborn fetus -- especially if there is no chance the fetus would be able to live if the pregnancy took its natural course. This preference is controversial to many in the mainstream Pro-Life movement. However, it is a strong indication of the value the Church places on individual women. Clearly, we are not valued solely for our reproductive abilities. We are free to protect and preserve our own lives even if doing so directly compromises our reproductive abilities.

Though denounced by the Church, abortion is not considered murder

In a revelation given to Joseph Smith, the ancient Biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill” Ex 20:13 was expanded to read “Thou shalt not…kill nor do anything like unto it.” D&C 59:6 Abortion seems to fall into the category of “anything like unto it.” Though denounced by the Church, abortion is not considered murder. It is a less serious sin and one for which men and women can be forgiven.

Member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Russell M. Nelson has said:

So far as is known, the Lord does not regard this transgression as murder. And “as far as has been revealed, a person may repent and be forgiven for the sin of abortion.” Gratefully, we know the Lord will help all who are truly repentant.[5]

This doctrine sets the Church apart from some of the other organizations that denounce abortion. The Church does not persecute or demonize people involved in abortion. Instead, it reaches out to them with compassion and the promise of a possible redemption.

The Church itself has not been involved in the politics of abortion

As explained in the Church’s official statement on abortion, the Church itself has not been involved in the politics of abortion. However, Church members are free to express their own opinions and to be involved as individuals in political causes including abortion legislation.

The Church has come under criticism from conservative groups for not taking a stronger stance against abortion. At the same time, the Church is criticized by “pro-choice” groups for its extremely limited tolerance for abortion. Both sides of the argument accuse the Church of trying too hard to please the opposite side. Clearly, the Church’s stance on abortion cannot be the result of political pandering. If it's meant as a compromise, it would be a poor one that leaves both sides of the abortion argument angry and unsatisfied. In an argument as polarized as the abortion debate, no compromise would ever be acceptable. Rather than crafting a position that fully pleases either side of the debate, the Church position is a tempered one – one based in a real, complicated world where difficult situations must be reckoned with on careful, individual bases.

Despite its lack of direct engagement in abortion politics, some Church leaders have warned members against aligning with movements that would promote the use of abortion beyond the circumstances of rape, incest, and catastrophic health outcomes accepted by the Church.

Dallin H. Oaks said:

Pro-choice slogans have been particularly seductive to Latter-day Saints because we know that moral agency, which can be described as the power of choice, is a fundamental necessity in the gospel plan. All Latter-day Saints are pro-choice according to that theological definition. But being pro-choice on the need for moral agency does not end the matter for us. Choice is a method, not the ultimate goal. …In today’s world we are not true to our teachings if we are merely pro-choice. We must stand up for the right choice.[6]

Adoption is encouraged as an alternative to abortion

Wrote the First Presidency in 1999:

Every effort should be made in helping those who conceive out of wedlock to establish an eternal family relationship. When the probability of a successful marriage is unlikely, unwed parents should be encouraged to place the child for adoption, preferably through LDS Social Services. Adoption through LDS Social Services helps ensure that the baby will be reared by a mother and father in a faithful Latter-day Saint family.

Unwed parents who do not marry should not be counseled to keep the infant as a condition of repentance or out of an obligation to care for one’s own. Generally, unwed parents are not able to provide the stable, nurturing environment so essential for the baby’s well-being.

When deciding to place the baby for adoption, the best interests of the child should be the paramount consideration. Placing the infant for adoption enables unwed parents to do what is best for the child and enhances the prospect for the blessings of the gospel in the lives of all concerned.[7]


Question: Why did Mormon leaders oppose the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the United States?

The Church did not oppose equal rights for women. However, it was opposed to the potential consequences of the brief, vaguely worded ERA

It's sometimes mistakenly assumed that because the Church opposed a proposed amendment to the United States constitution known as the Equal Rights Amendment, the Church must have also opposed equal rights for women. As explicitly stated by Church leaders, the Church did not oppose equal rights for women. However, it was opposed to the potential consequences of the brief, vaguely worded ERA. The concern was that the amendment would unintentionally have a negative impact on women's rights and families. Furthermore, the Church felt the Constitution already prohibited gender discrimination, making the ERA an unnecessary risk.

What is the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)?

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was proposed as an amendment to the constitution of the United States. It was first introduced in 1923 and rode the tides of American politics until it failed to be ratified by the required minimum number of states in 1982. It has never been enacted.

The proposed amendment read, in its entirety:

• Section 1: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

• Section 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

• Section 3: This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

The LDS Church’s Position on the ERA

In 1976, during the strongest, most vocal push to ratify the ERA, the Church made an uncommon move and took an official position on a political issue. The First Presidency -- then comprised of Spencer W. Kimball, N. Eldon Tanner, and Marion G. Romney -- issued a statement opposing the ERA. It went on to urge American Church members to work as citizens to defeat the proposed legislation.

The First Presidency’s statement reads, in part:

There have been injustices to women before the law and in society generally. These we deplore. There are additional rights to which women are entitled. However, we firmly believe that the Equal Rights Amendment is not the answer.[8]

Even with an endorsement from the First Presidency, no Church funds were used to campaign against the ERA.[8]

Mistaking Opposition to the ERA for Opposition to Gender Equality

The LDS Church was not the only organization in America to oppose the ERA. Religious groups sponsored by Catholic and other Christian and Jewish faiths also opposed it. Secular organizations, most notably Phyllis Schlafly’s STOP ERA, campaigned against it as well. The Republican Party wavered in its support for the amendment and still managed to win the 1980 election. Clearly, the American populous – inside and outside the LDS Church -- was not without reservations when it came to the ERA. However, this does not mean the majority of the nation was against women’s rights simply because it was unsatisfied with the ERA. A popular slogan of the day was “Equal Rights, Yes. ERA, No!”

Critics of the Church, both in the twentieth century and today, often equate the Church’s opposition to the ERA to opposition to equal rights for women. This misconception continues despite clear, unequivocal statements from the Church to the contrary.

Long before the ERA became well-known, leaders of the LDS Church were already speaking of women’s rights. In 1942, member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostle, John A. Widtsoe said:

In the Church there is full equality between man and woman. The gospel … was devised by the Lord for men and women alike…The privileges and requirements of the gospel are fundamentally alike for men and women. The Lord loves His daughters as well as He loves His sons… This makes individuals of man and woman—individuals with the right of free agency, with the power of individual decision, with individual opportunity for everlasting joy… There can be no question in the Church of man’s rights versus woman’s rights.[8]

Opposition to the Vague Language

The ERA was written in very brief and general terms. Those concerned about the wording feared the amendment was overly vague and too vulnerable to unintended consequences.

Member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Boyd K. Packer, addressed this in 1977:

I recognize that the proponents of the Equal Rights Amendment may be well intentioned in their desire to improve the status of women. We need to be very alert as to what the amendment would do besides what is intended. It is so easy to set about to solve a problem and end up creating yet a greater one.[9]

Rex E. Lee, (a legal scholar, an Assistant Attorney General in the US Department of Justice, and the person who would soon become the 37th Solicitor General of the United States) warned:

By its nature, [the ERA] will either do too little or too much…The highly vague language of the ERA has the potential to do far more than simply add one additional suspect classification (sex) to existing equal protection doctrine. How much more? I really don’t know. And that is the greatest problem.”[8]

Several states passed legislation with similar wording to the ERA and unintended consequences did indeed arise. In Maryland and Pennsylvania women were deprived by the courts of spousal and child support as direct results of ERA-type state laws. In one case, a man succeeded in proving in court that he could no longer be prevailed upon to pay his wife’s medical expenses.[8] Cases like these bolstered the notion that the ERA was flawed and risky.

Opposition on the Basis of Redundancy

Opponents of the ERA pointed out that the legal principle of the equality of all citizens was already guaranteed in the 14th Amendment to the United States’ constitution which reads,

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

In other words, all US citizens -- regardless of any individual characteristics including gender – are entitled to “equal protection” under the law. When the fourteenth amendment was applied in courts in matters of gender discrimination, such discrimination was rejected as unconstitutional.

This would have been the interpretation Boyd K. Packer envisioned when he said of gender discrimination:

Existing laws, if properly enforced, could effect the corrections necessary. Even some proponents of ERA have admitted that a Constitutional amendment is not really needed to achieve the desired legal reforms. They argue, however, that its adoption represents some kind of a symbolic gesture, some overcorrection of a long neglected cause…I am for the equitable enforcement of existing laws. There are sufficient of them to protect the rights of women and of children and of men. Or to enact judiciously and wisely any needed legislation to correct particular circumstances.”[9]

The special Ensign publication on the ERA provides “a partial list” detailing eight acts which make gender discrimination illegal in the United States. According to the Ensign, “existing laws…prohibit discrimination, on the grounds of sex, in virtually all areas of American life—education, employment, credit eligibility, housing, public accommodation.”[8]

Rex E. Lee said:

In all the debates over ERA in which I have participated, I have yet to hear anyone suggest a single discriminatory law, which a majority of Americans would want repealed, that would not already be unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Opposition on the Basis of Democracy

The ERA was seen by many as an attempt to wrest political power away from elected local authorities and put it in the hands of unelected federal judges and bureaucrats. As proponents of democracy – what the Book of Mormon calls “the voice of the people” Alma 29:26 -- Church leaders were troubled at the prospect of this kind of shift in power.

Opposition on the Basis on Gender Homogeneity

Both inside and outside the Church, opponents to the ERA expressed concerns that the amendment would erase important distinctions between men and women. In the words of Boyd K. Packer:

Among the great dangers in the [ERA] is the fact that it would deprive lawmakers and government officials alike of the right by legal means to honor the vital differences in the roles of men and women.[9]

The concern was that a codified homogenization of genders would limit women’s power to choose to fulfill traditional roles. Without certain “necessary protections and exemptions” [8] it was feared that women would be forced into difficult positions through:

  • being made subject to compulsory military service even if they were raising small children
  • lapses in court orders for child and spousal support payments
  • weakening of sexual assault prosecutions
  • loss of existing spousal benefits such as medical insurance
  • changes to the tax system that might make it more difficult financially for people to live as married couples.

All these potential effects of the ERA were seen as damaging to family life in America. Boyd K. Packer said:

We [the Church] analyze the effect of every influence that comes along, as it may ultimately change by way of strengthening, or threaten by way of weakening, the family. We have the lingering, ominous suspicion that the proponents of the Equal Rights Amendment have paid little, if any, attention to the family at all.[9]

The ERA and Church Discipline

The special ERA section of the Ensign states:

Contrary to news reports, Church membership has neither been threatened nor denied because of agreement with the [ERA]. However, there is a fundamental difference between speaking in favor of the ERA on the basis of its merits on the one hand, and, on the other, ridiculing the Church and its leaders and trying to harm the institution and frustrate its work.[8]

It’s likely that attention was drawn to this question due to the case of Sonia Johnson, an ERA activist who was excommunicated. Her excommunication came after she gave a speech, titled "Patriarchal Panic: Sexual Politics in the Mormon Church."[10] She spoke several more times on the topic, always harshly criticizing the Church and its leaders. Johnson often cites her stance on ERA to be the reason for her excommunication, although there is no evidence besides her claims that this is actually the case. The reasons for an individual's excommunication are rarely publicly released by the Church. However, Johnson and those close to her claimed that she was excommunicated for apostasy.[11] No other individual has ever claimed to have been excommunicated for their stance on the ERA, although a number of other members did publicly disagree with Church leaders on the issue.

Johnson's later remarks in Chapter 5 of her book, Going Out Of Our Minds: The Metaphysics Of Liberation also make it clear that there were other issues at work, though in keeping with the Church's practice of disciplinary council confidentiality, they were not revealed by the Church, and have only become public knowledge because of Johnson's decision to speak about them publicly.[12]

America without the ERA

Of course, it’s impossible to know how the United States might have developed differently if the ERA had been ratified in 1982. Some of the effects opponents of the ERA were trying to avoid -- such as the proliferation of abortion and same-sex marriages -- eventually became parts of American society anyway. Maybe the ERA would have brought on these changes sooner – or maybe not. It’s impossible to know.

Since 1982, the Fourteenth Amendment has continued to uphold the principle of gender equality before the law. Still, gender discrimination continues to exist. It’s no longer overt or common in institutional settings but it endures in the everyday lives of American women. It continues to be a disgusting though pervasive and enduring fact of life. It doesn’t seem realistic that any act of government could have undone millennia of prejudice and abuse. As the special section of the Ensign explained back in the days of the ERA:

The ERA does not automatically guarantee equal rights…the ERA would not affect many inequities that result from attitudes and customs. It would prohibit only governmental discrimination.[8]

Gender inequalities are much more complex and insidious than any law has the power to lob off in a single stroke. To say otherwise is to oversimplify and trivialize women’s struggles for equality. These facts highlight the ERA’s status as a symbolic gesture – an attempt to promote awareness and attitudinal changes about gender equality more than an attempt to effect real change. It was the position of the Church that such a move was not worth the risk of inadvertently losing rights women already enjoyed.

In the company of many other organizations, the LDS Church opposed the ERA. However, it explicitly did not oppose the principle of equal rights for women and men

In the company of many other organizations, the LDS Church opposed the ERA. However, it explicitly did not oppose the principle of equal rights for women and men. The ERA was brief and vague and considered too vulnerable to unintended, unfortunate interpretations. It was deemed unnecessary since equal gender rights were already protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. It was feared the ERA would erode democracy by moving power away from elected local officials and giving it to unelected federal courts. Another concern was that the ERA would dull the salience of important gender differences and cost women their access to child and spousal support and benefits and their exemption from compulsory military service. Despite claims made in the media of the day, the Church did not discipline members merely for disregarding the First Presidency's stance on the ERA.

Gender inequalities are much more insidious and complicated than any law has the power to lob off in a single stroke. To say otherwise is to oversimplify and trivialize women’s struggles. The ERA was largely a symbolic gesture – an attempt to promote dialogue and attitudinal changes about gender equality more than an attempt to effect real change. It was the position of the Church that such a move was not worth the risk of inadvertently losing rights women already enjoyed.


Question: How do Mormons view the issue of immigration reform in the United States?

"We recognize an ever-present need to strengthen families. Families are meant to be together. Forced separation of working parents from their children weakens families and damages society"

On 17 March 2011, the Church's official website posted the following:

A recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune highlighted the fact that the Church’s Presiding Bishop, H. David Burton, attended the signing of a comprehensive set of immigration reform bills passed by the Utah legislature. The article said: “One thing is clear: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has abandoned its claims to neutrality on these bills.”

This needs a clarification.

While the Church does not endorse or oppose specific political parties, candidates or platforms, it has always reserved the right to address, in a nonpartisan way, issues that have significant community or moral consequences. Immigration is such an issue.

Before the 2011 Utah legislative session began, the Church announced its support for the Utah Compact. Our hope was that lawmakers would find solutions that encompassed principles important to Mormons and other people of goodwill:

  • We follow Jesus Christ by loving our neighbors. The Savior taught that the meaning of “neighbor” includes all of God’s children, in all places, at all times.
  • We recognize an ever-present need to strengthen families. Families are meant to be together. Forced separation of working parents from their children weakens families and damages society.
  • We acknowledge that every nation has the right to enforce its laws and secure its borders. All persons subject to a nation’s laws are accountable for their acts in relation to them.

Our focus during the legislative session was to encourage laws that incorporated these principles. The Church did not dictate what kinds of bills should be proposed. Like many others on Capitol Hill, Church officials voiced their views and trusted the state’s elected officials to do their job. We consider the comprehensive package passed by lawmakers to be a responsible approach to a very complicated issue. Bishop Burton was invited, along with other community leaders, to witness the signing of a series of immigration bills by Utah Governor Gary Herbert and to show support for the diligent efforts of lawmakers in this area.

We expect that our country will continue to struggle with this complicated issue, which the federal government will have to address. Our hope is that good people everywhere will strive for principle-based solutions that balance the rule of law with the need for compassion.


Latter-day Saints and California Proposition 8

Summary: The passage of California Proposition 8 during the November 2008 election has generated a number of criticisms of the Church regarding a variety of issues including the separation of church and state, the Church's position relative to people who experience same-sex attraction, accusations of bigotry by members, and the rights of a non-profit organization to participate in the democratic process on matters not associated with elections of candidates.


Notes

  1. Press Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, March 13, 1995., reprinted in Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, p. 62. (emphasis added)
  2. Media Luncheon and Press Conference, Tokyo, Japan, May 18, 1996, reprinted in Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, p. 62. (emphasis added)
  3. BBC Interview, February 21, 1997., reprinted in Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, pp. 62-62.
  4. Dallin H. Oaks, "Weightier Matters," BYU Devotional, Feb. 1999.
  5. Russell M. Nelson, "Reverence for Life," Ensign (May 1985), 11. See also Russell M. Nelson, "Abortion: An Assault on the Defenseless," Ensign (Oct 2008), 32–37.
  6. Dallin H. Oaks, "Weightier Matters," BYU Devotional, Feb. 1999.
  7. Cited in "Policies and Announcements," Ensign (April 1999), 80.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7 8.8 "The Church and the Proposed Equal Rights Amendment: A Moral Issue," Ensign (Mar 1980).
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Boyd K. Packer, "The Equal Rights Amendment," Ensign (March 1977).
  10. Sonia Johnson, "Patriarchal Panic: Sexual Politics in the Mormon Church" speech given at the American Psychological Association Meetings, New York City, 1 September 1979. {{{1}}}
  11. Linda Sillitoe, "Church Politics and Sonia Johnson: The Central Conundrum," Sunstone no. (Issue #19) (January-February 1980). off-site PDF link
  12. Sonia Johnson, Going Out Of Our Minds: The Metaphysics Of Liberation (Crossing Press, 1987), chapter 5.