Reporter's Notebook: The Political Neutrality Of The Mormon Church
In a recent story, I mentioned the Mormon Church’s stance on political neutrality. It’s a complex issue, and not one that can be explained at-length in a radio feature. For the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), this stance isn’t just to protect federal tax exemptions. It has deep religious and cultural roots. After a series of editorial discussions in the newsroom, we felt NHPR listeners might be interested in a more in-depth explanation.
Political Neutrality, Negotiations, And The Evolution Of A Story
Originally, the story “N.H. Mormons Navigate "Mormon Moment" As Election Day Nears,” was supposed to be a profile of the Wolfeboro congregation, who worship with Governor Mitt Romney and his family when the Romneys visit their home on Lake Winnipesaukee. The idea was to pursue an angle of what it’s like being part of a small church when one of your members is running for President. What’s it like walking into church and seeing Secret Service agents and AP reporters? What sorts of questions are you fielding? And day-to-day, what’s it like having the Romneys over? Does Ann lead singing? Are Mitt’s testimonies particularly enlightening? Do they bring potato salad or Jell-O to church potlucks?
After making some inquiries with local church representatives, my request was sent up the media relations chain to Salt Lake City. It’s fairly unusual for Mormon church services to be recorded. But unlike temples, which are used for weddings and other religious ordinances, LDS services at meetinghouses are open to non-Mormons. There’s nothing secret about Sunday worship. It is, however, a devotional setting, and a reporter going into any religious house typically has a conversation or series of conversations about when, where, and how taping or quoting members is appropriate.
But the Church’s stance on political neutrality ultimately called for a different story treatment. While the New England Public Affairs Director was away, I spoke directly with the church’s media relations department in Utah. Over the course of six weeks, I had numerous discussions with several staffers about my plans for the profile. Ultimately, to be allowed to tape at the church, I had to agree to scrap the angle.
The sticking point? Political neutrality.
Political Neutrality: More Than Just Politics
As it was explained to me, the Church had two major concerns. First, by profiling a congregation through the lens of Romney’s run for the presidency, the Church might be perceived as endorsing his candidacy. And thus, neutrality would be jeopardized.
Second, the Wolfeboro meetinghouse is a particularly sensitive case. Because the congregants know the Romneys personally, it would be difficult to secure permission to report there. In fact, I was told, only a handful of national reporters following Romney on the campaign trail have been allowed to cover events at Wolfeboro. The Church was concerned that offering any opening to parishioners to discuss their faith, vis-à-vis Romney’s candidacy, could open the door for them to share their political beliefs. And while individual Mormons are allowed to belong to either party, no questions asked, the Church felt this kind of discussion might lead listeners to misunderstand its stance.
Additionally, these congregants have insight into Mitt Romney’s personality and life that most Americans don’t. And what they have to say, I was told, could have the potential to move the election one way or the other. At least, that was the concern.
And the Church doesn’t want to do that.
After some editorial discussions on NHPR’s end, we decided that examining the Mormon experience in this place, at this point in history, would still have value for our listeners. So we changed the story’s focus to a broader question. “What’s it like being Mormon in New Hampshire now that Mitt Romney’s running for president?”
As a condition for telling this story, the Church at the local and regional level selected my interviewees (with the exception of Mormonism expert—and practicing Latter-Day Saint—Dr. Philip Barlow of Utah State University). I agreed not to ask any questions about the Romneys, political or personal. Under the terms of our agreement, I also committed not to ask any “political questions,” whether or not sources were part of the Wolfeboro congregation. That put the kibosh on the obvious: “Who are you voting for?” And, “Are you a registered Republican or Democrat?”
But the Church takes a very broad view of what is “political.” It took two long phone calls before media relations agreed that I could ask: “What’s it been like for you, as a Mormon, dealing with non-Mormons since Mitt Romney’s candidacy?”
During all interviews, I was accompanied by a Public Affairs officer, with the understanding that she could change the topic of discussion or stop the interviews if I stepped over the line. This was the preferable arrangement on my end, as well, since the Church’s definition of a “political question” is broad, and not necessarily intuitive to a non-Mormon. All interviews carried on unobstructed. In the case of the Wolfeboro interviews, they were also videotaped to be used on the Church’s social media sites.
So all this begs the question—why is political neutrality so important to the Church?
Coming (Back) To America: Mormons Move Toward US Democracy
True, religious groups aren’t allowed to preach political candidates’ merits from the pulpit without potentially forfeiting their federal tax exemptions. But still, some Catholic bishops have rather vociferously threatened to deny pro-choice politicians communion, lobbied in favor of pro-life legislation, and, most recently, pushed back against contraception insurance requirements in the Affordable Care Act. And the Catholic Church has avoided IRS ire.
Mormon Studies Professor Philip Barlow at Utah State University has the answer. And it goes back decades. Back in the early days of Mormonism, he says, the faithful were encouraged to gather in Utah to build Zion, a kind of heavenly kingdom on earth. Mormon territory was a kind of theocracy, and so most people’s beliefs were religion-focused, and relatively homogenous. But when Utah joined the United States near the turn of the 20th century, Mormons had to change some things. Most famously, of course, they gave up polygamy. But they also had to engage in the democratic system.
“They were urged to join both political parties and make private decisions, instead of just being the Church versus the world mentality,” Barlow says. Over time, the faithful moved from being mostly Democrats to roughly even numbers of Republicans and Democrats.
Turn To The Right: The Culture Wars
The real turning point for Mormons in politics was the late 1960s and early ’70s. Unlike many other iterations of Christianity, in the Mormon faith, Barlow says, “Salvation can’t occur alone. You can’t just sit there and be a perfect person, receive grace and get to heaven. But rather, Joseph Smith taught that salvation, or exaltation, is a relational thing. And the relations that we’re talking about are most intimately marriage, and then the nuclear family, and then the extended family, and then the wider community.”
So, Barlow says, when the 1960s saw the rise of casual sex and drug use, and the 1970s brought the Roe vs. Wade decision, many Mormons saw traditional family structures as being under threat. And a lot of them took a turn to the right. According to a 2011 survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, that’s still the case today.
“Nearly three-in-four Mormon registered voters (74%) either identify as Republican (52%) or lean toward the Republican Party (22%). Far fewer (17%) identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party. By comparison the general public is much more evenly split between the two parties, with 45% of all registered voters favoring the GOP and 48% favoring the Democratic Party...White evangelical Protestants (68% of whom identify with or lean toward the GOP) are the only other large religious group the rivals Mormons’ level of support for the Republican Party.”
Why Proposition 8 Isn’t A Political Issue
And the Mormon theology of salvation and the family also explains how Church leaders openly pushed for Proposition 8 in California, which banned gay marriage. To non-Mormons, that appears to be a clear-cut political issue.
“That’s different in the thinking of Church leaders,” from endorsing a candidate, Barlow says, versus “when there’s a moral point at stake with some law or another. That’s how they officially construed Proposition 8. Mormon thinking construes damage to the family as a fundamental threat in society, and a fundamental threat for the well-being of human beings,” Barlow says.
But, “That’s contested within Mormonism, just like it is within Catholicism or within Evangelicalism.”