December 4, 2011
Answers to a rabbi, part 2: Do Mormon politicians take orders from Utah?
“I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.” – Joseph Smith
This is the second post written in response to Rabbi Mordecai Schnaidman’s letter to the editor of The Jewish Week. He posed three questions about Mormonism in relation to Mitt Romney’s candidacy. My last post addressed the rabbi’s concerns about LDS temple rites, and I will now address his second question. My standard disclaimer bears repeating: This is not a political blog, and I have no interest in advocating Mitt’s candidacy here.
Q: Since the supreme leader of the Mormon faith is considered by its adherents to be endowed with prophetic powers, might not the independence of a faithful Mormon elected to the presidency of the United States be compromised by his loyalty to his faith’s ultimate authority?
A: Mormons do indeed believe that prophets are indispensable to Israelite worship (Amos 3:7) and are grateful for prophetic guidance. It’s important to note, however, that this guidance follows the pattern established by Joseph Smith of teaching correct and moral and spiritual principles to church members and then letting them work out the details for themselves.
While LDS doctrinal teachings are often clear and unambiguous, they do leave room for individual members, including politicians, to apply them in their own lives. Let’s take the case of gay marriage, which the church clearly opposes. Can an LDS governor, while personally opposing gay marriage, not make its prevention a top priority in his administration? The answer is obviously yes, since that’s what Mitt did while serving as governor of Massachusetts. Of course, another LDS governor could choose to fight gay marriage tooth and nail during his term. In both cases the church’s doctrine is the same, but individual members are free to figure out how best to apply it in their personal and professional lives.
The immigration issue is also an interesting one from a Mormon perspective, since our scriptures teach us both to have charity for others and to be obedient to the laws of our country. Church leaders issued an official statement last June calling for a “balanced” and “civil” approach to the issue. They also criticized state legislation (read “Arizona”) that only contains enforcement provisions for “fall[ing] short of the high moral standard of treating each other as children of God.” The church also declared its support for legalizing undocumented immigrants “without this necessarily leading to citizenship.” In spite of this statement, the chief sponsor of the Arizona immigration legislation was an LDS state senator, and Mitt Romney currently has one of the toughest anti-illegal immigrant positions in the Republican field (though he held different views during the 2008 campaign).
The LDS Church issues a letter prior to every national U.S. election that is read from the pulpits of every ward (congregation) in the country. The letter encourages members to vote, but emphasizes its political neutrality. The church’s official policy on political neutrality (yes, it has one) includes a statement that the church “does not attempt to direct or dictate to a government leader,” though it does reserve the right 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.” Every other large church in the country also reserves (and in many cases exercises) the right to address important moral issues.
Could an LDS politician be unduly influenced by the President of the Mormon Church? I think it’s telling that Rabbi Schnaidman and others who have posed similar questions are unable to cite an example of an LDS governor, senator, congressman, cabinet member or mayor who took orders from Salt Lake City. In the specific case of Mitt Romney, although his church opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, he supported abortion rights and gay marriage while serving as governor. It’s highly unlikely that LDS leaders were dictating Massachusetts policy on these moral issues during Mitt’s term. [It’s also unlikely that they told Sen. Harry Reid to advocate public funding of Planned Parenthood’s abortions earlier this year, but I digress].
It’s also hard to cite examples of LDS leaders attempting to influence politicians, LDS or not, on political issues. The last example I can think of was the 1981 letter by the church’s top three leaders asking the federal government not to base the MX missile in Utah. Since then, only gay marriage (a moral issue for us) has merited a similar response by top LDS leaders.
In short, there is no history of LDS politicians allowing themselves to be “compromised” by their prophet. There is also no history of LDS prophets attempting to “compromise” presidents. I’m sure that any LDS president would consult with LDS leaders on the moral issues of the day, just as he would with leaders of other faiths. In the end, however, he or she is the one who is elected to run the country. Based on the track records of leading Mormon politicians, there is every reason to believe that they would be able to maintain a necessary division between their spiritual and professional lives.