The Church is Politically Diverse and That’s Okay
From Rob Taber, National Director of Latter-day Saints for Biden-Harris
“If we had a Republican club it would be the entire school.”
I looked up from the yearbook to acknowledge my cousin’s joke. I had been examining a picture of the Democrat Club at their Taylorsville, Utah school. The joke was a sentiment I had heard often, that Latter-day Saints are Republicans, at least the “good” ones are.
I came of age at what turns out to have been the highwater mark for affiliation between US Latter-day Saints and the Republican Party. My fellow members of the Church voted for Bob Dole and George W. Bush (the first time) at a rate of 88%. Even by 2004, however, about 1-in-5 eligible Latter-day Saints voted for the Democratic nominee.
My mission (2003–2005) taught me two important lessons about Latter-day Saints and politics. I started in Haiti, where members split in their opinions of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. We knew who in the branch to ask for pro- and anti-Aristide perspectives. But they didn’t bring their differences inside the meetinghouse.
I left Haiti a few days before Aristide did and found myself reassigned to South Carolina. During the run-up to the 2004 election, I was in Sumter, where much of the ward was affiliated with the US Air Force. We as missionaries didn’t know who was an officer and who was enlisted until we were taken on post for dinner appointments and could observe the interactions between our host and the military police. The members again kept significant interpersonal differences outside of the meetinghouse.
Partisan politics, however, crept in. We knew that the Gospel Doctrine teacher was (gasp!) a Democrat because the other members teased him. Another ward member, seen as odd-but-good, was Canadian, self-identified as a socialist(!), and always had NPR on the radio when we went on exchanges. Meanwhile, one of my companions had drunk deep from the well of far-right conspiracy theories and was happy to tell me the “real” stories of Ruby Ridge and Waco. Even though military rank could be left at the meetinghouse doors, as politics was in other countries, here in the United States, we would make sure that everyone knew that true members of the Church knew the “right” way to vote.
In 2012, Mitt Romney, the first Latter-day Saint to win a major party’s presidential nomination in the United States, received less of the Latter-day Saint vote than George W. Bush did in 2004, and far less than Bush had in 2000. Church members were continuing to shift in their personal politics, presaging the significant change in 2016, as many members who had been (or are) lifelong Republicans could not vote for Donald Trump.
It now looks like November’s election could set a new record, as Republican, independent, and Democratic Latter-day Saints come together in an anti-Trump, pro-Joe Biden coalition that makes up over 30% of Latter-day Saint voters.
While such a shift in the Latter-day Saint vote has implications in the Sun Belt and the industrial Midwest (one reason why both major campaigns are courting Latter-day Saint voters this year), I want to zoom out and raise the question about what these shifts mean for how we relate to one another as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Disclaimer: I’m nobody special. My professional training is as a historian, not a political scientist; I am not a Church authority of any kind, nor am I asking General Authorities to make any changes in what they are doing. But I have spent the last nine years organizing Latter-day Saints within the realm of electoral politics. I have heard many, many stories of people who have been judged by friends, family, ward members, and local Church leaders for having a different political viewpoint. Here is some wisdom I have gathered along the way:
—We love being together as Saints. It can be shocking when people with whom we have so much in common differ with us on other questions that we consider important. But we have managed to survive decades of internal dispute on whether Coca-Cola violates the Word of Wisdom, whether it’s okay to use face cards, whether we need to stay in “church clothes” the entire Sabbath.
—You may consider my examples in the previous paragraph to be trite in comparison to [insert political issue here] but all are, or were, tied to deep questions of how we best live the covenants we have made and what it means to be “in the world but not of the world.”
—We believe in freedom and moral agency, and even the religious liberty of those with whom we disagree is established in the eleventh Article of Faith. It is not our place to judge how our fellow members interpret and live out the twelfth and thirteenth Articles of Faith. If you have questions about their different interpretations, you can ask them, but be prepared to listen and be prepared to respect your fellow Saint when they say “I would rather not get into that with you.”
—There’s nothing wrong with Latter-day Saints finding other members with whom they agree politically, whether in person or online, but 1) we should ALL abide by the Church’s policies to not use ward lists or facilities, 2) it’s best that we leave political campaigning, generalizations, and arguments outside of the meetinghouse, 3) we are on slippery ground when we start to claim that we have the PERFECT approach rather than a potentially-valid one, 4) we are on even slipperier ground when our partisan political associations become an avenue for attacking our Church leaders or agitating for Church “reform,” and 5) we should NEVER imply that we speak for the Church or our leaders. I like these principles laid out by Mormon Women for Ethical Government.
—If you are about to question someone’s worthiness because of their political stance, stop. If you’re about to say “no true Latter-day Saint would vote for…” stop. If you’re in a position of ecclesiastical authority, or you were, and people who had to report to you ask for your political preference, and you see this invitation as your invitation to attack the candidates you dislike, stop. If you are about to have the youth activity be setting up yard signs for a political candidate, stop. If you are about to write a letter to your younger family members telling them they need to vote a certain way, stop. If you are about to argue that a certain political leader will “hasten the Second Coming,” stop. If you currently supervise a mission as president or matron and are about to express your political preferences publicly, stop. If you are about to share a graphic that uses a quote from a former Church leader to support your partisan political position, stop.
By the way, if you’re about to dismiss this last paragraph because you do not believe your fellow Latter-day Saints would ever behave in such an inappropriate way, congratulations on your optimism. But these are things I have personally witnessed in the last nine years, some of them multiple times in the past month.
Based on trends, the Church in the United States is becoming more politically diverse. No matter what happens next week, and no matter how you’re voting, this is a development with which we need to grapple.
And here are some reminders for all of us:
“Those who govern their thoughts and actions solely by the principles of liberalism or conservatism or intellectualism cannot be expected to agree with all of the teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As for me, I find some wisdom in liberalism, some wisdom in conservatism, and much truth in intellectualism — [but I find no salvation in any of them.]” Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Criticism,” The Ensign [February 1987]
“Both locally and nationally, the interests of the church and its members are best served when we have two good men or women running on each ticket, and then no matter who is elected, we win,” as reported in the 1999 volume, In the Strength of the Lord: The Life and Teachings of James E. Faust.
“As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are united in our testimony of the restored gospel and our commitment to keep God’s commandments. But we are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences. The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow disciples.” President Uchtdorf April 2013 conference talk “Four Titles”