By Sandhya Bathija
It’s not often AU can say this — but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is on to something.
The LDS church has made a point to remind its senior leaders to remain politically neutral in the upcoming elections.
“The Church’s mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians,” church president Thomas S. Monson and his senior counselors said in a letter sent to top church leaders recently. The letter was also posted as a statement on the church’s website.
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It’s good to see the church educate on this important matter. Americans United has also been doing so for years now, with our Project Fair Play program. We even have a website where religious leaders, members of congregation and others can access information about what is and isn’t acceptable under the Internal Revenue Service’s rules, which bar houses of worship and other non-profits from opposing or endorsing candidates for office.
Americans United has continually warned against turning houses of worship into political machines. Some have questioned LDS church’s activity in this area. The church has become well known over the years for its political power plays, particularly on the issue of gay rights.
In 2008, LDS intervention is heavily credited for California’s passage of Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that removed the right of same-sex couples to obtain civil marriages. Church members, at the hierarchy’s behest, reportedly donated a majority of funds raised by the Yes on 8 campaign – nearly $20 million – and church members volunteered thousands of hours to support the constitutional amendment.
It goes to show the power of the LDS church, which only makes up 2 percent of the population in California. In Utah, more than 80 percent of the legislators are Mormon, and for nearly two decades, legislative leaders have met annually with church officials to discuss the coming year’s agenda.
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This troubles some people, and well it should. Yet the IRS does draw a distinction between issue advocacy by houses of worship, which is permitted, and intervention in political races between individuals, which is banned. Assuming LDS leaders follow the advice in the church statement, the Mormon Church won’t be meddling in the 2012 presidential election. It’s probably the best strategy for the church, since two GOP presidential candidates belong to the LDS church – Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman.
And perhaps, Mormon Church officials have learned a lesson of how politics can divide congregations.
“The church might be responding to criticism it has faced about its very active, very critical role in California’s referendum initiative about gay marriage,” Mark Button, a political scientist at the University of Utah who has written on religion in politics, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “That was a visible role that the church was playing, and it was clearly one that divided people in the church.”
We hope all religious groups will take the same efforts to educate their clergy and top officials about church politicking. With the presidential primaries coming up, it is important our houses of worship stay clear of partisan political campaigning that is designed to elect or defeat candidates. It’s not just the right thing to do – it’s the law.
P.S. If you feel your temple, synagogue or church is violating IRS rules, please contact Americans United through our Project Fair Play website.