A Mormon Wasp article about the Strengthening Church Members Committee, that was taken offline for unknown reasons.

The Strengthening Church Members Committee
Justin Butterfield

News of a pending disciplinary council for Grant Palmer, author of the book An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, has included talk of the involvement of a church committee called the Strengthening Church Members Committee (SCMC). The Signature Books website now features a news release [hat tip to Dave’s Mormon Inquiry for bringing this to my attention] claiming that the committee provided Palmer’s stake president with a dossier on the book.

The SCMC is somewhat of a mysterious entity within the church. Its origins probably date back, at a minimum, to the 1980s. A June 13, 1994, article appearing in Time Magazine simply noted that the committee was created “[s]ome time during the [President Ezra Taft] Benson presidency.” D. Michael Quinn has written that the committee was established “[a]fter [President] Benson became church president in 1985.” I don’t know if it’s possible to be much more specific than that.

We do know that the committee existed as of July 19, 1990, which is the date of a leaked memo written by Glenn L. Pace, former second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric. Pace noted that the memo, which concerned allegations of ritualistic child abuse within the LDS Church, was written “[p]ursuant to the Committee’s request.” The committee’s existence was first publicized in the fall of 1991, when an anti-Mormon ministry published the memo.

Widespread publicity of the committee’s existence, however, did not occur until the summer of 1992. On August 6, 1992, Lavina Fielding Anderson, speaking at the 1992 Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium, described the committee as “an internal espionage system” that kept information files on certain church members and alleged that some church members had been punished by local leaders based on files provided by the committee. Then-BYU professor of English Eugene England responded to Anderson’s charges by saying, among other things, “I accuse that committee of undermining the Church.” He also asked those attending the symposium session to lobby the church to disband the committee.

News coverage of Anderson’s charges reached readers across the United States. The Salt Lake Tribune led out with stories published on August 8 and 15. The church’s official response was initially vague. Later another church spokesman, Don LeFevre, provided additional information on the committee to the Religion News Service:

Don LeFevre, told Religious News Service on Monday that the aim of the group, known as the Strengthening Church Members Committee, is to prevent members from making negative statements that hinder the progress of the Mormon church, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. LeFevre said the committee neither makes judgments nor imposes penalties.

“Its purpose is implied by the committee’s name, to strengthen members in the church who may have a problem or may need counseling,” LeFevre said. “It’s really an attempt to help the individual.”

LeFevre said the committee receives complaints from church members about other members who have made statements that “conceivably could do harm to the church.”

“What this committee does is hear the complaints and pass the information along to the person’s ecclesiastical leader.” Any discipline is “entirely up to the discretion of the local leaders,” he said.

(“Mormon Church keeps files on its dissenters,” St. Petersburg Times, Aug. 15, 1992, at 6e)

The issue did not die, however. On August 22, the New York Times ran a short piece on the committee entitled “Secret Files.” The article quoted church spokesman LeFevre as stating that the committee “provides local church leadership with information designed to help them counsel with members who, however well-meaning, may hinder the progress of the church through public criticism.” LeFevre denied that the information was intended by church leaders for purposes of intimidation. The Times reported that F. Ross Peterson, a Mormon historian, had recently shared his experience with the committee with the Salt Lake Tribune:

“[T]wo years ago local church officials had questioned him about public comments he had made on changes in Mormon ceremonies. At the interview, he said, the officials relied on a file of photocopied material and asked him about things he had written decades earlier, but they refused to let him examine the file.”

That same day the church issued a formal statement on the committee which included a rationale based on section 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants:


Generally, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not respond to criticism levied against its work. But in light of extensive publicity recently given to false accusations of so-called secret Church committees and files, the First Presidency has issued the following statement:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was established in 1830 following the appearance of God the Father and Jesus Christ to the Prophet Joseph Smith in upstate New York. This sacred event heralded the onset of the promised ‘restitution of all things.’ Many instructions were subsequently given to the Prophet including Section 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants: ‘And again, we would suggest for your consideration the propriety of all the saints gathering up a knowledge of all the facts, and sufferings and abuses put upon them….

And also of all the property and amount of damages which they have sustained, both of character and personal injuries….

And also the names of all persons that have had a hand in their oppressions, as far as they can get hold of them and find them out.

And perhaps a committee can be appointed to find out these things, and to take statements and affidavits; and also to gather up the libelous publications that are afloat;

And all that are in the magazines, and in the encyclopedias, and all the libelous histories that are published. . . . (Verses 1-5.)’

Leaders and members of the Church strive to implement commandments of the Lord including this direction received in 1839. Because the Church has a non-professional clergy, its stake presidents and bishops have varied backgrounds and training. In order to assist their members who have questions, these local leaders often request information from General Authorities of the Church.

The Strengthening Church Members Committee was appointed by the First Presidency to help fulfill this need and to comply with the cited section of the Doctrine and Covenants. This committee serves as a resource to priesthood leaders throughout the world who may desire assistance on a wide variety of topics. It is a General Authority committee, currently comprised of Elder James E. Faust and Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. They work through established priesthood channels, and neither impose nor direct Church disciplinary action.

Members who have questions concerning Church doctrine, policies, or procedures have been counseled to discuss those concerns confidentially with their local leaders. These leaders are deeply aware of their obligation to counsel members wisely in the spirit of love, in order to strengthen their faith in the Lord and in His great latter-day work.

The First Presidency

Lyndon Cook provides some information on Doctrine and Covenants 123, which was taken from a two-part letter dictated by Joseph Smith, while imprisoned in Liberty Jail, to church leaders in Quincy, Illinois:

On 4 May 1839, pursuant to the instructions of section 123, Almon W. Babbitt, Erastus Snow, and Robert B. Thompson were appointed “a traveling committee to gather up and obtain all the libelous reports and publications which have been circulated against the Church” as well as “other historical matter connected with said Church, which they can possibly obtain.” Referring to this assignment, Erastus Snow wrote,

“[On 4 May 1839] I was appointed by the conference one of three committee to collect the libilous publications of all kinds that had been published against the saints and to insert and refute them in a church history which should be compiled by us after the conference.”

Joseph Smith advised that Erastus Snow and Almon W. Babbitt each travel and preach as their circumstances would permit and “gather in our travels what publications we could and send them to Elder [Robert B.] Thomson who should be writing and compiling the history which should be subject to our inspection.”

(Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 241-42)

Thereafter many petitions and affidavits, which itemized personal losses in Missouri, were formulated by church members and then forwarded to Washington, D.C. for consideration by the federal government.

It deserves noting that the First Presidency statement characterized section 123 as a revelation from God to Joseph Smith in several places. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was established in 1830 following the appearance of God the Father and Jesus Christ to the Prophet Joseph Smith in upstate New York. This sacred event heralded the onset of the promised ‘restitution of all things.’ Many instructions were subsequently given to the Prophet including Section 123….Leaders and members of the Church strive to implement commandments of the Lord including this direction received in 1839.”

The March 1993 issue of Sunstone introduced a new twist to the story. In a letter to the editor, BYU professor Eugene England, who had denounced the committee’s existence\r\nthe previous August, struck a conciliatory tone. He wrote:

In connection with your report of events and publicity last August concerning the Strengthening Church Members Committee (“Church Defends Keeping Files on Members,” SUNSTONE 16:2), I offer an apology and an invitation.

I am sorry that I spoke out so rashly and angrily — and before I learned more about the Committee or spoke privately to its members about my concerns. My main objection to the Committee (which I wrongly understood to be an ad hoc group of Church employees) was that as a result of its reports people were being punished or at least intimidated without being confronted directly and privately by the offended parties-a process that both our democratic and our Mormon Christian ideals call for (see D&c 42:88 and Matthew 18:15).

Yet in my accusations I violated those same ideals — with what I recognize now was a desire for revenge on those whom I thought had hurt people I know. I have apologized privately and now do so publicly: I regret what I said and the spirit in which I said it.

I also invite all of us to find ways to deal with our differences of opinion, even our offenses, directly and privately-in such a way that both offended and offender can express fully their concerns and hear full explanations and, when necessary, apologize or repent. I invite my colleagues at BYU — and all in the Mormon community as a whole to refrain from criticizing our leaders and each other in ways that violate that ideal.

I also invite all who are involved in or affected by the actions of the Strengthening Church Members Committee, including local leaders, to work toward the ideal of open, patient, and direct exchange. I suggest we all report in detail to Committee Members Elders James E. Faust and Russell M. Nelson what is happening to us and those in our care as a result of their Committee’s actions, so they can assess those results.

A story appearing in the Arizona Republic in November 1993, following the excommunication of five LDS scholars and the disfellowshipping of another in September, provided further information on the committee. The reporter quoted Elder Dallin H. Oaks as describing the committee as a “clipping service.” According to the story, “Oaks acknowledged that the Strengthening the [Church] Members Committee…may have monitored speeches, writings and activities of those suspected of apostasy and passed on material to church officials.”

D. Michael Quinn writes in Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power:

Building on files created while Benson was an apostle [related to surveillance of LDS professors and students suspected of being “left wing,” “liberal,” Communist, or socialist], staff members of this now-centralized committee began maintaining files on every member of the church regarded as critical of LDS policies or as too liberal…. During the past decade [i.e., the decade preceding 1997] this committee, whose total number of staff members and operatives is unknown, has staked out a daunting task. Its files include even a sentence regarded as controversial in an LDS member’s writings about any Mormon topic for such independent publications as the academic Utah Historical Quarterly, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Journal of Mormon History, for the LDS magazine Sunstone with its open-forum and sometimes irreverent format, and for LDS feminist publications such as Exponent II and Mormon Women’s Forum.

This clipping service at LDS headquarters is also interested in published letters-to-the-editor in all Utah’s newspapers, including the student publications of BYU and other Utah colleges. Statements considered controversial about LDS policy to national media are also targets for these files. In addition, the [committee] uses operatives to obtain tape-recordings of every Mormon who gives presentations at public forums regarded as suspicious. As a glimpse into the extent of these files, a history professor at Utah State University [Ross Peterson] was informed during a meeting at LDS headquarters in 1990 that his surveillance file included an anti-war statement he made as an undergraduate in college “ (p. 311).

The identity of the present members of the SCMC is not fully known, although some have reported that Elder Lance Wickman of the Seventy is on the committee.

Justin Butterfield’s post from 12/7/2004 01:23:50 PM found at the Wayback Machine. Comments on the post found on Google’s cache.

Huntsman R-UT elected
-Matheson D-UT defeated
Romney R-MA not up
Bennett R-UT reelected
-Van Dam D-UT defeated
Crapo R-ID ran unopposed
Hatch R-UT not up
Reid D-NV reelected
Smith R-OR not up
Bishop R-UT reelected
-Thompson D-UT defeated
Cannon R-UT reelected
-Babka D-UT defeated
Doolittle R-CA reelected
Faleomavaega D-AS reelected
Flake R-AZ reelected
Herger R-CA reelected
Istook R-OK reelected
Kennedy D-WI defeated
Matheson D-UT reelected
-Swallow R-UT defeated
McKeon R-CA reelected
Simpson R-ID reelected
Udall D-CO reelected
Udall D-NM reelected
Zupancic R-OR defeated

Current question on my political mind: Given Daschle’s probable defeat, is Harry Reid now the most powerful Mormon in America?

The two Utah governor candidates were running for the first time. All congressional winners ran as incumbents.

Bryan Kennedy and Jim Zupancic appear to be the only losing LDS candidates that weren’t beaten by other Mormons, but good for them for jumping in and going up against incumbents. (UPDATE: I modified this paragraph after adding Zupancic, per Jason Knapp.)

NB: Going against my indepedent streak, I don’t include any 3rd-party candidates. None of them did well and I don’t want to make an incomplete list. Leaving them all out makes for a complete list, see?

See my similar list from two years ago. Let me know if you know about any race results that I’m missing.

In October 1992 the Ensign published a talk on religious values and public policy given by Elder Oaks on Leap Day earlier that year, but they didn’t publish the full text of his talk. Some portions were removed. Most but not all of these were obviously excised because they are specific American examples not applicable to the rest of the worldwide Ensign readership. The others, who knows.

I publish the whole talk here, as I found it on the Library of Congress site (it was read into the congressional record by Senator Hatch of Utah), but formatted for better reading and with the removed portions shown in red like this.

Religious Values and Public Policy
By Elder Dallin H. Oaks

Last April my Church duties took me to Albania. Elder Hans B. Ringger and I were some of the first Western visitors to that newly opened country. We conferred with government officials about the reception our Church’s missionaries would receive in Albania, which had banned all churches in 1967. They told us the government regretted its actions against religion, and that it now welcomed back churches to Albania. One explained, “We need the help of churches to rebuild the moral base of our country, which was destroyed by communism.” During the past 12 months I have heard this same reaction during discussions with government and other leaders in Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine.

In contrast, consider what we hear about religion from some prominent persons in the United States. Some question the legitimacy of religious-based values in public policy debates. Some question the appropriateness of churches or religious leaders taking any public position on political issues.

Provoked by that contrast, I will use this occasion to speak about the role of religious-based values and religious leaders in public policy debates. As you are aware, I have some experience in law, public life, and church leadership. What I say is my personal opinion, and is not a statement in behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Questions of Right and Wrong

Fundamental to the role of religion in public policy is this most important question: Are there moral absolutes? Speaking to our BYU students last month, President Rex E. Lee said:

I cannot think of anything more important than for each of you to build a firm, personal testimony that there are in this life some absolutes, things that never change, regardless of time, place, or circumstances. They are eternal truths, eternal principles and, as Paul tells us, they are and will be the same yesterday, today and forever.

Unfortunately, other educators deny the existence of God or deem God irrelevant to the human condition. Persons who accept this view deny the existence of moral absolutes. They maintain that right and wrong are relative concepts, and morality is merely a matter of personal choice or expediency. For example, a university professor reported that her students lacked what she called “moral common sense.” She said they believed that “there was no such thing as right or wrong, just good or bad arguments.” In that view, even the most fundamental moral questions have at least two sides, and every assertion of right or wrong is open to debate.

I believe that these contrasting approaches underlie the whole discussion of religious values in public policy. Many differences of opinion over the role of religion in public life simply mirror a difference of opinion over whether there are moral absolutes. But this underlying difference is rarely made explicit. It is as if those who assume that all values are relative have established their assumption by law or tradition and have rendered illegitimate the fundamental belief of those who hold that some values are absolute.

One of the consequences of shifting from moral absolutes to moral relativism in public policy is that this produces a corresponding shift of emphasis from responsibilities to rights. Responsibilities originate in moral absolutes. In contrast, rights find their origin in legal principles, which are easily manipulated by moral relativism. Sooner or later the substance of rights must depend on either the voluntary fulfillment of responsibilities or the legal enforcement of duties. When our laws or our public leaders question the existence of absolute moral values they undercut the basis for the voluntary fulfillment of responsibilities, which is economical, and compel our society to rely more and more on the legal enforcement of rights, which is expensive.

Some moral absolutes or convictions must be at the foundation of any system of law. This does not mean that all laws are so based. Many laws and administrative actions are simply a matter of wisdom or expediency. I suppose the important decisions of the Federal Reserve Bank’s Open Market Committee are largely of this character. Many other examples could be cited. If most of us believe that it is wrong to kill or steal or lie, our laws will include punishment of those acts. If most of us believe that it is right to care for the poor and needy, our laws will accomplish or facilitate those activities. Society continually legislates morality. The only question is whose morality and what legislation.

In the United States, the moral absolutes are the ones derived from what we refer to as the Judeo-Christian tradition, as set forth in the Bible — Old Testament and New Testament. For example, under that tradition adultery is wrong. The continuing force of that moral absolute was affirmed in a recent poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center. They found that 75 percent of Americans believe that adultery is always morally wrong. There may be — and are — differences of opinion over the wisdom of using the criminal law or the divorce law to enforce that moral absolute, but there can be no question about what a large majority of our citizens believe on that subject.

Despite ample evidence of majority adherence to moral absolutes, some still question the legitimacy of a moral foundation for our laws and public policy. To avoid any suggestion of adopting or contradicting any particular religious absolute, some secularists argue that our laws must be entirely neutral, with no discernable relation to any particular religious tradition. Such proposed neutrality is unrealistic, unless we are willing to cut away the entire idea that there are moral absolutes.

Of course, not all moral absolutes are based on traditional religion. A substantial segment of society has subscribed to the environmental movement, which Robert Nisbet, a distinguished American sociologist, has characterized as a “national religion,” with a “universalized social, economic, and political agenda.” So far as I am aware, there has been no responsible public challenge to the legitimacy of laws based on the environmentalists’ set of values. I don’t think there should be. My point is that religious values are just as legitimate as those based on any other comprehensive set of beliefs.

Religion and the Public Sector

Let us apply these thoughts to the role of religions, churches, and church leaders in the public sector.

Some reject the infusion of religious-based values in public policy by urging that much of the violence and social divisiveness of the modern world is attributable to religious controversies. Our world is not without such examples, as we are reminded by Iran and Ireland. But all should remember that the most horrible moral atrocities of the twentieth century in terms of death and human misery have been committed by regimes that are unambiguously secular, not religious. I challenge anyone to think of any modern religious regime whose moral excesses can compare with Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, or Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

Even though we cannot reject religious values in law-making on the basis of their bad record by comparison with other values, there are ample examples of hostility to religious values in the public sector. For example, less than a decade ago, the United States Department of Justice challenged a federal judge’s right to sit on a case involving the Equal Rights Amendment on the ground that his religious views would prejudice him. The judge was Marion Callister. The religious views were LDS. In that same decade, the American Civil Liberties Union took the position that any pro-life abortion law was illegitimate because it must necessarily be founded on religious belief.

A few years ago some Protestant and Jewish clergymen challenged a federally financed program to promote abstinence from sexual activity among teenage youngsters. The grant recipients included BYU and some Catholic charities in Virginia and Michigan. The ACLU attorney who filed this challenge declared that “the ‘chastity law’ is unconstitutional because it violates the requirement for separation of church and state” because taxpayer dollars “are going to religious institutions, which use the funds to teach religious doctrines opposing teen-age sex and abortion.” In the meantime, the “value” judgments that permit public schools to distribute birth control devices to teenagers supposedly violate no constitutional prohibition because the doctrine that opposes chastity is secular.

During this same period, Professor Henry Steele Commager criticized the Moral Majority and the Roman Catholic Church for “inject[ing] religion into politics more wantonly than at any time since the Know-Nothing crusade of the 1850’s.” Writing in a New York Times column, this distinguished scholar asserted that “what the Framers [of our Constitution] had in mind was more than separating church and state: it was separating religion from politics.” While conceding that no one could question the right to preach “morality and religion,” Commager argued that churchmen of all denominations crossed an impermissible line “when they connect morality with a particular brand of religious faith and this, in turn, with political policies.”

Apparently churchmen can preach morality and religion as long as they do not suggest that their particular brand of religion has any connection with morality or that the resulting morality has any connection with political policies. Stated otherwise, religious preaching is okay as long as it has no practical impact on the listeners’ day-to-day behavior, especially any behavior that has anything to do with political activity or public policy.

That is such a curious position for a man as respected as Professor Commager, I wonder if I have misunderstood him. Perhaps his point is a deeper one. As we know, the idea that there is an absolute right and wrong comes from religion and the absolute values that have influenced law and public policy are most commonly rooted in religion. In contrast, the values that generally prevail in today’s academic community are relative values. Perhaps Commager is not denying the legitimacy of churchmen preaching on political questions as much as he is simply challenging the appropriateness of bringing to public policy debates the kind of absolute values many of them preach.

It is significant that not all challenges to religious values in public policy come from the academic community or from the political left. A few years ago Senator Barry Goldwater rejected what he described as an attempt by “religious factions” to “control” his vote on particular issues. In doing so he declared that these “decent people” should “recognize that religion has no place in public policy.” Similarly, the promoters of a nationwide poll a few years ago asserted that 53 percent of Americans feel that “religious leaders should stay out of politics entirely even if they feel strongly about certain political issues.”

I have read serious academic arguments to the effect that religious people can participate in public debate only if they conceal the religious origin of their values by translating them into secular dialect. In a nation committed to pluralism, this kind of hostility to religion should be legally illegitimate and morally unacceptable. It is also irrational and unworkable, for reasons explained by BYU law professor Frederick Mark Gedicks:

[S]ecularism has not solved the problem posed by religion in public life so much as it has buried it. By placing religion on the far side of the boundary marking the limit of the real world, secularism prevents public life from taking religion seriously. Secularism does not teach us to live with those who are religious; rather, it demands that we ignore them and their views. Such a “solution” can remain stable only so long as those who are ignored acquiesce in their social situation. The last two decades suggest that [religious] acquiescence in a secularized public life . . . is vanishing, if it has not already disappeared.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court has never held that citizens could not join together to translate their moral beliefs into laws or public policies even when those beliefs are derived from religious doctrine. Indeed, there are many sophisticated and articulate spokesmen for the proposition that the separation of church and state never intended to exclude religiously grounded values form the public square. For example, I offer the words of Richard John Neuhaus:

In a democracy that is free and robust, an opinion is no more disqualified for being “religious” than for being atheistic, or psychoanalytic, or Marxist, or just plain dumb. There is no legal or constitutional question about the admission of religion to the public square; there is only a question about the free and equal participation of citizens in our public business. Religion is not a reified “thing” that threatens to intrude upon our common life. Religion in public is but the pubic opinion of those citizens who are religious.

As with individual citizens, so also with the associations that citizens form to advance their opinions. Religious institutions may understand themselves to be brought into being by God, but for the purposes of this democratic polity they are free associations of citizens. As such, they are guaranteed the same access to the public square as are the citizens who comprise them.

No person with values based on religious beliefs should apologize for taking those values into the public square. Religious persons need to be skillful in how they do so, but they need not yield to an adversary’s assumption that the whole effort is illegitimate. We should remind others of the important instances in which the efforts of churches and clergy in the political arena have influenced American public policies in great historical controversies whose outcome in virtually unquestioned today. The slavery controversy was seen as a great moral issue and became the major political issue of the nineteenth century because of the preaching of clergy and the political action of churches. A century later, churches played an indispensable role in the Civil Rights movement, and, a decade later, clergymen and churches of various denominations were an influential part of the anti-war movement that contributed to the end of the war in Vietnam.

Many sincere religious people believe there should be no limitations on religious arguments on political issues so long as the speaker genuinely believes those issues can be resolved as a matter of right or wrong. That is the position Abraham Lincoln applied in his debates with Senator Stephen A. Douglas. While Douglas claimed that he regarded slavery as wrong, he said the national government should allow a majority of territorial voters to decide whether slavery would be allowed in a particular territory. Lincoln rejected that argument because slavery was a matter of right or wrong. He declared:

When Judge Douglas says that whoever, or whatever community, wants slaves, they have a right to have them, he is perfectly logical if there is nothing wrong in the institution; but if you admit that it is wrong, he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do a wrong.

Like Lincoln, I believe that questions of right and wrong, whether based on religious principles or any other source of values, are legitimate in any debate over laws or public policy. Is there anything more important to debate than what is right or wrong? And those arguments should be open across the entire political spectrum. There is no logical way to contend that religious arguments or lobbying are legitimate on the question of abstinence from nuclear war by nations but not on the question of abstinence from sexual relations by teenagers.

Church Participation in Political Debate

What limitations should church and their leaders observe when they choose to participate in public debate on political issues?

This subject was widely discussed about 8 years ago because of the convergence of several extraordinary events. A committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops released its pastoral letter, “Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy.” New York Governor Mario Cuomo, moved by the issue of abortion, made a celebrated statement about the significance of Catholic teaching for a public official who is a Roman Catholic. And Senator Edward M. Kennedy made his celebrated address to the students of Liberty Baptist College. The pot boiled vigorously then, but the heat was not translated into much light, at least not the kind that illuminates a consensus. I propose to revisit this subject with a few comments of my own.

I emphasize at the outset that I am discussing limits to guide all churches across a broad spectrum of circumstances. I am not seeking to define or defend a Mormon position. As a matter of prudence, our Church has confined its own political participation within a far smaller range than is required by the law or the constitution. Other churches have chosen to assert the full latitude of their constitutional privileges and, in the opinion of some, have even exceeded them.

Where should we draw the line between what is and is not permissible for church and church-leader participation in public policy making?

At one extreme, we hear shrill complaints about political participation by any persons whose political views are attributable to religious beliefs or the teachings of their church. The words “blind obedience” are usually included in such complaints. Complaints there are, but I am not aware of any serious and rational position that would ban religious believers from participation in the political process. The serious challenges concern the participation of churches and church leaders.

Perhaps the root fear of those who object to official church participation in political debates is power: They fear that believers will choose to follow the directions or counsel of their religious leaders. Those who have this fear should remember the celebrated maxim of Jefferson: “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Some may believe that reason is not free when religious leaders have spoken, but I doubt that any religions leader in twentieth-century America has such a grip on followers that they cannot make a reasoned choice in the privacy of the voting booth. In fact, I have a hard time believing that the teachings of religions or churches deprive their adherents of any more autonomy in exerting the rights of citizenship than the teachings and practices of labor unions, civil rights groups, environmental organizations, political parties, or any other membership group in our society.

In his celebrated address to the students of Liberty Baptist College, Edward Kennedy maintained that churches have a right to speak out on “questions that are inherently public in nature,” like the issue of nuclear war and racial segregation. However, he argued, churches should not try to persuade government to “tell citizens how to live uniquely personal parts of their lives.” “In such cases — cases like prohibition and abortion — “ the Senator declared, “the proper role of religion is to appeal to the conscience of the individual not the coercive power of the state.” This proposed distinction between issues that are “inherently public” and those that are “uniquely personal” is very convenient, especially for one side of the political spectrum. As Senator Kennedy explained it, his distinction apparently justifies churches in making their influence felt on nuclear freeze and the Vietnam War, but it excludes them from the debate on abortion or decriminalization of drug laws.

In my view, the Senator’s distinction is unsound and unworkable. At root, every action is “uniquely personal,” and in its manifestation every act is at least potentially “public.” For example, I suppose that Southern slave owners believed that their ownership of slaves was uniquely personal, and some eighteen-year-olds probably believed the same thing about their decisions not to register for the draft during the Vietnam War. Yet, it is clear that each of these so-called uniquely personal decisions had an inherently public effect.

If a distinction between personal issues and public issues is not a sensible guide to when a church or its leaders can participate in public debate, what is? Surely it is not religious (or moral) issues versus political issues, since those labels describe a conclusion rather than assisting us to reach it.

I submit that religious leaders should have at least as many privileges as any other leaders, and that churches should stand on at least as strong a footing as any other corporation when they enter the public square to participate in public policy debates. The precious constitutional right of petition does not exclude any individual or any group. The same is true of freedom of speech and the press. When religion has a special constitutional right to its free exercise, religious leaders and churches should have more freedom than other persons and organizations, not less.

If churches and church leaders should have full rights to participate in public policy debates, should there be any limits on such participation?

Of course there are limits that apply specially to churches and church officials, as manifest in the United States Constitution’s prohibition against Congress making any law respecting an establishment of religion. Some linkages between churches and governments are obviously illegitimate. It would clearly violate this prohibition if a church or church official were to exercise government power or dictate government policies or direct the action of government officials independent of legal procedures or political processes.

Upon this same basis — the principle of anti-establishment — I believe it would be inappropriate for a church to discipline one of its members who holds public office for declining to follow church direction or failing to adhere to a church position on a decision made in the exercise of public responsibilities. This fairly obvious point had to be established by the Catholic church in order for John F. Kennedy to be elected President of the United States.

We have applied that limit in our Church. In a celebrated talk given in 1989, Governor Calvin L. Rampton of Utah said:

I am not aware of any time that the Church has taken any official sanction against a Mormon holding public office for things done in such officer’s official capacity. This is true even though the Church may have taken a position on the issue on the moral issue theory. For example, when part way through my tenure of office I vetoed a Sunday closing bill which had been favored by the Church, while my judgement was roundly criticized by the editorial writers of the Deseret News, no question was raised that by such act I had impaired my Church membership nor did it impair my cordial relationship with Church leaders on other subjects.

Governor Cuomo voiced that principle in his celebrated talk at Notre Dame University. “Roman Catholics in public office are bound by the church’s moral dogma,” he declared, “but are free to decide the applicability of these teachings to civil law.” He elaborated in these words:

While we always owe our bishops’ words respectful attention and careful consideration, the question whether to engage the political system in a struggle to have it adopt certain articles of our belief as part of public morality, is not a matter of doctrine: it is a matter of prudential political judgment.

I would say it this way. If churches or church officials believe that one of their members has violated church doctrine or policy by acts committed in his or her public office, the remedy should be at the next election, not in a church court. Unfortunately, churches are barred from this election remedy. Under federal law they lose their tax exemption if they “participate in or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.” In contrast to lobbying for particular legislation, which is permissible so long as it is not a “substantial part” of the activities of the church, any political activity involving a candidate can invoke the dreaded loss of tax exemption.

I have grave doubts about the constitutionality or wisdom of this law, which effectively denies to churches a privilege that is available to other organizations that participate in public policy debates. If a labor union or an environmental organization can urge its members to vote against a candidate who has violated the principles of the organization, I submit that a church should be able to do the same, if it chooses to do so. A church should not apply church discipline for political behavior, but it should be free to participate in the imposition of political discipline.

In his Notre Dame Talk Governor Cuomo suggested another limitation on churches’ participation in the public sector, which is tied to a supposed distinction between religious doctrine and political implementation. I quote:

The parallel I want to draw here is not between or among what we Catholics believe to be moral wrongs. It is in the Catholic response to those wrongs. Church teaching on slavery and abortion is clear. But in the application of those teachings — the exact way we translate them into action, the specific laws we propose, the exact legal sanctions we seek — there was and is no one, clear, absolute route that the church says, as a matter of doctrine, we must follow.

In other words, Governor Cuomo contends that when churches and church leaders enter the public arena, they should concentrate on moral principles and stay away from legislative implementation.

If Governor Cuomo was advocating what is prudent for churches as a general rule, I agree with his statement, which describes the general practice of our Church. We teach general principles that should motivate government action, but we rarely take a position on a specific legislative proposal.

If Governor Cuomo’s statement was intended to describe the limits of what is legitimate for church participation in public policy debates, I disagree. As a technical matter, the distinction between a moral “principle” and its legislative “implementation” is often impossible to apply. For example, if a church is against gambling as a moral evil — as our Church is — that church cannot avoid being against a bill that would legalize a particular form of gambling. In that instance, moral principle and legislative implementation are indistinguishable.

More fundamentally, I submit that there is no persuasive objection in law or principle to a church or a church leader taking a position on any legislative matter, if it or he or she chooses to do so.

And now, my final suggestion on church participation in public debate. When churches or church leaders choose to enter the public sector to engage in debate on a matter of public policy they should be admitted to the debate and they should expect to participate in it on the same basis as all other participants. In other words, if churches or church leaders choose to oppose or favor a particular piece of legislation, their opinions should be received on the same basis as the opinions offered by other knowledgeable organizations or persons, and they should be considered on their merits.

By the same token, churches and church leaders should expect the same broad latitude of discussion of their views that conveniently applies to everyone else’s participation in public policy debates. A church can claim access to higher authority on moral questions, but its opinions on the application of those moral questions to specific legislation will inevitably be challenged by and measured against secular-based legislative or political judgments. As James E. Wood observed, “While denunciations of injustice, racism, sexism, and nationalism may be clearly rooted in one’s religious faith, their political applications to legislative remedy and public policy are by no means always clear.”

Finally, if church leaders were also to exhibit openness and tolerance of opposing views, they would help to overcome the suspicion and resentment sometimes directed toward church or church-leader participation in public debate.

In summary, I have pointed out that many laws are based on the absolute moral values most Americans affirm, and I have suggested that it cannot be otherwise. I have contended that religious-based values are just as legitimate a basis for political action as any other values. And I have argued that churches and church leaders should be able to participate in public policy debates on the same basis as other persons and organizations, favoring or opposing specific legislative proposals or candidates if they choose to do so. I have suggested that it would be inappropriate for churches to impose church discipline on their members for failing to follow church doctrine or direction in the exercise of their public responsibilities.

I will conclude this discussion of Church participation in the political process by stressing the obvious. Politics and religion have different goals and different methods. Each can be corrupted by too much association with the other.

Governments or their leaders can be corrupted by surrendering to a church, and churches or their leaders can be corrupted by excessive involvement with politics or the state. Some lesser manifestations of such corruption are sometimes seen in our day.

Politicians sometimes seek to use religion for political purposes, and they sometimes even seek to manipulate churches or church leaders. Ultimately this is always self-defeating. Whenever a church or a church leader becomes a pawn or servant of government or a political leader, it loses its status and the credibility it needs to perform its religious mission.

Churches or their leaders can also be the aggressors in the pursuit of intimacy with government. The probable results of this excess has been ably described as “the seduction of the churches to political arrogance and political innocence or even the politicizing of moral absolutes.”

The relationship between church and state and between church leaders and politicians should be respectful and distant, as befits two parties who need one another but share the realization that a relationship too close can deprive a pluralistic government of its legitimacy and a divine Church of its spiritual mission.

Despite that desirable distance, government need not be hostile to religion or pretend to ignore God. In contrast to the vocal minority who demand that governments ignore the God most of their citizens worship, I long for a return to the dignified religiosity embodied in this proclamation by a President of the United States:

We have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand that preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us. And we have vainly imagined in the deceitfulness of our hearts that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.

That was Abraham Lincoln, 1863. His words remain appropriate for our day. I pray that we and our fellow citizens will take them to heart.

A long Salt Lake Tribune article about the Elder Marlin Jensen’s statements on the too-close relationship between the Republican Party and the LDS Church.

GOP Dominance Troubles Church
LDS Official Calls for More Political Diversity
Dan Harrie, the Salt Lake Tribune

The LDS Church, through a high-ranking leader, is making its strongest public statement to date about the need for political diversity among members, while expressing concerns the Republican Party is becoming the “church party.”

“There is sort of a division along Mormon/non-Mormon, Republican/Democratic lines,” says Elder Marlin Jensen, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. “We regret that more than anything — that there would become a church party and a non-church party. That would be the last thing that we would want to have happen.”

Jensen said major national political parties may take stands that do not coincide with teachings of the 10 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but that should not put them out of bounds for members.

A former attorney and lifelong Democrat, Jensen was careful in his comments not to suggest an official LDS preference for any political party but to maintain the church’s traditional stand of partisan neutrality.

The First Quorum of the Seventy is the third tier in LDS Church leadership after the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and the governing First Presidency.

Jensen for the past three years has been a member of the church’s Public Affairs Committee. He was designated by church officials to respond to The Salt Lake Tribune’s request for an interview on the topic of partisan imbalance in Utah and among LDS members.

The Tribune’s inquiry came on the heels of two significant developments: Utah Democrats’ unprecedented failure to field a candidate in a congressional race and a statement from the LDS First Presidency — read over pulpits in January — urging members to seek elective office.

In an hourlong interview at the church’s worldwide headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City arranged and overseen by LDS media-relations director Mike Otterson, Jensen discussed leaders’ views about the seeming demise of two-party politics among members. Among the concerns he aired:

  • The LDS Church’s reputation as a one-party monolith is damaging in the long run because of the seesaw fortunes of the national political parties.
  • The overwhelming Republican bent of LDS members in Utah and the Intermountain West undermines the checks-and-balances principle of democratic government.
  • Any notion that it is impossible to be a Democrat and a good Mormon is wrongheaded and should be “obliterated.”
  • Faithful LDS members have a moral obligation to actively participate in politics and civic affairs, a duty many have neglected.

“I am in shock,” Utah Democratic Party Chairwoman Meghan Zanolli Holbrook said when told of Jensen’s comments. “I have never heard anything like this in the years I’ve been here.”

“That’s an earthshaker,” said Democrat Ted Wilson, head of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and a longtime critic of the close connection between the Mormon Church and Republican Party.

“Mormon Democrats have been praying for this,” said Wilson, who is LDS. “This is more than seeking — we have beseeched the divinity over this.”

Utah Republican Chairman Rob Bishop’s reaction was less enthusiastic. “Any time a major player in the social fabric of the state, like the church, says something, it will have an impact.”

“We obviously will not change,” Bishop added. “If Mormons feel comfortable we welcome them. And if non-Mormons feel comfortable, we welcome them, too.”

Jensen, who was called as a general authority in 1989, said high church officials lament the near-extinction of the Democratic Party in Utah and the perception — incorrect though it is — that the GOP enjoys official sanction of the church.

All five Congress members from Utah are Mormon and Republican, four of the five statewide offices are held by GOP officials and two-thirds of the state Legislature is Republican. Nearly 90 percent of state lawmakers are LDS. Democrats last held a majority in the state House in 1975, and in the Senate in 1977.

President Clinton finished third in balloting in Utah in 1992, the only state in which the Democrat finished behind Republican George Bush and independent Ross Perot. Utahns last voted for a Democrat for president in 1964, when they supported Lyndon B. Johnson.

Public-opinion polls show voters identifying themselves as Republican outnumber Democrats by a ratio of about 2-1.

However, a statewide survey taken in April by Valley Research, The Tribune’s independent pollster, found the state equally divided when asked if the question if Republicans had too much power. Forty-six percent of the 502 respondents answered yes, 45 percent did not believe the GOP held too much sway and nine percent were unsure.

“One of the things that prompted this discussion in the first place was the regret that’s felt about the decline of the Democratic Party [in Utah] and the notion that may prevail in some areas that you can’t be a good Mormon and a good Democrat at the same time,” Jensen said.

“There have been some awfully good men and women who have been both and are both today. So I think it would be a very healthy thing for the church — particularly the Utah church — if that notion could be obliterated.”

The idea that Mormonism and Democratic Party affiliation are incompatible traces back to the early 1970s, when LDS general authority Ezra Taft Benson, who later became church president, was quoted in an Associated Press interview as saying it would be difficult for a faithful member to be a liberal Democrat.

Church officials later claimed the comment was taken out of context, although the AP stood by its account.

Jensen said concerns exist on two levels about the unofficial linkage of the Republican Party and Mormon Church.

One is the fear that by being closely identified with one political party, the church’s national reputation and influence is subject to the roller-coaster turns and dips of that partisan organization. Also bothersome is that the uncontested dominance of the Republican Party in Utah deprives residents of the debate and competition of ideas that underlie good government.

“There is a feeling that even nationally as a church, it’s not in our best interest to be known as a one-party church,” Jensen said. “The national fortunes of the parties ebb and flow. Whereas the Republicans may clearly have the upper hand today, in another 10 years they may not.”

Closer to home, he pointed to the Democrats’ precarious toehold in Utah — a circumstance highlighted by the dearth of minority-party officeholders and the current one-sided election in the 3rd Congressional District.

Republican Rep. Chris Cannon in 1996 defeated Bill Orton, a conservative Democrat and Mormon who had been the lone member of the minority party in Utah’s delegation. This year, Cannon is seeking a second term without any challenge from a Democrat — a first in Utah history.

(In 1982, Democrat Henry Huish missed the filing deadline and had to run as an independent. Still, he had the backing of the Democratic Party.)

“The Democratic Party has in the last 20 years waned to the point where it really is almost not a factor in our political life,” Jensen said. “There is a feeling that that is not healthy at all — that as a state we suffer in different ways. But certainly any time you don’t have the dialogue and the give-and-take that the democratic process provides, you’re going to be poorer for it in the long run.”

There also are more immediate, tangible costs, he said.

Jensen blamed the Republican monopoly for contributing to Utah political leaders’ inability or unwillingness to grapple with long-range planning issues. He pointed to the lack of state leadership on issues of open-space preservation and land-use planning.

He also pointed to the massive, catch-up highway-building binge that has disrupted Salt Lake County commuters and businesses. “One might say that the transportation crisis that we’re in might have been averted had there been better balance in the parties and something was thrashed out 10 years ago, perhaps during Gov. Bangerter’s time, rather than being allowed to wait until we reached a crisis situation.

“There are probably issues like that environmentally, educationally that we’d really benefit from if there were a more robust dialogue going on. But we’ve lacked that and I think we’ve suffered somewhat because of it.”

Jensen’s comments are bound to cause ripples among the 70 percent of Utahns who are counted as members of the LDS Church, as well as millions of faithful throughout the country, say political observers.

“This is the second dramatic time in the history of the state when forceful signals have been flashed from church headquarters calling on Mormons to choose up political sides more evenly,” said J.D. Williams, retired University of Utah political scientist.

Williams compared Jensen’s public pronouncements to the church’s attempts in the 1890s to divide congregations up evenly among the two major political parties.

“Thus, wonder of wonders, theocracy was the mother of democracy in the territory of Utah,” Williams said. “We achieved statehood five years later.”

Jensen also referred to the 19th-century splitting of congregations along partisan lines, when the territorial People’s and Liberal parties were abandoned in favor of national party affiliations.

He repeated an anecdote told by prominent LDS Democrat Oscar McConkie about his father’s recollections of a church leader telling a congregation during a Sunday morning meeting to “sign up to be Republicans.”

At that time, Mormons favored the Democratic Party because it was less stridently anti-polygamy than were Republicans.

When members of the flock returned for an afternoon session, the Republican sign-up sheet remained blank, Jensen said. “Brothers and sisters, you have misunderstood,” said the church leader. “God needs Republicans.”

“And Oscar said his father would wink and say, ‘And you know, Oscar, those damned Republicans think they’ve had God on their side ever since,’” Jensen said.

“I don’t know if you can make any use of that but it’s a great story. And there’s a little of that embedded in our culture, unfortunately,” he said.

Elbert Peck, editor of Sunstone magazine, said it is noteworthy that it is not LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley or one of his counselors breaking the church’s silence on political imbalance.

“It is not as official as if it was an apostle or a member of the First Presidency saying it,” Peck said. “Still, the quotes are out there and people will use them. You can bet they’ll be remembered and taken as a sign.”

Peck, whose Salt Lake City-based independent journal publishes articles on historical and contemporary Mormonism, predicts similar comments will be made in other settings — church firesides and the like, because messages sent by LDS general authorities are repeated.

“Privately, I’ve heard reports of these opinions, but not publicly,” Peck said. “The church leaders have been careful about saying anything publicly.”

The tremendous growth of the Mormon Church worldwide has forced attention to its image as a good, trustworthy neighbor in the communities, states and countries where it is taking root, he said.

“We need to develop a tolerance — so we don’t demonize people that we have a disagreement with,” Peck said. “It really was the church leaders’ position on abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment [in the 1970s] that was the death of the Utah Democratic Party, because it became a litmus test,” he said.

Pro-choice and, more recently, gay-rights stands of the national Democratic Party have helped Republicans paint the donkey-symbol party as taboo.

Jensen said it is time for LDS members to take a broader view of political affiliation.

“We would probably hope that they wouldn’t abandon a party necessarily because it has a philosophy or two that may not square with Mormonism. Because, as I say, [parties] in their philosophies ebb and flow,” Jensen said.

“You know, the Republicans came very close last time to bringing a pro-abortion plank into their platform. That was maybe the biggest battle of their [1996 national] convention,” he said. “Which shows that if you’re a pure ideologue, eventually you’re going to have trouble in either party.”

“Everyone who is a good Latter-day Saint is going to have to pick and choose a little bit regardless of the party that they’re in and that may be required a lot more in the future than it has been in the past. But I think there’s room for that and the gospel leaves us lots of latitude.”

Editor’s Note: The following is a transcript of a Salt Lake Tribune interview, conducted on April 23, 1998, with Marlin Jensen of the 1st Quorum of the Seventy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Marlin is also a member of the LDS church’s Public Affairs Committee. (Jensen’s comments have been transcribed verbatim. The Tribune’s questions were edited for clarity and concision.)

The Salt Lake Tribune: Earlier this year, the Mormon Church First Presidency issued a statement encouraging members not only to actively participate in politics, but to run for elected office. What was the motivation?

Marlin Jensen: I think the letter went to stake presidents, I believe just in the United States. But we even gave some thought and it was discussed how to do something on a worldwide basis because I think the perception that our leaders had is that as individual church members we’re maybe not quite living up to our obligation to be good citizens. Not just voting, but actually participating in the functions of government on an appointed and an elected basis.

So I think the letter reflects a general concern worldwide that it is really part of our religion to be good citizens and to do our share in the community. And its probably related doctrinally in a way to the idea that we’re not just to build up the kingdom of God but we’re also to establish his righteousness.

So that there’s a need in order for the gospel to be preached and carried off to all the world to have an environment of righteousness in which that can occur. And, in a word, without a good neighborhood and a good community it’s very difficult to have a good family. So good government is very much in the best interests of us as a church and in the work we have to preach the gospel. So that I think would have been the general concern.

But I think frankly there was a more specific concern related to the state of Utah as well that prompted the initial discussion of this.

It seems like historically — and maybe it had to do with our more rural character at the time, but it seems (and I have thought about this in the little community where I was raised in Huntsville) that the people of the church, the main leaders, the main people in the church in that period maybe 40 or 50 years ago, were people of affairs. They were people who did lead the community as well as the church. Of course, there was a much greater homogeneity in those days and we’re much more diverse now. But I think there’s just a feeling that we need to be more active and more visible and reach out more in a civic way than we’ve been doing.

Here in Utah in part I think it’s related to the fact that the Democratic Party has in the last 20 years waned to the point where it really is almost not a factor in our political life right now. And I think there is a feeling that that is not healthy at all — that as a state we suffer in different ways. But certainly any time you don’t have the dialogue and the give-and-take that the democratic process provides, you’re going to be poorer for it in the long run.

We are locally and I think there is a feeling that even nationally as a church, it’s not in our best interest to be known as a one-party church. The national fortunes of the parties ebb and flow. Whereas the Republicans may clearly have the upper hand today in another 10 years they may not. So there are just so many reasons I think to have a robust multi-party system going locally and nationally for us, as well as the international responsibilities we feel — that’s at the heart of this as well.

Tribune: Democrats, only half-jokingly, say it may be time for the LDS Church to once again draw a line down the middle of ward houses and assign parties.

Jensen: I think if you look at the letter you’ll notice that there’s a reference here to urging men and women to be willing to serve — as you were mentioning — on school boards, in city and county councils and commissions, state legislatures and other high offices of either election or appointment, including involvement in the political party of their choice. I think that really was an attempt, is an attempt on the part of the First Presidency to indicate that part of being a good Latter-day Saint would be to be politically active in a party of our choice. That we just can’t sit by and let other people — other good people — do that.

So I doubt we’ll get a stronger statement than that because there’s a real desire to remain politically neutral. And I don’t think you’ll find that the leaders of the church are going to say anything more definitive than they’ve said in this letter on that point. But that certainly is what was desired with that statement was that people would become more actively involved in a formal way in the political process through political parties.

By the way, I can’t resist just telling you one little story that Oscar McConkie told me once. (He’s a prominent Democratic member of the church, if you know him.) Apparently, one time, his father was the only Democrat in the Utah Senate. And he was asking his dad about it once. His dad said, “Oscar, this goes way back to the 1890s when we did this” — it was called the democratization of Utah for statehood. But it was really an attempt to get us aligned along national party lines rather than the Peoples’ and Liberal Party thing that we had. So the brethren did.

(In fact, there’s a great story in Huntsville how they came and some were sitting on the one side of the church and some on the other and the McKays and all those that were on the one side became the Democrats and the Petersons and all those on the other side became the Republicans.)

But anyway, Oscar’s father said in one of these meetings in southern Utah, one of the brethren in the morning session said, “I’m going to put a ledger in the foyer and we’d like some of you to sign up to be Republicans.”

Because, oddly, at that time the Democratic Party was the one that Mormons favored and that really favored Mormons, too. That’s really why we gravitated toward them originally.

When they came back for the afternoon session, no one had signed the book. So the general authority, whoever he was, said, “Brothers and sisters, you have misunderstood.” He said, “God needs Republicans.”

And Oscar said his father would wink and say, “And you know, Oscar, those damned Republicans think they’ve had God on their side ever since.”

I don’t know if you can make any use of that but it’s a great story. And there’s a little of that embedded in our culture, unfortunately.

Tribune: Some LDS members subscribe to the notion that it is difficult, if not impossible, to be a faithful Mormon and a Democrat. People point to such things as the gay rights and pro-choice planks of the national Democratic Party. How do you respond?

Jensen: That’s true. And it is a challenge. And yet, you know, the Republicans came very close last time to bringing a pro-abortion plank into their platform. That was maybe the biggest battle of their convention. Which shows that if you’re a pure ideologue, eventually you’re going to have trouble in either party.

When people say to me, “How do you rationalize being a Democrat?” I just say I take everything that’s true and good and hang onto it. And the basic, historically the basic foundational principles of the Democratic Party have appealed to me more. But that’s a matter really of personal choice, it has nothing to do with our salvation.

I think everyone who is a good Latter-day Saint is going to have to pick and choose a little bit regardless of the party that they’re in and that may be required a lot more in the future than it has been in the past. But I think there’s room for that and the gospel leaves us lots of latitude.

I think those who have done that successfully — I think, for instance, Gov. Rampton and Gov. Matheson are outstanding examples of Democrats who were very popular in Utah and who occasionally had to sort of distance themselves from the national party and its platform. But (they) did it judiciously and were very effective and enjoyed very good relationships with most church members and were some of our very best governors frankly, I think, in the history of our state.

So it can be done.

If you think about ways to rejuvenate the Democratic Party, I don’t think much beyond a statement like this that you’re going to find our church doing anything about that. We hope the members will exercise their agency and do much good of their own free will.

And I guess we would probably hope that they wouldn’t abandon a party necessarily because it has a philosophy or two that may not square with Mormonism. Because, as I say, they in their philosophies ebb and flow. I think the main thing is to stay involved and work within the existing framework, work for changes if they need to brought about.

And maybe, to succeed in Utah especially, a politician if he’s Democratic, is going to have to say, “I’m a Utah Democrat. I’m different than the national party in some important ways.”

Bill Orton did that, I think, pretty well. So I think it could be done by others.

It’s lamentable I think that we’ve got Chris Cannon running unopposed for the first time I think in the history of Utah in a congressional race. Surely there’s got to be another good and wise man out there who could have taken him on. And he would have benefited from it as well as everyone else.

Tribune: Bill Orton complained about exploitation of religion in his 1996 defeat — such things as political signs in the yards of bishops and stake presidents.

Jensen: That’s probably more a cultural than a religious problem. I remember the night that my brother hosted a Republican mass meeting. My father (a lifelong staunch Democrat) without any prior knowledge went up to his home that night and found all these Republicans there in the living room.

He came right to my house and said to me, “What does your younger brother think he is doing?”

I said, “Dad, he’s just exercising his agency. Aren’t you glad you raised independent, bull-headed sons?” And he said, “Well, I was until tonight.”

Sadly, I think it’s regrettable when that kind of a spillover occurs.

I can see how someone from a distance can look at that as a very unfair circumstance. I don’t know how to say this, but I have been here (the First Quorum of the Seventy) nine years and I had no idea of the church’s actions institutionally in political matters until I came here.

But if someone said, “What’s your overriding impression after nine years and three years on the Public Affairs Committee?” I would say, “I am surprised, very surprised, at how little influence the church seeks to exercise in politics in Utah or nationally.” Because the church really is a force to be reckoned with — especially here.

So when these little aberrations occur, it’s just due I think to poor judgment sometimes, unthinking actions on the part of us as individuals in the church. Certainly institutionally, it’s not intended to be that way and it’s regretted at this level when it is that way.

Tribune: Is the church position that local leaders have freedom to express their political preferences, but that it should not be read as an official sanction of the church?

Jensen: That’s true. And that’s hard to separate out. When I was stake president and people would come to seek my endorsement, I always declined, respectfully.

I just said, “I would endorse you and if I weren’t the president of the stake I would certainly sign your ad or appear in the newspaper.”

But I just felt like it was very hard for a lot of people to separate my church position from my citizen’s hat. So I tried to be extra judicious.

But not everyone sees it that way. Some of them feel like, “Just because I’m a bishop or a stake president doesn’t mean I have to resign my franchise this year and I’ll precede.” So it does create, I think, a misimpression in some cases.

Tribune: Is the problem of lopsided partisan affiliation seen to be a problem elsewhere around the country among LDS members? Or is it perceived as a situation unique to Utah?

Jensen: No. I think really the whole Intermountain West, at least, suffers from the same imbalance among church members. And may among the population generally in those states — speaking of the intermountain states.

Democrats are outnumbered 3-1 in our state in the Legislature and those conditions exist in the five mountain states — Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and Idaho. I would think Arizona would probably be very close to that, too.

I don’t know that we’ve got that condition anywhere else that I’m aware of.

Tribune: What is the attitude of church leaders toward the lingering sentiment among some Mormons — apparently stemming back to comments made by former LDS President Ezra Taft Benson — that it is difficult to be a good LDS member and a Democrat?

Jensen: I do not know about the authenticity of his statement. But, taking it for a true statement, that may be something you would want to verify. I don’t know that this (recent First Presidency) statement was issued at all with reference to that statement.

But I think I could safely say that one of the things that prompted this discussion in the first place was the regret that’s felt about the decline of the Democratic Party and the notion that may prevail in some areas that you can’t be a good Mormon and a good Democrat at the same time. There have been some awfully good men and women who have, I think, been both and are both today. So I think it would be a very healthy thing for the church — particularly the Utah church — if that notion could be obliterated.

You think about what would have to happen to accomplish that. I think it would take the individual action of some good people. The other day when we were talking about this I remembered my favorite song — Stout Hearted Men. “Give me 10 men who are stout-hearted men, who will fight for the rights they adore. Give me 10 who are stout-hearted men and I will soon give you 10,000 more.”

I think if there would be just a few good men come forward — and women — in Utah as Democrats who would run for high profile office that would begin turning this tide. And in the beginning maybe the messengers would be a lot more important than the message, if we just had good, credible people who would do that. Most of them I think who are out there and who might do that are just leery, I think, because the record of Democrats in recent past years has been so abysmal.

But, yes, I think, at least my own personal hope would be that this letter would be read broadly enough to encourage someone who is a latent Democrat, or who might be considering that affiliation, to say , “Gee, I could do this. This says involvement in the political party of our choice.” And I would hope it would have that salutary effect on people.

Tribune: Any concern about Republicans who may have embraced the letter as affirmation that their party is the officially sanctioned one?

Jensen: We’ve taken note of that feeling on the part of some. And the timing of the letter — and the fact that it coincided with some things that were happening nationally that didn’t put the Democratic Party in the best light at that time was purely coincidental. Those things that were happening did not motivate this letter at all.

There had been, I think, building for some time a feeling that we just needed to become better citizens as Latter-day Saints. But if the letter is being read that narrowly by some they certainly missed, I think, the more expansive intent that the First Presidency had in discussions that gave rise to this.

Tribune: Despite repeated church statements encouraging political involvement over the years, voter turnout among LDS is down, as it is with the general population. What is happening to turn people off to civic affairs?

Jensen: I’m not sure I’m sociologist enough to answer that. And there probably have been some political scientists and social scientists who have maybe tried to analyze this in recent years. If they have I haven’t read any of their studies.

But my own personal feeling and observation based on the little world — and it really is quite little these days — in which I live, would be that we’ve lost, in a sense, community.

We’ve probably, you know speaking very candidly, lost some community within the church in the sense of wards being the strong cohesive community of people that they once were.

Part of that I’m sure has to do with urbanization and lots of different sociological forces that would bear on this. We probably live more independently today as people and we don’t have maybe the community and group rallying points that we once had.

So I think that that tends to make people feel more distant from each other, from their government. It makes them feel, I think, less empowered to do anything about what’s going on. It just sort of makes you feel like it’s going to happen anyway. “So what? So why try?” So I think there is a little of that malaise.

And I think that’s been compounded by some of our leaders in recent years not behaving as well as they might have before, during and after their public service. So that’s created a cynicism I think a little bit on the part of most of us. And there are probably other forces that have contributed to just a general lack of interest, a feeling maybe of futility on the part of the average person.

So to offset that and override that is quite a chore. We’ve attempted to do it like I think the church should, which is to teach the doctrines of the church and say, you know, God helped create the constitution and we’re to uphold it and to participate under that form of government, let’s do it. But at least institutionally at this level the most we can do, I think, is to teach the principles and encourage the people and hope it happens.

Maybe this letter is the first of several things that will be done. I don’t know really personally where this will take us but obviously if it doesn’t have the effect the First Presidency hoped it would we may do something else. And this may be talked about more in the future. It’s certainly a key issue for us.

Tribune: Are you aware of any future plans on part of church to encourage political involvement?

Jensen: Not at the present, no. But I’m sure this is being assessed. I know in the Public Affairs Committee we’re watching to see what impact this has in Utah and elsewhere.

Tribune: More than a year ago, church leaders issued a statement that firearms in churches were “inappropriate.” Was that a message sent encouraging a change in state concealed weapons laws that was not heeded?

Jensen: No. At least not within the realm of my knowledge. I don’t think I was here actually when the genesis of that statement may have occurred. But I think there was a request that we formulate a position on that if we wanted to and we did. But it is not a burning issue with us. We just wanted, I think, to be on record, of how we viewed that institutionally.

Tribune: There is a perception in Utah that there is a direct channel between Mormon Church hierarchy and political leaders. What is your view on the accuracy of that perception?

Jensen: If you think about our real reason for being as a church it has nothing to do with politics. The best way still to help mankind is to make us all better men and women. As long as that’s our central mission — and it always will be to teach the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ — then our only reason actually for venturing into the public realm at all is to help ensure that that can happen.

That’s why the First Amendment issues, for instance, have always really been important to us and why we’ve gone off on some of the other little political issues that we have.

But we spend our political capital I think very carefully and are always very thoughtful and deliberate I think before we venture into that arena.

You may know right now we are involved in helping preserve traditional marriage by assisting with the passage of legislation that will ensure that marriage remains the union of a man and a woman. And family is so much at the heart of the gospel and of our life, in the here and hereafter, that I can see why the church would do that because it’s central to our mission.

But to go beyond that just doesn’t make sense for us. And yet in a state where we’re 60 or 70 percent of the population it’s very easy I think for people to perceive us being involved in things that we’re not and heavy handed in lots of areas and ways that we’re not.

Tribune: Please expound on the marriage legislation involvement in Congress.

Jensen: We actually helped there (in Congress) with what is known as the Defense of Marriage Act and then we’ve been active on a state-by-state basis actually just helping quietly to promote legislation that will ensure traditional marriage. And doing it I think in a very charitable way because its very important to us not to appear homophobic, as they call it, because I think we have great compassion for people who are challenged by same-gender attraction. But our fundamental teachings are such that marriage has to be between a man and a woman.

But we’ve done the same thing with alcohol, as you know, and with gambling and with other moral issues over the years.

I must say though, doctrinally, agency is such a precious thing to us as a church. And that’s really the tone of this letter — it starts with a reference to being anxiously engaged in good causes and doing many things of our own free will and bringing to pass much righteousness using the gospel principles as our guide.

So our hope is that this would energize the membership generally into doing just that — not look toward Salt Lake City at all on these things. But just study it out and use good judgment and do something about it. The atmosphere, the environment would be so much more healthy if we were doing that generally everywhere, but especially here in Utah.

Tribune: What is the immediate detriment from lack of strong two-party system?

Jensen: I can think of two or three things with long-range planning. One of them right now I’m thinking of is land-use planning where there seems to be a reluctance right now on the part of a very good governor to get involved in that on a statewide level.

Where there may be some who feel that if we had the healthy dialogue that could press that issue a little stronger right now that we would be in the process of doing something that would really be of great benefit to us now and in the very near future.

One might say that the transportation crisis that we’re in might have been averted had there been better balance in the parties and something was thrashed out 10 years ago, perhaps during Gov. Bangerter’s time, rather than being allowed to wait until we reached a crisis situation.

There are probably issues like that environmentally, educationally that we’d really benefit from if there were a more robust dialogue going on. But we’ve lacked that and I think we’ve suffered somewhat because of it.

It would be reflected I think most acutely in the long-range planning that we do in those critical areas of our lives.

Water management, for instance, is another area where I think we’re behind maybe five years at this point. Development of adequate culinary sources. Again, it would just help if we had a multi-party system that was really working.

Tribune: Interesting that you should start with land-use planning. Historically, Mormons were planners. Do you see any irony that land-use planning would be viewed negatively by political leaders?

Jensen: Absolutely, you talk about a historical twist.

Yes, but see if I were a pure Democrat, I would say what you have there is Republicanism and their desires to create wealth, which basically is what you do with unfettered land use. So in my mind, if you’re again a pure Democrat, you’d be in there saying we do need some government regulation in this kind of a case.

You can sharpen your focus there and say this is where dialogue really would help and where the ideologies of the parties really do make a difference. There’s some substance to the differences there and if the one voice is basically unrepresented, then we’re going to suffer I think over time.

Tribune: Utah has experienced tremendous growth in recent years. Do church leaders generally believe things need to be done that are not occurring?

Jensen: Frankly, I don’t know if we’ve discussed that…. Not that we wouldn’t be participants but it probably isn’t anything that we would take the initiative to do as a church because it’s sort of beyond our mission.

We’d want to be a good neighbor and we’d certainly would want to husband our own properties well. If you take downtown Salt Lake City and the church’s holdings here, if I could say it modestly, I think we’ve done a good job holding the city and making it a beautiful city and a good city, a clean city.

But I think that does stray beyond our mission. We would certainly serve on boards and lend our expertise and our money, too, which we have often done in the past. But you wouldn’t see us, I don’t think, being the forerunners in that kind of initiative.

Tribune: What is the policy regarding partisan politics within wardhouses, and is it a problem?

Jensen: This is related to an experience I had on my mission in Germany where we had a little branch in Germany that was presided over by a buck private. He was from the Philippines, a wonderful, wonderful fellow.

Into that branch one day came a 2nd lieutenant, fresh out of flight school. I happened to be there on a Sunday morning when this young 2nd lieutenant came into the branch and introduced himself to the branch president as Lt. So-and-so.

I’ve never forgotten that little Filipino brother took that man by the hand and he looked him in the eye and he said, “Brother, in the church we don’t have any lieutenants. We’re just all brothers.”

You know, that’s the spirit of what ought to happen in a branch house or in a ward house.

I don’t know. What you’re talking about I haven’t seen. There are occasionally mistakes made, I think. Situations where judgment maybe isn’t the best and someone may say something, even from a pulpit sometimes someone may say something, or it will be done through inadvertence. But I really think those are very few and far between.

I think there’s really quite a conscious attempt made by most Latter-day Saints to be non-partisan and to be charitable toward people of other persuasions and other affiliations.

So I know, at least institutionally here, boy, we make every effort, even down to where the church publications are conscious of not featuring one political party to the exclusion of another. And that’s a problem, we don’t have many Democrats to feature.

You can only put the good Nevada senator’s picture in the paper every so often even if he’d like it every Sunday.

But there’s a real attempt made, I think, to be non-partisan and to not be offensive or heavy handed in any way on these matters we’re talking about. That certainly would be our desire as a church.

If as individual members we err sometimes then we’re sorry about that and we learn. There is correction when that occurs. Occasionally you’ll hear of someone forgetting that you shouldn’t let something happen in a church and it’ll happen and there’s always a call made and a correction given. It’s not done with impunity, I can tell you that.

I’ve always had this feeling about lawyers, or the way people feel about lawyers. They have this vague notion that lawyers know something that they don’t know and they don’t know what it is but they don’t like it. We don’t really know anything that you don’t know, although we’d like maybe to perpetuate that illusion.

But in the church, there’s nothing covert being done. That’s something I would maybe even just volunteer. Everything I have seen the church undertake here has been aboveboard, has been in the light of day. There are no agenda that we don’t announce.

I wish that impression could be given to the people of Utah especially, because I know that there is sort of a division along Mormon/non-Mormon, Republican/Democratic lines. I think we regret that more than anything, that there would become a church party and a non-church party. That would be the last thing that we would want to have happen.

Tribune: Is there anything on horizon between now and the elections in regard to additional statements from the church regarding politics?

Jensen: No, other than maybe the typical political neutrality kind of statement we make each year not to use the buildings or our mailing lists for political purposes. But I don’t think beyond that that, we will.

It’s interesting, I happened to be in my home ward the day this (political involvement statement) was read. And I just kind of looked around. I must say it wasn’t sensational to most people, which I felt kind of badly about because I had been a part of the discussion and the formulation and then had seen this finished product as the First Presidency put it together and, of course, was very interested.

But I could see some yawning and some totally disinterested and a few who were really keying into it. Not everybody has an active interest in public affairs, in political affairs.

Again, it’s the idea that we all get a chance to pick and choose and decide what’s important for us in life. But I think generally there’s a feeling that we’ve got to take political life more seriously as a church. And I think it really does relate to family and the idea that you cannot have a good family in a vacuum. You’ve got a community, you’ve got a state. And we have an obligation to take part in the governance to establish righteousness so that there is an environment where people can live a life like the gospel prescribes. That’s the reason I think we’re doing it.

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