University to the vice president of the United States to be the
commencement speaker next month has triggered discussion and some
controversy over the issue of political neutrality.
Whatever the personal views of individual students or other members of
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the invitation is
seen by the university's board of trustees as one extended to someone
holding the high office of vice president of the United States rather
than to a partisan political figure.
The Salt Lake Tribune ran two articles in its edition this morning (29
March) related to the pending visit of the vice president.
One, a prominently displayed personal opinion piece by a political
reporter, criticizes the Church, in intemperate and disrespectful
language, for inviting Vice President Dick Cheney to be the
The reporter's central point seems to be that inviting the vice
president — presumably this particular vice president — is
inconsistent with the Church's often-stated political neutrality.
The other article — in the same newspaper — is an editorial that urges
that the vice president be allowed to speak because "this is democracy
at work" and that an audience of college graduates is capable of
assessing what he says. The newspaper further says that the decision
was for the BYU board of trustees to make, "just as it is the right of
anyone who disagrees with the choice to say so."
Let's take a look at what the Church's political neutrality policy is.
First, the Church prohibits any Church leader from endorsing a
candidate in the name of the Church. In the American political
process, endorsement means officially putting the weight of an
institution or individual behind a political candidate — publicly
giving unequivocal support to the candidate's policies and platform.
Second, the Church bans the use of its chapels for party political
purposes and also refuses to allow the distribution of Church
membership rolls to anyone, including politicians and candidates.
It also carefully avoids telling its members for whom they should
vote. Neither does it tell elected Latter-day Saint officials how they
Such a policy makes sense in a Church that operates in more than 160
countries and with a global membership that embraces many different
political persuasions and views. But the policy is also a reflection
of what Church leaders see as the organization's central mission — to
preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. To engage in partisan politics or
to take up every social cause would be to divert the Church from that
There is also another side to the neutrality policy, apart from
prohibitions. The Church "encourages its members to play a role as
responsible citizens in their communities, including becoming informed
about issues and voting in elections."
Further, the Church "expects its members to engage in the political
process in an informed and civil manner, respecting the fact that
members of the Church come from a variety of backgrounds and
experiences and may have differences of opinion in partisan political
The invitation to the vice president of the United States is not a
violation of that policy, any more than inviting the majority leader
of the Senate would be. In fact, Senator Harry Reid — a Democrat from
the opposite political pole to the vice president — has already
accepted such an invitation for this fall. That invitation has been in
process for many months — long before the announcement of the vice
Is it appropriate for a university — even one that espouses a policy
of political neutrality — to have as featured speakers the holders of
some of the highest offices in the land? Of course it is. And whoever
the visitor — the vice president, the majority leader of the Senate or
the chief justice of the Supreme Court (another scheduled fall
speaker) — the university and the student body will listen, evaluate
and react to them as intelligent citizens capable of making up their
own minds about their messages.