Church should let people 'govern themselves'
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds to the doctrine of the separation of church and state; the non-interference of church authority in political matters; and the absolute freedom and independence of the individual in the performance of his political duties. If at any time there has been conduct at variance with this doctrine, it has been in violation of the well-settled principles and policy of the Church."
- LDS Church First Presidency, 1907
Ecclesiastical leaders of the Mormon church in California were instructed to read from the pulpit on Sunday, June 29, a letter from the First Presidency on the subject "preserving traditional marriage and strengthening families."
The letter is written in support of an amendment to the California Constitution that defines marriage as being solely between a man and a woman. This initiative, supported by a number of churches and other groups, is a response to the recent ruling of the California Supreme Court, which found that a previous initiative, passed in 2002, violated the state's constitution.
The letter, which asks members to "do all [they] can to support the proposed amendment by donating [their] means and time," presents a dilemma for many California Latter-day Saints who are committed to the church but who are not in agreement with the amendment.
While some members see the letter as a test of their willingness to "follow the brethren," others feel that it is their civic and moral duty to vote against an amendment which they see as violating the central democratic principles of non-discrimination and equal civil rights.
Some see a conflict between the recent statement and previous statements from the First Presidency: "We call upon all men, everywhere, both within and outside the Church, to commit themselves to the establishment of full civil equality for all of God's children" (1963), and "Each citizen must have equal opportunities and protection under the law with reference to civil rights" (1969).
For many California Mormons this is "déjÀ vu all over again." The previous ballot attempt to define marriage, Proposition 22, which was vigorously supported by church funds and by individual contributions, was divisive for many congregations, especially in instances in which some members felt coerced by leaders and other members to support an initiative they found morally objectionable.
What seemed most objectionable to some members in 2002, and what some find so in the recent letter, is not the encouragement to be politically engaged in important issues, but rather the suggestion that they should vote in a particular way. It has been a principle for more than a century that "The Church does not engage in politics; its members belong to the political parties of their own pleasure. . . . They are not asked, much less required, to vote this way or that" (President Joseph F. Smith, 1903).
While the First Presidency may intend its letter to adhere to the spirit of this statement, there is little doubt that many, perhaps the majority, of members will interpret it as a mandate.
The dilemma for members who have allegiances as both church members and citizens is that when there is a conflict between the two, they cannot satisfy both. In such instances they must feel free to make moral choices based on their best judgment without fear of censure, reprisal or retribution.
In such matters, some feel the church should follow the dictum of its founding prophet, Joseph Smith, who, when asked how he governed the Latter-day Saints, replied, "I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves." This seems like sound advice for both churches and states.
* ROBERT REES lives and works in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He writes frequently on subjects relating to Mormon culture and religion. His most recent publication is The Reader's Book of Mormon.