Why the Church is both politically neutral and socially engaged

Prior to nearly every big election in the United States, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issues a letter reaffirming its political neutrality as an institution. 

In each letter, the First Presidency clarifies that the Church takes no sides or stances in support of or against political parties and candidates and encourages individual members of the Church to participate and engage in the political process.

“The Church’s mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians,” it states on the Church’s Newsroom website regarding why it maintains a stance of political neutrality. And while the Church is neutral with regard to parties and candidates, it has, at times over the years, encouraged members to take a stand on certain “issues that it believes have significant community or moral consequences that directly affect the interests of the Church.”

In 2016, for example, the First Presidency released a letter urging Latter-day Saints to oppose the legalization of recreational marijuana where it was being considered on the ballots in Arizona, California and Nevada. Similarly, that same year, in a letter to Latter-day Saints in Colorado, the First Presidency urged Church members to oppose a ballot proposition that would legalize physician-assisted suicide in the state.

Church Office Building, Tuesday Sept. 25, 2001.
Church Office Building, Tuesday Sept. 25, 2001. Credit: Tom Smart, Deseret News

The letter clarified that “the Church maintains a firm belief in the sanctity of human life and opposes deliberately taking the life of a person even when the person may be suffering from an incurable condition or disease” and that, although physician-assisted suicide is permitted in some countries and some states in the U.S., “experience suggests that such legalization can endanger the vulnerable, erode trust in the medical profession, and cheapen human life and dignity.” 

In such cases, the Church cites exercising its “constitutional right of expression on political and social issues” when they pertain to moral issues. When the Church does take a position on particular moral issues, the Church posts information regarding its stance and reasoning on its website.

Even when the Church does take a stance on certain social and moral issues, Church leadership encourages members to “study the issues and candidates carefully and prayerfully and then vote for those they believe will act with integrity and will most nearly carry out their ideas of good government.” 

Participating in supporting measures and candidates that strengthen society morally, economically, and culturally is part of being responsible citizens, the First Presidency stated in a 1999 letter

Both then and now, Church leadership urges members “to be actively engaged in worthy causes to improve their communities and make them more wholesome places in which to live and rear families” and “strive to live the gospel in your own life by demonstrating Christlike love and civility in political discourse.”

During the October 190th Semiannual General Conference this year, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, reiterated that in times of anger and hatred in politics, it is more important than ever for followers of Christ to follow His teachings to “love your enemies.”

President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, speaks during the Saturday morning session of the 190th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Oct. 3, 2020.
President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, speaks during the Saturday morning session of the 190th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Oct. 3, 2020. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

While there will always be differences over candidates and proposed policies, President Oaks stated that, “As followers of Christ we must forego the anger and hatred with which political choices are debated or denounced in many settings.”

He continued, “It is possible to obey and seek to improve our nation’s laws and also to love our adversaries and our enemies. While not easy, it is possible with the help of our Lord Jesus Christ. He gave this command to love and He promises His help as we seek to obey it.”

As the First Presidency has stated regularly in their letters on political neutrality, principles that are compatible with the gospel can be found among various political parties, candidates and propositions, and it is up to members, as individuals, to determine which entities best embody those principles. 

“Citizens of the United States have the privilege and duty of electing office holders and influencing public policy,” the First Presidency wrote in this year’s letter, which was released on Oct. 6. “Participation in the political process affects their communities and nation today and in the future. We urge Latter-day Saints to be active citizens by registering, exercising their right to vote, and engaging in civic affairs.”

Exercising one’s political rights and actively participating in the political and legal processes as citizens of one’s nation have been important facets of contributing to society since the earliest days of the Church. 

The Prophet Joseph Smith, the first president and Prophet of the restored Church, even ran for president of the U.S. in 1844. And though running for political office while serving as a leader in the Church has since been discouraged so as to help maintain a separation between the Church and an individual’s politics, the active participation of many Church leaders over the years in the political and legal systems of the U.S. demonstrate the value the Church places in its members being civically engaged. 

As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland stated in a letter to a student who reached out to him, during the time he served as president of BYU, inquiring as to why the Church wasn’t more open about social and political issues, “We’ve got to step up as individuals. We can’t think it needs to be someone else. It’s up to us.”

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is interviewed in his office in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is interviewed in his office in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Despite its own political neutrality, the Church has continually maintained the need for its members to not only participate in the political process, but also become engaged in public service.

As Elder Patrick Kearon, General Authority Seventy, stated in a Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults in May 2018, members can “be a voice of balance and reason, advocating fairness in all corners of society” by joining politicians “who are finding common cause to bring healing to troubled lives in their own jurisdiction and beyond.”

With another election just days away, Latter-day Saints in the U.S. are once again encouraged to participate in the political systems of this country by learning about the candidates and issues casting their vote according to their own conscience and the principles taught by Christ.