According to prevailing folklore, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regularly breaches the separation of church and state and secretly endorses the Republican Party.
These beliefs are based largely on the activities of Utah’s mostly LDS and Republican Legislature as well as the voting habits of Utah’s predominantly Mormon population.
Reality, however, is never so simple. Officially, the LDS Church has repeatedly stressed that it never injects itself into partisan campaigns and embraces the separation of church and state. At least since Utah’s statehood, if not earlier, the church’s First Presidency has consistently championed an official policy of political neutrality.
Only the First Presidency is empowered to declare doctrine for the church, and the presidency’s statements on the church and politics are clear and unequivocal.
For example, six years before statehood, the First Presidency declared: “Church government and civil government are distinct and separate in our theory and practice” (Dec. 21, 1889). And it subsequently reiterated: “There has not been, nor is there, the remotest desire on our part or on the part of our co-religionists to do anything looking to a union of Church and State” (April 6, 1896).
During World War II, the presidency again stated: “The Church stands for the separation of church and state” (May 1942).
The church’s own turbulent history has informed the presidency’s position: “Members of our Church have been the victims of official persecution motivated by religious intolerance. We are, therefore, committed by experience as well as by precept to the wisdom of constitutional principle that government and public officials should maintain a position of respectful neutrality in the matter of religion” (Mar. 17, 1979).
The First Presidency’s clearest statement - issued 100 years ago and never rescinded - leaves no room for doubt: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds to the doctrine of the separation of church and state; the non-interference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. . . . we favor: The absolute separation of church and state; No domination of the state by the church; No church interference with the functions of the state; No state interference with the functions of the church, or with the free exercise of religion; The absolute freedom of the individual from the domination of ecclesiastical authority in political affairs; [and] The equality of all churches before the law” (May 1907).
The LDS Church not only refuses to involve itself in electioneering, it explicitly condemns all attempts to enlist official church favor in partisan contests.
“We claim no authority, and have no desire,” the First Presidency proclaimed in 1910, “to use the power of the Priesthood which we hold, to dictate or compel any member of the Church, or other human being, to unite with or oppose any political party or faction . . . ” (Dec. 17).
Again, in 1936: “The Church does not interfere, and has no intention of trying to interfere, with the fullest and freest exercise of the political franchise of its members . . . ” (July 3).
Again, in 1963: “We believe in a two-party system, and all our members are perfectly free to support the party of their choice” (Jan. 4). And more recently, in 1988: “We have no candidates for political office and we do not undertake to tell people how to vote” (June 9).
While the First Presidency periodically announces a position on a topic it defines as moral, and members sometimes violate official LDS protocol, it bears remembering that the LDS Church has long opposed the union of church and state and has never preferred one political party over another.
Gary James Bergera is managing director of the Smith-Pettit Foundation and compiler of Statements of the LDS First Presidency: A Topical Compendium (Signature Books, 2007), from which the excerpts are taken.