Over in the “Notes from All Over” sidebar, I linked to a Deseret News article by Carrie Moore which discusses a recent addition or addendum to the church’s oft-repeated state on political neutrality. (Scroll down to “Relationships with Government,” where you will read that “elected officials who are Latter-day Saints make their own decisions and may not necessarily be in agreement with…a publicly stated Church position.”) I was contacted for the article, and I have to thank Carrie for making me sound far more coherent than I’m sure I actually was; she put together a fine and thoughtful exploration of what this statement might be taken to mean for the church and Mitt Romney’s campaign. But–as is the case whenever you talk to a reporter–there was a lot we discussed (a whole hour’s worth) that didn’t make it into the final piece. Let me hit a few of those thoughts here.
1. Are all “publicly stated church positions” equal? For example, Senator Harry Reid, a Mormon and a Democrat, has voted against the passage of a federal amendment to the Constitution to define marriage as legally binding for heterosexual, monogamous couples only. The church has come out in support of such an amendment, which certainly counts as a “publicly stated position.” Reid’s membership has not been affected by his vote (despite the apparent longings of some); nor has he come in for any sort of public criticism from the church so far as I know. However, how much of that is a function of how he voted against the passage of the proposed amendment? Reid has stated that he believes in “traditional marriage,” and that his opposition to the amendment was driven by his belief that it is foolish to try to write such things into the Constitution, a position that Elder Dallin H. Oaks, even though he disagreed, allowed was a “legitimate argument.” But what if Reid–or some other Mormon elected official–explained his or her opposition to a federal marriage amendment by stating that they accepted the legitimacy of same-sex marriages? What if such an official said that, while they personally regarded homosexual conduct to be immoral, they found nothing wrong with society and the state fully sanctioning homosexual relationships and activity, and thereby allowing people choose for themselves what kind of sexual relationship or marriage they might enter into without any discrimination or disapproval? Perhaps the Church (not just officially, but in the person of all those stake presidents, bishops, and home teachers who would interact with and have to make decisions about this particular Mormon) really would treat them the same way they are currently treating Reid–namely, respect him as a public official who just happens to disagree with the church. Then again, if you got to the point that said official was saying things that arguably conflicted with the Proclamation on the Family‘s specific call to “to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society”…well, let’s just say that, as yet, this latest statement by the church hasn’t been truly tested yet.
2. My comment about a hypothetical Mormon politician arguing that, despite their “personal” feelings, a certain action ought to be legal so that people could “choose for themselves” is intentionally imitating a longstanding controversy in Catholic circles regarding abortion, because that controversy could be instructive for Mormons in our increasingly mainstream political future. The ground zero for the Catholic argument was probably then-Governor Mario Cuomo’s famous address at the University of Notre Dame in 1984, in which he claimed that he could simultaneously believe that abortion is a grave moral crime and not believe that he had an obligation as an elected official to oppose the extension of constitutional rights to that crime. Elder Oaks, for one, has condemned such an attachment to “choice.” Yet, given the above statement, what actual force does Elder Oaks’s condemnation have? Persuasive and moral force, certainly…but not, if one takes this statement literally, ecclesiastical force. A Mormon elected official who disagreed with Elder Oaks about abortion (or same-sex marriage) could potentially find himself quoting Mario Cuomo, arguing in essence that “there is no Church teaching that mandates the best political course for making our belief [about the morality of abortion, or same-sex marriage, or the family] everyone’s rule, for spreading this part of our [Mormonism].” The arguments within and about this debate, both the legitimacy and the parameters of it, have defined to a great extent the public image of Catholicism over the past 20 years; whereas today, the popular assumption is probably that such arguments would not be possible amongst the Mormons. (Certainly that’s what Damon Linker thought.) Will this statement, in time, prove that assumption incorrect? Will we, just like every religious body dealing with life in these modern, secular, pluralistic United States, have Mario Cuomos of our own?
3. And if we do have such figures, how will politically active Mormons–not just politically informed ones, but those deeply involved in political elections and agendas–react? We talk about Zion, we talk about being of one mind and one heart, we talk about common consent and unity. Yet, those who live in predominantly Mormon areas of the country are well aware that within this unity there is a fair amount of disagreement; that Democrats and Republicans and liberals and conservatives can serve together in Relief Society presidencies and on High Councils and things don’t fall apart. Call this “tacit” or “institutional” knowledge–it’s why Mormons who live in Utah often sigh at accusations of “theocracy,” because they know–even if they can’t necessarily give principled, legalistic, comprehensive answers as to why church leaders do or don’t do what they do–how complicated things really are. And yet…there is an obvious limit to the range of “complicatedness” in Utah, and northern Arizona, and southern Idaho, just given the sort of majorities in place there. What if that range is extended exponentially–to, for example, the whole country, via a presidential campaign? Mormon activists like Gayle Ruzicka are smart and experienced people; they know how the world of politics works. But will they be able to make the jump to the kind of pluralism and diversity in Mormon opinion which the church’s statement seems to allow for on the national stage? Or will–when push comes to shove, and big-league Mormon candidates are dealing with national platforms and agendas that would be radically unpopular in Provo or Rexburg–the old “good Mormons can’t be good Democrats” notion continue to lurk about, perhaps for always?
There was more, but that should enough to chew on for now.