Religion and Politics: Why the Church Says Get Involved

Let me guess. You hate politics. I have heard this sentiment so many times. Mormons especially tend to believe that the world is “going to hell in a hand-basket” anyway, so politics seem futile. However, as a student of politics and international relations, I find motivation in a statement made by Elder Ballard, speaking on the principle of “being in the world but not of the world”: “Members of the Church need to influence more than we are influenced.” Politics are just a means (however inefficient) by which members can exert influence on the world.

Recently, Millennial Mormons made a post about why a specific government policy should be implemented, and used gospel principles in support of that argument. I think it may have been on why Mormons should welcome refugees (the church has since made statements that seem to align with MM’s position here, here, and here).  One reader made a comment that was more or less “shame on you for using the gospel to propagate your political agenda.”

I have thought about this comment for a long time. Maybe this reader was right. Maybe it is unrighteous to use scriptural or gospel knowledge to advocate a particular political view and thereby insinuate that any other stance is out of line with the gospel. I think perhaps this reader may have just bought in to extreme separation of church and state. Secular people deride opinions based in religious belief as somehow of less worth than opinions based in non-religious  moral systems or empirical data. Many church members have come to believe what society tells them, that they cannot oppose someone on moral grounds if that opposition is grounded in religious conviction or an action is seemingly harmless. Perhaps it’s these people who are upset that the Church has released several church policy statements with political implications

My main concern with this type of strict secularism is that we believe in a God who knows things that people do not. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways, my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). This is a main reason why we need prophets in the first place: to help us understand what the scriptures really mean, and what God’s will is for us in our day. People may disagree with us based on a different interpretation of scripture or a completely different moral code, but Mormons should feel compelled to lend support to laws that reflect what we know to be moral.

Similarly, the church has every right to release statements on political issues. Church statements have consistently been 1) issue-based as opposed to partisan-centric, 2) are clarifications of how gospel principles apply to practical morality in political decisions, and 3) often have to do with negative effects of political decisions that may not be clear to normal people or social scientists.

First, church statements on political statements are justified because the church focuses more on specific policies and issues, rather than giving blanket support to one party. Every election, the church encouragements members to vote and reminds us that the church does not support one party over the other. Similarly, recent church statements have countered the opinions of those in both major parties. The church opposes most kinds of abortions, a hallmark of the Democratic Party, but has been similarly critical of immigration plans that many Republicans favor (the Church advocates paths to legalization for illegal immigrants).

Second, church statements clarify how gospel principles relate to political decisions. The recent seizure of a government building in Oregon by armed vigilantes purporting to act on scriptural principles provides an interesting example of official church statements with political implications and the appropriate role of the gospel in discussing political affairs. The church statement reads,

“While the disagreement occurring in Oregon about the use of federal lands is not a Church matter, Church leaders strongly condemn the armed seizure of the facility and are deeply troubled by the reports that those who have seized the facility suggest that they are doing so based on scriptural principles.”

The Church affirms that under normal circumstances, a church statement regarding federal lands would be unnecessary. In many cases, God trusts us to make (political) decisions for ourselves when both options have similar worth (or in the case of politics, a lack thereof).

The Church did issue a statement, however, in part to protect the name of the church and dispel any pretext that Mormon doctrine justified such actions.

However, the Bundys’ inappropriate use of scripture in politics does not mean that gospel principles can never be applied to politics. Just a month earlier, the church, in apparent response to Presidential Candidate Donald “the Donald” Trump’s comments suggesting that Muslims’ freedoms ought to be restricted, the church reaffirmed its position on religious freedom.

If our faith is in fact the most important thing to us, then we should not hesitate to discuss how this faith shapes our political views (more on how to do this below).

Third, church statements on political issues are justified because prophets can warn of us of unknown or almost imperceptible negative effects of certain laws. Many political decisions have unknown and/or unexpected consequences on others, or externalities. For example, second-hand smoke is an externality of tobacco use in a public place. The tobacco use does not only affect the smoker, but negatively affects even those who have not chosen to make such a choice.

The Church cited concerns about such “unintended consequences” when it expressed opposition to a Utah bill that would legalize whole-plant use of Marijuana for medical purposes. Some may be frustrated, as was a friend-of-a-friend, that the Church is being over-cautious, even doubting the will of its own members to abuse the newly-implemented system. To you I reaffirm the words of the Lord to Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts.” Being a person of faith means realizing that God knows more than we do, and that His counsel and the subsequent direction of His prophets are based in more reasons than may be apparent. For example, why are coffee and tea against Word of Wisdom? Many people say “oh, well it’s about caffeine,” but such an interpretation is putting words (or reasons) in the Lord’s mouth. It is not a question of reason, in this case, but a question of faith.

So some may have sensed seeming inconsistencies in my arguments, but I think that these conflicting ideas provide guidelines on how to appropriately merge political and gospel discussion. Here are a few tips:

  1. Pray for guidance or confirmation. When you have questions, both about the righteousness of your own political stances or concerns about church statements, start with prayer. Praying with real intent means praying with the commitment to believe and act on the answer that comes.
  2. Realize that none but God have a perfect understanding of gospel principles. Enter into these political conversations realizing that others have deeply-held beliefs or interpretations of gospel principles that may seem to conflict with your own convictions or interpretations. Don’t seek to prove the other person wrong, but to gain more truth. Often gospel principles must be balance, such as Mercy and Justice or Grace and Works.
  3. If a political conversation has already become heated, relying on gospel arguments may fan the flames of contention.
  4. Gospel conviction first, politics/ worldly ideologies second. If the Brethren haven’t issued a statement, then the issue is up for debate. When the Brethren make a statement however, the goal should change to seeking understanding of why or praying for understanding. Talking with a priesthood leader always helps, too.
  5. Avoid insinuating that one party is more in line with gospel principles than another. Just as people of all faiths have more or less truth, so is it with political ideologies.

Have you ever had an uplifting conversation about politics rooted in gospel principles? Any Tips we can add to our list?

Modern day insight - delivered to your inbox