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In the minds of many Americans, the phrase “separation of church and state” is as important and Constitutional as “we the people”. Indeed, anytime there is an intermingling of religion and politics, critics are quick to cite their favorite phrase in support of a mutual exclusion between the two spheres of influence.
Surprise: the phrase appears nowhere in the Constitution, and is antithetical to the views held by a majority of the Founders. The source is a personal letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist congregation, and has since become enshrined in a cloak of sacrosanctity.
On this basis and others, critics argue that religious institutions should be prohibited from interfering in political matters. Thus, with the participation of the LDS Church in Proposition 8, the number of individuals crying foul has increased, and their attention has largely been focused on the Church, despite the participation of other faiths and congregations.
So, let’s take the proverbial gloves off and look at a few of the issues to determine if the opposition’s arguments are valid.
A common argument fired at the Church is that it is hypocritical by claiming that it is politically neutral, when it is “interfering” in political matters local to California.
The Church has an article explaining its stance on political neutrality, clarifying that while the Church does not endorse parties, candidates, or platforms, it can and does speak out on issues:
[The Church does reserve] the right as an institution to address, in a nonpartisan way, issues that it believes have significant community or moral consequences or that directly affect the interests of the Church. (Political Neutrality, LDS Newsroom)
American Church members are by now accustomed to hearing a letter, issued by the First Presidency, read over the pulpit in Sacrament meetings leading up to an election. It is important to note that the most recent letter contains an additional sentence at the end that has not previously been included:
The Church also affirms its constitutional right of expression on political and social issues. (First Presidency Issues Letter on Political Participation, LDS Newsroom)
Speaking out on political issues is something the Church has always done. For what is politics, but a system of principles upon which men should be governed? The opposition does not quarrel with only the Church’s vocal commentary on generic issues, however, but also the tactical organization of Church members and use of Church meetings to encourage those members to help support a specific initiative.
It’s funny, you see, how the accusation of hypocrisy is thrown around. Contrary to other inaccurate assertions, it would be hypocritical for the Church to support an issue in principle only, and not rally its forces when the principle at hand is under threat of perversion or extinction.
When it boils down to it, each individual may vote as he pleases (or not vote, which describes the vast majority of Americans). Whatever organization or person has influenced him does not force him to vote a certain way. Whether he be motivated by a church, social club, work group, think tank, or book club, his vote is his alone, and he remains free to cast it as he desires.
So really, the argument against the Church’s logistical assistance in supporting a specific measure comes almost always from those who oppose it, and thus don’t want an influential group of people persuading potentially opposing voters.
The Church has a divinely-mandated duty to speak out against moral issues, as has been evidenced by the prophetic cry of repentance throughout the ages. Some issues receive a significantly greater amount of attention from Church leaders, and it’s up to them to determine what hand they will play; after all, they are the leaders of the Church. When the moral issue they are concerned about takes its shape in the form of legislation, this in no way hinders them from persuasion and encouragement.
Another accusation made against the LDS Church’s participation in political measures is that it is abusing its tax-exempt status by advocating support for a specific piece of legislation. This claim is demonstrably false, as evidenced by the IRS’ own position on the matter:
The IRS has published Revenue Ruling 2007-41, which outlines how churches, and all 501(c)(3) organizations, can stay within the law regarding the ban on political activity. Also, the ban by Congress is on political campaign activity regarding a candidate; churches and other 501(c)(3) organizations can engage in a limited amount of lobbying (including ballot measures) and advocate for or against issues that are in the political arena. The IRS also has provided guidance regarding the difference between advocating for a candidate and advocating for legislation. (Emphasis added)
Despite the IRS’ own claim that political participation is acceptable so long as a candidate is not involved, the Constitution clearly states the Congress has no authority to make a law regarding free speech (though it repeatedly does so). On these grounds, a number of churches have rallied together to assert their Constitutional right to speak out on political issues (and candidates), with the support of the Alliance Defense Fund.
Last night, the Church held a broadcast for its members in California (and their children attending BYU and BYU-Idaho). During the meeting, Elder Cook noted that one of the issues at hand is that of tax exemption, and that the argument for revoking such a status from a church which speaks out on political matters would be that the “government shouldn’t subsidize discriminatory beliefs with tax exemptions”. Should this argument win, the censorship of religious voices (which are often not “politically correct”) would continue in the same manner since 1954, when the Johnson amendment passed.
The threat of revoking a church’s tax exempt status is a political tool to intimidate religious leaders into self-censorship. There was a reason that free speech was protected under the Constitution, yet successive legislators have ignored this declaration and created contradictory laws to give themselves the power to target political enemies who happen to be tax-exempt.
What would have become of this nation’s great moral leaders had the federal government targeted and prosecuted them for their words? Would Martin Luther King, Jr. still have his own national holiday had he been punished for his outspoken support of civil rights legislation? Would the plague of slavery have ended differently throughout the world had it not been for pastors and other religious leaders proclaiming equality under the law from their pulpits? Would John Witherspoon have been allowed to participate and assist in the Revolution?
The social fabric of America remains intact only when individuals—whatever their affiliation or position—are left free to voice their opinions as they desire, on whatever the topic. Using a church’s tax exempt status as a political bludgeon with which to beat down opposing voices is the mark of a pathetic politician who has no regard for the Constitution he has sworn to support.
Utah Church, California Constitution
Others argue that the LDS Church, being a “Utah Church”, should not involve itself in the political matters of other states, in this case California. Such a myopic understanding of the church’s dynamics is horribly off base, much like saying that even though the Sun is millions of miles away, it should not let its rays touch us here.
There are nearly 800,000 members of the Church in California, so although the leaders located in Utah have become involved, this is very much an issue which justifiably concerns those hundreds of thousands of individuals residing in California. 95% of the donations for the “Yes on 8” coalition campaign have come from inside of California. While others may be donating some money, manning phone banks, or talking to friends in California, this is very much an issue involving members of the Church living within the state.
Despite the local involvement, the issue rightly concerns those living outside of the State. California has in recent decades been seen as the leading progressive state, and what happens there is not completely isolated and self-contained. Indeed, trends, fads, and social opinion can quickly travel and change what’s done in other states.
In essence, working to pass this proposition in California is an effort to suppress a dangerous contagion. Self-governance is determined by the votes of the residents themselves, but in all things they are influenced by voices from within and without their borders. As Elder Cook said last night: “this conversation will go on with or without us”. Opposing forces are letting their voices be heard, and so are we. No harm, no foul: the Constitution makes it free game.
Religion and Politics
Despite these arguments, many still feel that religion and politics should be mutually exclusive. These individuals have had the “separation of church and state” line engrained into their psyche, and therefore cannot often articulate sound reasons as to why churches should not be allowed to speak out on political issues—they just think that it’s a bad idea.
Perhaps no better answer has been given than by President Hinckley. In an October 1999 General Conference address, he addressed the question “why does the Church become involved in issues that come before the legislature and the electorate?” His response:
I hasten to add that we deal only with those legislative matters which are of a strictly moral nature or which directly affect the welfare of the Church. We have opposed gambling and liquor and will continue to do so. We regard it as not only our right but our duty to oppose those forces which we feel undermine the moral fiber of society. Much of our effort, a very great deal of it, is in association with others whose interests are similar. We have worked with Jewish groups, Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, and those of no particular religious affiliation, in coalitions formed to advocate positions on vital moral issues. Such is currently the case in California, where Latter-day Saints are working as part of a coalition to safeguard traditional marriage from forces in our society which are attempting to redefine that sacred institution. God-sanctioned marriage between a man and a woman has been the basis of civilization for thousands of years. There is no justification to redefine what marriage is. Such is not our right, and those who try will find themselves answerable to God.
Some portray legalization of so-called same-sex marriage as a civil right. This is not a matter of civil rights; it is a matter of morality. Others question our constitutional right as a church to raise our voice on an issue that is of critical importance to the future of the family. We believe that defending this sacred institution by working to preserve traditional marriage lies clearly within our religious and constitutional prerogatives. Indeed, we are compelled by our doctrine to speak out. (Gordon B. Hinckley, Why We Do Some of the Things We Do)
The Church is nothing more than a group of individuals pursuing a collective goal. Like any number of other organizations, it has a purpose, a set of guiding principles, and uses its resources to support those principles as it deems necessary. Throughout this nation’s history we have benefited from the moral guidance given over the pulpit; using intimidation, the IRS, or the force of (un-Constitutional) law to silence these voices would be a disservice to the country and all liberty-loving individuals, whether or not they agree on a given issue. Now, more than ever, we need these voices to inspire Americans to remember God’s voice, and vote accordingly at the polls.