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Mormon Beliefs: Morality and the Public Square

“Where should we draw the line between what is and is not permissible for church and church-leader participation in public policy making?” asked Dallin H. Oaks in a speech about morality and the public square. Dallin H. Oaks is an apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are sometimes called Mormons. As an apostle, Elder Oaks is one of the highest-ranking members of the church’s leadership. The speech, Religious Values and Public Policy, was given on February, 29 1992 to the Brigham Young University Management Society in Washington, D.C.  This speech effectively outlines the challenges of religion and politics.

Mormon beliefs, hard workMormons are politically neutral, meaning that they don’t support candidates for office, even if they are Mormon. Nor do they encourage membership in a specific party. There are Mormons in both major United States parties and in parties all over the world. Within the US government, there are Mormons serving in both parties. Even within the high ranking leadership, Mormons can be found in both parties. For instance, although Mormons are sometimes seen as Republicans, the Church recently had a well-known Democrat who served as the head of his state’s Democratic party prior to becoming a Mormon leader, in the First Presidency, the highest-ranking body of the church.

However, the Mormons do reserve the right to speak out on moral issues, which are the natural territory of churches. “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.” Read the official statement on Mormons and political neutrality.

In Elder Oaks’ speech on this subject, he contrasted the view of many Americans with the view of Albania and some other Communist countries. Albania had banned all churches in 1967, but the program did not work the way they had anticipated. Elder Oaks and another Mormon leaders met with the government there, who admitted it had been a mistake. They said they were now welcoming the churches back in because they needed the help of the churches to rebuild the moral foundation of the country, which was lost when religion was outlawed. Elder Oaks heard similar statements from other Communist countries who were again inviting churches into their countries.

In contrast, Americans sometimes like to imagine that religion has no role in morality or should not have a role. Of course, many of our laws are based on traditional religious values, including laws about murder and robbery.

Each person comes to his moral values in a variety of ways. They may draw on churches, or they may draw these ideas from political parties, celebrities, role models, or family. It is inappropriate for a government to decide that certain sources of values are not to be considered. Elder Oaks says:

“Now, relative to church participation in public debate, when churches or church leaders choose to enter the public sector to engage in debate on a matter of public policy, they should be admitted to the debate and they should expect to participate in it on the same basis as all other participants. In other words, if churches or church leaders choose to oppose or favor a particular piece of legislation, their opinions should be received on the same basis as the opinions offered by other knowledgeable organizations or persons, and they should be considered on their merits.

By the same token, churches and church leaders should expect the same broad latitude of discussion of their views that conventionally applies to everyone else’s participation in public policy debates. A church can claim access to higher authority on moral questions, but its opinions on the application of those moral questions to specific legislation will inevitably be challenged by and measured against secular-based legislative or political judgments. As James E. Wood observed, “While denunciations of injustice, racism, sexism, and nationalism may be clearly rooted in one’s religious faith, their political applications to legislative remedy and public policy are by no means always clear.”

It’s important to remember that our beliefs are valid for us regardless of their source. A nation’s values should reflect those of all segments of its citizenry, not just those of the non-religious. The laws are not meant to silence the religious, but to protect them.

Mormon people and leaders, then, will continue to speak out on issues of morality because that is their domain, just as business leaders will speak out on issues related to business and activists will speak out on their issues. Being silenced is to put religious freedom in danger because it leaves no one to speak for them or to ensure the values of those who are religious are taken into consideration when planning a nation.