The LDS church is reminding its senior leaders that they should steer clear of politics as a campaign season ramps up and two of the faith's own compete for the GOP presidential nomination.
In a letter sent June 16, church president Thomas S. Monson and his senior counselors say lay leaders with full-time church responsibilities and their spouses should not participate in political campaigns. That includes making endorsements or financial contributions.
The letter was sent to the highest officers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Part-time leaders are not barred from such political involvement.
A church website post describes the letter as a restatement and clarification of an existing policy of political neutrality. The church does not back individual candidates or political parties. With the political season ramping up and two of its own in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, the Mormon church is reminding the faith's senior leaders that they should steer clear of politics.
Excerpts of the letter are included in a lengthy explanation of the church's political neutrality policy posted on a church website. The letter is described as a "restatement and further clarification" of existing policy "at the start of another political season."
Under the political neutrality policy, the institutional church does not endorse individual political candidates or parties. It also bans the use of church buildings or church-generated information for political purposes and asks candidates to refrain from making statements or inferences that suggest they have the church's support.
The Mormon church does, however, engage in political activism or campaigns when its leaders believe an issue of moral importance is at stake.
That would include the faith's involvement in the 2006 ballot initiative Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California and its efforts to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.
Political experts say the timing of the letter and a restatement of church policy should come as no surprise.
Two Mormons — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman — have jumped into the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
"It's not unusual for the LDS church to do this and I think given the fact that you've got two very high profile candidates in the presidential race, that's a circumstance where they're saying, 'Oh, we'd better remind people what the rules are,'" University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said.
The letter reminds the faith's lay leaders that when they do choose to engage in political activity they are acting "solely as individual citizens in the democratic process" and should not "imply, or otherwise allow others to infer, that their actions or support in any way represent the church."
It's not clear whether the statement is also a response to criticisms of the church's involvement in Prop. 8, but regardless, Burbank said it's in the faith's best interest to draw a bright line so its members and leaders understand the rules.
It also helps candidates Huntsman and Romney who likely don't want their campaigns to appear to be driven solely by Mormons, he said.
But some political experts say no one should read too much into the church statement — although it may not have previously publicly stated in this way.
"I do not think there is anything new about this statement in terms of its substance. It is consistent with an LDS understanding of politics and the common good as well as the limitations of engaging in partisan politics placed on religious organizations by (Internal Revenue Service) regulations," said Francis J. Beckwith, a Mormon who is also a professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University. "What I think the LDS church is doing here is articulating in greater specificity what it's always held in more general terms."