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Guest: Follow the Prophet — but only when what he says aligns with your political views

By Keith Burns - Special to the Daily Herald | Nov 6, 2021

Courtesy photo

Keith Burns

The LDS Church has claimed political neutrality for decades, frequently encouraging members to “engage in the political process in an informed and civil manner,” including voting in local and national elections. Despite consistent declarations of political neutrality, the actual political makeup of church members is far from evenly distributed. Polling in recent years typically show that about 70-75% of Latter-day Saints are registered Republicans in the US, with Utah registration records showing that church leaders have followed a similar pattern. It is no surprise that the LDS Church in the US has been predominantly conservative for many decades, most likely because the Republican party aligns with the Church on key social issues like gay marriage and abortion. And a mostly white, middle-upper class base would understandably favor political platforms that lower taxes, limit “big government,” and preserve status-quo institutions.

A conservative member can typically feel comfortable with the doctrines, policies, and teachings of the church, especially as leaders continue to speak out on the ‘sinfulness’ of same-sex relationships, feminism, abortion, and a host of other ‘dangerous worldly philosophies and practices.’ But what happens when statements or teachings from church leaders do not align with conservative politics?

One area where such tension has emerged is on issues of immigration and refugees. During the Trump administration, the First Presidency delivered a controversial statement against Trump’s family separation policies, calling for a more compassionate and welcoming immigration policy. Many Republican members expressed discomfort and even disagreement about these sentiments. Similarly, church leaders have encouraged members to provide aid to refugees. In a 2016 initiative called “I was a Stranger,” the Church began encouraging members to welcome, love, and serve refugees, pointing out that the early members of the church were refugees themselves. Living in Idaho at the time, I came across many members of the Church who opposed this initiative, making arguments that an influx of refugees would harm the economy, take jobs from citizens and disrupt the housing market.

It has also proven difficult to “follow the prophet” on recent statements addressing racism in the US. In October of 2020, President Dallin H. Oaks said in a BYU devotional: “Of course Black lives matter! That is an eternal truth all reasonable people should support.” However, his general expression of support for Black Lives Matter was not well-received by many conservative church members who expressed a flood of politically charged disagreements following the speech.

Perhaps the most glaring example of political identity misaligning with the prophet’s words is the response of many Latter-day Saints to recent statements from church leaders on masks and vaccines. In December of 2020, Elder Dale G. Renlund called wearing a mask a “sign of Christ-like love.” The comments that followed were filled with contentious debates over the effectiveness of masks and the implications of ‘being forced’ to wear one. Similar opposition was voiced when church leaders asked members to wear masks inside temples and chapels in response to recent outbreaks of the delta variant, a directive that many members have not been following.

Equally disturbing is Latter-day Saint reluctance to get vaccinated, especially after recent statements by the First Presidency like this one:

“To provide personal protection from such severe infections, we urge individuals to be vaccinated. Available vaccines have proven to be both safe and effective. We can win this war if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders. Please know of our sincere love and great concern for all of God’s children.”

It has been eye-opening to read social media reactions toward this and other vaccine-related statements. I came across comments in which people criticized President Nelson’s trust in a corrupt government and his becoming too involved in political issues. Some also questioned his judgment about the vaccine’s safety.

When President Nelson posted a photo of himself receiving the vaccine as “part of our personal efforts to be good global citizens in helping to eliminate COVID-19 from the world,” many members responded with frustration, anger, and confusion. One person commented, “I have already had COVID. I’m doing everything to maintain my immunity. Please don’t command me to take the vaccine.”

Another said, “As someone with a family member who recently was vaccine injured, this is really upsetting. It sounds like those of us who have real and valid concerns about this aren’t considered ‘good global citizens’ which isn’t the case at all.”

These are some of the milder expressions of disagreement, as there were countless other comments laced with profanity, vitriol, and pure disinformation that I will not include here.

I should also point out that there are many conservative members who have gotten vaccinated, and who deserve credit for placing public health and compassion above their political leanings. But the hundreds of thousands of Latter-day Saints who have chosen not to get vaccinated are simply not following the prophet, and worse, jeopardizing the safety of themselves and others, especially the most vulnerable of our society.

More progressive members of the church also tend to disagree with church leaders, especially on topics like homosexuality, race, and women’s roles. They are sometimes criticized for being “Cafeteria Mormons,” or someone who critically examines the words of church leaders and decides which teachings resonate and which do not. Ironically, many conservative members seem to be demonstrating that very selectivity with their positions on immigration, racism, masks, and vaccines. Perhaps, this shows that most of us are “Cafeteria Mormons,” as we each weigh the words of leaders against our own moral inclinations, personal biases, and political preferences. If we are able to acknowledge this reality, we can rise above iron-clad ties to political or religious dogma, becoming instead the critical thinkers and compassionate citizens this world so desperately needs.


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