Top LDS Church leaders are trying to make it clear that Mormon political candidates, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, won't be expected to follow their direction on matters of public policy.
Political observers knowledgeable about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints see the move in a variety of ways, but all agree that an expanded explanation of how the church interacts or doesn't with LDS politicians could benefit Romney, or at least give him something to point critics to.
An official church statement, copyrighted in 2006, was posted recently on the LDS Church's Web site. It explains the church does not "attempt to direct or dictate to a government leader." It further explains that while LDS leaders may communicate the church's view to any politician, LDS or not, the church "recognizes that these officials still must make their own choices based on their best judgment and with consideration of the constituencies whom they were elected to represent."
LDS politicians "make their own decisions and may not necessarily be in agreement with one another or even with the publicly stated church position," the statement says.
The full statement can be found at www.lds.org by clicking on the "newsroom" tab, then the "issues resources" tab and finally by clicking on "political neutrality."
Previously, when asked about matters of politics, the LDS Church would answer with a short statement affirming its political neutrality, urging members to vote for the candidate of their choice, adding that LDS buildings and membership lists are off limits to politicians and that candidates are not to imply the church's endorsement.
But as a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Romney's faith has generated nationwide pre-election buzz and prompted media speculation from political observers and opponents.
The questions escalated after The Boston Globe reported in October that Romney allies, at their request, met with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the church's Quorum of the Twelve, and that business school leaders at church-owned Brigham Young University had sent out e-mails looking to marshal political backing for Romney.
A month later, Time magazine reported that Mike Otterson from the church's public affairs office had been meeting with national media organizations, including the Washington Post, Fox News' Washington bureau and the online political digest Hotline.
That story focused on efforts to explain the church's doctrine, whether Mormons are Christians or a "cult" as some have charged, and to counter the unrelenting questions about polygamy, which the church formally disavowed in the 19th century.
David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, penned an op-ed piece for last Monday's edition of USA Today (see related opinion section story, above left) that takes on a topic frequently discussed by national media of late the similarity between Romney's candidacy and that of a former U.S. senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, whose Catholicism became an issue in the 1960 presidential race until he was able to issue a strongly worded statement disconnecting his decision-making from that of the Vatican.
A BYU undergrad and Harvard Ph.D., Campbell told the Deseret Morning News he regularly fields questions from reporters about the comparison between the two. He said the church's statement reflects the fact that "this is delicate and uncharted territory for the church," whose mission "is not focused on getting Romney elected. And I think the leaders are concerned that individual members are going to forget that."
Like the Catholic Church, the hierarchical structure of the LDS Church raised questions about both Kennedy's and Romney's ability to be free of that influence. Yet, the LDS Church "gives a lot of wiggle room to its members more than many members realize," Campbell said.
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