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.
With the expanded statement, he sees top church leaders concerned about how the faith itself is perceived and how it operates, and not as an attempt to help Romney along. "I'm inclined to believe this is genuine," he said. The church "walks a fine line. It's issued a statement but has not made it (widely) public. They don't want to direct too much attention to the fact that they have to say it in the first place."
Ron Hrebenar, chairman of the political science department at the University of Utah, views the church's statement differently, saying it plays well into Romney's attempt to persuade his fundamental constituency the Christian Right "that he would not be a puppet," he said.
LDS leaders have been "fairly oblivious to those kinds of issues in the past. If Romney becomes president, it's of enormous value to the church. It's one of those statements that try to help Romney out, I suspect," Hrebenar said.
Hrebenar said the question is not whether the church's statement plays well to a particular crowd, because skeptics won't believe it no matter who says it. Detailing the church's position likely will have its greatest impact on moderates, "and that's not the group Romney has to win over," Hrebenar said.
While Evangelicals' moral views on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage line up with Romney, their collective suspicion of the LDS Church itself as "non-Christian" poses a formidable challenge he'll have to get beyond to secure the Republican nomination.
Another political scientist, Kelly Patterson at BYU, said people who've never paid attention to the LDS Church and its relationship to politics will find the statement helpful "because it explains what it considers to be the boundaries for its relationship with politicians," he said.
While opponents may dismiss it, supporters "will find the statement reassuring" in resolving doubts that fence-sitters may have. Most importantly, Patterson said, the statement will likely "help people nationally understand what is locally understood" about the church's way of dealing with political issues.
Noting that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is not only LDS but a Democrat, he said there's no evidence the church has sought to dictate to him in any way, though he went against the church's public position in opposing a proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
"National observers often confuse (LDS voters') ideological homogeneity with direction from the LDS leadership. ... Because LDS voters tend to be conservative, there is the appearance of unanimity," Patterson said.
Reporters who have covered the Evangelical Christian view of religion and politics "apply that wholesale to the LDS experience, and it's not comparable," he said. "It's very different. You see instances of Christian Evangelicals taking positions in politics and being engaged in ways the LDS Church has not."
Russell Arben Fox, assistant professor of political science at Friends University in Wichita, Kan., said he sees the church's statement as an attempt to do two things: first, to respond to continued questions about Romney's faith "without seeming especially reactive or defensive" while communicating that "Mormons are not weird."
That's been one of President Gordon B. Hinckley's primary goals in media interviews, Fox said.
One recent online article compared Latter-day Saints to Scientologists, allowing that "Mormons are more respected because they've been around longer," he said.
The church has "a real desire to make it seem as though Latter-day Saints are an ordinary, decidedly non-weird and non-insular group of people who are putting forward a straightforward Christian message and are not playing with the minds of members or inculcating into them strange beliefs."
Secondly, he believes the statement is responding to allegations that church members follow their prophet on all matters, both spiritual and political, because the church is an authoritarian institution. "That's a more interesting problem" because "there are some ways in which the church is that."Comment on this story
He believes the statement also "is (putting forward) some part of a larger revolution in the way the church understands itself operating in the world" of politics. LDS leaders have "piggybacked on the Christian Right movement in some ways with some issues," he said. If the church wants to continue doing so, "they have to figure out how they fit. One way is to clear up any misunderstandings about how people within the church who want to reach out to that segment operate."In that way some of the suspicions may disappear and it may be easier for the next Mormon guy trying to appeal to the Christian Right."