What does it mean to be a Latter-day Saint? I think most would probably answer the title applies to someone who is a baptized member and adheres to the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, some add more — agreement with political conservatism. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the question, stated in different ways: How can someone be an active member of the church and be a Democrat?
Where did this kind of thinking come from?
One source, I believe, is a misunderstanding on the part of a few members about who does and does not express church doctrine. Some individuals have presumed to articulate church doctrine when they really are expressing their own political views. They have stated, or implied, that liberals or Democrats cannot be good members of the church and that acceptance of certain political views such as highly limited government, the absence of government social services, and minimal taxes, are also characteristic of a faithful Latter-day Saint. Sometimes they have used the pulpit or church classes to announce, and therefore, legitimate, such views.
I believe most Latter-day Saints understand that the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve lead the church. Similarly most Latter-day Saints understand the president of BYU speaks for BYU. That’s why the views I express in this column represent only my views, not those of BYU.
Besides, at BYU, there exists a wide array of views. I know of BYU faculty members who are socialist, libertarian, tea party Republican, John Birch Society, and a range in between. No individual faculty member could possibly represent that spectrum of views. Latter-day Saints today generally are astute enough to recognize that and respect the fact that university faculty are individuals with disparate views, even if they work at BYU. The pages of this newspaper have included opposing opinions by both more liberal and more conservative BYU professors. Clearly, they both can’t speak for the university. Indeed, it is clear that neither does.
The second, and related, explanation is the assumption on the part of some members that there is not political diversity in the church. Yet, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that 30 percent of Mormons in the United States considered themselves moderate or liberal. That may mean, for example, that nearly 1 of 3 church members in sacrament meeting, high priests group meeting, or Sunday School class is not a political conservative. According to the survey, 25 percent of Mormons hold a favorable view of President Obama. Again, that may mean that 1-in-4 people may be offended by that off-hand critical remark of the president that is sometimes expressed in meetings and classes by members who assume everyone agrees with their views.
Of course, if the survey was expanded to Mormons outside the United States, the numbers would likely be radically different. Many church members in Europe or Latin America are strong supporters of socialist parties and candidates. These members might be surprised by the assumption that the church is tied in some people’s minds to political conservatism. But that is the point: church members are not monolithic on politics, and I don’t believe they should be.
We should not assume that an individual’s personal political views are church doctrine. Nor should we assume Latter-day Saints think alike. Not only is it not true, but it may discourage investigators of varying political views from investigating the church and it may encourage people to leave the church when they assume they don’t belong on political grounds.
What does it mean to be a Latter-day Saint? I believe it means being a baptized member of the church and believing church doctrine. It does not mean having to follow the personal political opinions of any church leader or thinking about politics the same way as anyone else in the church.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. Email: Richard_Davis@byu.edu