Religious voices in the public square: Response to the Salt Lake Tribune opinion piece

The LDS church recently weighed in on the marijuana debate in Utah releasing a document raising a number of legal issues surrounding the legalization of medical marijuana. The action predictably drew calls for the Church’s tax exempt status to be removed for engaging in overtly political issues. An opinion piece in the Salt Lake Tribune stated:

The LDS Church has once again shown its inability to keep its hands out of the political process in Utah.

The LDS Church has a long history of this behavior, and in this case, it is telegraphing — if not explicitly instructing — its members how to vote on a potential ballot issue or to block the measure from reaching the ballot in the first place. This is not an indictment against Mormonism qua religion or any individual adherent of the faith, but rather against the institution itself, which must decide whether it wants to be a tax-exempt religious organization or a taxpaying advocacy group for the Utah Republican Party.

If a lawsuit is necessary to help the LDS Church make that decision, I would encourage an enterprising young lawyer to get to work.

I can understand that some disagree with the Church’s stance on marijuana. Heck, I often get frustrated at some of the positions that are officially or unofficially endorsed by members and leaders alike. But I don’t want to address the merits of marijuana legalization, gay marriage, or abortion. I would like to address whether the church’s weighing in on political matters is legal and whether it has a right to do so.

I thought I would check what the IRS’s policy actually is regarding churches and other tax-exempt organizations and political advocacy. You can check out their website here. The specific law regarding churches and political advocacy is outlined in the Johnson Amendment stating that 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations do not “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statement(s), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

The IRS website also states that churches and other tax-exempt organization can engage in some forms of lobbying (including ballot measures), and advocate for or against issues that are in the political arena. It also specifically emphasizes a different between advocating for political candidates (which they cannot do) and advocating for legislation (which they can “to a limited extent”).

A little further digging gives a specific list of what they cannot do:

  • Contribute to campaign funds of political candidates
  • Public statements in support of or in opposition to specific political candidates
  • Engage in “excessive” amounts of lobbying.

The definition of “excessive” is hazy, and a rule called the Substantial Part test (which is determined on a case-by-case basis and looks at the timed devoted to political activities and the total expenditures) is implemented to decide infractions. The IRS also sends an annual reminder to churches and other tax-exempt organizations regarding these rules, which you can read here.

From my experience, the church adheres strongly to the restrictions regarding political candidates. Other than an exhortation to civic responsibility occasionally to get out and vote, you don’t hear much about elections. But the Church does have a few issues that it is committed to including gay marriage, drug legalization, abortion, and pornography. As there isn’t a clearly defined line in the law as to what is “too much” influencing legislation, I think that the Church has struck a good balance. In my experience, the LDS Church is relatively quiet in regards to political matters. At the local level, you rarely hear politics come from lay leaders. You do occasionally get a rant from a member in Sunday School, but these are usually recognized as straying from the purpose of the lesson. My wife has recently become involved in a pro-life organization, and she was surprised at the involvement of Protestant and Catholic church leaders. They are much more politically engaged than LDS church leaders, at least from our experiences in Utah and Washington.

Second, I wanted to address not only the legality but also the “rightness” of the Church’s chosen involvement in politics. Just because it is legal doesn’t make it right. Right? I can sympathize with non-religious folk who feel a sense of impropriety when religious folk try to impose their standards on other people. I recently began reading a book by an Anglican bishop called Godless Morality calling for an ethic completely separate from religion. He addresses this problem:

That is why debating with religious people about the morality or immorality of certain activities can be frustrating… Religious moralists, in practice, flit between empirical and absolute justifications for their assertions, moving from the former to the latter when the argument is going against them.

He further argues that moral judgments must be able to stand on their own; they be based solely on “because God said so.” Otherwise, how can they be applied in a religiously pluralistic society? He quotes John Harris: “For a moral judgement to be respectable, it must have something to say about just why a supposed wrong action is wrongful. If it fails to meet this test it is a preference and not a moral judgment at all.”

He does, however, suggest that believers shouldn’t be required to “leave their religion at the door” when entering the public square. It is in this light that I believe the Church had a right in submitting a legal opinion regarding medical marijuana. It is suggesting a moral argument, and it should be evaluated on its merits. It is OK to bring your sense of right and wrong, and not try to imagine what you would vote for if you didn’t believe in God. This sounds much like what Dallin H. Oaks suggested about the intersection of religion and politics:

No person with values based on religious beliefs should apologize for taking those values into the public square. Religious persons need to be skillful in how they do so, but they need not yield to an adversary’s assumption that the whole effort is illegitimate. We should remind others of the important instances in which the efforts of churches and clergy in the political arena have influenced American public policies in great historical controversies whose outcome is virtually unquestioned today. The slavery controversy was seen as a great moral issue and became the major political issue of the nineteenth century because of the preaching of clergy and the political action of churches. A century later, churches played an indispensable role in the civil rights movement, and, a decade later, clergymen and churches of various denominations were an influential part of the antiwar movement that contributed to the end of the war in Vietnam.

There is also a historical suspicion of the Church’s hold over its members. From the Church’s early days in Missouri, Mormon neighbors were concerned that they would dominate local politics by voting in bloc. Mormons would vote as their leaders dictated. This fear continued into the 20th century after Utah had received statehood. At one point, church president Joseph F. Smith was called before the Senate for questioning regarding the continued practice of polygamy despite it being outlawed. One contentious topic was whether the church president could direct church members to do illegal acts under the authority of divine revelation:

Senator Hoar: “I want to go a little farther. Suppose you should receive a divine revelation, communicated to and sustained by your church, commanding your people tomorrow to do something forbidden by the law of the land. Which would it be their duty to obey?”

Joseph F.: “They would be at liberty to obey just which they pleased.”

Mormons do have religious reasons for why they vote the way they do. But they are allowed their freedom of conscience, and are not institutionally coerced into voting a certain way. To quote a more recent source, D. Todd Christofferson remarked regarding gay marriage: “There hasn’t been any litmus test or standard imposed that you couldn’t support that if you want to support it, if that’s your belief and you think it’s right.

I think we should definitely keep the discussion going regarding the role of churches and other organizations in politics.  I believe it is important to have checks to power.  But I do believe that both institutional churches and religious believers have the right to voice their opinions in the public square.

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