SALT LAKE CITY (The Blaze/AP) -- The Mormon church is reminding its senior leaders that they should steer clear of politics as a campaign season ramps up and two of the faith's own compete for the GOP presidential nomination.
In a letter sent June 16, church president Thomas S. Monson and his senior counselors said lay leaders with full-time church responsibilities and their spouses should not participate in political campaigns, including "promoting candidates, fundraising, speaking on behalf of or otherwise endorsing candidates and making financial contributions."
The letter was sent to the highest officers of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including general authorities, general auxiliary leaders, mission presidents and temple presidents — those whose positions are visible highly visible both in and out of the church and who could be seen as acting on behalf of the church.
Full-time church employees and part-time leaders, such as those who hold local or regional congregational duties are exempt from the policy.
Excerpts of the letter are included in a lengthy explanation of the church's political neutrality policy posted on a church website. The letter is described as a "restatement and further clarification" of existing policy "at the start of another political season."
Under the political neutrality policy, the institutional church does not endorse individual political candidates or parties. It also bans the use of church buildings or church-generated information for political purposes and asks candidates to refrain from making statements or inferences that suggest they have the church's support.
The Mormon church does, however, engage in political activism or campaigns when its leaders believe an issue of moral importance is at stake.
That would include the faith's involvement in the 2008 ballot initiative Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California and its efforts to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.
Political experts say the timing of the letter and a restatement of church policy should come as no surprise.
Two Mormons — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman— have jumped into the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
"It's not unusual for the LDS church to do this and I think given the fact that you've got two very high profile candidates in the presidential race, that's a circumstance where they're saying, 'Oh, we'd better remind people what the rules are,'" University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said.
The letter reminds the faith's lay leaders that when they do choose to engage in political activity they are acting "solely as individual citizens in the democratic process" and should not "imply, or otherwise allow others to infer, that their actions or support in any way represent the church."
It's not clear whether the statement is also a response to criticisms of the church's involvement in Prop. 8, but regardless, Burbank said it's in the faith's best interest to draw a bright line so its members and leaders understand the rules.
It also helps candidates Huntsman and Romney who likely don't want their campaigns to appear to be driven solely by Mormons, he said.
In a recent CNN Belief Blog piece, Boston University Scholar Stephen Prothero tackled the issue of Mormon involvement in Romney and Huntsman's political campaigns. Aside from asking, "What sort of Mormon might be elected president?," Prothero went on to recommend that both candidates should consider downplaying their faith identity in the 2012 campaign:
...there is a huge difference between considering a Mormon president in the abstract and considering a particular Mormon candidate. In other words, some of those who say that they would not vote for an otherwise qualified Mormon for president might vote for Romney or Huntsman.
This is more likely to happen, in my view, with a candidate who, like Kennedy, downplays his religious identity or one, like Obama, who downplays his racial identity–a luxury, I might add, that is not really available to female candidates
While some may believe that the Mormon Church is being extra careful not to hamper either candidate's chances at securing the nomination, others claim that this sort of announcement isn't all that surprising. Some political experts say no one should read too much into the church statement — although it may not have previously publicly stated in this way.
"I do not think there is anything new about this statement in terms of its substance. It is consistent with an LDS understanding of politics and the common good as well as the limitations of engaging in partisan politics placed on religious organizations by (Internal Revenue Service) regulations," said Francis J. Beckwith, a Mormon who is also a professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University. "What I think the LDS church is doing here is articulating in greater specificity what it's always held in more general terms."
The candidates, themselves, likely have some connections to Mormon higher-ups and, thus, are impacted by the regulations. For instance, there are implications for Huntsman's family. UPI has more:
Huntsman's father, a part-time church official, will be able to contribute to his son's campaign, but the new policy would have prevented his late grandfather, David Haight, who was a church apostle, from making the donations he did to Huntsman's 2004 gubernatorial campaign.
In the end, while the church does involve itself in theological battles, it does appear that neither Huntsman or Romney will receive much support from its leaders during the 2012 campaign.