A friend recently pointed out that a statement we’ve all heard time and again in the American election season is now absent from the Church’s statement about political neutrality as it pertains to candidates. Its absence is both curious and potentially alarming, given the candidacy and presidency of Trump in a right-leaning Church. While the statement has always previously talked about the importance of the moral character of our chosen candidate, something that I have always taken to heart, that statement is now absent from the Church’s stance. Here’s a contrasting look at the statement from 1999:
In this election year we reaffirm the policy of strict political neutrality for the Church. The Church does not endorse political candidates or parties in elections nor does it advise its members how to vote. Likewise, Church facilities are not to be used for political purposes.
Church members should study the issues and candidates carefully and prayerfully and then vote for those they believe will act with integrity and will most nearly carry out their ideas of good government. The Lord counseled the Prophet Joseph Smith in a revelation:
“Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil.” (D&C 98:10.)
Members are encouraged to participate as responsible citizens in supporting measures and candidates that strengthen society morally, economically and culturally. They are urged to be actively engaged in worthy causes to improve their communities and make them more wholesome places in which to live and rear families.
Political candidates should not imply that their candidacy is endorsed by the Church or its leaders. Church directories or mailing lists should not be used for political purposes.https://www.thechurchnews.com/archives/1999-10-30/first-presidency-reaffirms-political-neutrality-2-121482
Quite a bit has changed in 20 years, both in the political landscape, the level of polarization in politics, the quality of candidate for POTUS, and the amount of direct involvement in political issues that the Church exerts. Additionally, the increase in highly qualified women candidates renders the use of masculine pronouns in the 1999 statement outdated (frankly, it was outdated then, but really outdated now).
There are a few other minor changes over time. Let’s take a look at the 2016 statement, according to the Church’s website:
Dear Brothers and Sisters:
Political Participation, Voting, and the Political Neutrality of the Church
As citizens we have the privilege and duty of electing office holders and influencing public policy. Participation in the political process affects our communities and nation today and in the future. We urge Latter-day Saints to be active citizens by registering, exercising their right to vote, and engaging in civic affairs.
We also urge you to spend the time needed to become informed about the issues and candidates you will be considering. Along with the options available to you through the Internet, debates, and other sources, the Church occasionally posts information about particular moral issues on which it has taken a position at www.MormonNewsroom.org.
Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties, and members should seek candidates who best embody those principles.
While the Church affirms its institutional neutrality regarding political parties and candidates, individual members should participate in the political process. The Church also affirms its constitutional right of expression on political and social issues.
Thomas S. Monsonhttps://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/first-presidency-2016-letter-political-participation
Henry B. Eyring
Dieter F. Uchtdorf
The First Presidency
So what changed from 1999 to 2016? Well, a few things. First of all, the Church absolutely used its own member rolls and directories to galvanize the fight against gay marriage in California in 2008, so that statement had to go. Additionally, the focus on the character of candidates has been removed. What does that mean, exactly? That we should no longer worry about the character of the candidate, whether that person is honest and has integrity? If so, there are only so many ways to interpret the absence of this counsel:
- Politicians are all garbage. Perhaps in the Church’s “official” opinion (or at least that of the then First Presidency), both candidates in 2016 lacked integrity and honesty, and therefore, it was not possible to choose anyone who possessed these qualities.  Or perhaps this extended beyond POTUS to all politicians, a general belief that political candidates with moral fiber were increasingly unlikely.
- They wanted to appear neutral. The Church maintaining counsel to members to vote for the candidate with integrity could sound like an anti-Trump endorsement as he had a fairly well established reputation as someone with a flexible attitude toward morals and honesty in the runup to the 2016 election, and even more now.
- They favored Trump. Removing the qualifiers of “honesty” or “integrity” or other moral traits in the Church’s statement on neutrality gives Trump-supporting voters license to overlook their scruples to vote for a candidate who would have been disqualified by the previously more character-driven statement. This might have been all the conservative SCOTUS voting Mormons needed to hold their nose and pull the red lever again.
Somehow I missed this change in the 2016 election, perhaps just zoning out on auto-pilot when the political neutrality statement was read at Church for the zillionth time in my life. Let’s take a look at the 2020 statement:
Political Participation, Voting, and the Political Neutrality of the Church
Citizens of the United States have the privilege and duty of electing office holders and influencing public policy. Participation in the political process affects their communities and nation today and in the future. We urge Latter-day Saints to be active citizens by registering, exercising their right to vote, and engaging in civic affairs.
We also urge you to spend the time needed to become informed about the issues and candidates you will be considering. Along with the options available to you through the Internet, debates, and other sources, the Church occasionally posts information about particular moral issues on which it has taken a position at www.Newsroom.ChurchofJesusChrist.org.
Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties, and members should seek candidates who best embody those principles.
While the Church affirms its institutional neutrality regarding political parties and candidates, individual members should participate in the political process. Please strive to live the gospel in your own life by demonstrating Christlike love and civility in political discourse.
Russell M. Nelsonhttps://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/first-presidency-letter-united-states-election-2020
Dallin H. Oaks
Henry B. Eyring
Little has changed between 2016 and 2020, except an interesting shift away from global perspectives: “As citizens we” becomes “Citizens of the United States.” It’s an interesting possible dig at non-democratic nations, and a reversal of the trend toward presenting messages that apply to all the countries the Church is in and towards focusing just on the US, in a Church that is often rightly accused of being Ameri-centric (and Utah-centric). This change also shifts the language from “we” and “our” to a passive voice. In the revised statement, US (specifically) citizens affect “their” communities and nation, not “our” communities and nation.
The other big change is the addition of this statement to the end: “Please strive to live the gospel in your own life by demonstrating Christlike love and civility in political discourse.” Clearly this is becoming an important caution, particularly after a very divisive four-year term rife with insults, disinformation, foreign interference, and increasing polarization on both sides, where each party only seems to exist to combat the other and working across the aisle is no longer considered a virtue. Polling shows that more people hate the other party than like their own. From a 2016 poll:
More than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party. Among those highly engaged in politics – those who say they vote regularly and either volunteer for or donate to campaigns – fully 70% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party.https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2016/06/22/partisanship-and-political-animosity-in-2016/
- Why do you think the Church quit focusing on assessing the moral character of candidates?
- Were you surprised by any of these changes?
- Do you consider the Church to be plausible in claiming political neutrality? Has your answer changed over time?
 While I didn’t feel this way, and many voters did not, the only voters the Church knows are conservative white males, and on the whole, conservative white males hated Hillary and also hated Trump, but probably a little less. According to one article (and this accords with most of what I hear from five-thirty-eight):
Trump won in 2016 for five reasons.
People hated Hillary more than Trump
Trump was an unknown risk that swing voters were willing to take a chance on
Hillary ran a very poor campaign
A fantastic campaign slogan: Make America Great Again
At the last minute, Comey rescued trump with an attack on Hillary and her email server.
Points 1-4 got Trump into the ballpark. It still took Point 5 to cross the finish line.https://www.thestreet.com/mishtalk/politics/understanding-political-polls-is-the-gop-underweighted
 A tiny little voice in the back of my head whispers that maybe this statement has been modified to seem more consistent with the 2020 statement and to make it appear that nothing’s changed. Like a person caught in a time-travel loop, I can only be gaslit so many times before my brain starts catching on. “These aren’t the droids you are looking for. All is well in Zion.”
2014 statement seems to be an intermediate. Source: https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/multimedia/file/pdf-first-presidency-letter-october-9-2014
As citizens we have the privilege and duty of electing office holders and influencing public policy. Participation in the political process affects our communities and nation today and in the future. We urge Latter-day Saints to be active citizens by registering and then regularly exercising their right to vote.
We also urge you to spend the time needed to become informed about the issues and candidates you will be considering as you vote. Along with the options available to you through the Internet, debates, and other sources, the Church occasionally posts information about particular moral issues on which it has taken a position at http://www.MormonNewsroom.org.
Latter-day Saints as citizens are to seek out and then uphold leaders who will act with integrity and are wise, good, and honest. Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties and candidates.
While the Church affirms its institutional neutrality regarding political parties and candidates, members should fully participate in the political process. The Church also affirms its constitutional right of expression on political and social issues.
Also interesting to me is that the general handbook 38.8.34 “Political and Civic Activity” mentions voting for leaders that are wise, good, and honest (just listed in a different order), but that point has been omitted from the sacrament meeting letter starting in 2016.
As citizens, Church members are encouraged to participate in political and governmental affairs, including involvement in the political party of their choice. Members are also urged to be actively engaged in worthy causes to improve their communities and make them wholesome places in which to live and rear families.
In accordance with the laws of their respective governments, members are encouraged to register to vote, to study issues and candidates carefully, and to vote for individuals whom they believe will act with integrity and sound judgment. Latter-day Saints have a special obligation to seek out, vote for, and uphold leaders who are honest, good, and wise (see Doctrine and Covenants 98:10).
Adding to this, please also look at the history and text of the First Presidency Letter Encouraging Political Participation, Voting in US. This is the letter read over the pulpit in the US every year. Since 1976, the letter has included a direct and clear statement encouraging members to seek out leaders of good character. From 2000 to 2016, the letter included the following statement: “Latter-day Saints as citizens are to seek out and then uphold leaders who will act with integrity and are wise, good, and honest.” Strangely, in 2016, on the eve of the election with Donald Trump, that sentence was removed.
The counsel to vote for candidates with integrity wasn’t really removed, it was just changed. It now reads:
“Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties, and members should seek candidates who best embody those principles.”
Maybe I’m just reading this differently than you, but to me the counsel to vote for candidates who best embody gospel principles includes integrity as well as a host of other virtues not specifically mentioned in the older statement. To me this is basically saying, “No candidate is perfect but please vote for the one that is more Christ-like than the others.” Not exactly saying to vote for the lessor of two evils but pretty close.
It’s nice the Church puts out these statements and at least formally endorses neutrality. I wish the general membership would take the hint and adopt the same neutral position in church discussions on Sunday. Likewise, the “Christlike love and civility in political discourse” counsel seems to be largely ignored by the membership.
Great post! Interesting changes over 20 years. I had a lot of friends who 4 years ago described how horrible and corrupt Clinton was as a major reason to vote for trump.I did not buy that then and don’t buy it now. Just yesterday, trump was bragging in a super spreader rally how he was doing so well in Utah.Character probably did not really matter 20 years ago but at least there was lip service to the idea. People can justify reasons to do anything especially if religion is involved. They will vote for a person based on his approach to abortion on the idea they are pro life and yet almost every other policy the republican party is anti life based on what legislation they are interested in supporting.Even the anti ask approach by republican leadership has killed so many people and continues to do so. So much for the pro-life party. I am not saying the Democratic party is perfect but there is no equivalence at this point.
Obviously, the statement in scripture about choosing honest, good, and wise men would eliminate Trump. The Brethren, who are largely Republican, couldn’t do that, so the statement had to go.
Am I the only one here who wishes that the Church (i.e., the Brethren) would make absolutely no statement at all about any political issue ever? Maybe I’m naïve or missing something, but just what does the Gospel of Jesus Christ have to do with medical marihuana, gay marriage, or any other issue the Church still likes to talk about publicly.
I know, I know: everyone else has an opinion, why shouldn’t the Church? And, the Church only speaks on “moral” issues, not political issues per se.
I used to be the type of member who looked for signals from the Church on everything. But after their “we disavow theories from the past” argument, I’m left with the idea that they should just stay out of any issue not directly related to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
It should be noted that Utah recently eliminated the straight-party ballot option (where filling in the bubble next to the D or R at the top of the ballot automatically casts a vote for every candidate of that party), and this will be the first election in generations for Utah voters not to have that voting option. I say good riddance, because straight-party voting breeds intellectual laziness, general voter apathy and a culture of “party loyalty above all else”–precisely the things that put blowhards like Mike Lee into office and have made Utah a solid one-party state for so many years. Now, Utah voters will have to carefully review and consider every candidate on the ballot rather than cast an expedient blanket-vote for one party or the other.
Perhaps the new statement is aimed primarily at Utah voters who are faced with the prospect of actually having to think about how they vote for the first time.
DB. I agree that is certainly one possible reading. However, it is worth noting that the first half of that sentence had been in the letter all along, so they really just added the dependent clause “, and members should seek candidates who best embody those principles” when they decided to delete the explicit instruction to “to seek out and then uphold leaders who will act with integrity and are wise, good, and honest.”
It does raise the question as to why the Church, after 40+ years of always including a statement to choose leaders of integrity and honesty and wisdom and goodness (or slight variations of each of these) while also noting that both parties embody gospel principles, decided to delete that specific and clear instruction on the eve of an election when the candidate of the party that the majority of the Church historically supports was almost objectively neither wise, good, honest nor a man of integrity.
Perhaps it was deleted because saying choose a candidate who is wise, good and honest could be viewed as a political statement against a certain candidate. Perhaps they didn’t want to people to raise division in the ranks when some members could clearly point to these standards (integrity, goodness, wisdom and honesty) as being important to the Church. Perhaps by moving to a generic “gospel principals” standard, it provided the Church and members who would support a certain candidate a way to pacify their conscience or feel justified that despite not being a man of integrity, or wise, or good or honest, there were larger gospel principles that allowed them to vote a certain way.
These scenarios may just confirm my biases, however. I am still, nearly 4 years into this, still trying to reconcile how one candidate can, in any sense, be seen to embody gospel principles. The lesser of two evils seems as great a false equivalency as I’ve ever heard. Regardless, the timing of the change is very interesting.
Possibly ,”Integrity, good, wise and honest” left out because those are not the ONLY gospel principles that matter? Maybe we should simply look for who best embodies “love of fellowman” instead? Who’s nice, civil and thinks of others not himself? That makes it crystal clear to me.
They are still telling us to vote on principle, not policy.
Many voted for Trump because they heard Clinton was not honest or good –and the church learned that who meets the criteria is too subjective. So vote for the more Christlike person–not party or policy.
Great post! How did we all miss that? Thumbs up to your friend!
I am trying to understand what is wrong with choosing who to vote for by looking at the policies they (and the party) endorse. I can’t articulate it well yet (it’s something I’ve been thinking about, and I’m still working out all the moving pieces). It seems to me that the policy is the embodiment of the principle (or ideology). Observing what results from enacting the principles is telling.
Ideology can sound lofty, but when it results in the great income inequality and wealth disparity that we presently have, then it’s actually horrid.
Policies the Trump administration and the Republican Party uphold serve to decrease the democratic republic system that the Constitution endorses. They circumvent checks and balances. They diminish the idea of one person, one vote. They give power to the wealthy, who use it to become even more wealthy and powerful.
JonD’s reference to the 2014 statement confirms that the specific admonition “to seek out and then uphold leaders who will act with integrity and are wise, good, and honest” was removed for the 2016 statement. Yikes.
I don’t know how else to read it, except that the Church leaders mostly endorsed Trump secretly and didn’t want to ruin his chances with a statement that sounded like they didn’t. The other thing I’ve been concerned about over the last 4 years is just how much the Church is run like the GOP, and how much the Church’s aims align with GOP aims. It feels like we’ve been highjacked by the Evangelicals, and now we are carrying their water. I completely disagree with these values and priorities. They are not the gospel I know.
I don’t have answers to your questions, this just felt like a gut-punch seeing the facts laid out. I get sick- physically sick trying to guess why those changes were made. The obvious answer is just too horrifying to face. I can’t even.
Mortimer, thank you, my friend. I feel the same.
I believe the main issue right now that would keep Church leaders supporting the Republican Party in this day and age is religious freedom. That has been their pet issue for several years.
I would like to know specifically what they fear?
Churches have long been allowed to choose their own leaders and dogma—such as all male clergy. They aren’t required to conform to equal rights laws. I don’t see that changing no matter which party is in power. No party is advocating for that.
But maybe there are other concerns where organized religion might be concerned about?
If so, it would be nice if they would speak up about it.
All I know is that my ability to worship has not changed.
I agree with the LDS position on abortion—that it can be an option in cases of rape, incest, maternal life/ health issues and severe fetal abnormalities. I just have a different view on how society can move toward that. Instead of govt, legislating what/ when/how Drs. provide medical care for women, we can educate, support reliable and affordable means of birth control, support mothers who have to work with affordable childcare, support economically struggling families support adoption services, etc etc
The issue is unplanned pregnancies.
Men should also be held responsible for their actions, rather than blaming and seeking to control women’s medical care.
I do appreciate that the Church regularly reminds members to vote and be politically involved. JWs certainly don’t do that.
Where I grew up (far outside of Utah) I had several friends who’s parents refused to register to vote so they wouldn’t get called for jury duty. And there was some general indifference to political issues. By contrast, the Mormons in my community, despite being a small minority, were some of the most politically active people in town. In the weeks leading up to each major election, someone from the ward would host a non-partisan “voting party” where the adults would get together to engage in spirited discussions of the candidates and issues and how they affected our community. They went to city council meetings, they kept in touch with their representatives, and one guy from my ward ran for a school board seat and won, which was a big deal in a town dominated by middle class Catholics on one side and Evangelicals on the other. Of course, these were the pre-Prop 8 days, back when the Church itself knew well enough to stay out of non-Utah politics.
Nonetheless, I find it odd that the Church continues to issue neutrality statements like these that say “good ideas can be found in all political parties” and such, yet Utah is one of the most consistently one-sided voting blocs in the nation. Maybe its part of the “unwritten order of things” that Utah Mormons are clued into more than the rest of us–“you are free to vote for whomever you choose (but only the truly righteous among us vote republican)”.
I assume but don’t really know if a similar statement of political neutrality is issued by the church in other countries. Can someone confirm if this happens and if so have those statements also changed?
I suspect that most of the members missed any changes to the “neutrality” letter. So I doubt that the changes will have much affect. However, on the high profile issues (like marijuana, LGBTQ+, abortion, ERA, euthanasia, etc.) the leadership’s positions are closer to the Republican party. Only on immigration and refugees are they closer to the Democrat position. Additionally, most of the Q15 are registered Republicans. I think these weigh more on the membership than the “neutrality” letter. It is comparatively easy for members to hold their nose and vote for Trump. At least I hope the Trump supporters are holding their noses. Lee’s comments and actions are unconscionable. Hopefully his bishop will council with him. Haha.
If it quacks like a duck….
The Church suggests that we use the internet to do political research but not use the internet to do religious research.
I live in a European country, and the Church issues no political statements here. But local leaders encourage members to participate in elections.
William Ellery Channing, can you provide an example of when the Church has suggested that we not use the internet to do religious research?