The big question for Latter-day Saints — What is religious and what is political?
Members differ on the answers, and that complicates stances their church may make on climate change, LGBTQ issues, abortion and more.
In June, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced it would take steps to “permanently reduce water use” at its various buildings across the United States in response to the drought holding the American West in its grip.
The move received some applause. But the church’s relatively low-key approach to environmental issues has attracted frustration from some Latter-day Saints who wish that their faith’s leaders would speak and act more forcefully in favor of government policies to protect the environment. Some members say church leaders should make more vigorous statements about the environment because of scriptural commands to be good stewards of the earth. Other members say that environmental policy isn’t a religious issue and so the church should not intervene.
Many of these believers seem to think that since the difference between religious and political issues is clear to them, it should also be obvious to others. But it is evident that is not the case. Realizing that many people lay the boundaries between the two differently can help as we try to solve problems.
Of course, the same problem can, and does, raise its head on many issues beyond climate. Three years ago, the administration at Brigham Young University-Idaho took steps that seemed designed to push students away from using Medicaid, perhaps out of worry that government programs like it were immoral. On the other hand, some members maintain that using the state to provide for the poor is eminently Christian. When the church has organized or lobbied in opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage or LGBTQ rights, progressive Latter-day Saints have called for it to get out of politics. But church leaders insist that these are “moral,” not political, issues.
The question of what counts as “religious” and what counts as “political” lies at the heart of all of these debates, and the problem is that the difference is in the eye of the beholder. What seems obviously “religious” to one person seems obviously “political” to the next, and vice versa.
Many Latter-day Saints in the United States today believe that religion is primarily concerned with personal behavior. As Boyd K. Packer, a longtime Latter-day Saint apostle, stated, “True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior.” For Packer, people’s lives are shaped by individual learning and individual decisions, and therefore the church should focus on individual behavior. If you believe this, it therefore seems obvious that large-scale issues like the climate or economic inequality lie downstream from personal moral commitments and aren’t the sort of topic on which a church should speak out.
These ways of thinking are the product of a long process of historical development — traceable to at least the 19th century — that are widespread among many American religious people.
At the turn of the 20th century, Latter-day Saint leaders were reinventing their faith. They were not only extricating polygamy from the church but also winding down church-run projects in economic communalism and ending church-run political parties.
The federal government had cited all of these issues as justification for the prosecution and imprisonment of members. In response, church leaders began to emphasize that membership did not require social radicalism as dramatic as that in the 19th century. Instead, leaders began to emphasize personal moral behavior. Being a good Saint meant keeping the Word of Wisdom, abiding by the law of chastity, honesty, obedience and decency.
The diaries of David O. McKay, the faith’s president throughout the height of the Black freedom movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, show him translating this way of conceiving of religion in his reaction to politics. McKay’s diaries express dismay and concern about the inequities Black Americans faced but also great skepticism about the value of passing laws to rectify the situation. “The church takes no stand whatever in politics,” McKay insisted, and he believed it as he understood the difference between religion and politics. For him, the former was about individual belief and practice; the latter was about laws and social organization.
The issue at stake here is important, but for our purposes equally so is the way of thinking. McKay perceived morality as something you do individually, not something groups do collectively, and thus saw no need for laws on issues like racial injustice.
McKay’s assumptions were those of his time. Nobody was more influential in American Christianity in the mid-20th century than Billy Graham, the Southern Baptist evangelist whose revival tours were among the premier attractions in the United States for decades. Graham walked a tightrope through the difficult terrain of religious and racial politics at the height of the Black freedom movement. Beginning in 1953, Graham began to insist that his revivals be racially integrated. He shared a pulpit with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In so doing, he lent his substantial credibility to King’s campaign for an integrated U.S. society. At the same time, Graham also criticized the sort of public protests King mounted, worrying they would undermine social order. He urged Southern political leaders to consider the immorality of segregation but wrote that “forced integration will never work.” Graham believed that segregation was immoral, but he also believed that the best way to heal it was not through passing laws, but rather through the reform of individual hearts and minds via conversion to Christ. Here Graham sounds much like Boyd K. Packer.
Later, in the 1970s and ‘80s, evangelicals and Latter-day Saints would build political alliances around many issues — from abortion to same-sex marriage. But underlying them all is a common way of distinguishing between religion and politics that allows overlap on some issues, but not all. These common assumptions have enabled the rise of the electoral alliance called the “religious right” that wields a great deal of power in the United States today.
There is a lesson here. A number of Latter-day Saint groups are seeking to combat climate change. Many hope to harness the powerful moral language and organizing potential the church offers. They might learn from a recent movement to link fasting to environmental stewardship, and not simply insist that church members recognize the importance of the issue. Instead, they should find ways to broaden what Latter-day Saints mean by “religion.”
Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith” and “Christian: The Politics of a Word in America.”