The big question for Latter-day Saints: what is religious and what is political?



Members differ on answers, complicating what positions their church can take on climate change, LGBTQ issues, abortion and more.

Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Professor of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

In June, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced it would take steps to “permanently reduce water usage” in its various buildings across the United States in response to the drought. which holds the American West in its grip.

The move received some applause. But the church’s relatively low-key approach to environmental issues has drawn frustration from some Latter-day Saints who want leaders of their faith to speak and act more forcefully in support of government environmental protection policies. . Some members say church leaders should make stronger statements about the environment because of the scriptural commandments to be good stewards of the earth. Other members say that environmental policy is not a religious issue and therefore the church should not intervene.

(NASA) Earth since the Apollo 10 mission in 1969. Many Latter-day Saints would like their church to speak out more forcefully on climate change, arguing that it models God’s decree to care for the planet.

Many of these believers seem to think that since the difference between religious and political matters is clear to them, it should also be clear to others. But it is obvious that this is not the case. Realizing that many people draw the lines between the two differently can help when we try to solve problems.

Of course, the same problem can and does arise on many issues beyond climate. Three years ago, the administration of Brigham Young University-Idaho took steps that seemed designed to steer students away from using Medicaid, perhaps out of fear that government programs like this were immoral. . On the other hand, some members argue that the use of the state to provide for the needs of the poor is eminently Christian. When the church has organized or lobbied to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage or LGBTQ rights, progressive Latter-day Saints have called on her to retire from politics. But church leaders insist these are “moral” issues, not political ones.

The question of what counts as “religious” and what counts as “political” is at the heart of all these debates, and the problem is that the difference is in the eye of the beholder. What seems obviously “religious” to one seems obviously “political” to another, and vice versa.

Many Latter-day Saints in the United States today believe that religion is primarily about personal behavior. As longtime Latter-day Saint Apostle Boyd K. Packer said, “True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behaviors. Studying the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior more quickly than studying 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 it, then, it seems obvious that large-scale issues like the climate or economic inequality lie downstream from personal moral commitments and are not the kind of topics a church should speak out on.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Apostle Boyd K. Packer speaks at General Conference in 2012. Packer once said that “studying the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior faster than a study of behavior will only improve behavior”.

These ways of thinking are the product of a long process of historical development—dating back at least to the 19th century—that is prevalent among many American religious people.

At the turn of the 20th century, Latter-day Saint leaders were reinventing their faith. Not only were they rooting out polygamy from the church, but they were also ending church-run projects in economic communalism and ending church-run political parties.

The federal government had cited all of these problems as justification for prosecuting and imprisoning the members. In response, Church leaders began to emphasize that membership did not require such dramatic social radicalism as that of the 19th century. Instead, leaders began to emphasize personal moral behavior. To be a good saint meant keeping the Word of Wisdom, keeping the law of chastity, honesty, obedience and decency.

The diaries of David O. McKay, president of the faith at the height of the black liberation movement in the 1950s and 1960s, show him translating this way of thinking about religion into his reaction to politics. McKay’s diaries express dismay and concern at the inequalities that black Americans face, but also great skepticism about the value of passing laws to rectify the situation. “The church takes no position in politics,” McKay insisted, and he believed her because he understood the difference between religion and politics. For him, the first concerned individual belief and practice; the latter concerned laws and social organization.

(Courtesy Utah State Historical Society) David O. McKay is seen the day he was ordained President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 9, 1951. McKay was suspicious of positions taken by the Church on political issues. problems.

The question at stake here is important, but for our purposes so is the way of thinking. McKay saw morality as something you do individually, not something groups do collectively, and therefore saw no need for laws on issues such as racial injustice.

McKay’s assumptions were those of his time. No one was more influential in American Christianity in the mid-twentieth century than Billy Graham, the Southern Baptist evangelist whose revival tours were among the top attractions in the United States for decades. Graham walked a tightrope through the difficult terrain of religious and racial politics during 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 Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. In doing so, he lent substantial credibility to King’s campaign for an integrated American society. At the same time, Graham also criticized the type of public demonstrations organized by King, fearing that they undermined social order. He urged political leaders in the South 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 cure it was not by passing laws, but rather by reforming individual hearts and minds through conversion to Christ. Here, Graham looks a lot like Boyd K. Packer.

(LM Otero | AP) Reverend Billy Graham speaks in Texas in 2002. Graham believed segregation was immoral, but he also believed the best way to cure it was not to pass laws, but rather to reform the individual hearts and minds.

Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints built political alliances around many issues – from abortion to same-sex marriage. But underlying it all is a common way of distinguishing between religion and politics that allows for overlap on some issues, but not all. These shared assumptions enabled the rise of the electoral alliance called the “religious right” that today wields great power in the United States.

There is a lesson here. A number of Latter-day Saint groups seek to address climate change. Many hope to harness the powerful moral language and organizational potential that the church offers. They could learn from a recent movement to link fasting to environmental stewardship, and not just insist that church members recognize the importance of the issue. Instead, they should find ways to expand what Latter-day Saints understand by “religion.”

Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Professor of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and author of “The Mormon People: The Creation of an American Faith” and “Christian: the politics of a word in America.”

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