Bishops won’t read neutrality statement typically given before elections, but neither will they back candidate
By Thomas Burr The Salt Lake Tribune
DES MOINES, Iowa – Before an election, LDS Church leaders have traditionally read a statement over the pulpit asserting the faith’s political neutrality while encouraging members to be active voters. But they won’t be doing so before any of the presidential primary contests featuring a prominent Mormon on the ballot.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says the statement is usually read before “elections” and not caucuses, such as those coming in Iowa in four days, even though a caucus is a form of election to choose a candidate. The statement, typically read by the ward bishop, simply states that the LDS Church does not back one candidate or party over another but that members should strive to be active civically.
“We usually only read the letter of political neutrality before elections,” church spokeswoman Kim Farah said last week. “We have never had one read over the pulpit before a caucus.”
The church hasn’t done so before other presidential primary contests in the past either.
In a stark contrast, many evangelical congregations may hear a message today from their pastors urging them to get out and vote, a move that could boost former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister who has sought the support of that voting sector.
“Pastors, we have a solemn duty to assure that our congregants are informed and thenparticipate in the vital act of civic ministry through the caucuses,” read an invitation from three Huckabee supporters for a conference call urging ministers to address their worshipers today. Huckabee is scheduled to speak at the Cornerstone Family Church.
But LDS faithful in Iowa – who number about 22,000, according to the church – attending their weekly religious meetings will not hear their ward bishop, nor another leader, reiterate that the church is not backing any candidate nor urging members to attend a caucus.
“It is clear to me that the LDS Church is trying very hard to keep their hands off, and certain evangelical groups are not,” says Jan Shipps, a prominent scholar on Mormonism and emeritus professor of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
It’s a sharp difference between the strategies of Huckabee and Romney, who are battling it out for first place in Iowa’s caucuses on Thursday.
Huckabee has pulled strong support from evangelical voters, a base Romney has hoped to tap as well.
The LDS Church has read its neutrality statement and urged members to vote in past elections, including in a Utah primary contest last year in which a larger turnout was credited with helping GOP Rep. Chris Cannon.
Quin Monson, the assistant director of the LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, says the church is likely erring on the side of caution by trying not to draw attention to itself. “Clearly, if the church wanted to mobilize its members to get in, it could,” Monson says. “But the backlash could be worse than the positive effect it could [have] on Romney.”
Romney’s Mormon religion – seen by some evangelical groups as heretical – has become a hurdle of sorts in the White House race despite pleas from the former Massachusetts governor that there shouldn’t be a religious test for office. Thursday’s results, coming from a state with a large evangelical population, could hint at whether Romney’s Mormonism is affecting his chances. Romney’s team is attempting to garner evangelical support as well today. Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice and head of Romney’s faith and values advisory committee, will address a congregation tonight in northeastern Iowa.