Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Politics and the Church

Two recent events have caught my attention. While each of them deserves to be fully explored in separate posts, I am combining them to ask a bigger question about the Church’s involvement in shaping public policy.

This past year Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. has been pushing a tax reform package through the Utah State Legislature. One of the hotly contested measures was eliminating deductions for charitable giving. Lawmakers debated the provision for over five months without reaching a consensus. Then one day last September the LDS Church sent a representative to Utah’s Capitol Hill to read a statement before the committee working on this reform. The statement urged lawmakers to preserve the tax deductions for charitable donations. The result? Governor Huntsman immediately reigned in his expert witnesses, and lawmakers scrambled to clarify the meaning of the church statement. Weeks later, new reforms were proposed that preserved these deductions. In all fairness, many charitable organizations opposed this measure, not just the Church (including the Utah Homeowner’s Association, AARP, Utah Issues, the United Way, the Utah Symphony, the Utah Education Savings Plan, and others). However, only the Church’s opposition to this idea stopped it dead in its tracks. Over 80% of Utah’s lawmakers are LDS and many admitted that the Church’s statement put them in a difficult situation. (To read more about this, click here and here).

More recently (last week), Senator Bennett inserted a provision into the Department of Agriculture’s appropriation bill that “shields religious groups from a federal law against knowingly transporting, concealing, harboring or shielding an illegal immigrant.” Bennett’s motivation? Prodding by LDS Church officials to allow illegal immigrants to serve as missionaries. Rep. Tom Tancredo attacked this policy today as a loophole that allows religious groups to abet terrorists through “church activities.” (See this article.)

Now, I am less concerned with the substance of these policies. I am sure there are good reasons to support or oppose them. What is interesting to me is how the Church has become more assertive in politics and seems to be straying from their policy of at least appearing neutral. The Church must obviously walk a fine line between advocacy for protective policies and putting LDS lawmakers in an awkward, if not untenable situation. Add to this confusion the following quote from this speech by Elder Russell Nelson at a conference in Kiev, Ukraine:

Therefore, care must be exercised to assure that government remains truly neutral in matters of religion, not only in lip service and constitutional guarantees, but also in impartial application of the law. Individuals and institutions are naturally inclined to seek preference over others, but the state must not yield to those inclinations. To discriminate in favor of one religion, using nonreligious labels such as "culture" or "history," is to discriminate against others.

What are your thoughts on the matter?


At 11/16/2005 01:22:00 PM,

Okay, now that I've read Elder Nelson's quote again I'm not so sure it even applies. It seems like a stretch to say that the Church's involvement in the two cases I mentioned constitutes their seeking preference over other religious groups. My bad. I misread the quote the first time.

In any case, I still think there are some interesting issues to discuss here.

At 11/16/2005 03:10:00 PM,

With my nose tightly plugged, I must say that Tancredo seems to have a point. (If the lawyers among us uniformly disagree with that, I would be happy to reconsider)

But if Tancredo is right, it would seem irresponsible for the Church to take the position it has. This is not a matter of church vs. church, but church vs. public safety. Senator Bennett seems to be listening to the lawyers who tell him what he wants to hear.

At 11/16/2005 06:43:00 PM,

Because I can't answer your question, I will "tell stories", and let you decide how to interpret my narrative:

In Kathleen Flake's book on the Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Apostle-Senator Reed Smoot, protestants were concerned that Mormon government officers would use their positions to advance the Mormon cause. They were suspicious that Mormons would try to replicate (vis-a-vis Mr. Smoot) the "theocracy" that they said existed in Utah, on a national level. They were also afraid that Smoot's allegiances to Mormonism would taint his allegiances to the United States. Mr. Smoot was eventually confirmed in large part because he convinced "America" that he would not, in fact, use his position to advance Mormonism. Smoot called as witnesses his many non-Mormon and ex-Mormon friends (from days when he himself was what we might call "less active") to show that he didn't always do what the majority of Mormons do.

He tried to show that he could bifurcate his allegiances and serve the interests of all Americans while as a Senator, and serve his Mormon interests only while "just a Mormon".

After I read Flake's book, I read through Smoot's journals at the U of U library.

Ironically, Smoot regularly used his position to advance "the Mormon cause", often at the explicit behest of the Church (i.e. getting missionaries back into European countries, getting the Sec. of Treasury to allow production of a Mormon commemorative coin, etc etc etc). Smoot's efforts to help Mormonism were not efforts to help "all religions" in an equal manner, as perhaps Mr. Bennett may be able to claim.

Fast-forward to 2005, when Mitt Romney is preparing to vie for the Republican presidential nomination. When asked whether his religious allegiances would outweigh his obligations as a president, Mitt's spokesperson utilized Smoot's approach and quickly pointed out that Mitt does not march in "lockstep" with his Church. I think that this is probably the same strategy employed by most if not all Mormon politicans and other government officials, outside of Utah.

If Mitt were elected (which I doubt), would Mitt follow the rest of the Smoot pattern, i.e. use his influence to "advance the causes of Mormonism"? Should Mitt follow the Smoot pattern? I don't know. Smoot sure helped get the Church missionaries back into Europe; could Mitt get the LDS missionaries back into Venezuela (bad comparison, because all American missionaries are having difficulties in Venezuela whereas Mormon missionaries were specifically targeted in early 20th century Europe)

I guess Doug wants us to reconcile two of Christ's possibly conflicting teachings:

1) Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's aka, separate Church/State in some manner, and...

2) seek first the kingdom of God, aka prioritize heavenly mandates above earthly (shall we say secular?) ones...


At 11/16/2005 06:46:00 PM,

sorry that comment was both long and unhelpful. let me add to my long comment with another one.

i think that what Bennett did will be a great help specifically to Mormons. While working at Church HQ, with the missionary dept on some software, I remember the headaches that this "illegal immigrants as missionaries" problem caused. so from a pragmatic perspective, i say hurrah. but once i take a step back and look at the larger implications of such an ambiguous church/state relationship, it leaves me a little more restless.

At 11/18/2005 12:04:00 PM,

I'm inclined to think that lawmakers can fight for whatever policy they want. What troubles me is when they are pressured (publicly or privately) by the Church. If Bennett is really worried about illegals, then he should fight for it. If Church leaders called to convince him, that worries me.

Obviously this puts the Church in a difficult position; they have needs and rights and under the tax code they are just like any other charitable organization. They have the right to lobby and it makes sense that they use Utah lawmakers since the headquarters are in Utah.

However, there is something that still makes me uncomfortable with the situation, probably because of the statements made by members of the Utah State legislature who felt like they were put in an uncompromising position by the Church in terms of the flat tax measure. Some LDS lawmakers felt that they couldn't really vote for the policy they personally agreed with most. A vote for the proposal was now a vote against the Church.

I think the greater responsibility here is the Church's, not Smoot, Romney, Bennett, etc. Unfortunately I haven't come up with a viable solution. It seems silly to ask the Church to specifically lobby non-LDS members of Congress.

The purpose of this post was to solicit ideas about possible solutions, or even for somebody to help me accept that these scenarios aren't problematic in some way.

At 11/20/2005 06:29:00 PM,

I think that the Church's approach to the Huntsman tax reform package was probably an extreme exception to the "norm" of the last 2 or 3 decades of non-intervention in politics (especially Utah politics).

There is probably nothing normatively wrong with the Church, as an interested non-profit organization, making a position statement on proposed legislation. This is an example of appropriate free political speech on an issue that could directly impact the Church.

I would be more concerned if the Church, rather than stating its position, specifically contacted and targeted MORMON politicians and pressured them into taking a certain position. Such use of "spiritual capital" (can't think of a better phrase) to pressure politicians into supporting specific legislation doesn't seem too normatively different the use of ACTUAL CAPITAL (in the form of political contributions) by corporations or other interest groups, to influence politicians.

I am uncomfortable with the notion that monetary contributions constitute "speech." Such monetary contributions often limit speech by other parties without as much money by creating a de facto "gateway" to the "ears" of policymakers. Similarly, the Church has tremendous spiritual and cultural capital that it COULD employ to strongly influence the decisions of Mormon politicans.

Dont know if any of that makes sense...

At 11/22/2005 10:08:00 AM,

[T]hey have needs and rights and under the tax code they are just like any other charitable organization. They have the right to lobby...

Actually, under the tax code, charitable organizations do not have the right to lobby. If they are found to have engaged in lobbying, they can lose their tax-exempt status.

At 11/22/2005 11:44:00 AM,

Last Lemming - you're mostly right: the Church may lose its 501(c)(3) status as a result of too much lobbying. However, they maintain the right to lobby - at least a little. Here is the official position of the IRS:

"no organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying). A 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status." (IRS Source)

The IRS clarifies what type of behavior is unacceptable:

"An organization will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts, or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation." (same source as above)

While the Church has definitely engaged in these types of activities, it's probably a stretch to say that it constitutes a "substantial part" of the Church's overall activities, in which case their tax-exempt status does not seem to be in jeopardy.

However, your point is well-taken. Not only has the Church made some LDS lawmakers uncomfortable, but its behavior is discouraged by the IRS. This is interesting, since my original concern was with the Church's advocacy for a measure that would preserve the benefits of its tax status.

At 11/27/2005 03:13:00 AM,

Yeah, I'm not too concerned or bothered. If you actually think Bennett does ANYTHING because he feels its the right thing to do then keep dreaming idealist, its not exactly what politics is. It is by definition the study of power, and with big decisions like this one, or any decision for that matter there are many close and powerful people who are leaning on congressmen and senators to do their will. We don't live in a democracy, and I don't know why it was ever called one. The founding fathers were elitists who never did, or would have trusted the American public, its why we have a republic, so puppets like Bennett can come up with proposals, and we have no clue where, when, or from whom the idea originated. People still need to convince him about his decision, and all of that is easily remedied with a little golf here, hawaii trip there, and campaign financing everywhere...and whatnot. As long as everyones hands are in the cookie jar, I'm glad the church's hands are there as well...I wish they were there more often. The only thing the church needs to stay neurtal about is party affiliation, when it comes to individual laws, they can say whatever the heck they want to say(while not actually lobbying) a solution to the problem?? What problem, carry on carry on carry on. Why are people so worried about religions having a say about something? Everyone has something to say, or some invested interest. I would rather have the church push for legislation than the sleezy hands of the ACLU, the tar smothered teeth of Joe Camel, the best quarter proffits ever oil companies, guns mc gunsalot, and old Q oldies AARP.

At 11/28/2005 07:40:00 AM,

Even if Brett hadn't included his name, the quintessential "acerbic Brett" tone and the "guns mc gunsalot" would have given him away...

Anyway, my concern is not whether or not particular groups/interests express their positions and try and advocate those positions; my concern is HOW that advocacy takes place.

Brett showed one example of "improper advocacy": throwing money at campaigns/politicians. The problem with this approach is that, when the contributions successfully persuade the policymakers, the policymakers have less incentive to listen to those WITHOUT money.

The courts have held that "campaign contributions" (aka MONEY) constitute "free speech". Okay, let's continue their analogy (because it is only by analogy, it seems, that money=speech). If money is speech, then the money is yelling so loudly that NO OTHER FORMS OF SPEECH CAN BE HEARD. Those with money are the only groups that policymakers can/will hear.

Again, I think that there is potential for a SIMILAR type of abuse by the Church (I don't want to get bogged down with the technicalities of the IRS code for now...). "The Church" in Utah has a type of capital that money can't buy, in some respects. When the Church makes a statement, sometimes its exercise of free speech is SO LOUD that no other forms of speech can be heard. This is not to say (AT ALL) that the Church should not voice its positions.

I am saying that the Church should be (and in my opinion, has been) VERY CAREFUL about HOW it advocates its position, because Mormon policymakers may attach the phrase "THUS SAYETH THE LORD" at the end of a Church position-statement.

At 11/28/2005 03:07:00 PM,

Brett - I think America's system of government is often referred to as a democracy because of its democratic features: citizen petitions, ballot initiatives, and the fact that all of our lawmakers are democratically elected.

Brett wrote: Why are people so worried about religions having a say about something?

I'm not opposed to religions having a say; like I said earlier, they have a right to lobby. But I am concerned about HOW they exercise that right (ala Sheldon's idea of spiritual capital - something not covered in Buckley v. Valeo).

Sheldon wrote: I think that the Church's approach to the Huntsman tax reform package was probably an extreme exception to the "norm" of the last 2 or 3 decades of non-intervention in politics (especially Utah politics).

I actually think the opposite is true. Not only has the Church been quite active: think ERA in early 70s, California's proposition 22 in 1999, etc., but the Church's politicking has been especially public in Utah: before this tax reform, the Church battled Salt Lake City in the courts about its downtown "revitalization" plans for years.

In fact, the Church's politicking in Utah has often aggravated certain non-Utah Mormons. For instance, it seems highly unlikely that the Church would dispatch a spokesperson to Wisconsin if that state were contemplating a similar tax reform. (I could be wrong).

Maybe this begs a larger question: is the Church equally responsible to all of its members when making political decisions? (does this include the village-dwelling Russians in my misison and the tithe-stealing Italians in Chris'?)

At 11/29/2005 07:51:00 AM,

Please compare the Church's involvement in politics (Doug cites ERA, CA prop 22) in the last 2 or 3 decades to its involvement in politics from the inception of Utah through the 1960s (arguably, near complete control) The Church's involvement in politics dropped precipitously. In comparison to earlier years, the last 2 or 3 decades have been virtually barren of political meddling. Really, you have CA prop 22. And the Church's position statement on Huntsman's tax reform is a FAR CRY from its extent of involvement in say, the ERA or Utah politics (and national politics! Think Smoot!) prior to the 70s or 80s.

In short, yes, I think the Huntsman incident was the exception to the norm of the last 2.5 decades.

At 11/29/2005 11:04:00 AM,

Sheldon - you're probably right. If you compare the Church's most recent events against Utah's 109 year history (and especially the 49 years before that), it looks like its position on Utah's tax reform is an exception.

But now I'm wondering what's so important about tax reform (specifically in Utah) that caused the Church to stray from the norm? I'm probably reading too much into this whole thing - I'm not even a Utah resident (and admittedly don't know much about Utah's political history).

I like your idea of "spiritual capital." I personally think the Church could (and should) encourage its members qua individuals to vote for or against certain measures. But I'm somehow uncomfortable when the Church promotes its agenda to members qua lawmakers.

I'm sure others think this distinction is so subtle that I'm wasting my time blogging about it. Maybe they're right.

At 11/29/2005 06:32:00 PM,

I think it's a fascinating topic. Wish I had more time to research/think about it.




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