Years ago, when I worked at the LDS (Mormon) church’s Church Office Building in Salt Lake City, I was often amused by a colleague who expressed extremist political views. He would talk about government conspiracies, the United Nations, and black helicopters, and how he was stockpiling food and guns to protect his family against the coming collapse of the United States (you know, when the Constitution would “hang by a thread”). All the while he insisted that the LDS church endorsed his views, although he understood that they couldn’t be too explicit publicly, as they needed to be publicly “neutral.”
At the time I wondered what would happen if at some point the church said or did something that ran counter to this man’s political beliefs. I suspected that, rather than try to adjust his thinking to stay in line with the church, he would likely consider the church to be in apostasy and would choose his political beliefs over loyalty to the church. I’ve known a few fanatics who have made such a choice, one of whom started his own “church” (membership: 2) and two brothers who took weapons to Temple Square to rescue Ezra Taft Benson, who they believed was being held captive in his apartment by those who wanted to silence him politically (needless to say, these two guys spent time in federal prison).
Boyd K. Packer discussed the choice that church members have to make sometimes between their personal beliefs and the church’s teachings. “You need to decide now which way you face…. Perhaps too many of us are strong advocates of our own specialized work or are such strong protectors of our own turf that we face the wrong way — maybe just sideways…. Unwittingly we may turn about and face the wrong way. Then the channels of revelation are reversed. Let me say that again. Then the channels of revelation are reversed. In our efforts to comfort them, we lose our bearings and leave that segment of the line to which we are assigned unprotected…. We face invasions of the intensity and seriousness that we have not faced before. There is the need now to be united with everyone facing the same way. Then the sunlight of truth, coming over our shoulders, will mark the path ahead. If we perchance turn the wrong way, we will shade our eyes from that light and we will fail in our ministries.”
In the last couple of months we’ve seen some members “facing the wrong way,” on a somewhat larger scale, as the church has taken a position on immigration legislation that conflicts with the conservative political beliefs of many of its members. Some background is probably in order.
In November 2010 representatives of business, political, community, and religious groups signed the Utah Compact , a “declaration of five principles to guide Utah’s immigration discussion.” The LDS church did not sign the compact, but on the day the compact was signed, the church released a statement of support for the compact: “The Church regards the declaration of the Utah Compact as a responsible approach to the urgent challenge of immigration reform. It is consistent with important principles for which we stand.”
During the legislative session, the church quietly lobbied lawmakers in support of House Bill 116 , which provides for undocumented workers to receive “guest worker” status in the state. As part of the lobbying effort, legislators were given copies of a Deseret News editorial, “A Model for the Nation,” which they were told reflects the church’s position on H.B. 116. Although the editorial does not mention the bill by name, it mentions its principal authors and sponsors, making clear what legislation the editorial is talking about. Some legislators have said that the church’s “lobbyists were heavily involved and explicitly lobbying legislators to support that specific bill.” Curt Bramble, author of H.B. 116, said that LDS lobbyists did “make it clear where the church stood on immigration.”
Rep. Brian King agrees that the church “made it pretty clear, in subtle and unsubtle ways, that it supported a more moderate approach to dealing with immigration that recognized the complexity of human lives. They weren’t telling legislators anything they hadn’t been conveying to the public, even before the session.”
On March 15, 2011, Governor Gary Herbert signed the legislation. Presiding Bishop H. David Burton, representing the LDS church, attended the signing, which apparently upset more than a few church members. In response, the church issued another press release, “A Principle-Based Approach to Immigration,” which praised the legislation as a ” responsible approach to a very complicated issue” and expressed “support for the diligent efforts of lawmakers in this area.”
This past weekend, Paul Rolly reports that the Salt Lake County Republican Party convention, which is overwhelmingly LDS, passed a “resolution rejecting the legislation allowing for a guest-worker program and asking for it be overturned.” Rolly also mentions a growing movement “in Republican circles in Salt Lake and Utah counties to ‘throw out the bums’ who voted for the bills.”
Told of the church’s support for the guest worker legislation, delegates were shocked and dismayed. “Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, expressed that frustration as a church member. He said on K-TALK’s ‘Red Meat Radio’ program Saturday that he was amazed at how many Republican delegates refused to accept the fact that the church favors a kinder and gentler approach to immigration reform.”
Some church members are not taking this lying down. Ron Mortensen, a church member and fellow of the Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-undocumented worker organization, has written a long piece decrying the church’s involvement in the legislation. He charges the church with dishonesty in its claims of neutrality on the legislation and in one case accuses the church of an “outright lie.” He suggests that the church has lost its bearings:
The press release reveals just how far the LDS Church has moved from its American roots. The statement acknowledges that the Church is dealing with complex issues around the world. Mercy (compassion) is emphasized over justice and the press release gives the distinct impression that the Church is moving to the left and closer to a social justice position.
To me this sounds suspiciously like something a fundamentalist Mormon might write. (Note the reference to Glenn Beck’s condemnation of “social justice” churches.) However, Mortensen is careful to couch his criticisms as asking the church to clarify its position, which he calls inconsistent.
“Mortensen said he hasn’t lost his faith over this issue, nor is he anti-Mormon. He sent a copy of his paper to LDS President Thomas S. Monson, who sent a note saying he doesn’t comment on publications, and four apostles, who never replied. Some Mormon opponents of the bills, Mortensen said, are withholding some contributions from the church because of its stance.”
But I think Brother Mortensen is going to find that he has crossed a line with the church. It is one thing to question the church’s position on specifics, but it is quite another thing to publicly chastise the church and its leaders for abandoning its teachings–at one point claiming the church is “separat[ing]” itself “from the 12th Article of Faith and the rule of law”–and supporting criminal activities.
It will be interesting to see where this debate goes from here.