Donald Trump has promised to get rid of the Johnson Amendment. This law prohibits church leaders from endorsing or opposing political candidates from the pulpit if the churches want to maintain their tax-exempt status. (It also applies to non-religious non-profits, but it’s the application to churches I’m interested in.)
I have no idea how difficult it might be for Trump to actually get this done. What I’m curious about is what General Authorities would do if he did. They clearly pay close attention to American politics, so I’m sure they would immediately see the implications for them and for local leaders in American wards and branches. How would they respond? I can imagine a few scenarios:
- They might decide not to take advantage of the opportunity to endorse or oppose candidates, reaffirm the Church’s stance of being politically neutral, and set a norm (or more likely a rule in the Handbook) that prohibits local leaders from endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit even though the legal restriction is gone.
- They might do the opposite and seize the opportunity to jump into American politics with both feet. A starting point for thinking about what this might look like is how the Church supported the Prop 8 campaign in California. Church meetings would sometimes be turned into canvassing planning meetings. People would get callings to coordinate work on phone banks. Bishops would sometimes use members’ tithing information as a basis for asking them for contributions to campaigns. And then of course there would be the whole new level of involvement from the general level. We could get letters from the First Presidency, Ensign articles, and Conference Talks praising particular candidates. It almost goes without saying, but it’s clear that 100% of this energy would be directed at support for Republican candidates. It’s a rare General Authority who comes from the other side of the aisle, and it’s pretty clear that at the top of Church leadership, it’s taken as a given that the Republican party is the more righteous one to support.
- They might take a page from the usual letter encouraging members to be involved in politics and issue a directive to local leaders to campaign or not as they saw fit for good candidates in their areas. This might lead to dramatic differences by location: leaders in the Bay Area might campaign for Democrats and leaders in most of Utah might campaign for Republicans, for example.
- They might do nothing. In effect, this might lead to the same outcome as the previous option, as local leaders would likely be aware of this seismic change in the relationship between churches and political candidates, and hearing no direction from Salt Lake, decide on their own to jump into the fray. I can see how this movement from the bottom might eventually force General Authorities to make up their minds on a response and decide which of the other three options they would prefer.
If I were ordering these alternatives from most to least likely, I would put them in the same order that I have them here. I think it’s most likely that GAs would prefer to continue to stay out of campaigns for individual candidates, as much as they might enjoy having the option to jump in on particular issues. There’s also a lot to be said for simple inertia. The Johnson Amendment was passed in 1954, which is before any current Q15 member had even been called. GAs are probably at least somewhat comfortable with the current arrangement.
I think #2 is next most likely because the Church is such a hierarchical organization that if the GAs decided that they did want to get involved, I don’t think they would want to leave involvement up to the whims of local leaders. Like I said, some local leaders might campaign for Democrats, and I don’t think most GAs would like that. Similarly, I think #3 is more likely than #4 because even if they were going to leave things up to local leaders, I think GAs are more likely to issue a directive than to just let it happen.
You can probably guess this, but I would strongly prefer that GAs choose option #1. I hear enough Republican talking points at church as it is. I really don’t want to hear endorsements of candidates too. I also think that anything but #1, but especially #2, would play really badly outside the United States. There’s already lots of stuff that comes from Salt Lake that sounds unaware of the existence of the Church outside the US. If we had talks in Conference that focused on supporting or opposing US political candidates, this problem would only be exacerbated.
Which way do you think GAs would go if the Johnson Amendment were to be overturned? Or what other possible alternatives have I missed?