Who will GAs endorse if the Johnson Amendment is repealed?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

10 thoughts on “Who will GAs endorse if the Johnson Amendment is repealed?

  1. 1

    I think that in order to maintain any pretense of being a global Church they would have to stick with option 1.

  2. 2

    Well, the Johnson Amendment was sign in 1954. How did the Church handle politics before it existed? I would think that would be a lot gif all place to look for precedent on likely behavior.

  3. 3

    Grrr. That should be “logical” instead of “lot gif”. Where does autocorrect come up with this stuff?

  4. 4

    Great point, Marivene. I was wondering the same thing, but I wasn’t sure where to look, and I was kind of hoping that someone who knew might come by and just tell me. 🙂

  5. 5

    A combo of 1 and 3 is most likely, I think. There will probably still be a strict neutrality during Sacrament meeting and most other regular meetings.
    They will probably allow more political extra meetings like firesides, etc. I would love to hear the positive qualities of multiple local candidates discussed by people I know and respect. National political discussion can be found everywhere, hopefully this is discouraged.

  6. 6

    I think it would be 1. I can’t see 3 or 4, because there’s no way the Brethren would cede this to the locals without giving them direction. And I seriously doubt they would do 2, because they’re not stupid. Yes, the vast majority are conservative Republican, and they see the world through that lens. But not all American Mormons are conservative Republican, and while we’re talking about a minority it’s not nothing. I don’t believe the leaders would risk taking that kind of a haircut off the membership rolls if they became aggressive lobbyists for Republican candidates. Because I for one would be outta here in such an event, and I surely would not be alone.

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  9. 9

    #1 will be the official response, but over time, Johnson Ammendment “creep” will set in, especially if all other churches fall into it. We are nothing if not mainstream.

    GAs will keep local churches “neutral” while taking the prerogative themselves to send an increasing number of winks and nods to the members. They will also more confidently puppet actions disguised as neutral and unofficial LDS pushes (e.g. Prop 8), or celebrate the peaceful transition of power by sending the choir to praise a party and candidate, um, er, um, I mean be neutrally patriotic.

    This cycle Julie Beck and Robert? Oaks spoke and prayed at a Trump Rally, as retired GAs. Technically, they were independent citizens, no longer LDS spokespersons, but most of the church respected their GA clout and saw it as a wink and nod from Salt Lake. I think we will see more of the same.

    I also think we will see more strategically timed GA talks about conservative issues (e.g. Religious freedom, religious liberty, LGBT threats, man’s domain over the earth, pro-life theology, etc.) We hear these talks now, but there seems to be an invisible line, like an “unwritten order”, that political flavors aren’t served up too frequently or too overtly. We’re going to see that invisible line move as our tolerance increases.

    The members don’t like the pulpit being used for politics. If a local person, or even one of the GAs becomes a one-note Sally about politics, the saints begin to sour on that person. The saints are after all, conflict adverse. They would much rather hear a weepy testimony on the God of lost car keys. But, I think the amount of tolerance for poorly disguised sermons on political issues will increase over time. We’ll be like frogs being slowly boiled in a pot. I’m predicting this phenomenon will be symptomatic of the same type of change in the larger religious climate in the U.S.

    If we see a talk from one of the Q15 on their right to enter the political fray on moral issues, the dam will break. The invisible line will be inhilated.

  10. 10

    I agree with Mortimer. The official stance will be 1 or 4. After all, there is a long, painful history of the Church being persecuted for becoming too involved in politics and engaging in block voting. However, I think they will try to get away with as much influence in the political system, on the issues they believe to be important, as they think they can get away with. So I could see a lot of winks and nods, behind-the-scenes horse trading, etc., similar to what already happens, but more blatant. As long as they can maintain plausible deniability, they will do it, and most of the members will give them the benefit of the doubt.

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