|Sure, the Church is politically neutral and doesn’t endorse candidates. But does that mean the prophets have said nothing about who and what to vote for?
Guest post by Jelaire Richardson and Nathan Richardson
Imagine if someone asked you what kind of music you like to listen to or purchase, and which kind you avoid. You tell her your favorite genres and list a few of your favorite artists and songs. You also tell her which genres and singers you don’t like. When she asks you why you choose the way you do, you tell her, “Well, a big part is because of what the living prophets have taught about music and media.”
Your friend gets a disapproving look and says, “The Church maintains strict neutrality on music. It does not endorse or sanction individual bands, or record labels, or genres.”
You reply, “Well yeah, I’m not saying they’ve compiled a list of individual songs or artists that are approved or disapproved. But they’ve definitely given some specific advice on what to seek out, and warnings on what to watch out for.”
“I thought they just gave the general advice that the members should ‘choose artists they believe will most nearly carry out their ideas of good music.’ My ideas of good music are based on aesthetic qualities. How much it appeals to me. Concepts I learned in my music theory class. Nifty album art. Those are my criteria, since we haven’t really been given anything more specific than that.”
“But we have been.”
“Well, For the Strength of Youth says, ‘Do not listen to music that encourages immorality or glorifies violence through its lyrics, beat, or intensity. Do not listen to music that uses vulgar or offensive language or promotes evil practices.’ So I’m definitely not going to listen to someone like Marilyn Manson.”
“The Church does not micro-manage the members’ decisions on music. It’s wrong of you to give people the impression that the Church has official positions on individual musicians. It’s going to make people think Mormons are brainwashed.”
“I wasn’t saying anything like that. But we do have more than just vague directions. We have guidelines to help us choose wisely, and in some cases those guidelines are fairly specific.”
“I don’t think the Brethren would have advice one way or the other on whether I listened to, say, Marilyn Manson. In fact, I bet I could find general authority quotes that were in favor of his music. Besides, you’re never going to find musicians who don’t swear. They all do it. And any who don’t are probably so sappy or amateurish that they’d be terrible to listen to.”
* * *
Of course, in this story, the friend is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. While the Church might not have a detailed, specific position on individual people or groups, that doesn’t mean they’ve given no counsel on how to choose music. A wise, faithful Latter-day Saint will search out the prophets’ counsel and try to make his own criteria match the Brethren’s.
I’ve talked to many Latter-day Saints about who they support for elections, whether presidential, state, or local. Sometimes I’ll share statements from the prophets about what principles we should have in mind when voting. I have been surprised that some Latter-day Saints respond kind of like the friend in this story. They discourage the practice of applying the gospel to government and law. They might say, “The Church is politically neutral. It does not endorse candidates or parties or platforms.” That’s true, but I’ve been surprised to hear them misapply those facts and come to conclusions like, “The Church has no position on politics at all. The Brethren have individual opinions, but they have made no official statements on laws or government that we should feel bound to follow.” Conclusions like this are incorrect. While the Church is definitely politically neutral regarding individual people, parties, or platforms, it is not politically neutral on principles of government. In some cases, they have even endorsed or opposed specific bills by name. Modern prophets have given us all kinds of counsel on what criteria to consider when voting and being politically involved. If we are wise, we’ll search out the prophets’ counsel and try to make our voting criteria match the Brethren’s.
The purpose of this article is to share what the prophets have said we should consider when voting. It may or may not change who you vote for, but that’s not really my goal. Even if it doesn’t change who or what you support, I hope it helps you support them for the right reasons.
Describing your usual approach
I came up with a little “worksheet” to help learn what the prophets have taught about politics. I listed the reasons I have heard most frequently from Latter-day Saints for why they might support any given candidate. I also tried to read up on what the prophets have said on the subject. I learned a few things I hadn’t been aware of before. And even where I had been using the prophets’ criteria, I hadn’t always been very good about studying the candidates or proposed bills to examine how well they were meeting the criteria.
I invite you to use this chart to examine your thought process in the past. What have you considered when voting for a candidate? Go ahead and get some paper and a pencil (or print this chart out). No, really—go ahead. This exercise will be fun and hopefully helpful by the time you’re done. Read the chart then follow the instructions below it.
Rank the Issues. First, in the far left column, rank the most important to least important issues (1 = Most important, 7 = Least important) in the order that you personally have considered when looking at candidates to vote for. You can be honest with yourself. If you find yourself thinking, “Oops, I should have considered that, but I haven’t yet,” then don’t be afraid to honestly reflect that in your ranking. Remember, these rankings are based on what you have considered up until you had read this article. You’ll have a chance to later re-rank things based on if you’ve changed your mind after reading this article.
Rate Your Familiarity. Now that you’ve ranked the qualities that you have considered in the past for candidates, go ahead and rate on a scale of 1 to 5 how well-informed you are on your candidate’s performance in each area (1 = Very informed, 5 = Not informed). You are not rating the candidate’s performance, but rather your knowledge of his performance. For example, I might have ranked Constitutionality as a “1” under the “Priority” column, and my candidate may be perfectly Constitutional, but I may not have studied his voting record close enough to really be sure of that. In that case, I would rate my familiarity with his Constitutionality with a 4 or 5.
What have the Brethren said?
Now that you’ve ranked the issues and rated your knowledge, let’s take a look at what perhaps some of the top-ranked qualities should be if we take to heart what Church leaders have counseled us to consider when we examine candidates and their policies. Check to see how your priority ranking numbers compare. Are your highest ranked ones among the highest ranking ones the Brethren have counseled to consider? Here are three qualities Church leaders have counseled us to look for in a candidate (not necessarily ordered by priority). There may be others, but these are the three criteria that I have encountered repeatedly in my personal study.
A. Morals: Is the candidate honest, good, and wise?
“Members are encouraged to register to vote, to study issues and candidates carefully, and to vote for individuals whom they believe will act with integrity and sound judgment. Latter-day Saints have a special obligation to seek out, vote for, and uphold leaders who are honest, good, and wise (see D&C 98:10).” (Handbook 2: Administering the Church, 21.1.29, “Political and Civic Activity“)
“Note the qualities that the Lord demands in those who are to represent us. They must be good, wise, and honest. Some leaders may be honest and good but unwise in legislation they choose to support. Others may possess wisdom but be dishonest and unvirtuous. We must be concerted in our desires and efforts to see men and women represent us who possess all three of these qualities.” (President Ezra Taft Benson, “The Constitution—A Heavenly Banner,” BYU devotional, 16 Sep 1986)
Of course, this immediately raises the question of how to gauge whether someone is “good.” We’re not their bishop, and we’re not the eternal Judge of individuals’ souls. But “while it is true that you should not condemn others or judge them unrighteously, you will need to make judgments of ideas, situations, and people throughout your life. The Lord has given many commandments that you cannot keep without making judgments” (True to the Faith, “Judging Others“), and one of those is the commandment to make at least a basic assessment of a candidate’s morality.
Perhaps one place to start is by listening to character witnesses of friends and business associates who know the candidate well. Exaggeration and spin are common, but if multiple first-hand accounts keep surfacing of a candidate’s right or wrong habits, they might be worth considering. Or you might look at how they keep the most important promises of their lives, such as their wedding vows. When President Gordon B. Hinckley was asked about a politician’s extramarital sex scandal, he said, “The position of the President of the United States of America carries with it a tremendous trust. … George Washington [said] he hoped that ‘the foundations of our national polity will be laid in … private morality … which can … command the respect of the world.’ … Is it asking too much of our public servants … to give moral leadership to the world?” (Larry King interview, aired 8 Sep 1998)
As President Benson noted, not every leader who is honest and good is necessarily wise. How do we know if a candidate is wise? The other two qualities below might answer that question.
B. Prophetic counsel: Is the candidate aligned with positions the Brethren have taken?
“Today I would like to propose … questions which every Latter-day Saint might well ask as he attempts to appraise any program, policy, or idea promoted by any would-be political leader. … I think they will provide a safeguard in electing to office men who will meet the requirements which the Lord has set forth in the revelations. … Is [the program, policy, or idea] right as measured by the counsel of the living oracles of God? It is my conviction, my brethren and sisters, that these living oracles are not only authorized, but are obligated to give counsel to this people on any subject which is vital to the welfare of this people and the upbuilding of the kingdom of God.” (Elder Ezra Taft Benson, “Our Duty as Citizens,” general conference, October 1954)
I’ve frequently heard some Latter-day Saints say, “We shouldn’t use quotes from the Brethren to determine our political choices.” Not only is that untrue, but we are obliged to assess whether candidates and policies measure up to what prophets have advised, according to Elder Benson’s counsel in general conference. Now, it’s a different matter to discern the best way to interpret or apply a given prophetic statement to a given political matter. That’s certainly up for discussion among Latter-day Saints. But I don’t see how there could be any question as to whether prophetic statements should be among the determining factors. Of course they should. As long as the discussion is civil and informed, we should welcome the insertion of prophetic counsel.
How informed are you on the Brethren’s counsel? (Personally, I’ve frequently fallen dismally short.) Can you, off the top of your head, give specific reasons from the Brethren about why you would or wouldn’t support a given policy? What about words of ancient prophets on principles of government or warfare? I think the best place to start would be general conference talks (for 1971–present, see lds.org; for 1942–1970, go to scriptures.byu.edu and click “General Conference” just under the title). And heck, while we’re trying to immerse ourselves in this, the Brethren have also written much “unofficial” literature on government. Since we often go quoting Gandhi or Mother Teresa about government, shouldn’t we also at least look at the opinions and writings of inspired prophets, seers, and revelators—even when they’re not official stances of the Church? That way, we can use prayer and discernment to help us make our decisions based on the knowledge we’ve acquired by filling our minds with all this great counsel. One helpful source I’ve found it LDSFreedomPortal.net. It is a very thorough list of books, talks, and other material written by prophets and apostles on the topic of government (much of it hyperlinked to read online). This is a great place to start, just to get a feel for what’s out there.
C. Constitutionality: Does the candidate follow the Constitution?
Canonized scripture specifies that the “Constitution … I have suffered to be established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles” (D&C 101:77). There are many, many statements along these same lines by prophets and apostles, so here are just two:
“Next to being one in worshipping God, there is nothing in this world upon which this Church should be more united than in upholding and defending the Constitution of the United States!” (President David O. McKay, general conference, October 1939).
“Every Latter-day Saint might well ask as he attempts to appraise any program, policy, or idea promoted by any would-be political leader, … Is it right as measured by the Constitution of this land and the glorious principles embodied in that Constitution? Now that suggests that we must read and study the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights, that we might know what principles are embodied therein.” (Elder Ezra Taft Benson, “Our Duty as Citizens,” general conference, October 1954).
This is perhaps the most daunting implication of following the Brethren’s counsel, because it means lots of reading, research, and educating oneself. I’ve dragged my feet in the past because it seemed like such an intimidating task with no clear way to start and no end in sight. Also, while the gospel is fairly clear-cut on the basic issues (for example, don’t have sex outside of marriage. Period.), when it comes to law and the Constitution, intelligent and sincere people often seem to come to vastly different conclusions.
Still, where the Lord commands, he blesses the smallest initial efforts, which is where I am currently. You can start by reading the Constitution itself. It’s definitely more formal and involved than the average news article, but it’s not really that long. You might consider starting with a simplified Constitution. Others more informed than myself (which means most people) can probably recommend other good places to start your personal Constitutional education.
(Note: this criterion would logically apply mainly when voting about things at the federal level. State and local candidates should of course abide by state constitutions and municipal charters, but that isn’t as much of a focus of the Brethren, at least from what I’ve read. The federal Constitution seems to carry a unique doctrinal prominence. Of course, it’s also important for state leaders to understand the federal Constitution in order to understand how it bears on their own responsibilities. As for Latter-day Saints in other countries, this counsel may apply less or in different ways, as the Spirit dictates, I suppose.)
What have the Brethren not said?
Interestingly, as I’ve read up on the Brethren’s counsel on what criteria to use when selecting candidates or laws, I have never heard them say we should vote for someone because he or she
- Has the best leadership or business experience to (for example) turn the economy around
- Has the best chance of beating another candidate
- Will have a good impact publicity-wise on the Church worldwide
- Is a member of the LDS church
I don’t think any of these are necessarily bad reasons (although the Church-membership criterion has the potential of being short-sighted and quasi-Gadianton-like or cronyistic). It’s very desirable to have a leader with experience or influence. But all these reasons should take a back seat to the more important criteria laid out by the Brethren. In other words, the list above should be secondary considerations; our primary considerations should be those which the prophets give: personal morality, wisdom in following prophetic counsel, and wisdom in following the Constitution.
Unfortunately, when I’ve heard Latter-day Saints explain why they were voting for a candidate, they frequently don’t mention the primary considerations that the Brethren have given. I would hope that, after encountering the statements above and the many others which could be shown, they would give greater priority to the primary considerations than to the nice-but-not-crucial secondary considerations. From what I can tell, it seems like if the candidates we support do not fit the primary criteria, then the secondary criteria should not be reason enough for us to vote for that person. It seems safe to say that the secondary criteria should not override primary ones.
Re-evaluating your approach
Now that you’ve seen some of the prophetic counsel that we’ve been given regarding selecting candidates and positions, I suggest going back to the ranking chart and seeing if your order of priorities has changed. And if you feel like you have a clearer vision of what the Lord expects of us with civic involvement, I also suggest taking the steps necessary to educate yourself and improve your self-rating of how familiar you are with any given candidate or proposed law. Don’t expect to learn all there is to know overnight, but neither expect that we can put off our informed involvement forever. The First Presidency has been very clear that “Latter-day Saints are under special obligation” to be educated and active at all levels of government.
As a I final thought, I just want to clarify something: While it’s important that Latter-day Saints be united on what primary criteria we should use when voting, I’ve never seen any reason to assume that if we all did, it would mean we would all vote for the same candidates or the same laws, every time. Using the same criteria does not always mean coming to the same conclusions (as with the music example). Good, faithful individual members of the Church can righteously apply prophetic criteria without liking the exact same musicians, but it’s pretty certain that discerning people are going to avoid those musicians which clearly violate the most basic standards. Likewise, even apostles come to different conclusions from each other (for example, James E. Faust was a Democrat), but you can bet they agree on the inspired criteria from which they draw their conclusions.
I think the main reason saints will differ is that we apply these criteria differently, or give them different weight, depending on each case. To give a generic scenario, let’s say that two Latter-day Saints study Senator Foghorn’s personal and career life, as well as his voting record. One Latter-day Saint may conclude that he is basically moral and wise in his decisions, while another might conclude that he is not. Either way, though, they are both using the same criteria, which is what the Lord’s representatives are hoping for. In another scenario, let’s say two LDS voters agree that Senator Foghorn’s morals are iffy, but his voting record is largely aligned with prophetic counsel and Constitutional principles. The first person might decide that the wise leadership decisions outweigh the poor moral ones, and the second person might decide the moral failings are too serious in this case to be ignored. Again, even though they’re voting differently, they are both using the same prophetic criteria and thus obeying the Lord’s counsel to “study the issues and candidates carefully and prayerfully” in light of the inspired criteria explained above.
What I gather after reading the prophets’ words is that the Lord wants us to all agree on what we should be looking for in a candidate or a law, even if we check different boxes in the voting booth. It’s only when we dismiss that prophets’ criteria that we’re on shaky spiritual ground. If we think private morality or Constitutional consistency don’t matter in our public servants, or if we are so enamoured of more glamorous characteristics that we habitually excuse failings in the crucial ones, we’re in bad shape.
Addendum: Some commenters on this article have mentioned that, given two terrible nominees from the two major parties, the commenters would have to just not vote. To that, we would respond that such a conclusion assumes that you’re only allowed for the two candidates from the two major parties. But that’s not true; you can vote for virtually anyone.
Jelaire Richardson writes piano music on the rare occasion that her children allow it. She also plays racquetball and soccer on the rare occasion that her bum knee allows it. She is a huge fan of the U.S. women’s national soccer team. She occasionally blogs at MormonWomenStand.com.
Nathan Richardson blogs at NathanRichardson.com, where he posts gospel study aids such as the structural chapter reading charts and the Doctrine and Covenants timeline. He used to blog regularly at LDSphilosopher.com and hopes to return to that project again some day. His favorite project is the Structured Edition of the Standard Works, in which he has redesigned the scriptures to make them easier to read and understand; anyone can download them for free as PDFs.