Have you ever been in a Church meeting where someone, a speaker in sacrament meeting, or a teacher or student in Sunday School, Priesthood, or Relief Society, makes a blatant political statement? Perhaps it was only a facetious but degrading comment about a particular Obama Administration policy. If it occurred a few years ago, it may have been a statement of support for President Bush or the Iraq war. Too often, I've heard people make political comments in Church meetings, usually denigrating Democratic politicians and policies while supporting Republican politicians and policies. I have even heard people make disparaging comments in Church meetings about Church members who happen to be Democrats. Political statements, regardless of whether they are conservative, liberal, or moderate, do not belong in our sacred Church meetings. It is incredibly inappropriate and unchristian to denigrate someone because of their political beliefs, particularly while attending a Christian church! Numerous statements from the First Presidency and other General Authorities have made it clear that our church meetings are for discussing sacred gospel topics and not for politics (If you want to read more about the Church's stance of political neutrality, click here).
Yet I suspect political comments are made on a routine basis in many wards across the United States, particularly in Utah and in the Mountain West. I recall an occasion when I was sitting in a Sunday School class during my freshman year at BYU where someone in the class, who knew I was a Democrat, brought up that fact during the lesson out of the blue and belittled me in front of the whole class. I was shocked that anyone would feel it was appropriate to bring up politics in a Church meeting, let alone disparage a fellow member. Furthermore, I was dismayed to see that a number of the other class members were in agreement with the guy who belittled me. One girl even went as far as to ask what I was doing at BYU and if I even believed in the Church's teachings. This all occurred as the instructor stood idly by.
While attending a gospel doctrine class in Hawaii a few years ago, the instructor, a returned mission president, started off an Old Testament lesson about following righteous leaders by expressing his anger at those who criticized President Bush and his policies. For several minutes he lamented the critical media coverage of the President and pointed out that the same thing happened to previous Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. He asserted that we, as faithful members, must support President Bush and that it was inappropriate for us to criticize or complain about him.
On another occasion some years ago a woman took the stand during a fast and testimony meeting and testified that she knew what our country was doing in Iraq was right, as it was providing the Iraqis with freedom and the opportunity to hear the gospel. I wonder what an investigator would have thought who was attending that ward on that particular Sunday. What if they happened to not support the Iraq War, as most Americans did not at the time? They probably would not have felt comfortable in that ward. I know I didn’t.
I know many other people who have had similar experiences. What should you do when something like that happens in your ward? I believe we should all be advocates for greater spirituality at our sacred church meetings. That means participating, being reverent, being prepared by having read the class material in advance; but it also means that when there are significant deviations from gospel topics to issues as contentious and controversial as politics, we should speak up.
Here are my recommendations on what to do to counter the inappropriate political commentary that unfortunately seems to almost be routine in some wards:
If it occurs during in a talk or testimony given during sacrament meeting:
In this case, it is obviously improper to interrupt the speaker and comment on the unbecoming nature of political commentary. I recommend speaking with the individual in private and expressing concern about the political remarks. Alternatively, you could send the person a letter. If you do not feel comfortable with directly confronting someone about such remarks, then it is best to talk to the bishop about it and make sure he is aware of the comments and your serious concerns about their effect on the spiritual quality of the meeting. A bishop should know about the Church's stance of political neutrality and should understand that political comments are inappropriate for church meetings; he should be sympathetic to your concerns. If he doesn't seem to be aware, you could always say something like, "as you may know, the Church has recently made statements reaffirming its political neutrality and emphasizing that it does not support any specific political parties or politicians." If he isn't sympathetic, then talk (or write) to the stake president.
If it occurs during a Sunday School, Priesthood, or Relief Society meeting:
Depending on your personality, the severity of the political comments (meaning how far they deviated from a gospel topic), and who made them, you could raise your hand and politely express your concern about the political comments and request that class members refrain from expressing political views during a meeting where you really wanted to learn about the gospel and feel the Spirit. Point out that politics, by its very nature, is divisive and often contentious and detracts from the Spirit. If the comment was made by a class member and not the instructor, this is probably the best way of handling the situation, if it is done kindly and with love and respect, because it will raise everyone's awareness of inappropriate political comments. Alternatively, you could wait until class is over and speak with the individual in private to express your concerns. You should also probably speak with the quorum, Relief Society, or Sunday School president if the political comments are a regular occurrence.
When I attended that Sunday School class in Hawaii some years ago where the instructor spent several minutes at the beginning of his lesson to complain about those who were critical of President Bush and assert our duty to support Bush, I opted to write him a letter later that week and mail it to his house. I am generally non-confrontational and somewhat shy so I really didn't want to make a scene by challenging the instructor on his expression of political views. I also forwarded a copy of the letter to the bishop.
I like to think of this as spiritual activism- actively demanding that our meetings be more spiritual and gospel-focused. However, any actions taken, whether they entail directly confronting someone either in person or via a letter, or speaking with the bishop or stake president, should be done with respect, humility, and in the spirit of Doctrine of Covenants 121:41-43:
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile- reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy.
Also, be aware of the few political topics where the Church has actually taken a position, such as gay marriage. I recommend going to the LDS.org and looking at the political topics on the Newsroom page. The Church has statements on abortion (see my old post, which described the difference between the Church's moral and political stances on abortion), capital punishment, euthanasia and prolonging life, embryonic stem-cell research, immigration, polygamy, same-gender attraction, and traditional marriage. In most of these statements, the Church indicates that it is politically neutral.
Write to a General Authority
Finally, one thing I also suggest you consider doing is to write a letter to a general authority, perhaps someone who you think would be sympathetic to this issue. As I've studied general conference talks over the years, I've noticed some general authorities have called for civility in public discourse, expressed a need for tolerance of differing political viewpoints, etc., and may be receptive to a letter expressing concern about politics in church meetings. Writing a letter to a general authority where you describe your experiences (particularly if you are a Democrat) in dealing with bias and outright hostility from other members because of your political beliefs, and sharing some specific examples, can help raise awareness with leaders who have the ability to make a broad impact. I wrote a couple of letters several years ago, one to an apostle and one to a member of the Seventy. I received a very thoughtful response from the Seventy (but didn't hear back from the apostle). You won't necessarily get a response as general authorities are very busy, but at least you'll be making them aware of the issue.
The Seventy who replied to my letter noted that he thought it was "regrettable that we don't have greater political diversity in the Church and that there are so many members who are seemingly so intolerant of the political positions of others." He also added, "I know your concern is shared by many in the leadership of the Church and I'm hopeful in time some measure of course correction will be achieved."
I certainly appreciated hearing those words. I would love to see a statement like that made during general conference. Perhaps if more members share their experiences and concerns with general authorities, someone will address the issue more directly. Ultimately, I believe that it will take some more direct pronouncements from Church leaders to really change this ugly part of LDS culture. By actively trying to change the culture of our wards, where we politely advocate that people refrain from bringing up politics during church meetings, and by raising awareness of the issue with local and general authorities, we can help affect the needed cultural change.
If you choose to write a letter to a general authority, here is the address to send it to:
Name of Apostle or Seventy
47 East South Temple Street
Salt Lake City, UT 84150