Are Church Leaders' Political Opinions Doctrine?

In past decades, there have been a few General Authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who have been outspoken on American politics. Some Church members frequently quote from these politically outspoken former General Authorities in order to justify certain right-wing political views, often implying a doctrinal quality to such views, and, on occasion, attempt to question the faithfulness of members who disagree.

President Ezra Taft Benson’s political statements are perhaps the best example of this. I know many conservative or libertarian Church members who often refer to President Benson to justify their political views. Many may not be aware that while serving as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Benson was appointed as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture by President Dwight Eisenhower. Elder Benson was very active in conservative American politics and frequently made political speeches. As a vehement supporter of the ultra-conservative, anti-communist John Birch Society, Elder Benson held passionate but extreme views on communism, and was among those who accused the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders as being part of a communist conspiracy to overthrow American democracy. He also supported the presidential candidacy of southern racist George Wallace, who ran on a platform espousing segregation. It is widely known that some members of the Twelve vehemently disagreed Elder Benson’s political views and were eager for him to curtail his involvement in politics. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, who at the time was president of the Quorum of the Twelve, made the following observation about Elder Benson in a letter to Idaho Congressman Ralph Harding:

I think it is time that Brother Benson forgot all about politics and settled down to his duties as a member of the Council of the Twelve. He is going to take a mission to Europe in the near future and by the time he returns I hope he will get all of the political notions out of his system.

I write this not to criticize Elder Benson’s political views, although I disagree with many of them. He was a great prophet who made incredible contributions to the Church. His General Conference addresses on pride and the Book of Mormon are some of my all-time favorite sermons. Nonetheless, those who attempt to use obscure passages from old talks by Church leaders as reason to judge others for their alternative political views must recognize their weak position. When members use Elder Benson’s remarks, such as those about the size and role of government or his denunciations of certain government social programs, they must realize that they are cherry-picking. Do these members also agree with Elder Benson’s other views on segregation and the Civil Rights Movement? Hopefully not. It is one thing to refer to a General Authority’s statement about a political issue simply as a reflection of one’s own viewpoint. There is no harm in that. However, it is an entirely different (and inappropriate) matter to use such a statement to imply that one’s political views have doctrinal superiority over another’s views.

As Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve stated in a recent General Conference, “it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church.”

The rare foray into politics by particular General Authorities should not be interpreted as Church doctrine. Elder Neal L. Anderson of the Twelve provided instruction last October on how doctrine is established: “There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not difficult to find.”

Prophets and apostles are entitled to their personal opinions on political issues of their day. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no papal infallibility dogma. Joseph Smith taught that “a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such.” Church members and even the Church’s highest leaders come from a variety of political backgrounds. While it is true that in recent decades, most members of the Twelve have been registered Republicans, there have been a few notable Democrats, including Presidents James E. Faust and Hugh B. Brown.

Speaking at a BYU commencement in 1968, President Brown counseled graduating students to “Strive to develop a maturity of mind and emotion and a depth of spirit which enables you to differ with others on matters of politics without calling into question the integrity of those with whom you differ. Allow within the bounds of your definition of religious orthodoxy variation of political belief. Do not have the temerity to dogmatize on issues where the Lord has seen fit to be silent.” He also warned, “beware of those who feel obliged to prove their own patriotism by calling into question the loyalty of others. Be skeptical of those who attempt to demonstrate their love of country by demeaning its institutions.”

President George Albert Smith made similar remarks when he stated, “Whenever your politics cause you to speak unkindly of your brethren, know this, that you are upon dangerous ground.”

Politics are worldly. Attempts to infuse one’s politics with Church doctrine in order to claim some mantle of divine approval make a mockery of the Gospel. The Church’s statement on political neutrality establishes a clear standard of institutional impartiality in partisan politics. As members of the Church, we must strive to be of “one faith” in things spiritual, while respecting the cultural and political diversity that exists among us.

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