When former state Rep. Toby Nixon first ran for the Legislature seven years ago, some presumed that fellow local Mormons would actively...
When former state Rep. Toby Nixon first ran for the Legislature seven years ago, some presumed that fellow local Mormons would actively campaign on his behalf.
As it turned out, said Nixon, “I had almost no Mormon support” for grass-roots campaigning.
A major reason, says the Kirkland Republican, is the church’s strict policy against using church resources for partisan politics.
Nixon relayed the anecdote in part to illustrate misunderstandings about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that have been brought to the fore by Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential bid.
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As Romney, who is Mormon, speaks today about religion in an address at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas, some local Latter-day Saints expressed a range of thoughts on what they hope his speech will cover.
Some expect he’ll speak in general terms about values he shares with those of other faiths. Others hope his speech and candidacy will help dispel ignorance on everything from their beliefs to whether most Mormons automatically support him.
“Just because someone is Mormon doesn’t mean they’re a shoo-in” among members of the faith, said Louise Sypher, 50, a Mormon homemaker from Fall City. “We go by how they stand on the issues.”
In Washington state, where there are about 249,000 Latter-day Saints and Romney has raised the most money of the GOP candidates, Mormons say they are no more or less involved in politics than most other religious groups. While the church encourages members to be educated on issues and to vote, some take little or no interest while others hold elected office.
Their political positions also vary, though many are conservative and the majority of Mormons in the state are probably Republican, said Annette Bowen, the church’s media-relations director for Western Washington. “Those Mormons who are Republican are excited about Romney’s run,” she said.
Still, many stress the church’s policy of neutrality about candidates. While the church takes positions on social issues such as abortion and homosexuality, it prohibits the use of church rosters or buildings in partisan politics.
People rarely talk about politics at church, even after services, several local Mormons said. “You’re not there for politics,” said Dot Boyack, a 68-year-old teacher in Bellevue. “You try to keep your mind away from worldly things.”
Part of the reason for the policy is practical: Churches jeopardize their federal tax-exempt status if they engage in partisan politics.
Church history also plays a role.
For a while in the 1800s, the church did tell people how to vote and even had a political party, said Jan Shipps, a Methodist and professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University who is a leading scholar on Mormon history. That political party dissolved as a condition of Utah becoming a state, and Mormons there were told to join either the Republican or Democratic parties, she said.
Most became Republicans during the 1950s, when they supported the party’s stance against communism, Shipps said.
The church’s politically neutral stance, which it has held for years, “is an effort to say: You don’t have to be a Republican to be a Mormon,” Shipps said. “They’re trying to make it very clear that the modern Mormon church is not taking sides politically.”
That doesn’t mean, of course, that there aren’t networks of church friends or alumni from schools such as Brigham Young University, which is run by the church, who do grass-roots organizing. The Boston Globe last year said that Romney’s team consulted with leaders of the church to map out plans for a nationwide network of Mormon supporters.
In Washington state, Romney’s state fundraising chairman is a Latter-day Saint. When Romney visited Bellevue in June for a fundraiser, at least half of the hosts were church members.
Jeanne Quinton, 69, a Mormon and retired teacher in Seattle who is on Romney’s state fundraising committee, has been contacting both Mormons and non-Mormons. She wishes Romney would emphasize the political neutrality of the church.
Boyack, the teacher in Bellevue, is a Democrat and says she’s not voting for Romney but will be watching his speech today.
She knows that people wonder if “strings are pulled by a hierarchy” if religion is so much a part of a candidate’s life. Boyack says the church teaches members “to prayerfully study it out and come to your own decisions.”
“It’s so interesting that when you have an Episcopalian or another member of a Protestant church, you don’t get asked, ‘Do you believe in the Virgin Birth’ and so forth,” she said. “But Mormons — you get asked.”
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org