A Note on Faith, Political Differences, and Mutual Respect
by James B. Allen
During times of tense and often bitter political debate, such as we are
experiencing this year, some have asked if "the Church" has a position on some
I place "the Church" in quotation marks because, in most cases, the Church
itself does not take political stands. However, some prominent members,
including general authorities, have taken positions that have been interpreted
by some as a "Church" position.
At election time in the United States, the Church traditionally issues a
statement emphasizing its political neutrality and the fact that it does not
endorse political candidates of any party or take a stand on partisan issues.
Rather, it urges its members to be responsible citizens, become informed
voters, and vote their consciences.
It does, however, "reserve the right as an institution to address, in a
nonpartisan way, issues that it believes have significant community or moral
consequences or that directly affect the interests of the Church." (See the
Church's official statement on political neutrality at
www.mormonnewsroom.org/official-statement/political-neutrality .) One
such issue was California's Proposition 8 in 2008.
General authorities and other general officers of the Church are wisely
encouraged not to speak out on partisan political issues, for their statements
could easily be interpreted as official church positions. It must be recognized,
however, that church leaders, just as anyone else, each have their personal
political perspectives. There are, after all, general authorities who affiliate with
both major U.S. political parties.
Unfortunately, in my experience I have sometimes found people who could not
accept this, expecting church leaders to march in a kind of political lockstep.
Or, just as unrealistic, they were somehow assuming that their own political
views were in tune with "the Church" and supported by scripture.
In 1969, around the end of May, a young student came into my office at BYU,
confused at some of the things she had recently heard, and crying as she told
me of her concerns and frustration. On May 6, Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the
Quorum of the Twelve had given an address on campus in which he had
severely criticized government officials and roundly opposed the United
Only a week later, Elder Hugh B. Brown, a member of the First Presidency,
appeared on campus and gave what, in part, seemed to be a direct rebuttal to
Elder Benson. He warned against tearing down government officials and
showed great support for the United Nations, quoting, among other people,
President David O. McKay.
The student was distraught. How, she asked, could our apostles and prophets
disagree so widely on these important political issues? She told me that she
had always been under the impression that church leaders were unified in
everything, and it shook her faith to see such fundamental differences. I felt
deeply sorry for her, but hopefully she did not represent a very large number of
I tried to reassure her by telling her that on matters of fundamental religious
principles and doctrines that the Brethren really are united, and that when
something is announced as official church policy it has the full support of all
the general authorities. I tried to teach her, however, that she should not
expect them all to see eye-to-eye on absolutely everything, and especially on
In general, these were matters of personal opinion, and we expect that all
church members, including general authorities, will study them carefully and
reach their own conclusions. We also expect church leaders, as well as all other
church members, to respect and honor each other despite political differences,
but it would be unrealistic to assume that they have no differences of opinion
on matters of public policy.
After all, church leaders had frequently noted that there were faithful church
members in both major political parties, and this should be respected. At one
point the President of the Church (David O. McKay) was a known Republican
while his two counselors (N. Eldon Tanner and Hugh B. Brown) were known
I told her that such political differences have always existed in the Church, and
one particular example came to mind. In 1919, the major national political
issue was whether or not the United States should join the League of Nations.
As the debate raged in Utah, it became clear that there were general authorities
on both sides of the question, and some of them openly expressed their views
in church meetings, including stake conferences.
U.S. Senator Reed Smoot, who was also an LDS apostle, adamantly opposed
the League, as did Elders David O. McKay and Joseph Fielding Smith of the
Quorum of the Twelve and Presiding Bishop Charles W. Nibley. Among those
who publicly supported the League were Heber J. Grant, President of the
Church, George F. Richards and Anthony W. Ivins of the Quorum of the
Twelve, and B. H. Roberts of the First Council of the Seventy.
It appears that many of the other general authorities also supported the
League, though they were not as outspoken as those mentioned here.
In their enthusiasm, supporters as well as opponents of the League sometimes
used the LDS scriptures, and particularly The Book of Mormon, to argue their
case. Elder Smoot was one of those, as was his close friend J. Reuben Clark Jr.
Clark was not yet a General Authority, but when he spoke he seemed to be
representing Elder Smoot's views.
On Tuesday, September 2, 1919, Clark addressed a large audience in the
Tabernacle on Temple Square, giving an eloquent, well-studied argument in
favor of the League. Six days later, Elder B. H. Roberts spoke in another public
meeting in the Tabernacle, eloquently supporting the League and quoting The
Book of Mormon to bolster his arguments.
The scriptural issue came to a head on September 21, when President Heber J.
Grant, speaking at the Salt Lake Stake Conference, declared it to be the
position of the Church that the standard works of the Church could not be
used to oppose the League of Nations. (By implication, neither could they be
used to support it.) He then went on to declare his own support of the League,
making it clear that his opinion was not based on scripture but, rather, upon
his own political beliefs.
In the end, the naysayers won and the United States did not join the League.
But, for me, that was not the end of the story.
As the debate went on in Utah, some members of the Church allowed their
feelings to lead to bitterness, tearing each other down, and even questioning
each other's faith, though the spirit displayed by the leaders of the Church was
far above that. They seemed to recognize that honest disagreement on political
and social issues need not degenerate to name-calling and accusations of
faithlessness. Rather, they showed mutual respect and brotherhood despite
their differences, and certainly never questioned each other's faith.
In the October General Conference of 1920, President Grant expressed regret
for the bitterness that existed among some members of the Church because of
recent political controversies. He then devoted much of his sermon to a plea for
Latter-day Saints to show the spirit of forgiveness.
Though that part of the sermon was not directly related to the League
controversy, the principle certainly applied. He quoted a bit of very sound
advice that he received as a young apostle from President John Taylor:
My boy, never forget that when you are in the line of your duty your
heart will be full of love and forgiveness ..., and that when you get out of
that straight line of duty and have the determination that what you think
is justice and what you think is equity and right should prevail, you
ofttimes are anything but happy. You can know the difference between
the Spirit of the Lord and the spirit of the adversary, when you find that
you are happy and contented, that you love your fellows, that you are
anxious for their welfare; and you can tell that you do not have the spirit
when you are full of animosity and feel that you would like to mow
somebody down (Conference Report, October 1920, p. 7).
What happened in the Church hierarchy over the next few years showed that
this spirit of love and conciliation rather than bitterness and defamation really
did characterize church leaders. President Grant and Reed Smoot became the
best of friends, even though Smoot had strongly opposed the Prophet on the
League. Bishop Charles W. Nibley, another League opponent, became President
Grant's second counselor in the Presidency of the Church in 1925. A third
opponent, J. Reuben Clark Jr., became a counselor in 1933 and still another
opponent, David O. McKay, became a counselor in 1934.
JAMES B. ALLEN, Professor of History, Emeritus, Brigham Young University
James B. Allen was born June 14, 1927, in Ogden, Utah. He married Renée Jones, April 16,
1953. They have five children, twenty-one grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren . He
received his bachelor's degree in history form Utah State University in 1954, a master's degree
from Brigham Young University in 1956, and the Ph.D. from the University of Southern
California in 1963.
Active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints all his life, he has served in numerous
positions, including bishop of two BYU wards and a member of 5 different BYU high councils.
In 1999-2000 he and Renée served as missionaries at the Boston Institute of Religion.
He has also been active in the Republican party and twice served as a delegate to the state
In his professional career, he taught in the LDS Seminary and Institute program from 1954-63,
after which he was a member of the faculty at Brigham Young University until his retirement in
1992. From 1972 to 1979 he also served as Assistant Church Historian (splitting his time
between BYU and the Church Historical Department). He was chair of the History Department
from 1981-1987 then, during his last five years at BYU, he was honored to hold the Lemuel
Hardison Redd, Jr. Chair in Western American History. After his retirement he became
associated with the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at BYU, where
for several years he held an appointment as a Senior Research Fellow.
He has also been active in various professional organizations, including the Western History
Association (served on various committees, and as chair of a program committee) and the
Mormon History Association (president, 1971-73). He has been on various boards of editors and
advisory committees and presented numerous papers at the meetings of various historical
As a researcher and writer he is the author, co-author, or co-editor of fourteen books or
monographs and around 90 articles relating to Western American history and Mormon history,
as well as numerous book reviews in professional journals. Some of his books include the
The Company Town in the American West (University of Oklahoma Press, 1966)
The Story of the Latter-day Saints (with Glen M. Leonard; Deseret Book Company, 1976;
2nd edition 1992)
Trials of Discipleship: The Story of William Clayton, a Mormon (University of Illinois
Press, 1987). Revised and republished in 2002 by BYU Press under the title No
Toil Nor Labor Fear: The Story of William Clayton. In 1986, while still in press,
this book won the prestigious David Woolley Evans and Beatrice Cannon Evans
Men With a Mission: The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the British Isles, 1837-1841
(with Ronald K. Esplin and David J. Whittaker, Deseret Book Company, 1992)
Studies in Mormon History 1830-1997: An Indexed Bibliography (with Ronald W.
Walker and David J. Whittaker; University of Illinois Press, 2000). Allen was the
lead investigator for this important work. It lists, and provides an index to, all the
significant books, articles, doctoral dissertations and master's theses on Mormon
history produced between 1830 and 1997. It has been widely hailed as one of the
most important aids to finding LDS history ever published. In 2001 the Mormon
History Association awarded the authors a special citation for the publication of
this book. After that, working with J. Michael Hunter, Allen continued to update
the bibliography database. Hunter has now taken over the updating, and the
database is online at mormonhistory.byu.edu.
Mormon History (with Ronald W. Walker and David J. Whittaker, University of Illinois
Press, 2001). This book is a history of the writing of Mormon history, from the
days of Joseph Smith until the present time.
Over the years he has received various awards, honors, and recognitions, besides those indicated
above. Among them were several "best article" awards; the Karl G. Maeser Research and
Creative Arts Award, Brigham Young University, 1980; named Distinguished Faculty Lecturer,
Brigham Young University, 1984; named a Fellow of the Utah State Historical Society, July 15,
1988; the Leonard J. Arrington Award for a Distinctive Contribution to the cause of Mormon
History, awarded by the Mormon History Asociation, 2008.
James and Renée have enjoyed living in Orem, Utah since 1963.
He currently serves as Sunday School President in his ward, and he and Renée have been officiators
in the Mt. Timpanogos Temple since 2004.