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July 4, 2012
Rambling Thoughts on Church History
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 particular issue.

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 .) 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 Nations.

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 students.

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 political matters.

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 Democrats.

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.

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