The LDS Church Walks a Tightrope on Public Policy
Second, the Mormon leadership is constrained by its own membership. Given how rare and muted criticism of the hierarchy is within the church, it is easy to forget this fact. In their book American Grace, political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell document that Mormons, relative to other religious denominations, actually hear very little about politics over the pulpit. This is not accidental.
In the past, Mormon leaders spoke with great frequency on political matters. Church President Heber J. Grant, for example, publically urged church members to oppose both the New Deal and the repeal of prohibition. Nevertheless, Utah's Mormon voters voted overwhelmingly in favor of both. The recent success of the church leadership in mobilizing the Mormon faithful is in large part a function of the fact that they do so relatively rarely. History suggests that the more frequently leaders opine on political matters, the less likely rank-and-file Mormons are to heed them.
Like all religions, Mormonism has teachings on what a just and healthy society looks like. These teachings can have implications for public policy, and Mormon leaders understandably feel compelled at times to push for particular political outcomes. Likewise, at times public policy has implications for the church's interests as an institution and a community. Mormon leaders should not be criticized for jumping into politics in these situations.
Non-Mormons who consider voting for a Mormon candidate, but who worry that a Mormon candidate might be unduly influenced by the LDS Church authorities, may be comforted to see the political tightrope the Mormon prophets are forced to walk. Constrained by both external and internal pressures, they need to pick their spots in exerting political influence, or they risk harming their church and frittering away their authority with the faithful.
How can church leaders stay true to their vision for society, while maintaining the church's growth and avoiding the alienation of Mormons and non-Mormons alike? It won't be easy, and it's not clear that the Mormon hierarchy is willing to risk more blow-ups like the one resulting from Proposition 8. In today's hyper-partisan political environment, the LDS church must consider carefully where and how to expend its political capital.
Nathan B. Oman is an associate professor of law at The College of William & Mary in Virginia.