The American Presidency and the Mormons
October 1972

“The American Presidency and the Mormons,” Ensign, Oct. 1972, 47

The American Presidency and the Mormons

In November, for the forty-seventh time in their history, campaign-weary American voters will complete the momentous task of choosing a president. For over a year they have been deluged with ever larger doses of political propaganda and campaign oratory, but come November 7 the contest will be decided, the furor will subside, and a newly elected president will receive congratulations and a promise of support from his defeated opponent, who will probably already be formulating a battle plan for unseating the victor in another four years.

The election of a president is an event in which Latter-day Saints in America take great interest. They believe that theirs is a land “choice above all other lands,” that its Constitution is divinely inspired, and that the American nation has a special destiny. They are particularly concerned, therefore, that the electoral process bring to the highest office in the land wise men who support the principles of the Constitution, who are capable administrators, and who are known for their integrity and exemplary conduct. With another election so near at hand, what follows is an attempt to add a certain historical perspective by suggesting highlights of past elections and attitudes toward them taken by Church authorities.

In 1787 the framers of the Constitution created the electoral college, a unique system for electing America’s chief executive. However, creation of the electoral college was actually an attempt to keep the selection of the president out of the hands of the masses, for the framers tended to fear the consequences of such direct democracy. They wanted the ultimate decision to be made by a few well-selected people, hoped to allow Congress some limited participation in the selection, and wanted to recognize the role of the states as sovereign bodies in the new federal system. The Constitution provided, therefore, that each state should choose a number of electors equal to its total representation in Congress.

The electors each voted for two persons; the candidate with the greatest number of votes became president and the next became vice-president. If no person had a majority, the House of Representatives chose the president and vice-president, with each state having one vote in the process. By so shielding the electoral process from the whims of the people at large, the founders hoped to provide the best means for choosing the men most fit to be president. This system does not necessarily reflect majority opinion; in at least fifteen out of forty-six elections, the victor has won with less than 50 percent of the popular vote.

But for several reasons the electoral college did not work exactly as the founders conceived it. First, they did not anticipate the rise of political parties or the serious administrative and political problems that might arise if the president and vice-president held radically different political philosophies. After such an experience when John Adams was president and Thomas Jefferson was vice-president, the Twelfth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted, which provided that the electors cast their ballots separately for president and vice-president. For all practical purposes this amendment recognized the existence of parties, for since that time the candidates have run as teams. Second, Congress has not played even the limited role apparently anticipated by some of the founders, for only on two occasions has the election been thrown to the House of Representatives.

Third, the electoral college itself no longer has the power originally anticipated for it. At first it was not mandatory that the electors be chosen by popular ballot or that they be committed to any candidate, and after their election the campaign often continued up to the day they met to cast their ballots. Today, the voters of each state choose electors already pledged to vote for specific candidates, which means that for all practical purposes the choice is made at the polls in November rather than at the casting of the elector’s ballots when the electoral college meets in December.

Perhaps the only semblance of the founders’ intent still preserved in the electoral system is the fact that the final tally is made on the basis of states rather than popular vote, thus helping preserve the identity of states as sovereign political units.

The electoral college has come under constant attack, and in recent years every election has been followed by clamorous demands for change. But since those who advocate change are so far from united on the extent and nature of what they want, and since there is little, if any, evidence that basic changes would result in better presidential leadership, it is doubtful that any dramatic innovation will soon be made.

The result of America’s first presidential election was practically a foregone conclusion, and on the first Wednesday of February 1789, the electors cast their votes unanimously for the popular George Washington. By 1792 philosophical differences among America’s political leaders were becoming apparent, as Thomas Jefferson and his followers were critical of the economic policies of Alexander Hamilton that had been accepted by President Washington. Washington, nevertheless, had such great prestige that he again received the vote of every elector.

By 1796 political party lines were being clearly formed. George Washington’s Federalist party had accepted the Hamiltonian policy calling for federal funding of certain state debts, a federally supported bank, federal aid to manufacturers through a tariff system, and other programs that tended to enlarge the sphere of federal activity far beyond anything that Thomas Jefferson’s more democratic Republican party considered either right or constitutional. But in that year the major issue was foreign affairs, and Washington’s Federalist vice-president, John Adams, was elected president with 71 electoral votes. Thomas Jefferson, however, received 68 votes and became vice-president. In 1800 Jefferson defeated the incumbent president, largely on the basis of a campaign against the unpopular Alien and Sedition acts, as well as the general effectiveness of the Republicans in denouncing Federalist philosophy.

Jefferson also won the next election, and his two close friends from Virginia, James Madison and James Monroe, each followed with two terms as president. But the whimsical, transitory nature of politics was revealed when the program carried out by Jefferson and his successors included expansion of American territorial holdings, federal promotion of internal improvements (roads and canals to connect the East with the West), promotion of a national bank, and other things that extended the influence of the federal government even more than the Federalists had anticipated, so much so that the Republicans were accused of “out-federalizing the Federalists.” In 1824 John Quincy Adams became the last of the Jeffersonian Republican party to be elected.

New party alignments were apparent by 1828, based partly on sectional interests and partly on personality cults; and Andrew Jackson, military hero, Indian fighter, and symbol of the “common man” who was just beginning to gain genuine political influence, overwhelmingly defeated Adams.

The election of 1832 was the first presidential election after the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830. The chief issue in that campaign was the national bank, for which President Jackson had just vetoed a recharter bill. Henry Clay attacked him on this issue, thinking the bank had general popular support, but Jackson won the election handily. The Saints took no official interest in the campaign, but if they voted like other Americans, about 55 percent favored Jackson.

At first the Saints seemingly had no strong feelings against Jackson’s handpicked successor, Martin Van Buren, who won the 1836 election; but the events of the next four years brought ill feelings. Their experiences in Missouri were bitter and they were finally driven brutally from the state. Failing to convince the courts that the state should compensate for property lost, the Church turned to the federal government.

Late in 1839 Joseph Smith led a delegation to the nation’s capital, demanding that the government intervene to require the state of Missouri to comply with the Saints’ just demands. Their long efforts were in vain, however, and the Prophet’s interview with President Van Buren was particularly disheartening. “Gentlemen,” said the president when he heard their plea, “your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you. … If I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri.”1

This was a time when the issue of states’ rights was particularly sensitive. The antislavery crusade caused southern states to be especially jealous of their sovereign status and their right to control their own domestic affairs, without interference from the federal government. (Not until after the Civil War was the Constitution generally interpreted the way Joseph Smith understood it.) President Van Buren was not only concerned that he would lose the state of Missouri and probably other states as well but also reflected the general sensitivity of politicians for preserving the principle of states’ rights and local control—an issue generally supported by Andrew Jackson’s Democratic party.

Joseph Smith, nevertheless, was highly offended, for he felt that Van Buren heard their message reluctantly and treated them with insolence. “His whole course,” wrote the Prophet, “went to show that he was an office-seeker, that self-aggrandizement was his ruling passion, and that justice and righteousness were no part of his composition. I found him such a man as I could not conscientiously support at the head of our noble Republic.”2

Joseph Smith left Washington disappointed with the federal government and antagonistic toward President Van Buren. “On my way home,” he wrote, “I did not fail to proclaim the iniquity and insolence of Martin Van Buren, toward myself and an injured people, which will have its effect upon the public mind; and may he never be elected again to any office of trust or power, by which he may abuse the innocent and let the guilty go free.”3

It is clear that in the election campaign of 1840 he did not vote for Van Buren, and undoubtedly a majority of the Saints followed his example.

In that election Van Buren lost, not because of Mormon influence, but because the financial panic of 1837 tended to hurt him and also because of the popular appeal of his Whig opponent, William Henry Harrison, who had become famous as an Indian fighter in the battle of Tippecanoe some twenty years earlier.

In 1840, for the first time in Latter-day Saint history, the President of the Church came out in clear opposition to a candidate for the presidency of the United States. From this time until his death the Prophet engaged in considerable political activity. In his mind, political action was necessitated by the circumstances, and any action he took was in the full belief that it would best protect the interests of the kingdom of God and its people. At the same time, it is significant that Joseph Smith did not make his political opinions a matter of religious faith or equate them with revelation, even though he obviously hoped and expected that the Saints generally would follow his lead. In 1843, for example, he made the following declaration to a group working on the Nauvoo Temple:

“There is one more thing I wish to speak about, and that is political economy. It is our duty to concentrate all our influence to make popular that which is sound and good, and unpopular that which is unsound. ’Tis right, politically, for a man who has influence to use it, as well as for a man who has no influence to use his. From henceforth I will maintain all the influence I can get. In relation to politics, I will speak as a man; but in relation to religion I will speak in authority.”4

And in connection with a local election of that year he declared: “The Lord has not given me a revelation concerning politics. I have not asked Him for one.”5

Joseph Smith’s disillusionment with the federal government led him to advance an attitude toward the Constitution which, while undoubtedly held by some of his contemporaries, was ahead of his time as far as general acceptance was concerned. He believed that the Constitution should be interpreted, or even amended, to allow the federal government to intervene within the states in behalf of an oppressed minority. In a sermon on October 15, 1843, he said:

“I am the greatest advocate of the Constitution of the United States there is on the earth. In my feelings I am always ready to die for the protection of the weak and oppressed in their just rights. The only fault I find with the Constitution is, it is not broad enough to cover the whole ground.

“Although it provides that all men shall enjoy religious freedom, yet it does not provide the manner by which that freedom can be preserved, nor for the punishment of Government officers who refuse to protect the people in their religious rights. … Its sentiments are good, but it provides no means of enforcing them. It had but this one fault. Under its provision, a man or a people who are able to protect themselves can get along well enough; but those who have the misfortune to be weak or unpopular are left to the merciless rage of popular fury.”6

Undoubtedly his experience with national politicians who would not commit themselves to the exercise of federal power in behalf of the Saints was one of the factors that induced Joseph Smith to declare his own candidacy for the office of president in 1844. Prior to his decision he wrote several possible contenders, asking what their course of action toward the Saints would be if elected, and none of them sent satisfactory replies. Finally, after consultation with the Twelve Apostles and other leaders in Nauvoo, he announced his candidacy and prepared a pamphlet entitled Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States.7

In this document, which was taken by the missionaries to various parts of the United States, Joseph Smith expressed his feelings on most important issues of the day except his desire to add to the powers granted the federal government. This may have been an effort to demonstrate that he was truly aware of national problems and would not use the office of president merely to promote the interest of the Saints. Among other things he called for prison reform, abolition of slavery, economy in government, a national bank, and territorial expansion.

Unfortunately, the Prophet did not live to see the outcome of the election, for he was brutally martyred in June. In the end, the presidency was narrowly won by James K. Polk, the Democratic candidate, who ran on a platform calling for American expansion.

By the election of 1848 the main body of the Church was located in what is now Utah, and from then until 1896 the Saints in Utah were unable to participate directly in a presidential election, since only states may appoint presidential electors. During this half-century, however, the Latter-day Saints were vitally interested in national politics, for they affected their quest for statehood. In some cases a general Mormon attitude toward certain elections might be ascertained; that attitude, however, was purely pragmatic and had nothing to do with essential religious doctrines. As far as national politics were concerned sides were never taken and presented or interpreted by the Church in such a way as to demand compliance on the basis of religious faith.

The Saints had cause for special concern in the election of 1856 when the tragically complicated slavery issue was beginning to split the country along sectional lines. The Democrats nominated James Buchanan, who was considered a relatively “safe” candidate because his opinions on the issues were generally unknown. The newly formed Republican party nominated the popular John C. Fremont. They were basically concerned with stopping the expansion of slavery, which, to southerners, seemed to threaten not only slavery but their cherished right of state sovereignty. At the same time the Republican platform took a swing at the Saints in Utah by calling for the prohibition in the territories of “those twin relics of barbarism—Polygamy, and Slavery.” Since the Mormons were now preaching and practicing plural marriage, this seemed like a direct threat to them. Buchanan won by a narrow plurality but ironically, the Saints profited little from his victory, for the next year he sent an army to Utah to put down a supposed rebellion there.

In general, throughout the balance of the nineteenth century the Latter-day Saints seemed to lean toward the Democratic party in national affairs, even though there was no effective organization of either national party in the Territory of Utah. In national affairs, the Republican party seemed to represent a greater threat, for it remained in power through most of the period and was seemingly responsible for most of the legislation aimed at suppressing plural marriage. Actually, however, the Saints could take little comfort in the ascendancy of either party, for the general attitude of reform in the nation made it difficult for any president to favor them.

In 1884 the Church came as close to endorsing a candidate as at any time since 1844. The Church-owned Deseret News praised the Democrats’ nomination of Grover Cleveland, and when he was elected by a narrow margin over the Republican James G. Blaine, the Saints were generally pleased. The News stated, in an editorial on November 14, 1884:

“The ‘Mormon’ people lean to Democratic principles because those principles are in consonance with the Constitution and preservative of local and individual rights. They do not anticipate any fraternization of the Democratic party with ‘Mormon’ institutions, secular or religious. They do not put their trust in parties in any way. They look for decided opposition from the party now rising from the obscurity of twenty-four years. … But they think that, for a season, at least, that party will not be likely to ignore those constitutional restrictions which are the safeguard of popular government. … They think that a change of Federal officials for the Territory must in the main be some improvement.”

But Cleveland did little to comfort or aid the Saints either by suggesting leniency for them or changing the federal officials in Utah, as the Saints had wished. Instead, he devoted a long section of his first annual message to conditions in Utah, urging the continued prosecution of the Church and a restriction upon Mormon immigration from other countries.

There was, nevertheless, a general feeling—right or wrong—that the Democratic party was more sympathetic toward the Saints and more likely to grant statehood to Utah, so it was with apprehension that they greeted the return to power of the Republicans when Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland in 1888. This was especially true since the Republican party once again contained an anti-Mormon plank in its platform.

The year 1896 was the first year in which the citizens of Utah could participate fully in a presidential election, for it was in that year that Utah became a state. By that time the Church had no apparent reason to lean toward either political party or candidate on the basis of its attitude toward the Church, for both parties had joined in supporting statehood for Utah after the issuance of the Manifesto in 1890.

Prior to 1896, the Church had also vigorously set about to destroy the appearance of political partisanship. The “People’s Party,” which had actually been the Church party with regard to territorial politics, was disbanded and Church leaders vigorously encouraged members of the Church to join either of the national parties.

During the nineteenth century Church leaders sometimes took a stand with regard to presidential candidates, but when they did so, that stand reflected what seemed to be in the best current interest of the Church. It did not reflect any effort to equate political action with religious doctrine, but rather was simply a pragmatic effort to promote the well-being of the Church as an organization.

As the twentieth century began the situation was slightly different. No longer did either major party seem to threaten the existence of the Church, and no longer did it seem, as it had to Joseph Smith, that Church members could not be comfortable supporting any of the major candidates. This is not to imply, however, that Church leaders have ignored political activity. Quite to the contrary, many of them have participated actively in national politics, and in both major parties. Church leaders have even endorsed presidential candidates, but in each case the endorsement has been on the basis of personal political preference rather than for any apparent religious or doctrinal reason.

Throughout the twentieth century it has been clear that officially the Church has encouraged members to vote their political convictions. Privately, of course, all Church members, including the leaders, have had their own political opinions; but officially the Church has remained neutral, with a few possible exceptions to be noted below, and well-meaning Latter-day Saints have recognized in this neutrality their personal obligation to study the issues on their own merits and to vote according to their personal political convictions.

By 1900 it appears that the personal preference of many Church leaders had gravitated toward the Republican party, for this party seemed to better represent the interests of American business and industry, with which many leading Mormons were becoming closely identified. At the same time other leaders, such as Heber J. Grant and B. H. Roberts, were prominently identified with the Democrats.

In the election of 1900 incumbent William McKinley faced William Jennings Bryan, and the major issue was ratification of the administration’s expansionist activities; McKinley won handily. During the campaign in Utah charges were made that the Church was exercising its influence to sway the election, which the Deseret News vigorously denied on November 5, the day before the election:

“The Deseret News is authorized to state most emphatically that the Church is not engaged in politics. That no such instructions as those referred to have been sent forth from the First Presidency. That no one, however high in ecclesiastical position, is empowered to use Church influence in political affairs. That every member of the Church is absolutely free to vote according to his or her personal convictions or party fealty. That it is not right to exercise ecclesiastical authority to promote partisan purposes. … And that it is contrary to that personal freedom that the Church maintains, to sway voters by dictation, or suggestion, or open or covert means as coming from the ‘brethren,’ signifying the leaders of the Church.”

The editorial recognized that prominent Church officials had been active in both parties during the campaign but rightly pointed out that as citizens they had “as much right to work for the prevalence of their convictions as other citizens, but no more.”

In 1904 Theodore Roosevelt, who had stepped into the presidency after the assassination of McKinley, won easily, largely because he had the support of both the eastern industrialists and progressive politicians who were demanding major reforms in public policy in order to make government more responsive to the people and to control the excesses of monopolistic economic institutions.

In Utah that year, it appears that the Democratic party was hurt when it placed in its national platform a plank calling for the extermination of polygamy and the complete separation of church and state. This implied an endorsement of anti-Mormon groups who accused the Church of continuing the practice of plural marriage, and resulted in many Mormon Democrats moving into the Republican camp. The Church, nevertheless, continued to disavow any intent to tell its members how to vote, and in an election-eve editorial emphatically told them to “vote as they please.”

The Church continued to be charged with undue interference in politics, and it is true that on several issues that it considered to have moral overtones, it did take official action. These included such things as prohibition and Sunday closing laws. Even on these issues, however, members who voted differently were not necessarily considered disloyal to the Church.

But with regard to presidential elections, the Church continued to maintain a studied neutrality. In an official address to the world in 1907 it declared itself in favor of the “absolute freedom of the individual from the domination of ecclesiastical authority in political affairs.”8

In 1908, when William Jennings Bryan was making his third bid for the presidency, the Deseret News was friendly to Bryan; but on June 19 it suggested that William Howard Taft, the Republican candidate and Theodore Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor, might be the best man. Inevitably came the disapproving cry of undue mixture of church and state, and on June 23 the Deseret News again emphatically denied that the Church was taking a partisan position, even though it had said “a good word for a man who a great portion of this nation honor.”

The News continued to declare its impartiality in its editorial pages, but the whole campaign illustrates how complicated and difficult it is for church leaders who have strong political opinions of their own to promote those opinions without such criticism. It appears that most leaders of the Church, including President Joseph F. Smith, favored Taft, and even though they tried not to make a religious issue of it, their political opponents found it advantageous to continue to make the charges.

The issue became even more intense in 1912, when Taft was running for reelection against Woodrow Wilson. Wilson won the election largely because Theodore Roosevelt, dissatisfied with Taft’s lack of progressivism, had split the Republican party by forming his own “Bull Moose” party. In Utah, President Joseph F. Smith personally endorsed Taft in the pages of the Improvement Era,9 largely on the basis of Taft’s having avoided war with Mexico by not intervening in behalf of certain American interests there.

President Smith’s endorsement was immediately interpreted as an appeal to Church members to vote for Taft, although in a subsequent statement he insisted that it was merely a statement of personal preference, and the Deseret News again urged its readers to vote their personal convictions. Utah’s electoral vote went for Taft, although by a fairly close margin, but it is significant that the combined vote for Wilson and Roosevelt exceeded that for Taft. Apparently most Utah Saints were convinced that President Smith was sincere in implying that his endorsement of Taft did not limit their choices, although the actual effect of his statement is impossible to determine.

In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson ran for reelection and was opposed by Republican Charles Evans Hughes. With war raging in Europe, Wilson won largely on his record of having kept America out of the conflict. Utah also voted for Wilson, with no apparent party preference stressed by the Deseret News or Church leaders.

The one political issue on which Church leaders took a stand was prohibition, for which a third national party had been formed. The First Presidency donated $1,000 to the prohibition cause, and Elder Heber J. Grant, then a member of the Council of the Twelve, was president of Utah’s prohibition league, but there was no endorsement of the Prohibition party candidate by Church leaders.

In the next several elections the charge that church and state were too closely intertwined all but disappeared, and the Church continued in its nonpartisan stance. As with most Americans, the Latter-day Saints seemed satisfied with the apparent prosperity and good times of the 1920s, and they joined with the rest of the nation in generally casting their votes for the Republican candidates who seemed to represent the economic interests presumably responsible for the good times.

In 1932, however, disillusioned Mormon voters in Utah changed their minds along with the majority of the American people and, after three years of the Great Depression, voted into office Franklin D. Roosevelt, who seemed to promise the kind of imaginative leadership in the midst of serious economic crisis that the Republicans had failed to produce.

Although President Heber J. Grant announced his own support for the reelection of Herbert Hoover and of Senator Reed Smoot, the Latter-day Saint apostle who had been a leading Republican senator since 1902, he did not intend to commit the Church to such a vote; and on October 31, Elder James E. Talmage of the Council of the Twelve made it abundantly clear, in an article in the Deseret News, that the Church had no candidate. In the end Utah not only gave its electoral votes to Roosevelt but also turned Reed Smoot out of office in favor of the Democratic contender, Elbert Thomas.

In the next two elections the position of the Church seemed a little more ambiguous. In 1936 Roosevelt ran for reelection against Republican Alfred M. Landon and won a resounding victory, both in Utah and in the nation. Opponents of Roosevelt were fearful for human liberty under what appeared to be a revolutionary increase in the power and activity of the federal government.

The Deseret News severely criticized President Roosevelt for characterizing the Constitution as having come from “horse and buggy” days. Actually, Roosevelt had only angrily accused the Supreme Court of using an outdated interpretation of the interstate commerce clause when it overthrew on constitutional grounds certain legislation that he considered keystones of his economic program. But the News made an impassioned plea for support of the Constitution and endorsed Landon, who had declared that he would keep it inviolate. When the inevitable outcry came, President Heber J. Grant took full credit for the statement in the News, and Church members in Utah again considered it a personal declaration and not binding in terms of faith.

The Church-owned paper again opposed Roosevelt in 1940, using arguments against the propriety of a third term as its emphasis, but again the voters of Utah joined with the nation in giving him an overwhelming victory. In 1944, the News took no position as Roosevelt ran for a fourth term and was elected.

In subsequent presidential elections Church leaders, as individuals, have obviously favored certain candidates, but there has been no effort to promote political uniformity in the Church. However, some people still attempt to convey that impression; such efforts have come from at least two sources: (1) critics of the Church who delight in finding something with which to discredit it, and (2) certain politically minded Saints who seek to equate their own political beliefs with the doctrines of the Church in order to obtain greater support from Church members.

Church leaders have been critical of both, and in several official as well as unofficial statements they have decried any attempt to equate the Church with any party or candidate. In 1952, for example, David O. McKay declared during October conference:

“… Twice, during the conference, reference has been made to the fact that we are approaching a general election, in which tension becomes high; sometimes feelings are engendered; often false reports are made; and innocent people are misjudged.

“Recently we heard that in one meeting, for example, it was stated authoritatively by somebody that two members of the General Authorities had said that the General Authorities of the Church had held a meeting and had decided to favor one of the leading political parties over the other, here in this state, particularly. …

“This report is not true, and I take this opportunity here, publicly, to denounce such a report as without foundation in fact.

“In the Church, there are members who favor the Democratic party. There are other members who sincerely believe and advocate the principles and ideals of the Republican party. The First Presidency, the Council of the Twelve, and other officers who constitute the General Authorities of the Church, preside over members of both political parties.

“… The welfare of all members of the Church is equally considered by the President, his Counselors, and the General Authorities. Both political parties will be treated impartially.”10

Utah followed the nation that year as usual and helped elect Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the new president selected Ezra Taft Benson, a member of the Council of the Twelve, as his secretary of agriculture. By 1956 the fact that Elder Benson was in the cabinet, together with the well-publicized spirituality of Eisenhower, seemingly convinced some Latter-day Saints that the Republican party was the Church party, which, of course, the Deseret News denied emphatically.

In 1960 President David O. McKay, known to be a Republican, personally endorsed Richard M. Nixon, who was running against Democrat John F. Kennedy, but when the national press picked it up as a Church endorsement, he quickly made it clear that he had been misunderstood. He declared that his endorsement was of a personal nature for the nominee of his party, that he did not intend for it to influence the state, and that “every member of the Church is free to make his own choice, to vote for anyone he sees fit.”11 Utah voted for Nixon, although Kennedy narrowly won the national election.

In the meantime, Church members and leaders continued to be active in both political parties. Most prominent among them were Elder Ezra Taft Benson, a Republican, and Elder Hugh B. Brown, a Democrat, who in 1958 gave the keynote address in the state Democratic convention and who later became a counselor in the First Presidency of the Church.

Such diversity of political opinion has indeed set the tone for one important ideal that should characterize the thinking of all Church members, and that is, that men of good will can be unified in things religious while at the same time they may disagree in political philosophy without calling into question the loyalty, integrity, or faith of the other men. Church leaders have constantly set that example and have also publicly urged members to vote their own convictions. An official statement during the 1964 campaign declared:

“We find ourselves now immersed in a great political campaign in America for the purpose of selecting candidates for office in local, state, and national positions. We urged you as citizens to participate in this great democratic process, in accordance with your honest political convictions.

“However, above all else, strive to support good and conscientious candidates, of either party, who are aware of the great dangers inherent in communism, and who are truly dedicated to the Constitution in the tradition of our Founding Fathers.

“They should also pledge their sincere fealty to our way of liberty—a liberty which aims at the preservation of both personal and property rights.

“Study the issues, analyze the candidates on these grounds, and then exercise your franchise as free men and women.”12

This statement reflected Church concern over Communism in government and with some aspects of the proposed civil rights laws, which some people interpreted as interfering with property rights; but the statement was broad enough to accommodate a wide latitude of interpretations, and certainly members of both parties could easily subscribe to it.

In 1968 it appeared that the Saints might once again have their own presidential candidate, when George Romney, governor of Michigan and former president of Detroit Stake, made a serious bid for the Republican nomination. He did not seek the endorsement of the Church, however, and it is clear that even if he had won the nomination, there would have been no effort to make him an official candidate.

As it turned out, Richard Nixon was the Republican nominee and, by a narrow margin, defeated the Democratic nominee, Hubert H. Humphrey.

Again the Deseret News emphasized its impartiality, giving five important reasons for it: (1) there are Church members in both parties; (2) belief in the Constitution includes the belief that citizens grow through exercising their power of discernment; (3) no party or candidate has a monopoly on the truth; (4) there is value in studying the viewpoints of the opposition, and (5) all parties and candidates merit, at one time or another, both praise and blame.13

Earlier in the year President Hugh B. Brown gave a commencement address at Brigham Young University. Here he beautifully portrayed the true spirit of political debate when he cautioned the young voters not to engage in defaming personalities:

“You young people are leaving your university at the time in which our nation is engaged in an abrasive and increasingly strident process of electing a president. I wonder if you would permit me, one who has managed to survive a number of these events, to pass on to you a few words of counsel.

“First I would like you to be reassured that the leaders of both major political parties in this land are men of integrity and unquestioned patriotism. 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. Know that men of both major political parties who bear the nation’s executive, legislative, and judicial branches are men of unquestioned loyalty and we should stand by and support them, and this refers not only to one party but to all. 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.”14

Now, in 1972, we are once again engaged in a great political contest. With many of us, the intense political issues will also become emotional, and we may become somewhat heated as we debate them.

Some of us may have a tendency to equate our own political opinions with the doctrines of the Church, and thus, by implication, raise questions about the faith or loyalty of our opponents within the Church. It has been demonstrated that in times past Church leaders have sometimes endorsed presidential candidates, but that in general such endorsement has reflected personal preference rather than religious doctrine.

If the foregoing historical sketch suggests anything for today, it is that we as Latter-day Saints, above all people, must do two things to best promote responsible political debate: (1) study the issues on their merits, become as well informed as we possibly can, and vote for the candidate that most fully represents our personal convictions, and (2) debate the issues with such a combination of firmness and charity that while others know where we stand individually, and why, we do not at the time call into question their faith or patriotism and alienate them as brothers and fellow-citizens if they happen to disagree.

Last April President Harold B. Lee declared that the greatest danger to any society is apathy—that is, failure to be alert to the issues of the day, when applied either to principles or to the election of public officials. Among other things, he urged Church members to be guided in their deliberations by the Holy Ghost, by the Constitution of the United States, by the injunction in the Book of Mormon to do business by majority vote, and by the importance of choosing men to govern who will enforce the laws and administer law and justice. “In a word,” he said, “we must seek for statesmanlike men who will ask, ‘Is it right and is it good for the country or the community?’ instead of those who may merely ask, ‘Is it politically expedient?’”15

With such precedents and advice to go by, faithful Latter-day Saints in the United States will certainly display exemplary citizenship as they study and debate the issues and, come November 7, vote their sincere convictions.

Note: The writer expresses sincere thanks to William G. Hartley of the Historical Department for much of the research connected with this article.


  1. History of the Church, vol. 4, p. 203 (hereafter cited as DHC).

  2. Ibid.

  3. Ibid., p. 89.

  4. DHC, vol. 5, p. 286.

  5. Ibid., p. 526.

  6. DHC, vol. 6, pp. 56–57.

  7. See DHC, vol. 6, pp. 197–209.

  8. Quoted in B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, vol. 6, p. 436.

  9. Improvement Era, vol. 15 (October 1912), pp. 1120–21.

  10. Conference Report, October 1952, pp. 129–30.

  11. Deseret News, October 28, 1960.

  12. Deseret News, November 2, 1964.

  13. Deseret News, November 1, 1968.

  14. Commencement address, Brigham Young University, May 31, 1968.

  15. Ensign, July 1972, p. 32.

The White House in Washington, D.C., home of presidents

The Prophet, a Church periodical published in New York, carried this advertisement for Joseph Smith’s candidacy for the American presidency in 1844

The Prophet Joseph Smith, who in 1844 announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency, delivers his last public address

Mobs destroyed the Church’s press in Jackson County, Missouri; it was such persecution that helped induce Joseph Smith to run for U.S. President. (Painting by C. C. A. Christensen.)

President David O. McKay with the then U.S. vice-president Richard M. Nixon

President David O. McKay with U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson