Latter-Day Saints Speak Out to Protect Democracy

*By Lucianne Nelson
Time Period: 2020-present
Location: United States
Main Actors: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Tactics
– Public Statements

In the immediate lead-up to the inauguration of President Biden, the governing body of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged church members “to honor democratic institutions and processes, and to obey, honor, and sustain the law.” And, as early as October of 2020, high-profile members of the Church warned that they would oppose any post-election unrest. Dallin Oaks, First Counselor to the First Presidency, clarified in his sermon at the Church’s General Conference that “We [members of the Church] peacefully accept the results of elections. We will not participate in the violence threatened by those disappointed with the outcome.”

Despite these preemptive statements from church leadership, some Latter-day Saints did participate in the insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6th. Several of these individuals even incorporated sacred texts and imagery into banners and clothing during the attack. These conflicting views of democracy within the Church gesture at the layered challenges that members of the modern church are wrestling with, and this caselet provides an overview of how the Church is dealing with the aftermath of January 6th. It also addresses the Church’s efforts to establish a more fortified front against subsequent attacks on American democracy. 

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints experienced periods of intense religious discrimination throughout US history, and episodes of violent persecution led the Latter-day Saints to develop a wariness towards the American government. Joseph Smith—the first prophet and founder of the Latter-day Saints faith—initially encouraged his followers to respect the United States Constitution as “a glorious standard” that “is founded in the wisdom of God.” 

The Church encountered mob violence as it grew, and the US government neglected to intervene or protect Latter-day Saints from attack. The Church migrated through different states in order to avoid conflict but continued to face extermination orders and violence that effectively amounted to religiously motivated genocide. Joseph Smith was eventually killed by a mob while in American custody. This event created a disenchantment with mainstream America, and the church fled to Utah territory (which was outside of US jurisdiction at that time). 

Even after they fled west, the Latter-day Saints continued to clash with the United States government. Nevertheless, they maintained a reverence for the Constitution and conceptualized themselves as true defenders of America’s founding principles. The Church adopted a bifurcated position in which they supported the US Constitution but defied American policy. Church leaders like Smith and Brigham Young (the second prophet who took over after Smith’s death) prophesied that the US would ultimately fail, and that Latter-day Saints would step into the ensuing chaos to preserve a collapsing system. As the Church’s theology and culture was refined over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Latter-day Saints continued to maintain a level of distrust toward centralized government.

Church leadership eventually chose to integrate the Church into mainstream American society and the current Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints aims to be a politically neutral body. But, given its complicated history with government in the United States, the Church retains traces of conservative libertarianism. Modern Church leaders often still articulate a religious vision where “America is a chosen land meant to be ruled by godly figures, divine truths, and libertarian values.” According to data from the Public Religion Research Institute, nearly forty-six percent of self-identifying Latter-day Saints believe the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was rampant with voter fraud and the outcome was stolen. PRRI also found that the members of the Church are likelier than others to believe in disinformation that undermines American democracy. Even as official Church leadership encouraged the Church to support the 2020 electoral outcomes, they struggled to effectively overcome these modern iterations of a historical distrust. 

Utah Senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney—and their vastly different responses to January 6th—offer a study of contrasts that illustrates the tensions within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While Senator Lee enthusiastically supported, justified, and encouraged President Trump’s attempt to subvert the 2020 election, Senator Romney steadfastly opposed attempts to undermine American democracy. Romney was the first (and arguably most high-profile) Republican in the US Senate to vote to convict President Trump in the 2020 impeachment trial. Romney, a more establishment Republican, aligned with Church leadership in supporting democracy. Like the official Church, Senator Romney is conservative, but he embraces Church member integration into mainstream American politics. He voted to convict former President Trump in 20201 for inciting the January 6th insurrection. Senator Lee, however, actively participated in efforts to block President Biden from taking office during the transition between administrations. He also endorsed the “fake electors” scheme prior to the attack on the Capitol. Senator Lee is a more populist politician, and his political behavior carries forward an anti-government distrust that lingers in Latter-day Saints culture.

Other Latter-day Saints also took courageous action in response to the crisis of January 6th. Rusty Bowers, former Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, gained national recognition for his efforts to resist attempts to overturn the 2020 election results. A former statewide leader, Bowers is a staunch conservative, but he refused to cooperate with unconstitutional attempts to invalidate Arizona’s election results. Bowers publicly asserted that there was no evidence of election fraud, and also denied a bill in the Arizona House of Representatives that would have allowed the state legislature to reject the outcomes of the 2020 election. Bowers consistently emphasized his commitment to democracy, despite being threatened, doxed, and harassed for his position. In 2022, Bowers testified before the US House January 6th Committee and detailed how his life became completely upended by anti-democratic actors. Bowers stated that his faith motivated him to uphold his oath of office and protect democracy.

The organization Mormon Women for Ethical Government—MWEG—also identifies their faith as foundational to their work of protecting a peaceful and democratic society. While MWEG is not endorsed by or officially affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the group is nonetheless guided by faith and “honors and sustains the Church’s doctrines and leaders.” Much of their work utilizes bridgebuilding tactics to engage its members and other citizens in the political process, support civic leaders in facing tough challenges, and promote peaceful discourse. During the period between Election Day 2020 and the January 6th insurrection, MWEG issued a series of action calls that urged their members to request that members of Congress acknowledge and certify the 2020 election results. MWEG expressed concern about the attacks on American democracy and offered concrete actions that its members could take to demonstrate support for democratic norms. And, after the attack on the US Capitol, MWEG denounced the events of that day as violent and anti-democratic. MWEG published additional calls to action that encouraged its members (and all Americans) to offer robust support to leaders who take courageous action in defense of democracy.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is uniquely positioned to exercise spiritual authority to influence and mobilize the political behavior of its members. The Church features a centralized organizational structure and Church doctrine requires members to remain in faithful obedience to its leadership. In fact, individual members who wish to participate in Church life are required to affirm that they believe that (1) the president of the Church is the sole person authorized to speak for God and (2) that this Prophet is their primary authority over day-to-day life. Many activities that are central to Latter-day Saints’ religious life—such as teaching Sunday School, conducting home ministering visits, and religious outreach—channel community consciousness through the Church. Latter-day Saints’ congregations view civic engagement as an expression of faith and are thus primed to be part of efforts to fortify American democracy. 

Where to Learn More
October 2020 General Conference
Get Involved – MWEG
Final Report of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol
The “Big Lie”: Most Republicans Believe the 2020 Election was Stolen

You can access all the caselets from the Pillars of Support Project here.