SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — An invitation by Brigham Young University to the vice president of the United States to be the commencement speaker next month has triggered discussion and some controversy over the issue of political neutrality.
Whatever the personal views of individual students or other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the invitation is seen by the university’s board of trustees as one extended to someone holding the high office of vice president of the United States rather than to a partisan political figure.
The Salt Lake Tribune ran two articles in its edition this morning (29 March) related to the pending visit of the vice president.
One, a prominently displayed personal opinion piece by a political reporter, criticizes the Church, in intemperate and disrespectful language, for inviting Vice President Dick Cheney to be the commencement speaker.
The reporter’s central point seems to be that inviting the vice president — presumably this particular vice president — is inconsistent with the Church’s often-stated political neutrality.
The other article — in the same newspaper — is an editorial that urges that the vice president be allowed to speak because “this is democracy at work” and that an audience of college graduates is capable of assessing what he says.
The newspaper further says that the decision was for the BYU board of trustees to make, “just as it is the right of anyone who disagrees with the choice to say so.”
Let’s take a look at what the Church’s political neutrality policy is.
First, the Church prohibits any Church leader from endorsing a candidate in the name of the Church. In the American political process, endorsement means officially putting the weight of an institution or individual behind a political candidate — publicly giving unequivocal support to the candidate’s policies and platform.
Second, the Church bans the use of its chapels for party political purposes and also refuses to allow the distribution of Church membership rolls to anyone, including politicians and candidates.
It also carefully avoids telling its members for whom they should vote. Neither does it tell elected Latter-day Saint officials how they should vote.
Such a policy makes sense in a Church that operates in more than 160 countries and with a global membership that embraces many different political persuasions and views. But the policy is also a reflection of what Church leaders see as the organization’s central mission — to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. To engage in partisan politics or to take up every social cause would be to divert the Church from that mission.
There is also another side to the neutrality policy, apart from prohibitions. The Church “encourages its members to play a role as responsible citizens in their communities, including becoming informed about issues and voting in elections.”
Further, the Church “expects its members to engage in the political process in an informed and civil manner, respecting the fact that members of the Church come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences and may have differences of opinion in partisan political matters.”
The invitation to the vice president of the United States is not a violation of that policy, any more than inviting the majority leader of the Senate would be. In fact, Senator Harry Reid — a Democrat from the opposite political pole to the vice president — has already accepted such an invitation for this fall. That invitation has been in process for many months — long before the announcement of the vice president’s visit.
Is it appropriate for a university — even one that espouses a policy of political neutrality — to have as featured speakers the holders of some of the highest offices in the land? Of course it is. And whoever the visitor — the vice president, the majority leader of the Senate or the chief justice of the Supreme Court (another scheduled fall speaker) — the university and the student body will listen, evaluate and react to them as intelligent citizens capable of making up their own minds about their messages.