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Should politicians heed their prophet or pope?

Blind obedience or open defiance can cost lawmakers.

One day he’s dissing gay activists as immoral “buggers” and perhaps the “greatest threat” to the nation. Then, he’s embracing anti-discrimination legislation and conceding the “right” gay residents have to job and housing protections.

What swayed state Sen. Chris Buttars?

His church.

In November, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced its support of Salt Lake City’s measures safeguarding gay and transgender residents from discrimination.

Suddenly, Buttars, R-West Jordan, and his Mormon colleagues on the right who had vigorously — and vociferously — opposed such laws faced a choice: Should they back or buck their church?

This same “follow the prophet” pressure gripped LDS liberals when the Utah-based church came out in favor of California’s Proposition 8, defining marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman. For Latter-day Saints, adherence to their prophet’s instructions is more than an abstract notion. It is repeated often from the pulpit and written into the Mormon identity.

Roman Catholic lawmakers bump into similar dilemmas when the pope or bishops weigh in on issues from abortion to health care to capital punishment. How much deference, if any, do politicians of faith owe to their ecclesiastical leaders, especially in religions with top-down hierarchies?

Catholics regard their leaders as stand-ins for Christ who speak on moral issues with an undeniable authority. The church’s  catechism states “the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.”

In today’s political universe, that seems increasingly to cut both ways.

“Whenever people claim, ‘the church says,’ that’s a clue that one side [of the debate] is trying to shut down the other,” says Alpine resident Charles Randall Paul, a Mormon and president of the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy. “It’s possible for Mormons to say, ‘You’re a prophet, but I think you’re wrong about this.’ ”

Like many religious people, Kristine Haglund, an LDS writer in Boston, embraces statements by church leaders “that tend to confirm my prejudices, and [looks] for ways to rationalize, historicize, relativize or contextualize the ones that are challenging.”

Still, Haglund, editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought , says she takes seriously the idea that the Holy Spirit can help members know when the LDS prophet is speaking for God.

“In the absence of that witness,” she says, “I feel that God expects me to exercise my own intellect and the capacity for moral judgment that is a gift to all God’s children to arrive at a position that seems reasonable and just.”

But that’s a complicated, messy process. What if not everyone arrives at the same conclusion?

Latter-day dilemma » At some point in their careers, all Mormon politicians face the prospect that their opinions could diverge from LDS stands on issues such as women’s rights, abortion, euthanasia, immigration, same-sex marriage, liquor laws or even what to do with a particular block of downtown Salt Lake City.

“If the church takes a position on a public-policy issue contrary to popular sentiment, as a public official, I have two choices: Either I follow the will of the people and be popular or follow my faith leaders, risking the rejection of the voters,” says Stuart Reid, a former Salt Lake City councilman. “When faced with this dilemma, it’s my guiding principle that devoted Mormons involved in politics should always choose to follow their faith leaders no matter their own personal views or the political consequences.”

Reid, now an Ogden developer who lost a bid for Salt Lake City mayor, says he “held to that principle and experienced the consequences.”

For its part, the LDS Church long has said it is politically neutral and, even on those occasions when it takes a stand, members usually are free to follow their conscience without facing church sanctions. Mormon voters, however, may not approve of politicians who seem to either blindly follow or openly disagree with the church.

Utah legislators who are LDS mention the need to balance their respect for Mormon officials with representing the voters who elected them.

“I am a really devout, committed member and believe strongly in the tenets of the religion. I take seriously whatever positions the church takes on a particular issue,” says Rep. Ronda Menlove, R-Garland, whose husband is an LDS stake president. “I am also a pragmatist, [so] not all of my votes are driven by what the LDS Church says.”

She — like Sens. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, and Curt Bramble, R-Provo — agrees with the LDS Church’s endorsement of the city’s anti-discrimination ordinances (also adopted by Salt Lake County), but Menlove is cautious about how broadly to apply them in the state.

Lawmakers reached a tenuous truce last week delaying any action for or against such statutes until next year. The buzz around the Capitol was that some LDS lawmakers were ready to defy their faith’s leaders and strike down Salt Lake City’s anti-discrimination ordinances even though the church had urged legislators to leave them intact.

“I am concerned about some elements in the Salt Lake City statutes,” Hillyard says. “I represent my constituency, and I suspect if the City Council [members] in Logan wanted to do it, they would have.”

The longtime Republican senator says if he disagreed with Mormon officials, he would feel comfortable taking a different position.

“I understand,” Hillyard says, “they have a perspective not only of Salt Lake City but of Utah and the world that may be different than my constituents’.”

LDS legislators also are divided on immigration policies, although their church has urged a “compassionate” approach.

“My constituency has been very adamant in support of legal immigration,” Sen. Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights, says, “and I’ve been pretty firm with that position. I haven’t been influenced by any one religious organization, whether my own or anyone else’s.”

For his part, Bramble, who grew up Methodist and attended Notre Dame and then Brigham Young University, where he joined the LDS Church, says he never has found himself at odds with his faith.

“The stands they have taken have not been inconsistent with my own personal philosophy,” says Bramble, who opposed last year’s Common Ground initiative that included housing and employment safeguards for gays but now supports Salt Lake City’s statutes. “It’s a chicken-or-the-egg question.”

Bramble says he decides for himself how to vote.

“Ecclesiastical positions and political positions are not the same thing,” he says, referring particularly to the church’s views on immigration. “I certainly know the church’s position on compassion for all human beings, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for any church to be in the position of enforcing immigration laws.”

Catholic model » There are as many ways of responding to issues as there are Catholics and politicians, but the church has clear moral teachings on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, same-sex marriage, immigration, health care and social justice. It teaches, for example, that abortion is wrong, that people ought not be involved and that government ought not support it.

What about Catholic politicians, then, who support abortion rights? Are they, to use the faith’s vernacular, “wrongfully cooperating with evil”?

Some bishops, including former Utah Bishop William Weigand, now retired in Sacramento, Calif., believe such politicians should not take Communion during Mass.

“As your bishop,” he said in a 2003 homily, “I have to say clearly that anyone, politician or otherwise, who thinks it is acceptable for a Catholic to be pro-abortion is in very great error, puts his or her soul at risk and is not in good standing with the church.”

Some go further and argue that Catholics who vote for such politicians should be denied Communion.

Notre Dame theologian and legal scholar Cathleen Kaveny opposes such sanctions, which she believes politicize the issues, without considering a politician’s motivations. She also points to difficulties facing other public officials.

“Should a district judge quit rather than issue a decision that supports Roe v. Wade? Most Catholics would say no. That’s not within his scope,” Kaveny says. “When are you allowed to go along with something and when do you have to stop and say, ‘I can’t do that?’ ”

The strong emphasis on obedience to authority in Catholicism is matched by an equally strong emphasis upon individual conscience as “the voice of God inside us,” explains Mathew Schmalz, a Catholic who teaches Mormon studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. “One’s conscience might very well dictate that one has to disobey that teaching in special circumstances. I am required to take [church teaching] seriously and to critically examine my own conscience if I disagree.”

As a Catholic, Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, respects Utah Bishop John Wester on his faith’s overall teachings, but disagrees on some public-policy issues.

“I would be strongly in favor of counseling any family member about alternatives to abortion, and I would encourage adoption or foster care that would accommodate for that life,” he says. “Yet, legislatively, I don’t believe it is appropriate for the government to be overly engaged in that decision-making for individuals. As a matter of public policy, I have defended a woman’s right to choose.”

Romero also backs capital punishment, while his church opposes it. He does align with the bishops on welcoming and not punishing those coming to America for a better life.

The church has a role relative to “advancing the human condition,” Romero says. “Elected officials share that role but also have the additional burden for public safety, knowing who is in our community and that they’re behaving well, not committing crimes and that they’re not manipulated or abused in a black market.”

Romero says he recently met with Wester to discuss upcoming legislation, much as other legislators huddled with LDS officials.

Not all believers are deferential to popes or prophets.

Catholic bishops are free to talk about morality, says Patrick Shea, a Utah attorney and former director of the Bureau of Land Management under President Bill Clinton, “but cannot and should not, in ecclesiastical roles, speak on ethics. That is a secular matter suited for give and take in the marketplace of ideas.”

Shea, a Jesuit-trained Catholic, was outraged by the bishops’ opposition to health-care reform because they feared government funds would go toward abortions.

“The idea that some nuanced and Machiavellian statements from bishops sitting in Washington would negate the opportunity for 40 million Americans who don’t have health insurance is incongruous and, in my judgment, immoral,” Shea says. “I am against abortion, but I don’t think Roe v. Wade should be set aside. It is the law of the land.”

Shea, who doesn’t think there has been a good pope since John XXIII died in 1963, says he would take advice from Weigand or from Monsignor Terrence Fitzgerald, the Salt Lake City Diocese’s vicar general.

But when the bishops “cross the wall and move from morality to ethics,” he says, “they have no greater credibility than the bus driver or the garbage man.”

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