In Mormon chapels across Utah today, bishops read an official church letter from the pulpit urging congregants, in uniquely strong terms, to attend the state's caucuses next month—regardless of which party they belong to.
"We are concerned with the decreasing attendance at these caucus meetings in Utah in recent years," reads the letter, originally released last Monday, and signed by the church's prophet and his two counselors.
The church even called on local congregations to cancel any activities that would prevent the state's Mormons from caucusing. It's an unusually bold move -- though the church has always encouraged civic engagement -- and it comes at a time when Mitt Romney is on his way to becoming, quite possibly, the faith's first major-party presidential nominee.
But the church sought to reaffirm in the letter that it espoused no pro-Romney favoritism: "Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in the platforms of the various political parties. We encourage members to attend their precinct caucus meetings."
It's a line the church has used before, but that didn't stop Utah's perpetually-struggling Democratic Party from seizing the moment.
"For too long, some politicos have represented to faithful LDS voters that they only have one choice of political parties," said state party chair Jim Dabakis in a statement, adding, "We Democrats welcome our LDS brothers and sisters and appreciate their opinions, hard work, and values in our big tent Democratic Party!"
The encouragement to caucus likely had nothing to do with Romney's candidacy--Utah's caucuses aren't used to nominate presidential candidates, and the state will hold a primary in June. But the nonpartisan rhetoric, while not exactly fresh, does come with fresh context. While the church has always asserted political neutrality, it's been working extra hard this election cycle to prove it, even as many of its members mobilize to get their coreligionist to the White House.
A recent Pew survey showed that 74 percent of self-identified Mormons "lean Republican," and an overwhelming portion support Romney's candidacy. Mormon Democrats do exist, but they often face criticism from fellow believers that their political views are out of step with doctrinal teachings.
Ironically, LDS liberals may actually be emboldened by Romney's candidacy, at least within their own congregations. With a Mormon Republican in the race, expect to see plenty more of this bipartisan rhetoric coming from Salt Lake -- and LDS Democrats will be filing away each and every statement.
The church's full letter below:
On Tuesday, March 13, and Thursday, March 15, 2012, political parties in Utah will hold precinct caucus meetings. Precinct caucuses are the most fundamental grassroots level of political involvement. They are best served by a broad representation of Utah citizens. Those who attend play a critical role in selecting candidates for public office.
We are concerned with the decreasing attendance at these caucus meetings in Utah in recent years. We therefore ask that local leaders not schedule meetings on these Tuesday and Thursday evenings so that members may attend a caucus meeting of their choice. The locations of these meetings can be found on the websites of the respective political parties.
Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in the platforms of the various political parties. We encourage members to attend their precinct caucus meetings.