Church Official Pushes Mormon Voter Registration in Key Swing State
(NEW YORK) -- In a provocative move within a religious organization that has sought to display strict political neutrality, an official of the Mormon church has disseminated a presentation across the key swing state of Nevada that urges members to vote and speak "with one voice" in the coming presidential election that pits Mormon Mitt Romney against President Barack Obama.
"Any Mormon would understand exactly what's being said there," said Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth religion professor who has studied the church's handling of Romney's presidential bids. "This is very thinly coded language."
Mormon officials have permitted church leaders to encourage voting, but have stressed that it not be done in a partisan fashion. A senior church member emailed the presentation to Nevada "stake presidents" -- similar to Catholic bishops -- last month. The email was first reported last week by Jon Ralston, an independent Nevada journalist.
The roughly 30-minute PowerPoint presentation appears to have two goals -- to motivate Mormons in Nevada to register and vote in November, and to help them prepare for questions they may get as their church garners attention as a result of Romney's bid. Three of the 20 slides that were shared with ABC News pointedly urge members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to remember the "importance of speaking with one voice."
One slide includes voter registration data for Clark County, a jurisdiction that includes Las Vegas, where Democrats outnumber Republicans. Other slides appear to convey the stakes in the upcoming campaign, including one that espouses the need to restore a "spiritually dead society" and another that quotes a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles saying, "We are at war with the influences of Satan." ABC News has only seen a portion of the presentation.
Mormon officials told ABC News that the entreaty to "speak with one voice" conveys a desire to see church members provide consistent responses to questions from outsiders about church rituals and doctrine, and is not an entreaty to vote as a block.
"The Church has always encouraged people to be a part of the political process and to register to vote," said Dale Jones, a church spokesman. "However, we do not direct them on how to vote. We are politically neutral and do not support candidates or political platforms."
One slide in the presentation titled "Political Neutrality" explicitly notes this, stating that the Church's mission "is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians." The slide says the church does not "attempt to direct its members as to which candidate or party they should give their votes to. This policy applies whether or not a candidate for office is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
Church spokesman Scott Trotter, however, declined to respond to questions from ABC News about who prepared the presentation, how many church groups saw it, why details about it are being kept secret, and why a "war with Satan" was referenced in the middle of a presentation on the importance of voting.
Darren Littell, the spokesman for the Romney campaign in Nevada, said the Romney campaign has nothing to do with the "One Voice" PowerPoint presentation.
Edwin Firmage, a University of Utah law professor and expert on the separation of church and state, told ABC News the presentation appears to be aimed at helping mobilize support for Romney.
"I would say this isn't even thinly veiled," Firmage said. "Of course it's political."
Firmage, an Obama supporter, said he considered the presentation a departure for church officials whom he believes have shown "a great deal of discipline" in avoiding overtly political activity during the presidential contest. "They've been very adroit," he said.
The presentation includes several slides focused on religious teachings that encourage civic participation. One of them advises viewers that "We have a responsibility to vote," and quotes Mormon scripture as saying: "We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that he holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them, both in making laws and administering them, for the good and safety of society."
The decision to distribute the presentation in Nevada was probably no accident, Balmer said. Among the handful of states that are considered up for grabs in the 2012 election, Nevada has the most vibrant Mormon community. Mormons represented roughly a quarter of the GOP caucus vote in Nevada in 2012, and nearly all of them supported Romney, according to exit polling.
Both candidates spent time in Nevada in recent weeks.
The slideshow provides advice about how to answer questions from friends and neighbors generated by news coverage on Mormonism in light of Romney's bid. The presentation points members to resources where they can find answers to questions about the role of women in the church, about the use of special garments, and about the central role of Jesus Christ in the church.
Near the end of the presentation, a slide poses the question, "So… What can I do?" It lists five answers, with step five being: "Register to vote … and VOTE!"
The Mormon church is not the only religious group to encourage parishioners to vote. For example, an Orthodox Jewish group recently organized a voter registration drive in Florida, and a coalition of black churches has made plans to transport elderly congregants to the polls in battleground states this November, according to published reports.
Balmer said the Mormon Church is well aware that Romney is likely to receive overwhelming support from Mormons, and so simply encouraging them to turn out to vote is akin to assisting his bid.
"On the face of it, there's nothing unusual in what they're doing," Balmer said. "But in reality, the message is not hard to miss."
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio