The rise of vaccine mandates has many seeking religious exemptions. For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) or Mormons, as they’re sometimes called, those exemptions will not be granted by church leaders. Top LDS officials released a statement last month urging members to vaccinate and wear masks. The admonition is causing an unprecedented division among the Mormons.
As vaccine mandates are being implemented across the states, including Washington, many are seeking religious exemptions. However, for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it may be difficult to qualify for them.
As the Salt Lake City Tribune recently reported, “LDS Church won’t help California members avoid vaccine mandates.” In the report, the Tribune details a letter from church headquarters sent out to all LDS leaders in California. The letter stated that “No church official can sign any kind of document supporting the notion that church doctrine/teaching is opposed to vaccination or that the church is opposed to vaccination mandates.”
The letter continues to reinforce the contrary—that top church officials not only support but even encourage vaccination. After acknowledging the church’s doctrine regarding free agency, the letter states, “but that alone does not provide a religious basis for disobeying the law or demanding special exemptions from it.”
Though this may come as a surprise to some, the letter aligns with an earlier statement the Church made about vaccines. And as the organization’s top officials oversee church activity across the globe, it is unlikely that they will say anything different to members in other states that have implemented similar vaccine mandates like Washington.
Members’ mixed reactions to First Presidency’s statement about vaccines and masks
In the context of fighting against COVID-19’s spread, the statement reads, “We urge the use of face masks in public meetings whenever social distancing is not possible.” The message continues, stating, “To provide personal protection from such severe infections, we urge individuals to be vaccinated. Available vaccines have proven to be both safe and effective.”
While the message isn’t inherently divisive, the reaction of the church’s members may be. A poll of over 20 church members across nine states, whose ages range from 22 to 60, reveals that the First Presidency’s statement has had mixed results. When asked if they have seen a change in behavior regarding masks and vaccines in their local ward since the August 12th statement, 48% said yes and 52% said no (see Figure A).
Even though the question focuses on the subjective experiences of individuals, it is fascinating that even a small pool of members paints such a divided picture. Tim May, in Vancouver, WA, told the Salt Lake Tribune last month that he saw “a pronounced obvious change” in behavior in his ward following the statement. “Last week, we had one to two families masked,” he says. “This week, every family but one was masked.”
In most places that witnessed a significant difference, the Tribune reports that local church leaders relayed the First Presidency’s message to their congregation. However, as Trish Murphy Hartman in Montana said, “It didn’t seem to change a thing. No letter was read and only visitors were wearing masks.”
Following the Prophet
These mixed reactions may not seem significant from an outsider’s perspective, but it is likely alarming for those familiar with the LDS faith. “Follow the prophet” is a common refrain in the church. Members often sing the words, “We thank thee oh God for a prophet to guide us in these latter days.” There is a great emphasis on heeding prophetic admonitions because members believe that their leader, President Nelson, is a prophet who can speak on behalf of God.
A verse of LDS scripture that succinctly summarizes this doctrine reads, “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken […] whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” In this context, members could interpret President Nelson’s exhortation to vaccinate and mask-up as a divine admonition (though it should be noted that the specific word used in the statement is urge, not command). The fact that there doesn’t appear to be a unified response to the prophet’s message is uncharacteristic of the church’s membership.
Speaking to this abnormal reaction, Maddy Curtis in Rexburg, ID, told the Lynnwood Times how she has never seen fellow members respond to prophetic counsel with such hesitancy before. “It was interesting to me that when it came to the First Presidency statement that many were going against the prophet in a really big way that I had never seen before,” she said. “Many are not wanting to comply with masks or want to get the vaccine.”
An Indicator of Intense Polarization
The intensifying political polarization across the states has been palpable. A 2019 Pew Research study revealed that nothing is more divisive in the U.S. than partisanship. “Partisanship continues to be the dividing line in the American public’s political attitudes,” the study reads, “far surpassing differences by age, race and ethnicity, gender, educational attainment, religious affiliation or other factors.”
The ununified behavior towards COVID-19 among Latter-Day Saints is an alarming example of this. Members of the LDS Church have historically been a tightly-knit group. A fundamental belief of Mormonism is that the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is synonymous with the kingdom of God on earth.” This is to say that members believe they are all part of God’s kingdom. Additionally, Latter-Day Saints believe they are children of God and part of the same heavenly family — even referring to each other as brothers and sisters within the faith.
It comes as a surprise, then, that there is visible division—at least in behaviors revolving around COVID-19—among the Latter-Day Saints.
While the majority of conservatives are Christian — 85% according to Pew Research — it logically follows that Mormons are mostly right-leaning as well, though “Political Neutrality” is the church’s official stance. Among its members, 70% are republican, 11% are unaffiliated, and 19% are democrats, per the latest poll from Pew.
These numbers, in tandem with the Church’s doctrine, speak to how unified the church has historically been, and that is why division among its members is concerning. If the Mormons are becoming divided, what does that say about the rest of the country’s political health?