Political rifts, race issues may dominate Mormon conference

SALT LAKE CITY — The Mormon church is holding its twice-a-year conference this weekend amid a tumultuous political climate in the U.S. and without the participation of its ailing 90-year-old president.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Thomas S. Monson will miss the conference for the first time since 1963, when he became the youngest-ever member of the top governing body called Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He ascended to the top post in 2008 and is considered a prophet.

Another key leader, 85-year-old Robert D. Hales, also will miss the conference due to his health.

Topics to be discussed are kept under wraps until conference begins, but here’s a look at what some in the nearly 16 million-member religion will be watching for during the conference:

Political Divide

As Mormons live through a turbulent time in American politics, some members will be listening to see if church leaders provide guidance on dealing with high tension and strong opinions.

Mormon leaders don’t endorse candidates or parties, but they sometimes weigh in on what they consider crucial moral issues.

During the 2016 presidential election, the church defended religious liberty after Donald Trump suggested banning Muslims from entering the U.S. The religion also renewed calls for an end to culture wars where people stake out extreme positions.

Mormons historically lean heavily Republican, but the GOP grip on the faith’s voters slipped last year with Trump as the party’s candidate, according to a Pew Research Center.

Many of Utah’s mostly Mormon voters struggled to embrace Trump’s brash demeanor and recoiled over the billionaire’s comments about women, minorities and Muslims. He won Mormon-heavy Utah, but with a smaller percentage of the vote than Republican presidential candidates in recent history.

At the Mormon women’s conference last weekend, top leader Dieter F. Uchtdorf echoed recent guidance from the church by encouraging Mormons to stand for what they believe in without judging the opposition.

“Of course, we must always stand for what is right, and there are times when we must raise our voices for that cause. However, when we do so with anger or hate in our hearts — when we lash out at others to hurt, shame, or silence them — chances are we are not doing so in righteousness,” said Uchtdorf, one of the top two counselors to the church president and a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Issues of Race

With concerns about rising tides of white supremacy in the U.S., many Mormons will be listening to hear if church leaders once again denounce racism.

In August, church leaders condemned white supremacist attitudes as “morally wrong and sinful” after a protest over a Confederate War monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, descended into deadly violence.

“Church members who promote or pursue a ‘white culture’ or white supremacy agenda are not in harmony with the teachings of the church,” the faith said in a statement.

A Mormon group formed this summer to advocate for the church and its members to do more to eradicate racism and white supremacy. The group, called Shoulder to the Wheel, wants to break the silence and make church members who espouse racist views feel uncomfortable.

The religion still deals with questions about their views on race, in part because the faith banned men of African descent from the lay clergy until 1978.

In 2013, the church went further than before in explaining that the ban was put in place during an era of great racial divide that influenced early Mormon teachings. It said in an essay that it now disavows the theories of the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse.

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