Despite LDS Church rules against top leaders contributing to political candidates, federal election reports indicate that popular Latter-day Saint apostle Dieter Uchtdorf made 13 donations last year and early in 2021, totaling nearly $2,300, to Democratic Party funds and candidates, including Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.
Uchtdorf confirmed in an emailed statement Friday that the donations were made by his family “using an online account, which is shared by our family and associated with my name.”
Any Uchtdorf contribution would violate the faith’s stated political neutrality policy, which declares that the church’s “general authorities and general officers … and their spouses and other ecclesiastical leaders serving full time should not personally participate in political campaigns, including promoting candidates, fundraising, speaking in behalf of or otherwise endorsing candidates, and making financial contributions.”
He regrets “such an oversight on my part,” the affable German said in his statement. “I fully support the church’s policy related to political donations from church leaders.”
While it appears Uchtdorf may have breached a church rule, he did not break the law, according to an election expert.
“These would not be illegal contributions unless the donor was intentionally trying to hide their actual identity, which seems not to be the case here,” said Matthew Sanderson, an election law attorney based in Washington. “I would not expect anything to come of this, particularly because the donation amounts are small and because this circumstance of shared family accounts has become more commonplace in the era of small online political donations.”
Sanderson said the “likely resolution will be limited to the recipient campaigns filing amendments to their public disclosure reports to reflect the real donor’s identity.”
Emily Jensen, online editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, asked why church leaders’ spouses aren’t exempted from the rules on candidate contributions.
“A few years ago, I was delighted to see Elder and Sister Uchtdorf enter the same movie my husband and I planned to see: ‘The Post.’ General authorities, in principle, seem politically neutral but in choosing to see a movie in theaters that was about publishing the Pentagon Papers, they were an example of trying to stay educated about the wider political world,” Jensen said. “I’d like to think that it was Harriet Uchtdorf who made the donation and wonder why the policy extends to spouses. Why can’t it come from the household but not the general authority himself?”
The rule “seems a relic of a time when couples shared the finances,” the Bountiful resident said, “and not a very good reflection on the idea that women can and should make their own financial decisions including, in this case, supporting a candidate or cause they find important.”
According to Federal Election Commission records, Uchtdorf made four donations of $250 to the Biden for President campaign, one for $250 to the Biden Fight Fund, one for $250 to the Democratic National Committee, and two $100 donations to ActBlue, an online giving platform that enables contributions to Democratic candidates.
After the Nov. 3 election, the records indicate, the apostle gave a total of five donations to the two Democratic hopefuls in Georgia seeking seats in a critical Jan. 5 runoff that would determine control of the U.S. Senate.
Uchtdorf gave three donations — for $170, $125 and $83.33 — to the campaign of Raphael Warnock, pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. One of the contributions was received the day before the runoff vote.
He also gave two contributions — for $125 and $83.34 — to the campaign of Jon Ossoff, seeking to become the Peach State’s first Jewish senator. Again, the last donation was received the day before the special election.
Both Ossoff and Warnock prevailed, giving Democrats control of both chambers in Congress and, with Biden’s victory, the White House.
In the separate FEC filings, the 80-year-old Uchtdorf, who became an apostle in 2004, is listed as “not employed,” “self-employed” or “retired” — and living in North Salt Lake.
Twice a refugee and now a naturalized U.S. citizen, he was born Nov. 6, 1940, in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia. Later, in 1952, he and his family fled then-East Germany to West Germany. Uchtdorf joined the German air force and later became a commercial airline pilot and executive. He married Harriet Reich in 1962. The couple are the parents of two children and a handful of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Rob Taber, national director of Latter-day Saints for Biden-Harris, was delighted by the family’s contributions.
“The First Presidency has long maintained that principles of the gospel can be found in the platforms of all of the major political parties,” Taber said in a statement. “I find the political diversity of the church beautiful, as we each exercise our agency to lift up our fellow humans and create a better society for all families.”
From a strategy standpoint, Taber added, “I also appreciate that the donations not only went to the top of the ticket, but to important down-ballot Senate races and the infrastructure, enabling the electoral victories that made the [recently adopted] American Rescue Plan a reality.”
The church hasn’t always had the strict rule against donations by general authorities.
It didn’t begin until 2011, when two Latter-day Saint candidates, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr., were making a run for the White House.
At that time, a church spokesman clarified that it applied only to “full-time general authorities, general auxiliary leaders [such as presidents of the church Relief Society, Primary or Young Women organizations], mission presidents and temple presidents, but not to full-time employees in other positions.”
Part-time leaders and lay local leaders also were exempt.
In 2016, apostle D. Todd Christofferson took some heat for contributing $250 to a friend’s campaign for a nonpartisan state school board race in Utah.
“In making this donation, my thought was to do something to applaud a friend’s civic engagement,” Christofferson said then. “Perhaps because the school board race is nonpartisan, the direction regarding no personal political involvement by general authorities did not cross my mind, but in any case, it was my oversight.”
The Utah-based faith, as an institution, may be politically neutral, but its members have been a reliably Republican voting bloc for several decades. Latter-day Saints, however, were more reluctant to embrace former President Donald Trump, expressing unease about his personal behavior and his combative political style.
Church members from both sides of the partisan aisle launched intensive efforts for their respective candidates in 2020, forming the grassroots groups Latter-day Saints for Trump and Latter-day Saints for Biden-Harris.
Nearly six weeks after Election Day and more than a month after major news organizations declared Biden the winner in the Oval Office pursuit — but only minutes after an Electoral College vote affirmed that outcome — the church officially congratulated the Democrat and his running mate, Kamala Harris, on their victory.
“We invite people everywhere, whatever their political views, to join us in praying for this new administration,” a church news release stated, “and for leaders of nations around the world.”
Similar sentiments were expressed to Trump after his triumph in 2016 and to Barack Obama in 2012 after he won a second term by defeating Republican Mitt Romney, the first Latter-day Saint ever to gain the presidential nomination of a major party.
Editor’s note • Jon Huntsman Jr. is a brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of the nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune’s board of directors.