From time to time Mormons face various forms of legal and political harassment. Sometimes this happens in the United States, but as events in Venezuela dramatically illustrate the legal challenges that the Church faces abroad are generally much more extreme than those that it faces in the U.S. One result is that there is a real mismatch between the Church’s challenges and its resources.
Within the United States, the Church has a fair amount of influence. If anything, Mormons are over-represented in Congress. When faced with a serious legal or political problem, the Brethren have only to call Harry Reid or Bob Bennett to get the attention of the most powerful institutions in the country. In addition, the Church can draw on a very deep reservoir of LDS attorneys who can help it work through thorny issues. Having Rex Lee to argue a case anytime that it asked was a big asset to the Church. Finally, if all else fails, there are lots of very good law firms and lobbying firms that the Church can hire to solve its problems. Furthermore, American political culture and especially its legal culture are very open. Because American law allows one to recast most disputes in the form of a lawsuit, the Church can draw upon the legal expertise of its members — or hire legal expertise — to great effect.
The problem is that the Church’s reservoir of legal and political talents abroad is not nearly as deep. Perhaps more tellingly, the legal and political cultures where the Church is most likely to face official hostility are not nearly as open as analogous American institutions. Consider, for example, the problems that the Church faces from time to time with anti-cult activity in Western Europe. In the United States these laws could be subject to powerful constitutional challenges in court, and access to such courts is fairly easy for the Church to get. However, in a system in which technocrats wield more power than courts and where administration dominates law, it is far, far more difficult to recast problems in terms of lawsuits that can easily be brought before powerful neutral tribunals. Indeed, in many of these areas, I suspect that elite access matters considerably more than it does in the United States. The trick is not to have smart lawyers ready to file expensive legal challenges to hostile regulations but rather to have access to the elite bureaucrats who promulgate the regulations.
Hence, the Church finds itself in the unenviable position of having lots of elite access in a society where elite access is probably less important, and having very little elite access in societies where it is more important. Of course one response is to transform elite access in the United States into elite access abroad. Sometimes this will work. In 1999 several missionaries were kidnapped in central Russia by the local mafia. The Church immediately contacted Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon, a member of the Church. Smith, who at the time was — if I recall correctly — chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee personally contacted Madeleine Albright, then-Secretary of State. The State Department then specifically contacted its Russian counterpart, which immediately siced the federal security police — essentially the successor organization to the KGB — on the mafioso. Having grabbed some foreigners on the assumption that they would face nothing more than the corrupt and malleable local police, the kidnappers found themselves facing a much more serious response. The missionaries were released. However, it is easy to imagine other situations in which using elite American access to influence events overseas would backfire and simply align anti-Mormon sentiment with anti-American sentiment or more likely cement an alignment that already existed.
It is a very thorny set of issues.