It comes as two Mormon Republicans are running for U.S. president Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman and as division occurred among some church members about LDS involvement in such things as immigration bills in Utah and California's Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage.
Interestingly, the policy shift will still allow Jon Huntsman Sr. father of the presidential candidate, who is an area authority of the church, and one of Utah's larger political donors each year to continue to contribute to his son and to campaign for him. But it would have prevented the late church apostle David B. Haight grandfather of Jon Huntsman Jr. from contributing to him. Haight donated $15,000 to Huntsman's 2004 gubernatorial campaign.
As many as a dozen names of members of the church's First and Second Quorums of the Seventy, including middle initials and home city, matched campaign donor records kept by the Federal Elections Commission dating back to the 1990s, according to database searches by The Salt Lake Tribune. The contributions went overwhelmingly to Republican candidates and organizations.
Nearly all those federal donations, however, were made prior to the donors' appointments to full-time church callings. Carl B. Pratt and Lynn G. Robbins, both of the First Quorum of the Seventy, appeared to be exceptions, donating after being named to their church positions in the April 1997 General Conference.
The First Presidency letter said that "General Authorities and general officers of the Church 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."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spokesman Scott Trotter said that "is a restatement and further clarification of the church's position on political neutrality at the start of another political season."
He also clarified that it applies 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. The policy is not directed to full-time church employees" in other positions.
Beyond those short statements, Trotter said the church would have no further comment on the letter. That leaves in question whether the policy includes campaigns for ballot initiatives, such as California's Prop 8, to which LDS members donated heavily amid encouragement by church leaders.
The First Presidency letter does allow leaders who are not full-time officers such as area seventies, stake presidents and bishops to be involved in campaigns, with some caveats including that they should not "engage in fundraising or other types of campaigning focused on fellow Church members under their ecclesiastical supervision."
Also, it says those part-time leaders choosing to be involved in politics should not imply "that their actions or support in any way represent the church." And they are told not to use church-generated lists, stationery, email systems or church buildings for political purposes.
Mark Button, a University of Utah political science professor who has researched and written on religion in politics, said, "The church might be responding to criticism it has faced about its very active, very critical role in California's referendum initiative about gay marriage. That was a visible role that the church was playing, and it was clearly one that divided people in the church. You know, they might be learning from that."
Button said the change may also lead to more open political discussion among church members.
"Clearly these types of announcements are often met with a good deal of cynicism, but I think they are doing what they certainly need to be doing to try to create an environment at least for their members where open political discussion can be had. Certainly, I think it's a step in the right direction," he said.
Button also said that as Huntsman and Romney are gaining attention as Mormons, "the statement may be an attempt to maintain an equal playing field for those candidates without coming out strongly for one or the other" or any other candidate.
Of note, the church's website featured on Monday a statement proclaiming neutrality in matters of party politics that said the church still reserves "the right as an institution to address, in a nonpartisan way, issues that it believes have significant community or moral consequences or that directly affect the interests of the church."
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, who is LDS and a descendant of former LDS Church President Heber J. Grant, said the new letter may help the church distinguish itself from other churches that do endorse candidates or even hand out voter guides before elections.
"In many people's minds, they lump the church in with evangelical groups" and others that do that, he said. "This may help resolve that."
Bennett said he also believes the new First Presidency letter represents what basically had been recent church policy, "but it's never been quite that specific."
For example, he said when the late Richard Wirthlin the former pollster and aide to Ronald Reagan was named as a general authority seventy, "He said to me, 'I am under the same restriction as a member of the Twelve [apostles]. I cannot participate.' "
Bennett said the church has added many other "area seventies," who work part time for the church and full time at other jobs, and some of them have jobs requiring political fundraising as part of their work. He said an example is Jack Gerard, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute.
"I think saying to Jack Gerard, 'You cannot raise money for Mitt Romney' might lead him and others in similar positions to say, 'Wait a minute, that's my profession.' I think this may be a clarification of what has probably been understood as the policy to now. But I am not an authority on this," Bennett said.
The former three-term senator said that when he announced he was running for office in 1992, "I was told, 'Well, you have to be released as bishop because we can't have a bishop who's a candidate for major statewide office.' They never got around to releasing me," until two weeks before the election, "so I don't know how official that really is."
Tony Semerad contributed to this report.
Mormon Church officials as candidates, office-holders
In recent history, authorities of the LDS Church have stayed out of direct participation in partisan politics but that was not always been the case. Church founder Joseph Smith ran for U.S. president in 1844, the year he was killed by a mob. Former U.S. Sen. Reed Smoot, R-Utah, served in the Senate from 1903-33, and was an LDS apostle that entire period. And Ezra Taft Benson served from 1953-61 as Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretary of agriculture while also serving as an apostle.