Photo of Emma Addams
Problem Addressed Threats to Voting Rights
Solution Provides leadership to a faith-based, pro-democracy movement committed to building a new political center based on principled citizenship
Location Omaha, NE
Impact National

What she’s doing

As executive director at Mormon Women for Ethical Government (MWEG), Emma Petty Addams is working to build a political center that models how people of religious faith can successfully advocate for democratic principles and build bridges where there is partisan discord.

Her story

Raised in the San Francisco Bay area in a conservative family that belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Addams describes her younger self as the politically-minded kid in school – and often the only kid – who would always take the most conservative position on any issue. Over time and through many debates, she learned the value of respect for – and being respected by – others who held completely different worldviews. This experience eventually helped her disentangle her faith from her concept of democracy.

During the Trump presidency, she left the Republican Party and became unaffiliated, joining the growing ranks of independent voters. Today, she recognizes that her faith draws some of its strength from the freedom democracy grants her to practice and express her beliefs.

Conversely, she also finds that democracy is stronger thanks to the religious freedoms it supports. “If I really believe in religious freedom,” she says, then adds for emphasis, “like really believe in religious freedom, as in pluralistic society, as in all faiths, if I believe in a God who loves all of his children wholly and completely, then that’s where my faith is the most powerful tool in the democracy tool belt.”

That perspective, along with help in separating personal from political identity, are among the supports MWEG provides its members.

Building a New Center

MWEG exists as two nonprofit organizations with distinct missions. The educational and charitable organization focuses on supporting women to become independent actors in the public sphere – or, as Addams put it, “principled citizens freed from destructive partisan identities”. The other advocates for issues like strengthening democratic norms and immigration policies that treat everyone with dignity and respect. She and her co-executive director, Jennifer Walker Thomas, generally divide their responsibilities accordingly, with Addams in charge of the advocacy side.

Addams says the two missions – one bridge building, the other supporting democracy and ethical government – are a powerful combination.

“If you put people together to discuss policy and issues, the most meaningful thing you can do is then go do something together. For us, when you put those two things together, we’re building towards something.”

That “something” is a political center defined not by ideology but by a commitment to civil discourse and uplifting rather than demeaning those with a different point of view.

“Being in the center at this point in time,” Addams says, “means pushing against polarization, strongly choosing not to dehumanize, choosing to see the other side as fully human, and being willing to have tough conversations and having the skills to do so.”

MWEG began as a Facebook group created by five Mormon women in response to the 2017 inauguration of Donald Trump. Within weeks, their concern for the direction of the country had attracted more than 4,000 women with a range of political leanings. Most were Latter-day Saints. After the 2016 elections kindled a desire in her to take a more active role politically, Addams joined the new organization, becoming its executive director in 2019.

The group quickly evolved and organized itself around six principles of peacemaking, derived from the six principles of nonviolence adapted by Martin Luther King, Jr. from the teachings of Gandhi. For each principle, MWEG provides references to relevant verses in the New Testament and Mormon scripture. The group puts particular emphasis on the Golden Rule, which urges people to treat others as they would want to be treated. This principle compels MWEG members to look beyond their own views in order to better understand the needs of others and serve the broader community.

MWEG’s earliest advocacy work in 2017 included support to extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which was threatened at the time by the Republican drive to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

More recently, MWEG and the League of Women Voters sued in an effort to strike down Utah’s new congressional map, which was engineered by the Republican Legislature. The lawsuit claims that the map was a partisan gerrymander made impermissible by a citizen’s referendum passed in 2018. The referendum, which required the state to establish an independent redistricting commission, was repealed by the Legislature in 2020. In an interview on the Better Boundaries podcast, Addams and Thomas described the Legislature’s action as a direct attack on MWEG’s core belief in the power of the individual voter.

Spreadsheets are like Fugues

Despite her early interest in politics, Addams’ life after graduating from Stanford University focused mostly on working to pay off student loans, raising a family, and teaching piano to neighborhood children. Yet, she says it all prepared her with the skills needed in her current work.

She first honed her critical thinking skills as the lone defender of conservative views throughout her schooling. She credits a liberal high school history teacher with challenging her intellectually while also providing a platform for respectful debate and civil discourse.

As  a music major at Stanford, Addams learned to deal with “extraordinarily high stress situations”, as when she performed Fauré’s Requiem on the organ in Stanford’s Memorial Church. The organ was “way back in the church behind the orchestra. So I had to play everything one second before the baton came down.”

That ability to perform under pressure, she realized, helped her to thrive as a paralegal at two law firms and as the legal affairs manager at a technology start up. Working on intellectual property rights and mergers and acquisitions at the height of the dot com boom and bust, she was able to stay cool and focused on getting the job at hand completed amid the chaos of those fast-moving days.

Addams left the legal affairs work to raise her children and focus on teaching piano, experiences that gave her new insights into the developmental needs of children. She became less political, she says, but remained “reflexively conservative or just kind of Republican” during these years.

While working in legal affairs, Addams also discovered a talent for creating spreadsheets that she related to her musical background. “Doing spreadsheets pretty closely parallels the skills for writing a fugue in the style of Bach. There are a lot of threads and pieces of information you’re trying to keep together at once.”

Similarly, Addams’ work at MWEG often requires her to recognize and sift through competing priorities and personal biases to arrive at a clear course of action. Citing her own predisposition to considering unintended consequences, she says, “I have to be very careful, as a leader, that I make sure I have people that are pushing me to consider the injustice of the moment and to think about how we can meet that need.”

The challenge of being a principled citizen, it seems, might also be a bit like writing a fugue as Addams distills diverse, often passionate views and lines of thought into a single, coordinated course of action.

Faith is Additive

Addams is well aware how faith is weaponized in today’s politics, one reason why she regularly points out that MWEG is not affiliated with or endorsed by the Church. And yet, “faithful” is one of the group’s four core attributes, and it means never opposing or criticizing Church leadership or doctrine.

Addams doesn’t shy away from this connection between her group and the Church. We are, she says, “deeply informed by our faith and are trying to bring that to the public sphere in a way that’s additive and not weaponizing or in any way using faith to manipulate or coerce like it sometimes is used.”

She is aware that persons of religious faith have often been viewed with suspicion in mainstream American politics. When Christian nationalists form a small but powerful and single-minded bloc in Congress intent on imposing their will, as is the case today, it’s not hard to understand why this might be so.

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But, Addams asserts, it is their faith that gives MWEG’s members the courage to defend democracy and a willingness to sacrifice for it. And that, in turn, has produced a culture of collaboration, not just among its members but with other organizations.

Last year, Addams represented MWEG on a committee of faith leaders invited by Interfaith America and Protect Democracy to contribute to the “Faith in Elections Playbook”. Published in November, it offers religious organizations and individuals specific actions to help protect the integrity of elections and ensure the results are trusted.

The project fit MWEG’s dual mission. It also introduced the organization to other faith-based groups and has netted at least one new collaboration: It is working with Interfaith America and a broader coalition of groups advocating for the Building Civic Bridges Act, a bipartisan bill in Congress that would dedicate $25 million to civic bridge-building in local communities.

Despite the positive vibes Addams exudes, she can be defiant about MWEG’s purpose.

“We’re putting a stake in the ground on the word democracy. We’re not going to have the tussle about republic versus democracy,” she says in reference to a debate being promoted in extremist circles. “We all know what democracy means. Let’s not get cute about it. We know what it means.”

The Faith in Elections Playbook

The Playbook identifies seven specific actions that we as citizens of our democracy can take to help keep our elections safe and fair. One example that stands out: Offer your place of worship as a polling center. Over the last decade, more than 1600 polling places have been closed, affecting large populations of people of color. And since 2020, harassment and intimidation of election workers and other public officials have increased concerns for the safety and security of polling centers on election day. By offering your place of worship, you can enhance your community’s trust in the voting process and potentially increase participation.

Author: George Linzer
Published: January 17, 2024

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Sources

The URLs included with the sources below were good links when we published. However, as third party websites are updated over time, some links may be broken. We do not update these broken links. If you are interested in the source, it may be possible to find it by copying and pasting the URL into a search on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. From the search results, be sure to choose a date from around the time our article was published.

Interview with Emma Addams, November 1, 2023

Emma Addams, emails with clarifications and responses to questions, Jan 10, 2024 and Jan 17, 2024

Jennifer Dalton, “Mormon women worldwide lobby for ethical government”, The Daily Universe, April 17, 2018, https://universe.byu.edu/2018/04/17/mormon-women-worldwide-lobby-for-ethical-government1/, accessed, Oct 28, 2023

MWEG, “Principles of Ethical Government”, https://www.mormonwomenforethicalgovernment.org/principles-of-ethical-government#:~:text=MWEG%27s%20Principles%20of%20Ethical%20Government,of%20people%20one%20toward%20another., accessed Oct 28, 2023

MWEG, “The Six Principles of Peacemaking”, https://www.mormonwomenforethicalgovernment.org/6-principles-of-peacemaking, accessed Oct 28, 2023

MWEG, “Areas of Advocacy”, https://www.mormonwomenforethicalgovernment.org/take-action, accessed Oct 28, 2023

LinkedIn, Emma Addams, https://www.linkedin.com/in/emma-addams-457833/, accessed Oct 28, 2023

Jenna Alton, “Mormon women worldwide lobby for ethical government”, The Daily Universe | BYU School of Communications, Apr 17, 2018, https://universe.byu.edu/2018/04/17/mormon-women-worldwide-lobby-for-ethical-government1/?fbclid=IwAR1QEE1CeJUbmyRrMq145sL3YyVQLuJWsCFD_IAJSBDU6Y2161VzV1z5KeQ, accessed Oct 28, 2023

Sharlee Mullins Glenn, “Why I Became an Activist Against Fear”, The New York Times, Feb 19, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/19/opinion/mormons-religion-trump.html, accessed Oct 28, 2023

Tricia Brooks, “CHIP Funding Has Been Extended, What’s Next For Children’s Health Coverage?”, Health Affairs, Jan 30, 2018, https://www.healthaffairs.org/content/forefront/chip-funding-has-been-extended-s-next-children-s-health-coverage, accessed Jan 11, 2024

Russell M. Nelson, “A Plea to My Sisters”, The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints, https://site.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2015/10/a-plea-to-my-sisters?lang=eng&adobe_mc_ref=https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2015/10/a-plea-to-my-sisters, accessed Oct 28, 2023

Emma Addams, “Sabbath Devotional :: Alma and Agape”, Voices of MWEG, Feb 20, 2023, https://womenmakingpeace.org/2023/02/sabbath-devotional-alma-and-agape/, accessed Oct 28, 2023

Lee Davidson, “Mormon Women for Ethical Government leader to take part in President-elect Joe Biden’s Inaugural Prayer Service”, Salt Lake Tribune, Jan 20, 2021, https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2021/01/19/mormon-women-ethical/, accessed Oct 28, 2023

Better Boundaries podcast, “Emma Petty Addams and Jennifer Walker Thomas, Co-Executive Directors of Mormon Women for Ethical Government”, Aug 22, 2022, https://www.audacy.com/podcast/better-boundaries-podcast-f5578/episodes/emma-petty-addams-and-jennifer-walker-thomas-co-executive-directors-of-mormon-women-for-ethical-government-da863, accessed Oct 28, 2023

Jennifer Walker Thomas, Emma Petty Addams, “Bending the Arc of Politics toward Zion Voices from Mormon Women for Ethical Government”, BYU Studies Quarterly, https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5167&context=byusq, Oct 28, 2023

Interfaith America, Protect Democracy, “Faith in Elections Playbook”, Nov 2023, https://www.interfaithamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/Faith-in-Elections-Playbook-November-2023.pdf, Oct 28, 2023

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