Reviews – God and Country: Politics in Utah
Utah Historical Quarterly, Douglas D. Alder
The authors of the seventeen essays in the book argue that society in Utah is fairly well segregated into Mormons and non-Mormons. It has been that way since 1847 when the Mormon pioneers arrived. The Mormons were almost 100 percent of the population initially but soon people of other persuasions arrived—miners, soldiers, railroad workers, merchants, even Protestant missionaries and Catholic priests. Many allied with each other to challenge the Mormon dominance. The non-Mormons organized a political party and a newspaper and built ties with the federal authorities and eastern investors. They established churches and schools.
Today the Mormon/non-Mormon split is clearly evident in Utah. Diversity has increased and the Mormon majority has declined to below 70 percent, but non-Mormons are quick to point out that the Utah legislature is 90 percent Mormon, the county commissions, city councils, mayors, judges are mostly Mormon as well.
So what is life like in Utah for those of other persuasions? This book is a compelling examination of that question. All thoughtful Utahns should read this responsible and reflective account by participants in the Utah scene, most of whom are not Mormons. Fortunately, there is a wide variety in this group; they are qualified and temperate.
Most Latter-day Saints living in Utah have, at one time or another, wondered what it must be like to live as a non-Mormon in a state with the largest establishment of one religion of any state in the United States. This book gives many answers of how a religious minority views the impact of the LDS Church in their lives. John J. Flynn’s comment that his family has never been invited into a Mormon home is one small but sobering example of the cultural divide.
Essayist Reverend France A. Davis, a well-known African American Baptist leader, provides the most moderate opinion: “Whenever one group outnumbers and dominates others, the smaller group is likely to feel unfairly put upon, whether the larger group intends to make them feel that way or not” (311).
In between these two ends of the spectrum are many thoughtful essays. Journalist Rod Decker details stories in a balanced manner such as Reed Smoot’s Federal Bun ch and their refusal to support the drive to end Prohibition. He describes the LDS Church involvement in the ERA battle as well as other political topics like pari-mutuel betting, liquor by the drink, gay marriage, and guns in churches. Thomas R. Goldsmith suggested: “I can’t think of any religion which, given the power to control secular affairs, hasn’t exploited it to its own advantage” (175). He cites the example of his own Unitarians in colonial America and then shows examples of the LDS impact in Utah. Flynn, a University of Utah law professor, argues that confrontation between the two camps declined in the 1950s and 1960s but that recently Utah is more theocratic with the primacy of the Republican Party and its LDS preponderance.
Many examples of the clash are detailed such as the Sunday closing debate: the moving of community celebrations of the Fourth of July to a Saturday or Monday. The MX missile track controversy is an example of the church hierarchy intervening in politics, which many liberals heralded. Ed Firmage’s essay, on the other hand, examines the conflict of attitude toward homosexuality. L. Jackson Newell states boldly that Utah is a theocracy, but then adds, “The Church is surprisingly responsible in wielding its influence” (231-32). This thoughtful essay is the high point of the book.
Stephen C. Clark’s essay, “The Only Show in Town,” gives an ACLU view of the Main Street Plaza controversy in downtown Salt Lake City. It is also a balanced account. John Gallivan’s essay dealing with the history of the Salt Lake Tribune details the Mormon/non-Mormon confrontation from pioneer times to the present. The cooperation of the church-owned Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune during the last two decades in creating the Newspaper Agency Corporation is portrayed, however the legal battle for control of the Tribune and the move of the Deseret News to morning circulation has led to renewed clashes between the newspapers.
Well-known scholar Jan Shipps discusses the dangers of a religious establishment, illustrating the danger historically using Constantine and Christianity as well as national churches and the Protestant Reformation as examples. She describes the clash between Mormons and the federal government in the 1850s and then moves on to more current issues such as the ERA debate and the Main Street Plaza. Former Democratic Governor Calvin Rampton’s refreshing essay is quite unique because he was in the center of reality of the government for three terms. In his essay he urges Utah citizens to make up their own minds but he also writes that the LDS hierarchy hardly ever lobbied him for a decision. He says that LDS leaders try to avoid injecting themselves in politics. He points out that Mormons have a strong work ethic, are pro-industry and anti-union, all of which leads most of them into the Republican Party.
A poignant essay by Maqbool Ahmend describes the motives of Islamic people in Utah to follow their dietary, clothing, and religious practices that seem strange to most Christians. The article includes a lesson on Islamic doctrines that is most enlightening. A parallel essay is by Frederick L. Wenger who describes the Jewish experience in Utah. He points out the Jews thrive best as a minority and concludes, “Judaism has found and will find ready acceptance in Utah” (323-24).
Jeffrey Sells and Signature Books are to be congratulated on this balanced book about a vital issue in Utah.
Journal of Mormon History, Cheryll Lynn May
This collection of essays, God and Country: Politics in Utah, views the Mormon role in Utah political life primarily from the perspective of the “nons.” The seventeen essays have been penned by religious and political leaders, legal scholars, historians, and observers from the media. “The question, then,” according to editor Jeffrey Sells, who served the Cathedral of St. Mark in Salt Lake City for fifteen years as communications director and associate priest, is to examine “how government and the religious establishment should interact.” But in the very next sentence of his introduction, Sells descends from this realm of global abstraction to the actual terrain addressed by most of the essays. “In Utah,” he writes, “there is the prior question about whether there is an established religion, i.e., Mormonism, and whether this has created a disenfranchised minority (those who are not Mormons) who have little or no voice in the life of state government” (xii).
Questions regarding how the Mormon Church exercises political power have been hotly contested virtually since the Church was established in 1830. Most of the essays in this volume focus on the political role of the Church in Utah. The tone of the essays ranges from the moderate and balanced to the strident and polemical, from the abstract and philosophical to the intimate and personal. They all perform the valuable service of helping Latter-day Saints in the Mormon homeland to see Church political strategies and tactics from the viewpoint of thoughtful and articulate observers outside the faith.
The first couple of essays (by Third District Judge Judith Atherton and editor Sells) review the historical developments that gave rise to the disestablishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment. The same strong prohibitions against the legal privileging of or discrimination against particular religious groups are contained in the Utah State Constitution. Atherton, Sells, and other authors make clear that what is being discussed is a de facto rather than a de jure Utah Mormon political establishment.
Since this “establishment” is made up of a set of informal “cultural conventions” and since there have always been “countervailing forces” (Jan Shipps’s terms) on the scene, its true character is slippery and hard to pin down. This gives observers the freedom to interpret LDS political influence as a limited and generally moderate force (as does former Governor Calvin Rampton) or as a pervasive, nefarious conspiracy (as described by historian Michael Quinn).
Long-time Utah journalist Rod Decker acknowledges the Church as “probably the most powerful single interest group in the politics of any American state” (98) but still sees its current influence as marginal rather than central. “Utahans still divide along religious lines,” he comments, “but now, instead of desperate battles over fundamentals, Utahns wage mock battles over symbols, scruples, and small moral points” (97). He recounts five episodes (the first is Apostle Moses Thatcher’s campaign for the Senate in 1895 that angered the First Presidency and eventually cost him his apostleship, and the fifth is the Church’s anti-ERA battles in the 1970s) that outline the arc of Mormon political participation during the last century. He concludes that the Church now engages in less behind-the-scenes involvement than it used to. General Authorities no longer recommend applicants for state jobs, Utah governors no longer give Church leaders yearly briefings on legislative proposals, and there is no longer a place reserved on the Board of Regents, which governs the state college system, for a Mormon General Authority. But he also notes that the Utah faithful are more likely than they were in the 1930s, ’40s, or ’50s to respond positively to their leaders’ statements on “moral issues.”
D. Michael Quinn’s “Exporting Utah’s Theocracy since 1975″ rounds out Part 1 of the book, “Historical and Philosophical Underpinnings.” Most of Quinn’s article recounts the activities of the Church’s Special Affairs Committee under Apostle Gordon B. Hinckley to defeat the ERA in Utah and throughout the nation. The article is helpful in describing the way in which the Church exercised its organizational muscle in the multi-state effort to defeat the ERA in the 1970s, and to outlaw same-sex marriage in recent years. But exaggerated, polemical language in the article diminishes its credibility. Utah is described in the article’s title and elsewhere as a “theocracy,” while several of the more carefully drawn essays (such as those by Jan Shipps. Calvin Rampton, and Judith Atherton) point out important differences between a theocracy and a community where the majority church exercises a good deal of informal influence.
Quinn describes Church members as “an army of ants” (131) who obey with “lock-step obedience” (132) under the Church’s “military style, central command system” (134). He claims that the Mormon hierarchy played “a decisive role in the ERA’s defeat nationally” (134), while the efforts of evangelical groups, Catholics, and non-LDS office holders are virtually discounted. Such extreme characterizations shift the piece from the realm of scholarly discourse to that of diatribe. However, the Church’s role in the recent Proposition 8 campaign lends some credence to Quinn’s accusation that the Church is stepping over the line in respect to religious facilities being used for political activities.
The final ten essays in the collection are grouped under the title: “The Social Consequences of Religious Dominance.” Some of the pieces fit more comfortably in this section than others. Those that briefly trace the development of the Jewish and Muslim communities in Utah have no specific references to the “social consequences” of the LDS political dominance in the state. These accounts tell a story of distinctive religious groups in Utah that are thriving.
Pastor France A. Davis’s chapter recounts the struggles of the small black community in Utah, with a special emphasis on those who gathered to the Baptist congregation he has led for over thirty years. He points out that, until the 1960s, Utah enforced many of the same discriminatory laws in respect to public entertainments, accommodations, and housing that were common in the American South and elsewhere across the country. He suggests that the Mormon Church’s practice of denying the priesthood to black males (until 1978) and the “curse of a dark skin” mentioned in the Book of Mormon gave Utah Mormons a religious justification for continuing to practice social discrimination even after the legal barriers to civil rights were removed. But Davis’s biographical note at the end of the book might indicate that the Mormon-dominated political establishment is reaching out to the black community to try to redress the shameful exclusionary practices of the past. Davis currently serves on the Utah Board of Regents, the Salt Lake Housing Authority Board, and in many other positions of community leadership. April 19, 1999, was declared by Utah’s (Mormon) governor as “Rev. France A. Davis Day” in recognition of his many contributions to the state.
Other articles in this section criticize the Church position on recent state and local issues including gay rights, gun control, and the construction of the Main Street plaza. They all claim that in Utah, religious “nons” too often become political “nons” as well. Questions about the extent to which minority rights should trump, or at least blunt, majority rule are always difficult to resolve. The adherence of most Utah Mormons to the Republican Party and the increasing power of that party’s right wing in the last three decades have deepened divisions and sharpened differences.
Of particular note in this section are University of Utah Law Professor Edwin B. Firmage’s impassioned plea for a more loving and accepting LDS attitude toward homosexuality and gay partnerships, and Emeritus Law Professor John Flynn’s reflections about the sometimes minor, but symbolically important, policies (celebrating the Fourth of July on the third or fifth if it falls on a Sunday, or closing public swimming pools on Sundays) that convince the “nons” that their voices and preferences don’t count. He suggests that it is in the interest of Church leaders to “help strike a new balance of political power in the state between Democrats and Republicans and the religious nons and non nons by recognizing that no political party has the right answers to all the issues” (223). The Church has taken some small steps in that direction since this book was printed.
Many of the essays in this collection will make Utah Mormons uncomfortable. They should read them anyway. It is extremely valuable to know how and why some of your well-intentioned and community minded neighbors disagree with you. Such an understanding will not solve all policy disagreements, but it can point toward steps to lessen suspicion and promote dialogue.
A number of the authors note the negative consequence of Church political actions taken out of the public eye. Rod Decker mentions that “the Church often acts quietly in political matters.” The problem is that “discretion breeds exaggerated suspicion of Church control” (103). Flynn comments on the “mistrust, cynicism, and suspicion aggravated by too much secrecy in government: strong-arm, one-party tactics instead of openness and scrupulous due process in deciding public issues” (222). Pastor Davis expresses the feelings of the majority of these thoughtful observers outside the Mormon mainstream: “Whenever one group outnumbers and dominates others, the smaller group is likely to feel unfairly put upon … The larger group, therefore, has the duty to be extraordinarily cautious to be sure that the perception of unfairnness and oppression is not rooted in reality” (311). Such thoughtful advice here and elsewhere in this volume deserves an equally thoughtful response from Utah Mormons and those who lead them.
KDXU Radio, Cliff Donovan
The pioneering psychologist Carl Jung wrote that “the more Christian one’s consciousness is, the more heathenishly does the unconscious behave.” That dichotomy can be true of groups as well as individuals, and for those whose experience with Utah is limited to childhood memories of the Osmond Family, it can be startling to learn that the culture in the place Brigham Young named “Deseret” is as varied, dynamic, Christian and heathenish as the rest of the United States – America in microcosm. And that is especially true of the unique relationship between government and faith in the Beehive State. God and Country: Politics in Utah demonstrates the challenges inherent in a modern state originally settled and founded by a religious minority which has come to be seen by many, Mormon and non-Mormon alike, as the uniquely “American religion.” While it can be argued that religion permeates most aspects of life in Utah (even more so than it does in enormously Catholic Massachusetts), God and Country gives the reader a faithful (pardon the pun) account of the struggles between upholding the principles of religion inspired by the earliest Mormon pioneer settlers while observing the Founding Fathers injunction against establishing an official faith. The essays and commentaries take the reader from the earliest days of Utah territorial history through the modern world and the unique challenges faced by each era’s politicians and policy makers, and the way the LDS Church has influenced matters of public debate through the ensuing decades. It’s a must-read for students of faith, politics and the American story, which encompasses both these elements.