In this most idiosyncratic of states, where nearly three-fourths of the residents are Mormon and church members predominate at every level of public life, it is almost impossible to separate the religion from the merely religious.
Virtually any issue the church deems a moral one is effectively decided at that point: Parimutuel betting (against). The MX missile (against). Tax deductions for religious contributions (for). The Equal Rights Amendment (against).
Nobody accuses Utah of being a full-fledged theocracy, a government ruled by a god.
“A theocracy suggests there is some kind of religious authority running the state,” said Bud Scruggs, a Brigham Young University political scientist and former church lobbyist. “The fact is that there are religious people running the state. And there is a big difference there.”
But if Utah is not the theocracy envisioned by pioneer leader Brigham Young and other early Mormons, neither has its government shed a perception that has endured since statehood--that the state’s true seat of power is the Church Administration Building at the bottom of Capitol Hill.
“There is no state in the union that comes close to having the church being the dominant player whenever it chooses to be the dominant player on about any issue it chooses to speak on,” said Edwin Firmage, a Mormon constitutional law professor at the University of Utah and co-author of a legal history of the church.
“Perception is reality, whether it’s true or not,” said Rob Bishop, speaker of the Utah House and himself a Mormon. “The perception out there is that the Mormon Church does control the state of Utah.”
The suspicion is most pronounced among Utah’s non-Mormon minority, many of whom feel excluded by the predominant culture and at a disadvantage socially, professionally and politically.
The closely knit, authoritarian faith has inspired similar feelings among its neighbors since its birth in 1830.
Interviews with political observers, historians, civil libertarians and leaders of other faiths show the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be overwhelmingly deemed Utah’s single most influential political entity.
But is that influence just a reflection of demographics?
Almost 72% of Utah’s 1.8 million residents are Mormon, as are 90% of the state’s religious adherents. In contrast, Catholics are the second-largest religious group, 3.8% of the state’s total. No other religion encompasses more than 1%.
Most Mormons say the Mormon leadership is meticulous about maintaining distance between church and state. They cite founder Joseph Smith’s dictum: “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.”
Jean Bickmore White, professor emeritus of history at Weber State University, put it more bluntly: “The elephant dances softly around the chickens.”
Elder James E. Faust, the apostle who oversees his church’s relationship with government, downplays the faith’s impact on secular affairs.
“We restrain ourselves,” Faust said. “If it is not a moral issue and we have not taken a position on it, we make no comment and we make no judgment and we do not get involved.”
Only once has the state failed to take the church’s position on an issue: Sixty years ago, Utah ratified the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition.
That was the exception Faust used to counter the premise of a church-run state. He also noted that Catholics play an influential role in New England and that the Baptists hold sway in sections of the South.
“Mormons are not a monolith on social or political issues,” said church spokesman Don LeFevre. “Other states have adopted tougher abortion laws than Utah’s. There are states in the South where entire counties are dry, where no alcohol is sold. Not so in Utah. The country’s toughest anti-smoking laws are not Utah’s.”
Still, the church’s lobbyists barely have to break a sweat, for there is little need for arm-twisting in any conventional sense. Because the Legislature is so predominantly Mormon--about 90%--church leaders can merely state their position, citing scriptural chapter and verse.
“It’s because the church position on the high-profile legislation is the default position, so to speak,” said Scruggs, the BYU political scientist. “It is the natural predilection of most of the members of the Legislature.”
Newly elected Gov. Mike Leavitt, a Republican and a devout Mormon, vowed in his inaugural remarks that he would seek divine guidance on important issues.
And House and Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle routinely meet before general sessions with the church’s Public Affairs Committee, composed of four members of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, the tier of leadership below the governing First Presidency.
That homogeneity of the Legislature also is found in counties, cities and towns across the state, and can lead to a sort of unintentional cultural blindness that non-Mormons find galling and theocratic.
“To a Mormon county commissioner, they can sit there and vote to close a park on Sunday and not give it a second thought,” said White, the historian. “It isn’t until the other side speaks up and says, ‘Our Catholic league plays on Sunday; you can’t do that.’ And then they think about it and pretty soon usually they’ll reach a compromise.”
“I think that’s the thing a lot of Mormons don’t understand,” she said. “Having it jammed down your throat every day.”
That the Mormon Church doesn’t involve itself institutionally in every issue doesn’t mean its presence isn’t felt--or its opinion sought.
Faust, in discussing the church’s reluctance to intercede, made that very point. “If you don’t believe us, ask the legislators,” he said. “Because sometimes they wish we would do more than we do.”
Scruggs said his biggest problem as chief of staff to former Gov. Norm Bangerter was lawmakers and lobbyists pretending to know the church’s mind. “They’d say to me with a straight face, ‘You know that the church is behind it,’ ” when no church endorsement existed.
White said that although lawmakers don’t always seek church support, they know its opposition is death.
“It has political veto power,” she said. “They’ll take their chances if the church will stay neutral.”
Neutrality, Faust said, is exactly what the faith strives for in secular affairs, but he defended the church’s sway in what it views as moral issues.
“The church is not trying to run the state of Utah,” said Faust, a former state representative who served for one term. “That is not our calling.
“We’ve got a worldwide church to run, and we have competent people in the state of Utah who have been elected by the democratic process to run the state. On moral issues, we claim--as all churches do--not only the right but the duty to speak out.”