Stifled and Hogtied? The LDS Church, the State of Utah, Non-Mormons, and Undue Political & Legal Influence
By Ken K. Gourdin
Often, people complain that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints exerts too much control over the lives of Utah residents, whether the supposed objects of this alleged control are members of the Church or not. In the interest of avoiding “tyranny of the majority,” whether that concern is well founded is a debate worth having, not only in Utah, but anywhere a particular religious, ethnic, social, or other group constitutes a majority that may exert undue political control.
Still, the concern alluded to in my opening paragraph ought not be overstated. My reader may think Utah alcohol laws are strange, but Utah has no dry counties. My reader may think Utah tobacco laws are strange, but other areas of the country, whose inhabitants are concerned about the harm tobacco does, are beginning to follow Utah’s lead in enacting and enforcing strict regulations about where and how it may be sold and used.
And frankly, if the goal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its leaders is to use legislative and political processes to ensure that everyone in the state, whatever his or her faith, belief, or level of religious commitment, behaves like devout Mormons, they’re doing a terrible job at it. For example:
- The Word of Wisdom, the Church’s health code, prohibits the use of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, non-herbal tea, and harmful drugs. All but the last-named substance still are legal in Utah.
- The Church’s Law of Chastity forbids sex outside of marriage and says that only marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God. But fornication rarely was prosecuted even when it was illegal under Utah law, and I don’t believe any laws forbidding it still are on the books.
- Depending on “how one’s ox got into the mire,” as the old saying goes, the Church forbids shopping on Sunday, yet you might see more businesses open on Sunday in Utah than you would in certain areas of the Bible belt.
- The Church has certain requirements to enter the faith’s Temples, where it believes the most important and sacred rites relating to the faith are performed, yet its evaluation of members’ performance in this respect is based entirely on the honor system. Largely, it takes members at their word when they report that they are complying with these requirements. In terms of strict compliance, a legal mandate would be much more effective.
- One of the requirements of the faithful is that they give ten percent of their annual income to the Church, yet here, too, compliance is based almost entirely on the honor system. It lets members define for themselves constitutes ten percent (for example, gross or net?) Here, too, it largely takes members at their word when they report compliance, when a legal mandate would be much more effective.
While any reasonable person would dismiss such a simile as hyperbole, the phrase “Mormon Taliban” is used by some few who wish to dramatize (indeed, to over-dramatize) regarding how much political, social, and legal control the Church of Jesus Christ exerts (or, according to some, attempts to exert or wishes to exert) over the state and its inhabitants. But if that were true, the Church and its leaders are doing an especially terrible job: the lists of both capital offenses and draconian punishments should be much longer.
We seldom read in the news about how the various stripes of the Baptist faith exert undue influence through social, political, and legal means in areas of the country in which that faith is dominant (in the southern United States, for example). News accounts of Roman Catholic influence in the northeast also are rare (if not nonexistent).
Yet news accounts regarding such influence in the so-called “Mormon Corridor” — comprised mainly of Utah, along with parts of Idaho, Arizona, and (perhaps surprising to some, although Mormons, despite their numerousness, are but a tiny minority here) California — are much more common. But the rationales underlying many laws were to be traced to their roots, one wonders whether any surprising Baptist or Catholic influences might be discovered. Yet no one bats an eye at those laws: the lack of religious influence (as well as a sound secular basis) underlying them is simply presumed a priori.
Frankly, such a state of affairs causes me to wonder whether those objecting to alleged undue Mormon social, political, and legal influence object to the influence, or to the religion.