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Mormon Church, Utah Still Seen as Too Chummy

Many residents would like to banish the stereotype that the LDS rules the state. But most politicians are members of the faith.

June 08, 2003|Patty Henetz | Associated Press Writer

SALT LAKE CITY — At his downtown Hilton Hotel restaurant, bartenders pour cocktails and fine wine while Nathan Tanner deals with his usual internal conflict of good business versus Mormon morality.

A faithful member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which forbids alcohol consumption, the restaurant manager and Hilton executive says he believes in all of his church's doctrines and teachings. "I served a mission and I loved it," Tanner said. "I believe in proselytizing."

Tanner also believes in the value of theocracy, the rule of God on Earth, an ideal that his faith promises will come with Christ's return. "It's part of my religion," he said. "There is a time and place for it, in a perfect society where everyone is LDS."

Obviously, everyone isn't.

And Tanner, a fifth-generation Mormon, says he's often uncomfortable with his church's role in such secular tasks as helping to craft state liquor laws because it stokes chronic complaints that church and state in Utah are too chummy, too often.

The enduring perception of Utah as a state run by the Mormon church also is a constant frustration for church leaders, who say they wish forever to erase the perception that traces of its 19th-century theocracy persist today.

Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, 93, who has worked since 1935 to dispel unwanted images of the church, would not talk to the Associated Press on the subject, despite repeated interview requests.

"Many groups have to endure stereotypical images. Claims of church involvement in politics here is just another stereotype," church spokesman Bruce Olsen said. "But it isn't true, and I think that perception is changing."

Maybe. But vestiges of Utah's peculiar theocratic past haunt even its recent history and, in the eyes of many, its tendencies will remain for the foreseeable future.

Utah isn't a literal theocracy, which is rule by a divinity through prophets on Earth.

It hasn't been since President James Buchanan in 1857 declared the territory of Utah in open rebellion against the United States and replaced Brigham Young, the church's prophet and president, with the first of a series of interim territorial governors.

But "tension still exists. It leads to a cultural divide," said historian David Bigler, author of the 1996 book "Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West."

With 70% of Utah residents at least nominally Mormon -- that is, on church rolls but not necessarily active -- church influence on politics and society are a matter of demographics, Olsen said.

State and local officeholders are overwhelmingly Mormon. The Legislature is 90% Mormon. The governor is Mormon, as are all five members of the state's congressional delegation. Four of five state Supreme Court justices are Mormon. All seven Salt Lake City Council members are Mormon or have Mormon backgrounds. Critics say such overwhelming Mormon influence means that the state sometimes operates as a de facto or quasi-theocracy.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints isn't the only church whose members' beliefs influence public policy.

In the South, conservative Protestant views often prevail. But because there are so many different Baptist, evangelical and other denominations, no one church holds sway.

In the Northeast, the Roman Catholic Church can be a powerful player in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

That's largely due to 19th-century Catholic immigrants, particularly the Irish and Italians, who came to control New England politics, said Darrell West, Brown University political science professor.

Latter-day Saints tend to be conservative, and they don't compartmentalize their beliefs because they are taught to honor their faith in all places.

Interpretations of that tenet, though, have fed Utah's cultural and political conflict.

Church leaders have publicly expressed dismay at the state's one-party rule and sought from the pulpit to dispel the widely held notion that it's impossible to be a good Mormon and a Democrat. Before every election, the church issues advisories to be read at church meetings that it doesn't endorse any political party, platform or candidate.

Still, with only a few notable exceptions, Republicans prevail.

Trisha Beck, a Mormon Democrat who in November lost a particularly vicious race to retake her Utah House seat, said it's as if Mormon voters believe that their leaders have told them how to vote via coded messages to heed their own values when choosing a candidate.

"There is a portion of the electorate who aren't really politically active [but] somehow consider it their religious responsibility to vote," she said. "The church has tried so hard to get the people to pay attention."

Mormon officials point to founder Joseph Smith's oft-cited maxim: "I teach correct principles and the people govern themselves."

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