Yesterday, Nate wrote that “Wasatch Front Mormons often times fall into the trap of thinking of the Church as a powerful institution.” There is probably a lot of truth to this–and I found Nate’s reflections on the financial situation of the church very interesting–but I found it strange that he connected this observation with the idea that most (or at least many) Wasatch Front Mormons think “separationist arguments are primarily about limiting Church power.” I found it strange for two reasons. First, because I think Nate’s rather cavalier endorsement of strict separationism as beneficial to the church is far from obvious (but more on that another time). Second, because while I haven’t lived in Utah for about 10 years, his description doesn’t fit what I remember as, and what still seems to be, the reality.
Consider two recent articles from the Deseret News, here and here. The first presents the often-discussed antagonism between orthodox Catholics and certain (usually pro-choice) Catholic politicians in a Mormon context–that is, in the same way that there is a constant tension between Catholic politicians “voting their conscience” on the one hand and the official positions of the Roman Catholic Church (regarding abortion, contraception, etc.) on the other, is there also a tension between Mormon politicians’ preferences and the official line of the church? The answer is, apparently, “no.” According to the article:
“What about LDS politicians? Are they expected to vote in accordance with church teachings on such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage? What about other issues the church might have a stake in, such as the development of the Crossroads Mall? Are LDS politicians ever called on the carpet by church leaders?
‘I think the leadership makes a distinction between policy and practice,’ says University of Utah political science professor Ted Wilson. So someone like Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is LDS, can come out as an abortion-rights candidate, ‘as long as he doesn’t personally get involved with an abortion situation,’ says Wilson….
Wilson says he has never heard of politicians being chastised by church leaders because of a political position. Ditto, says Farmington Mayor Dave Connors, who once voted to keep the town’s swimming pool open on Sundays. ‘I never felt any pressure one way or the other from any church source on that issue,’ says Connors, who is LDS.
In describing his position on the pool closure, Connors uses the very phrase that infuriates Catholic bishops: ‘I said I wouldn’t be in the pool on Sunday, but it’s not my right to tell someone else what they should do on Sunday.'”
By my count, LDS scholars and politicians echo the line about “strict separation” about six times in that piece. They express disbelief that the church, at any level, would ever institutionally call someone on the carpet or interfere with a vote of “conscience.” All of which is a legitimate position, I hasten to add. But it does seem to mitigate against Nate’s picture of Wasatch Front Mormons drunk on their (perceived?) power. Yes, yes, you can trot out all the usual arguments claiming the church runs Utah: why look at Utah’s liquor laws! What about that pari-mutual betting thing back in the 90s? Or the anti-ERA campaign in the 70s? Why the church is acting like a…theocracy! I say, baloney. If anything, we have become, over the past century, far too reluctant to enegage in any kind of theocratic thinking. Am I endorsing Constantinianism in Utah? Hardly. I am only pointing out that, in matters of power, it seems to me that most Wasatch Front Mormons are (unfortunately?) far more instinctively liberal, in a philosophical sense, and hence attached to the modern secular order, than Nate gives them credit for.
The other article asks a similar, though less provocative question: given that Mormons make up 70% of Utah’s population (and even more along the Wasatch Front, I might add), why have so few members attempted to create alternative, LDS-based educational programs, especially in light of (once again!) the Catholic example of creating extensive parochial school systems wherever a sufficient number of Roman Catholics exist (and this includes Utah; fully one-third of all the parochial schools in the state are Catholic). The answer is, again, simple: according to the article, “‘It has long been the policy of the church not to consider providing elementary and secondary schools where there are adequate public schools available to our members,’ Elder Henry B. Eyring, church commissioner of education and a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, said in an e-mail interview.” There are relevant historical and financial reasons for this policy, which Eyring discusses; but fundamentally, what you have is a dominant assumption, apparently shared by a large number of Mormons, of the value of the (contemporary American) division between private and public: secular facilities are adequate, assuming (one presumes) that private faith is not interfered with. Again, one can point to various complaints about Mormon majoritarianism: hey, what about that lesbian volleyball coach that the good folks of Spanish Fork tried to get fired? And again, I respond: these are exceptions that prove the rule. More than 100 years after accepting the terms of the federal government in embracing statehood, it seems to me that most Wasatch Front Mormons continue to internalize the lesson about keeping their business out of the public realm.
Again, I hasten to add: that’s not a bad lesson to have learned. Nor is it indefensible. On the contrary, there is great value in refraining from trying to determine too firmly just what the content of the public square should be. But while I have more than a few problems with the “Christian Right” (as Kaimi put it), I do think that they–and many other political and religious thinkers who have little or nothing to do with such movements–have a point in fearing that there has been too much willingness to consider any substantive use of “power” in regards to ordering our communities to be, somehow, inappropriate; the result being that said power has not been diffused, but rather allowed to collect in forms which are not easily made subject to the (proper) demands of democratic accountability. Let me put a more specific point on this argument by invoking a classic dispute with relevance to “separationist” concerns: I’m one of those who believe that the Nazis need not have been allowed to march through Skokie. Were something similar to develop in downtown Salt Lake City–and some, looking at the growing anti-Mormon protests which attend every general conference, believe such might be the case–then I personally would hope that the church along the Wasatch Front would (humbly) recognize that the power to order a community is not always to be avoided.