It is going on ten years now since I have lived in Utah, but I still follow Utah politics from afar partly as a matter of tribal attachment but mainly because they are just so strange and fun. The reason Utah politics makes for such a fun spectator sport is the dominating influence of Mormonism — and to a lesser extent that Mormon Church — in state politics.
Apparently some of those favoring vouchers in the upcoming referendum on the subject have been trying to invoke Mormonism in various ways to support the proposal. The Church responded with a public statement denying any official position on the issue. Now Salt Lake Tribune columnist Rebecca Walsh wades into the debate with some of the silliest analysis of religion and Utah politics that I have read for a while. (And that is saying something, as it is a genre much given to silliness). The gist of Walsh’s analysis is that there is too much religion in Utah’s political culture and therefore the Church should publicly oppose vouchers. It’s easy to dismiss Walsh’s column as the crassest kind of Church-neutrality-is-bad-when-my-ideological-ox-is-getting gored drivel (and frankly it is), but she accidentally raises two interesting issues.
The first is the extremely elastic distinction between moral and political issues that the Church as an institution uses to explain its occasional forays into politics. The gist of her argument is that vouchers would be immoral because they will lead to various undesirable social consequences, mainly having to do with the concentration of low-income, low-achieving students in public schools. She also seems to be upset by the specter of vouchers contributing to a Mormon private-school movement. Alas, she says, in its statement the Church “remained silent, as the biggest moral issue of a generation passed it by.” One suspects that her argument here rests on the fallacy of equivocation, as the Church seems to be using “moral” in a much narrower sense in its political statements. On the other hand, what precisely is meant by “moral’ in this context is unclear.
The second, far more interesting question, is the relationship between the Church and Mormon political culture. The crude — and inaccurate — assumption is that Mormon political attitudes are simply chosen by church leaders. The reality is that Mormonism as a belief system, cultural identity, and set of social practices impinges upon the political thinking, actions, and speech of Mormons. Very occasionally this is a result of deliberate institutional action, but generally speaking it is not. This raises the question of whether or not it makes sense for the Church as an institution to take responsibility for this political culture.
One suspects that the Brethren regard intervention in Utah’s religious politics as basically a waste of time and effort. Yet as the Ms. Walshes of the world are right to point out they cannot help but wield great power in the state when they choose to do so. Think of it as the Spiderman argument: “With great power comes great responsibility.” There are at least two objections to the notion that the Church ought to oversee Mormon political culture. First, it may run counter to the Church’s insistence since at least the Smoot Hearings that Mormons ought to be left more-or-less free to make their own political decisions. Second — and more interesting from my perspective — the notion that the Church should take responsibility for Mormon political culture implicitly suggests that the Church should ultimately control this area of Mormon discourse. But should the Church qua Church seek to control all aspects of Mormon discourse? For my money, the practical result of such a move would be to impoverish the discourse precisely because the Church as an institution simply lacks the energy and resources to spend much time on it, and once there is an “official” church position on say vouchers the intellectual politics of Mormon discussions will become charged in a way that is probably unhealthy.
Of course on this issue, I think that as usual Russell disagrees with me. Both of us, however, have the luxury of watching Utah politics for the sheer fun of it.