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LDS Church Takes Heat for Political Involvement
February, 9th, 2009

Some wonder if the separation of church and state in Utah is policy or rhetoric

by Jacob Hodgen

As a columnist for Utah Stories, I certainly don't want to encourage anyone to read the Salt Lake Tribune. However, it has recently played host to a most intriguing skirmish that deserves further attention. Over the last few weeks, the Tribune has run a series of articles covering various issues related to controversy surrounding the LDS church's involvement in local politics.

The Tribune makes no attempt to juxtapose the articles, and probably for good reason, because doing so paints a picture that might be a bit too exciting for their typical audience. However, when read side by side, the series depicts a fascinating struggle for power and influence and explores what it means for Utahns to separate, or not separate, church and state. Though the final winner has yet to be declared, allow me to narrate the match thus far.

Round 1 goes to Tribune Columnist Rebecca Walsh, who reports and editorializes on the recent closed-doors meeting of LDS church officials and state political leaders. Held annually, the "luncheon" at the LDS church headquarters brought together Republican leaders with a church apostle, bishop, official lobbyist, and public relations crew. Several weeks ago, the Democrats were invited to a similar event. Walsh can barely restrain her contempt for the proceedings and recruits Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, to offer sharp criticism. He writes of the Utah political scene, "It not only looks like theocracy, it suggests there is a theocracy. It is a clear violation of American democratic principles."

LDS Church HQ
LDS Church Headquarters in SLC

In what we may assume is a politically-minded Freudian slip, Walsh actually cites the latter sentence of the preceding quotation twice: once at the beginning and once at the end of her article. Walsh concedes that, demographically speaking, it does make sense for local political leaders to consult with their religious counterparts in an attempt to help gauge the mood of what is undeniably a large percentage of their constituency. However, she lugubriously bemoans the influence she feels these meetings hold, "Nowhere else in the country do lawmakers consult with one denomination in this way.
[. . .] It's one thing for lawmakers to consult privately with individual Mormon bishops and stake presidents. It's another to make an annual political event out of it." Calling the meeting a ceremonial "ring kissing" and denouncing it as "realpoltik," she concludes with a decisive recommendation, "There's an easy way to fix this: End the annual meetings."

For Round 2, Michael Otterson, the managing Director of Public Affairs for the LDS Church, fires back with an unusually feisty editorial and bodyslams Walsh for seeing "a conspiracy behind every pew," and seeks to set the record straight. What makes his response so great is his tone: "Anyone remotely familiar with American political history and the principles of democracy knows that churches have always had a legitimate voice in the public square." He goes on to explain that the LDS church has a constitutional right to raise what it feels are moral concerns, and the luncheon is much less sinister than she imagines. Otterson mockingly notes, "Of course, Walsh has never been invited to these lunch meetings. I have, so I can throw a little light on what invariably happens." He writes that the meeting is in part an expression of appreciation for the local political leaders who work long, hard hours serving the state. Anytime the church does take a political position on an issue, he notes, it is made clearly public. He concludes by implicitly calling her an extremist and seeks to invalidate her article: "In my experience, reverting to extreme and overstated language like this simply reflects an absence of legitimate argument."

Insert your nostaligic Adam West reference of choice here: Bam! Thwack! Pow!

As the saying goes, "timing is everything," and now is quite possibly the most interesting time to be having this debate. House Speaker Dave Clark recently revealed that LDS church officials asked about and voiced support for the controversial revamping of state liquor laws during this meeting. Clark said that, "they like the idea of electronic verification." State Senator Michel Waddoups also reported that during the meeting church officials seemed to like the idea of changing current laws. He says, "They were receptive to [the] idea and wanted to encourage us to keep looking in that direction."

However, about this same time, LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter issued the following statement to Deseret News downplaying the events in question: "The issue of alcohol regulation was briefly discussed. [. . .] The Church took no position on any legislation but expressed its long-standing concerns about limiting over-consumption, reducing impaired driving, and eliminating underage drinking."

In other news, the LDS church has also announced it will refrain from participation in President Obama's new faith-based coalition. This is not a new position, as the church adopted a similar stance when President Bush created the initiative in 2001. But add to this the heat caused by the recent release of expanded figures of the church's financial contributions to Proposition 8, the possibility that it might be fined or sued as result, and this issue starts to seem ubiquitous.

Walsh, Otterson, and others, congratulations for providing us with an exciting match thus far. Whatever side of the debate you may fall in, I think we can all admit that this is becoming fairly tense for all contestants involved. Utah looks forward with great anticipation for your next moves.

Reader Comments

From: Shawn Loura

There is no law against meeting with a mix of politicial and religious leaders. There is no law against prayer and according to 1st amendment...Congress shall make no law....

This deals with congress.It is clear in the document itself. However government is not to favor anyone faith over that of another. The founders were very religious and moral men. Though not perfect. They too were men.

However My concern is the fact that the church seems to embrace socialism and communism more and more. one simple fact to support this is the hammer and sickle on BYU property aka church owned property.
And the church poilcy if no family friends or relatives or the church can no longer help (so much for unconditional love) that you ought to turn to government.

This clearly goes against statements of prior Prophets or leaders.A clear contrudiction. So why has the church and the leaders thereof denied prior prophets of God? Why has the general membership save a few Faithful denied these essential truths of God and of the inspiredConstitution?

I am not bashing the Church just stating concerns about the Faith as a member.
The church ought to stand up for principles outlined in the Constitution for the sake of liberty.
Yet the church cows down to government tyranny out of fear they will loose property.
Where is true Patriotism within the church or leadership?
Why has the church not spoke out against the tyranny of the us patriot act?

Photo by Karma17

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