An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Utah politics’

Out of Sync

George and I became RINOs this year. We registered as Republicans so we could have some voice in the government of our one-party state. But I can’t tell you how uncomfortable we were at the caucus. A few ward members we knew were in attendance. One neighbor asked what we were doing there, “I thought you were dyed-in-the-wool-Democrats?” We are not traditional Democrats although I have carried petitions for clean air, ethics reform, and fair voting-district boundaries—not issues I consider partisan. I smiled at Sister Neighbor and said, “We’ve come to Jesus.”

Actually, George and I were so uncomfortable during the meeting that I think we would give up Jesus rather than endure another caucus. After prayer and pledge, the county platform was read. Every nutty bill brought up in this year’s state legislature was enshrined as policy of Davis County Republicans: Taking federal lands from the federal government (lots of luck winning that one). No sex education in the public schools (ignorance is bliss). Volunteerism to meet air quality standards (does anyone see British-owned Kennecott as a willing volunteer?).

The budget deficit was a major consideration by attendees as was their resolve to prevent the closure of Hill AFB. Closing unnecessary military installations within their own state is never popular with deficit hawks.  

Well, we shouldn’t have expected to meet like-minded folks at a Republican caucus in Utah. But last night our new home teachers showed up, and we found ourselves in the same uncomfortable situation.

When Brother Faithful pulled out his Ensign  to give us the lesson, I asked him to please discuss it rather than read it. Bless his heart, he did. He told us that prophets are as important now as in the days of the Old Testament and bore testimony to the blessing of having them to give us direction in these troubled times. I stared at my fingernails, hoping he wouldn’t ask for my agreement. Both he and his 14-year-old companion are devout believers, and I have no desire to challenge their beliefs with my own opinions.

After they left, George said he felt like, not only are we RINOs, we are also MINOs—Mormons in Name Only. Here’s the dilemma. From the ward’s point of view, we should have our names taken from the church rolls if we don’t care to participate. But we like our neighbors and enjoy contact with them—but in our neighborhood that contact centers around church. George and I don’t need to be taught the gospel. We were active, believing members for most of our lives. An intellectual discussion of religion is not an option. Devout members must defend their beliefs. I understand that. Their faith may be essential to their emotional health.

We just don’t know how to handle the situation without being offensive.

Without a Prayer

George and I registered as Republicans this year. We got tired of being disenfranchised. In Utah where Democrats are scarce as alligators in Alaska, the final elections are always determined at the June Republican primaries.

Although we’re basically independents, for the past few elections, George and I have attended Democratic caucuses. Utah Democrats don’t require attendees to be registered Democrats. That requirement would make caucus meetings small enough to be held in telephone booths—assuming telephone booths still exist outside Dr. Who.

Democratic caucuses are warm and welcoming. Attendees are nearly smothered with  gratitude. “No, you don’t have to be a registered Democrat to attend. Would you like to be a county delegate? A state delegate? Both?

I was a Democratic county delegate once and the convention was a blast. Salsa rhythms played as the Latino delegation danced. Diversity reigned—African Americans. Gays and Lesbians. Noise and confusion. Our cause was hopeless, but we had a great time.

I suspect the state Republican convention resembles General Conference more than a rockin’ party. Male delegates attired in dark suits, white shirts and conservative ties. Women wearing below-the-knees dresses—no leggings.

The Republican website said caucus meetings begin with prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. Will an opening prayer promote civility? I haven’t noticed opening prayers doing much for sportsmanship at stake basketball competitions or BYU football games.

But, perhaps God cares more about the outcome of caucus meetings than ball games. Should Utah Democrats add prayer to their caucus meetings? Maybe. After the usual election day trouncing, Utah Democrats could sincerely “pray for them which despitefully use you.”

Resenting Religious Rule

I’m beginning to understand the frustration non-Mormons in Utah feel with the political influence exerted by the dominant religion. The Republican presidential nominations for the past several cycles have been dominated by evangelicals Now, I have nothing against evangelicals—some of my nearest and dearest adhere to that faith—I’m just reluctant to have them choose a major presidential candidate. I mean, how can I trust a group that thought George W. Bush was God’s gift to America?

The upside is that, nationwide, evangelicals are a minority. No matter how they influence the Republican Party, the other party offers another choice.

Not so in Utah. Utah has not elected a non-Mormon governor since 1928. No non-Mormon senators and congressmen have been elected in Utah in my memory. Approximately 60% of Utahns consider themselves Mormons, but close to 90% of state office holders hold to the faith. Gerrymandered voting districts keep mostly Mormon Republicans in office in all but two counties.

Non-Mormons chafe at Utah’s liquor laws which are directly influenced by Church leadership. Many believe Thomas Monson is the most influential person in Utah politics. Legislators, however, don’t always bow to requests from 50 N Temple. The concealed weapons law did not respect Church wishes to exclude churches from places gun toting is allowed. With the current exception of a humane stance on immigration laws and a firm policy against gay marriage, Church headquarters keeps silent about most political issues.

For some reason—possibly because of long-harbored resentment against lack of government protection during the Missouri and Illinois persecutions, the invasion of Johnson’s Army, and subsequent persecution of polygamy—most Mormons are right-wing Republicans with a distrust of government. Mormons also have a strong aversion to taxes—possibly feeling their heavy Church donations are all they can afford—or that volunteerism can provide for all a community’s needs.

Church leaders may not be responsible for all political views of their followers, but the Church is judged by its members. And non-Mormon Utahns blame the Church for a state government which excludes them.

Who Needs Leavening?

Last week our Molly daughter, Lolly, said she’d heard a Church speaker wish the concentration of Mormons along the Wasatch Front and in and around Mesa, AZ could be split up to “leaven” the rest of the country. Interesting idea—and I immediately saw the benefits to the Mormons involved. Isolation from other cultures, which is how most Mormons in concentrated areas live, leads to stagnation. History shows that nations that come into contact with other cultures through conquest or trade make great leaps forward in their own culture. Ideas, like hybrid plants, benefit from cross-fertilization.

But the hubris of the notion that the rest of the country needs the “leavening” of Mormons troubles me. How will spreading more Mormons around solve the ills our nation currently faces?  Problems like political polarization, unemployment, poverty, violence, drugs, immigration, and education declines.

Certainly, if Utah had solved all these problems, we might have hope that spreading Mormons around would benefit the whole country. As things now stand, I’m not sure that exporting more right-wing Republicans from Utah would solve the country’s political polarization. The Church employs a lot of people in Utah, but isn’t large enough to extend that employment benefit to other states. Likewise, the Church welfare system isn’t large enough even to help all Mormon Utahns in need of food and shelter—and certainly not with health care. Utah divorce rates are about the same as those of other states. Plenty of Mormon single moms and their kids live in poverty. Violence and drug abuse are high in Utah—even among active Church members. The Church has taken a humane position on illegal immigration—but a sizeable number of active members oppose the Church position—and the state legislature passed a harsh immigration bill this year. Education attainments in Utah schools are now challenged by budget cuts and the ongoing call for privatization by legislators with financial stakes in the issue.

Possibly Utah and Mesa Mormons are the ones needing the leavening effect of exposure to people of other faiths.

Conversion Story

As of last week, George and I are registered Republicans. It
wasn’t a huge change for us. We were never good Democrats. We only registered
as Democrats because we thought there ought to be two in Davis County, Utah. In
2010 we had signs for candidates from both parties on our lawn—not that it
helped either of them. We have no prestige with our neighbors. Our lack of
regular church attendance has convinced most of them that we are members of the
evil party.

The main reason we changed our party affiliation is that
we’re tired of being disenfranchised. In Utah the November elections are a fait accompli. The final election occurs
at the June Primaries—and Republicans restrict their ballot to members of the
true faith.

My voting habits will not change. I will still refuse to
support candidates who weep for the sanctity of the Constitution while
advocating repeal of the 14th and 17th amendments. I will
not vote for state legislators who show up at the state capitol with Glocks
strapped to their sides. I will not support candidates who use the slogan, “We’re
going to take our country back.” I will support candidates who offer money as
well as rhetoric to support public education.

Probably the biggest advantage to my change of registration
is that from now on we’ll get calls from Republicans instead of Democrats. It
will be far easier to turn down their requests for donations.

“I Teach Them Correct Principles . . . .”

When asked how Nauvoo was governed, Joseph Smith answered: “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.” Watching the wacky politics in action during Utah’s legislative session makes me wonder if the right “correct principles” are being taught in Mormon meetings. Utah, like much of the country, is gripped in a culture of fear—a fear of losing our economic advantages—a fear of those of other color and ethnicity. State legislators are currently considering an immigration bill patterned after the controversial Arizona law. Guns are seen as the solution to violence—a bill was passed designating the Browning M1911 as the state firearm.

Church leaders certainly have supported humane treatment for illegal immigrants. The church has also spoken up against discrimination against homosexuals, and it opposes violence. Still, a huge disconnect exists between official church positions and the way many Mormons treat others. Perhaps more church time should be spent teaching basic Christian doctrine.

A few years ago, our stake presidency set a goal to return stake members back to basics. Their list included: (1) Scripture reading, (2) Prayer, (3) Meeting attendance, (4) Temple attendance, and (5) Family home evening. I looked at their list  and asked, “Where is Love?”

I suspect most Mormons would answer “obedience” if asked to name the first principle of the gospel because of the emphasis placed on this principle in auxiliary lessons and conference talks. Other lesson and sermon topics frequently repeated include: Sharing the gospel, tithing, priesthood ordinances, chastity, temple work, genealogy, the atonement, and the last days. Much less frequent are lessons on the core Christian and Judeo values of love, compassion, kindness, generosity, and honesty. In the Gospel Principles manual currently used for Priesthood/Relief Society lessons, only five of 47 lessons are specifically geared toward these traditional Christian values.

While it is possible that doctrinal lessons on tithing, the sacrament, and temple marriage encourage  Christian behavior, I see a gap—much like the gap between the rigid adherence of the Pharisees to Mosaic laws or rules and their neglect of the higher law of love and compassion.

When I hear active Mormons insist they don’t want their tax money going to feed hungry children because, “It’s their parents’ job to feed them” or argue against restricting persons from carrying guns within 1000 feet of a school because, “They are trying to take away our freedom,” I suspect the 3-hour block isn’t helping these members become more like their savior. Maybe we need more lessons based on the teachings of Jesus rather than on obedience and ordinances.

 President Uchtdorf presented his own list of basics last General Conference: (1) relationship with God, (2) relationship with family, (3) relationship with self, and (4) relationship with others. Organizing lessons around these priorities would facilitate teaching the basic message of Christianity:    “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. . . . Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself” (Matt 22:37-39). Joseph Smith was right—living basic Christian principles is the key to governing ourselves.

Voting Rights

I’ve been doing telephone surveys for the gubernatorial candidate of my choice this summer. The final question asks which candidate the person plans to vote for in November. A surprising number of people don’t know who is running. I hear answers like: “Whichever one is the Democrat.” Or, I don’t know who’s running, but I vote straight Republican.” One responder asked which party Matheson belonged to. A rather curious question since it’s been over 30 years since Scott Matheson was governor of Utah.

The League of Women Voters works to make it easier for people to get registered and to vote, and I agree with that in principle. However, one part of me hesitates to join the effort. If people don’t care enough to register, do they care enough to be informed? I’m well aware that in the past so-called literacy tests were used to disenfranchise African-American voters in our country. Still, I wish citizens could be required to show at least a minimal knowledge of candidates and issues before casting their ballots.

Americans are big on national news. Everyone has an opinion on BP, offshore drilling, the economy, and health care. Unfortunately, these are the issues about which ordinary citizens can do little. I know. Last year I e-mailed the President not to commit more troops to Afghanistan. Did he listen?

While we can’t do much about national issues, citizens do have much more influence over local issues—and local issues generally affect our lives more than national issues. Two years ago, Davis County citizens circulated petitions and contacted state legislators and officials to defeat a polluting petroleum coke power plant proposed for our highly populated area. Unlike e-mailing the Pres, I get immediate, personal responses when I e-mail my state legislators. They don’t always change their vote on issues I support, but we have a meaningful dialogue. They know their voting districts are small enough that my vote and my support do matter to them.

I think the main reason most citizens don’t get involved in local politics is that they know what’s going on. With the exception of juicy scandals, local issues seldom make TV news. Local news is found in local newspapers—or online for those with the patience to sift through the legislature’s agenda or to attend city and county council meetings. Our national leaders can hardly burp without extensive media coverage, but local politicians are too often free to legislate their own interests under the cloak of public apathy. Voting is an American right, but voting is not enough.

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