Church and State

Does my religion (Mormonism) affect my politics? Of course it does.

And so do my upbringing, my education, my work experience, my research and my constituents’ values (which are formed by their upbringing, education, work experience, research and, yes, their religion).

While I think my religion helps shape my reasoning on legislation that promotes families and strong communities, I can’t think of too many issues where my religious beliefs require a specific political outcome. This, I think, is because Mormonism has exacting expectations between individuals and their God and individuals and their families. Yet, when it comes to individuals and their neighbors and individuals and their communities, we are broadly commanded to love others and improve the world around us — which leaves us pretty wide-open to do what we want politically.

The one exception that comes to mind on political outcome is abortion. I don’t get how Mormon politicians (or Catholic, for that matter) can support abortion. I can’t bring myself to say, “Yes, I deeply believe abortion is murder, but, if you want to do it, that’s okay.” I’m not trying to be judgmental of others, because we all work through our own reasoning. I”m merely saying that my individual religious beliefs (as I hold and exercise them) would not allow me to vote for abortion on demand. Even saying that, though, it’s tough to say whether this determination is religion or an independent moral value (that also is shared by many agnostics and atheists).

As for political involvement by “the Church,” I will readily admit that I have been lobbied many times by ecclesiastical leaders. Not Mormon ecclesiastical leaders, but leaders of other faiths who rightly convey the common values of their congregations. And I see nothing wrong with that exercise of the rights of assembly and speech.

In my five years in the legislature, however, I have never had a conversation with “the Church” about any political issue (unless you count my Bishop lobbying me two weeks a year to get rid of daylight savings time). By that, I mean I’ve never sat down with anyone from the Church who has said, “This is what we want” or anything like that. I think it is telling that I’m in House leadership, and I don’t even know who the Church’s lobbyist is.

Now, of course, the Church is not politically indifferent, and, on some issues, like gay marriage, I wouldn’t have to ask to know where it likely would stand. But, then again, on many of those same issues, I wouldn’t have to ask the local Elks club, either. There’s no fault in holding common values, and there’s no fault in many people holding those common values and the law reflecting that fact. As for the Church exerting undue influence in Utah politics, I simply haven’t seen it, and I’m in a pretty good spot to notice.

33 comments for “Church and State

  1. I thought you set it out very clearly. There seems to be a generalized feeling in some of the media that if our political beliefs are influenced by Socrates, Descartes, John Stuart Mill, or Marx etc., that is perfectly coherent and acceptable. But if our political beliefs are influenced by Jesus Christ, St. Augustine, John Wesley or Joseph Smith, that somehow that is violating the separation of Church and State.

  2. “Even saying that, though, it’s tough to say whether this determination is religion or an independent moral value (that also is shared by many agnostics and atheists).”
    I think it is naive to even think we can draw a line here and that we are somewhat too quick to want to. If we are deeply affected by our religious values, they become our personal values. I think it is the public drive by those who see religion as a threat to make these lines between our “religious” life and “personal” life harder than they can ever be that makes us want to seaparate these aspects of our lives. I once had a friend tell me that religion shouldn’t tell him what to do with his life, to which I respond, then what should it do? I don’t think we need to apologise for our views on abortion or gay marriage or anything else we have views about being condiitoned by our religious life.

  3. We just adjourned the session. I’ll drive to St. George tomorrow; when I get there, I’ll respond to comments posted.

  4. “Yes, I deeply believe abortion is murder, but, if you want to do it, that’s okay.” While I oppose abortion as well as legalizing abortions, I don’t think it’s fair to characterize LDS doctrine as equating abortion with murder. Yes, the Church holds it as a grievous sin, but I don’t think it sees it as one and the same as murder.

  5. “The one exception that comes to mind on political outcome is abortion. I don’t get how Mormon politicians (or Catholic, for that matter) can support abortion.”

    Steve, you’ve probably heard this all before (and we’ve discussed this all before on this list) but here is one position that I believe is deeply Mormon but also legitimately against the criminalization of abortion:

    First, many Mormon progressives I know do not “support abortion,” but also admit that, at times, abortion is a morally permissible (this is also the Church’s position, to a large extent). So they would oppose legislation that made abortion always illegal or judicial decisions that allowed for making it always illegal.

    Second, as Mormons we are also troubled by the taking of human life in any form and thus look for other ways to reduce abortion. This often involves looking at larger social and economic policy. Are there adequate policies in place to support single mothers who will usually bear the burdens of raising the child alone? Is there sensible adoption legislation? Is there sensible education about child-raising and sexuality? Abortion statistics declined during the Clinton administration and are rising again under the Bush administration — what contributed to this? In other words, one can formulate a position that is simultaneously “pro-choice” and “anti-abortion” by looking to larger social and economic factors that contribute to abortion instead of focusing on criminalization.

    So the position of many Mormon progressives on this issue is, it seems to me, fairly simple: (1) abortion should not be illegal because it is sometimes (perhaps rarely) morally permissible, and (2) in order to reduce abortions, we need to tackle broader issues of social policy, such as poverty, education, and so forth. You may agree or disagree with this line of reasoning, but I don’t think it should be incomprehensible to you.

  6. I don’t think it follows that because the Church might not condemn abortion in certain circumstances that the Church would be opposed to total abortion abolition. My sense is that the Church would tolerate the prohibition of even doctrinally tolerable abortions in order to stop the 99 percent of abortions that are abominable.

  7. gst: I don’t know that this is true at all. To be sure, I think that many Mormons would be willing to adopt this position, and I think it is one that is legitimately within the Mormon spectrum as it were. I don’t think that the Church would oppose such a law. On the other hand, I don’t think that the Church lobbies on abortion at all, so I don’t see that we can draw too much from such (hypothetical) inaction.

  8. gst–you may be right that the Church (meaning the leadership, I presume) would tolerate criminalization of all abortions. The Church “tolerates” all sorts of wrong-headed legislation (about half of what the Utah legislature does, for example), because it has more important things to do than waste time and energy on some idiot’s idea that we’ll all be safer packing .45’s on the way to church. (Actually, that should read “some idiots’ idea”–there’s more than one such idiot in the Utah legislature.)

    So, too, the Church leadership may not speak out against such legislation, even though it would criminalize an abortion that was performed to save the life of the mother. They might not, but I would hope that the “church” the ekklesia would speak out against such wrong-headed laws.

  9. Steve–

    When would you ever be asked to vote for abortion on demand in the Utah legislature? Or are you using a cheap rhetorical trick to imply that Mormon politicians who would support abortion in some circumstances are *actually* in favor of abortion on demand? Such for-us-or-against-us, good guys vs. bad guys demagogery should not be applied to such a complex moral issue.

  10. I have a question:

    Consider a young mormon woman who is sealed to a husband who then dies while she is still young and childless.

    What is the Church’s advice to a woman in this situation? I understand she can’t be sealed to another man. Should she seek another husband for time only? If a young, un-sealed mormon man were to marry her, would he be giving up his chances for exaltation? Would the church discourage this young man from having a relationship with her? Would she be encouraged to associate only with widowers and divorced men? How does this work in practice?

  11. This is going to quickly devolve into another abortion thread….

    Off that topic, I think the statement about the Church (not) running politics in Utah bears a little more discussion. For example, a blog linked to a few times by Hugh Hewitt, called Mangled Cat at http:// is by a non-Mormon in Utah who spends much of his time complaining that the legislature is just another extension of the LDS church. A post from a recent blog entry reads:
    I would think that they would have to be in order for any progress to be made.  The LDS Church is a formidable opponent and it will take the combined forces of the state and local heads to be singing the same song, as it were. 

  12. Don’t take a black-and-white stance supporting or opposing abortion. The undereducated masses want you to because it’s easiest to think of someone as being on one side or another of the issue, but it’s a trap, I tell you, a trap!

    Would you support a bill to modify the state constitution to allow any abortion when the life of the mother is at stake? How about one prohibiting any partial-birth abortion when the life of a legal-age mother is not at stake? If you answered yes to both, your opinion on abortion isn’t completely black-and-white.

    So why don’t we see “baby-step” bills appearing in pairs like this? Is it really that much easier to create single, monolithic bills that try to be everything to everybody?

  13. Are not the majority of the lobbyists of the LDS faith? It seems like the Church does not need to have a lobbyist if this question is found to be true. Am I so nieve to think that no worthy member of the church would lobby for something against the church? In the same way if a lobbyist(or legislator) is a Catholic, due to the Catholic background could it not be said that the catholic church has an effect on legislation? I guess my point is that all parties involved in public legislation bring a life’s history to the table and all of those things surely have effect. It seems like the church has as much effect as your wife does Steve. I imagine you give some heed to her council as you do the Church. What we are saying is that only some things from our pasts are allowed to affect our decisions. Which, I believe, could never happen.

  14. Nate, you are of course correct that the Church doesn’t actively lobby on abortion. My only point was that the fact that our doctrine apparently withholds condemnation of certain abortions doesn’t mean that a Mormon legislator shouldn’t be an abortion prohibitionist. We may conclude that the marginal value of doctrinally-permitted abortions would be greatly outweighed by the benefits of ending the current abortion regime.

  15. The Utah state legislature is not an extension of the Mormon Church. It is an extension of the population of Utah. That population happens to be 70 percent Mormon and fairly active. One must distinguish between the influence of Mormonism and the influence of the Mormon Church.

  16. Derek,

    The problem with such laws are that they are often too vague and each situation tightly protected by privacy laws, in essence there is no law at all because over zealous doctors and women who want abortions get together and do the abortion anyway. There are several cases of this problem going on right now in regards to partial birth abortions.

    I think a lot of members of the church would agree to a law banning all abortions, because it seems to be the only way to limit ANY abortions.

  17. I’m always very skeptical when it comes to new laws that paint with a broad brush, even if they are supposedly good 99 percent of the time. Call me crazy, but I’m very concerned about that 1 percent.

  18. Interesting thoughts, Steve. As I read them, official LDS statements explicitly authorize abortion in the case of incest or rape. That ought to be a pretty clear hint that abortion per se is not to be regarded as “murder” or even as a crime. They wouldn’t, for example, counsel members that it’s okay to cheat on taxes or rob a liquor store in certain circumstances. No doubt some LDS women have undergone abortions under these circumstances (often in light of counsel received from LDS leaders) and it would be wrong to suggest they were either sanctioning murder or committing a crime in so doing.

    One would think that US Supreme Court holdings about what is or isn’t a crime would carry some weight here, but I suppose you’re free to follow your view of LDS counsel rather than the decisions of federal courts (although that does raise questions about the allegiance of public servants that you have no doubt grappled with–it’s a messy question). It’s okay to say you are personally opposed to abortion. It’s okay to say that the basis for your personal position is the counsel LDS leaders give to members and even to advocate specific public policies in light of that counsel. But given the present state of the law and the statements of LDS leaders permitting abortion in certain (albeit narrow) circumstances, I disagree with publicly opposing abortion on the basis that it is equivalent to murder.

  19. Am I so nieve to think that no worthy member of the church would lobby for something against the church?

    What do you mean by this? Would lobbying for legislation described by 2 Nephi 26:30 constitute “lobbying for something against the church?

    And the Gentiles are lifted up in the pride of their eyes…that they may get gain and grind upon the face of the poor.

    Because I can assure you that temple-worthy members of the Church engage in this activity on a continual basis.

  20. I think Nate it trying to say that the Utah legislature isn’t willing to simply do the bidding of the church, but he gives the mistaken impression that it is willing to do the bidding of the people. Often times this simply isn’t the case. One example where the legislature was willing to do neither the church’s nor the people’s bidding: it refused to enact a ban on guns in houses of worship despite Church and public support for such a ban.

    I don’t know that the legislature’s refusal to bow to popular opinion is unique to Utah–and as Steve hinted at in an earlier post, the public is often ignorant of the how bills are actually designed to function and the problems they are meant to address. On top of that, most of what gets people like me excercised about the Utah legislature are bills with high symbolic value but little practical effect. Democrats might have better luck getting some of their Republican opponents voted out of office, or at least imposing more moderation in the legislature, if they could change the discourse from gay marriage and guns to perpetually underfunded schools. But of course that’s the sort of everyday issue that isn’t any fun to talk about and even harder to get constituents up in arms about.

  21. Mat: I am making no claim about the legislature’s ultimate responsiveness to “the people” (whoever they are). My only point was that the “Mormoness” of the Utah legislature is adequately accounted for by the “Mormoness” of Utah’s population, without hatching all sorts of stories about ubiquitous behind the scene’s string pulling by the Brethren. I have no doubt that they pull a string from time to time. I am also convinced that they do it very rarely.

  22. Steve, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on a few questions regarding church-state politics in Utah.

    Nate’s distinction between the people of Utah and the institutional church is important, but often ignored by those who complain that Utah is a theocracy—one big improper entanglement of church and state. Complaints that rights not subject to the political process have been violated are one thing. I would never suggest that Utah should do anything but give strong protection to religious freedom. But to my knowledge, such complaints about rights violations are not a common problem in Utah. On the contrary, the theocracy complaint at bottom is a complaint that a particular candidate or policy preference did not win. The underlying idea: one only has a political voice if their view prevails.

    Anyway, my questions:
    (1) While I think complaints that Utah being a theocracy are lame, I am seriously concerned about Utah Mormons being “good neighbors” to people of other faiths and persuasions. Given our history of persecution and strong doctrine of religious freedom, I think Mormons look particularly foolish when they fail to respect others’ beliefs. Can you see the drive to be a good neighbor in this sense motivating any changes in Utah law? Has the Utah legislature done (or considered doing) anything specifically to make people outside the majority in Utah feel welcome? One possible area where this could happen: Utah’s unique alcohol laws.

    (2) Do church-state politics figure into higher education funding in Utah? I witnessed some significant hostility to the church (from both faculty and students) during my time at the U. Do state legislators percieve the U as hostile to the church? If so, do you think this affects how the U fares in the legislature? Assuming there is a problem here, I think that hiring Michael Young as the new president was nothing short of genius. As I see it Young demands respect of the faculty (having been a long-time academic and administrator in good east coast schools) while his status as a faithful mormon makes it easier for him to represent the U to the state legislature and community in general. Is there anything to this?

  23. Dave (#21) correctly pointed out that my comments on abortion were too absolute. I thought I had more clearly directed my observations to abortion on demand. But, I didn’t mean for abortion to dominate this thread. Silly me.

    I had to laugh when I read Matthew’s observation (#23) that it’s tough to get constituents up in arms about education funding. Actually, that’s the easiest thing to get them up in arms about. Appreciating that this site has a readership that greatly values education, I’ll do an entry on education funding in the next few days.

    As to Shawn’s comments (#25), Utah has modernized its liquor laws over the last 3 years (I was the House sponsor for those 2 rewrites). To me, the laws largely make sense, as they are designed to discourage overconsumption, but then again I grew up in Texas, where liquor laws have quite a few particularities of their own (largely Baptist-influenced, I might add). Liquor laws likely will be further examined in a tourism task force that just was authorized.

    Regarding the University of Utah (Shawn #25, again), there will be some tensions between a great public university and a conservative state/legislature, but I don’t think it’s unhealthy or out-of-hand. The exceptions and ugly extremes seem to get headlines, but I think the University and its state/legislature have a comfortable relationship. As to how the U fares at the legislature, it is far and away the favorite child of the 9 higher education institutions in the state. I, too, think it was a stroke of genius to hire President Young — because he is ready and able to do a great job.

  24. Mormon Establishment
    Four essays toward the middle of God and Country consider the question of whether Utah in the second half of the 20th century presents a case of informal (or de facto) establishment. The four authors are familiar, but the verdict

  25. Steve,

    I’ll look forward to your post on education. I agree that people are likely to SAY that they put education spending at the top of their list, but they don’t vote that issue. People vote abortion and gay marriage.

  26. I think the term “abortion on demand” is just a buzzword that has little real meaning. Between the “big three” cases of abortion (cases of rape, incest, or that threaten the life of mother) and the cases where people have gleefully irresponsible sex, there are a multitude of different cases. Cases of women who were greatly pressured to have sex, but not quite “raped.” Cases of women whose health is seriously threatened, but not quite their life. Cases of infants who would be born with painful illnesses or fearful deformities. Cases of birth-control failure. Cases of pregnant people who are mentally disabled and cannot understand what is going on. Cases of children who would be born into desperate and brutal environments. Cases of young teenagers that didn’t know what they were doing. I could go on and on.

    My point is that this talk of “abortion on demand” does not seem to fit such cases, which constitute many real cases of abortion. Such language is unhelpful when discussing serious public policy questions. Let’s leave that language to talk radio.

  27. This may take the thread in a place we might not want to go, but I must.

    Why am I to assume a child as a result of rape is not a child of God?

  28. The Church’s tolerance for abortion in limited circumstances in no way denotes approval of the abortion, anymore than an excusal of killing in self defense denotes an approval of killing. The official position is not “abortion is wrong but if you’ve been a victim of rape or incest or your life is in danger, then it’s OK,” it’s closer to “abortion is wrong, and while we may make exceptions in terms of spiritual/ecclesiatical repercussions in these limited circumstances, it is still the taking of a life and should be avoided.”

    On a slightly different tack, is there a fundamental qualitative difference between “rape” and “the life of the mother” in terms of a justification for an abortion?

  29. “Why am I to assume a child as a result of rape is not a child of God?”

    You don’t need to make this assumption to understand why abortion in such cases may often be morally permissable. I am guessing (and if I am wrong, correct me) that you probably support the war in Iraq, an action that has killed many children of God (some innocent, others not). My point is that when we think about ending the mortal life of a child of God, the context seems to matter a great deal. The question is not necessarily whether people are children of God, but whether particular contexts justify the action of ending their lives. To me (and, it seems, to the Church) rape is often a contextual condition that allows for ending a human life to be permissable. Requiring a raped woman to experience the extreme trauma of carrying such a baby full term seems extraordinarily cruel.

  30. Does anyone know of any good books/articles that deal with the Church/government interactions in Utah? I know someone mentioned God and Country earlier in the thread. Can anyone make any other suggestions?

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