Utah a Theocracy?

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So You're telling us Utah is the closest thing to a theocracy in America 

I wrote this article a while back at the request of a fellow writer, someone I respect who wanted to know. I've inserted my own perspective between excerpts from from an article published in Washington Monthly in June 2001 entitled

Theocracy in America: What Gentile life in Mormon Utah can teach us about church and state

by Stephanie Mencimer, at that time (and perhaps still) an editor of The Washington Monthly.

The entire article is much longer and more detailed than the few excerpts I've used.

"If you have lived, as I have, as a non-Mormon in a place whose population is 70 percent LDS, you would understand the real dangers in mixing too much church with state. I was born and raised in Utah, and my entire family still lives there. Every time I go back, from the minute I wade past the missionaries in the Salt Lake City airport to my first watered-down beer, I am struck by the fact that, while inmates may be able to duck Chuck Colson, the average Utah citizen has no hope of escaping the Mormons. - Stephanie Mencimer"

I was born and raised in the SouthEast corner of the state of Idaho; 40 miles east of the Wyoming state line and 40 miles North of the Utah state line (and 160 miles north of Salt Lake City). My home town was probably 99% Mormon including my family. Mormonism is - as I heard many times in my childhood - "not just a religion but a way of life."

"The LDS church proselytizes relentlessly. If it fails to convert you in this life, it will try to get you in the next one by baptizing the dead. (Even Holocaust victims have not been spared this posthumous rite.) A financial and political powerhouse, the LDS church not only dominates most of Utah's social service agencies, but also the government, the public schools, and the media. It even runs the shopping malls. As a result, the church shapes the life of everyone who lives in Utah, Mormon or not."

When I was in elementary school, every Wednesday school let out at 3:00 p.m. instead of the usual 4:00 p.m. and all the children were expected to go across the street to the church for "Primary", at that time an LDS training program for children.

In high school, I spent an hour each school day taking religion classes entitled "Seminary." Each year the class studied one of the 4 scriptural writings considered "canons" by the LDS Church: The Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon and The Book of Doctrine and Covenants (which was the framework for studying LDS Church History.)

"There's been a great deal of litigation over this school set-up, dating as far back as the 1930s, but so long as the seminaries are on private land, there's nothing illegal about it. Allowing kids out for religious education during the school day has a pernicious effect on public-school life. So many kids leave for these classes that it automatically singles out the few non-Mormons who don't participate.

For one year, I attended a public high school and frequently found myself abandoned in class along with a few Hispanic kids while everyone else trekked over to seminary."

I left home in January, 1966 to serve as a spanish-speaking proselyting missionary in Texas and New Mexico. My financial support as a missionary was a small monthly contribution from my father and the rest from two other Church members from my home town.

"Drive around the Beehive State and you'll see the legacy of those early Mormon roots. The LDS church's real-estate holdings are extensive. All of Salt Lake's street numbers start from the tabernacle, which is the centerpiece of the downtown skyline. The temple is ringed with church-owned property, including the historic Hotel Utah and the land beneath the Salt Palace---the convention center and former home of the Utah Jazz. Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institute (ZCMI), America's first department store, which was founded by the Mormons,still exists today (although the church sold it a few years ago)."

Salt Lake City was the only city I had ever been in (and the first place I ever encountered a one-way street). I thought it was huge and assumed that the whole city was owned by the Church until in my late teens.

I did not set foot in any other large urban area until I got off a Trailways bus in San Antonio, Texas - the location of the LDS Mission Headquarters for their Spanish-American Mission. It was on Culebra Road. ZCMI was the largest store I had seen until I saw a GLOBE store and a K-Mart in San Antonio in 1966.

"Last year [2000], the non-church-owned Salt Lake Tribune published a three-part series on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a dark moment in church history when Mormon settlers slaughtered a group of emigrants from Arkansas in 1858. The church has long tried to downplay the events at Mountain Meadows, and official lore maintains that sympathetic Mormons had rescued the emigrants' children during the massacre. But in 1999, an anthropologist studying the bones from a mass grave at the massacre site discovered that many of the victims had been shot in the face at close range, including young children.

Adding to the scandal, the Tribune revealed that Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (a descendant of one of the killers), had cut short the anthropologist's work and ordered the bones reburied in the desert to prevent further study. Not a word of the story appeared in the church-owned Deseret News, Salt Lake's other daily paper. And not long after the series, the church attempted to buy the Tribune as part of a hostile takeover---a move the staff believed was designed to silence the independent paper. The purchase is still in litigation."

I drove to the Mountain Meadows site in 1988. Took me two hours, a picture from a book and some educated guessing to find it at that time. I hear that it's now an official historical site.

"Still, most first-time visitors don't fully understand the significance of the LDS church's presence in Utah until they go out to dinner and try to order a drink. Utah has some of the most convoluted liquor laws anywhere, reflecting the state's conflict between its desire to force the church's strict health code on everyone else and its financial and evangelical interest in luring tourists to the state.
Booze is regulated tightly by the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control board. Four of its five members are male Mormon teetotalers.

Significant changes in the liquor laws require approval by the state legislature, which is 80 percent Mormon. (Gentiles are a rare breed in Utah politics. Every single member of the congressional delegation is LDS.)"

When I was young, it seemed to me that Democrats and Republicans were more or less evenly matched. In fact, in my senior year Government class I thought we'd all be better off if the major parties changed their names to "conservative" and "liberal" so we'd be able to ferret out those liberals and know not to vote for them.

"Bars can only sell beer with 3.2 percent alcohol (it's usually six percent). For anything stronger, you have to go to a private club, which requires a membership, and the drinks are carefully regulated with state-inspected meters. The system creates some of the world's weakest margaritas. Booze by the bottle is available only at state liquor stores, which are often located in isolated parts of town without much in the way of signage. My father still makes bootlegging trips to Wyoming or Nevada, where the borders are lined with huge warehouse stores that sell full-strength Mickey's Big Mouths and wine without the Utah sin taxes.

The state liquor laws are the obvious product of the church's influence on Utah's political process. In the mid-1980s, one brave legislator sponsored a bill revamping the liquor laws but couldn't find a single senator to co-sponsor it. According to the Tribune, the church circulated a letter in the senate indicating that it didn't oppose the measure. As soon as the letter surfaced, all 29 senators co-signed the bill."

My Grandfather owned the only tavern in my home town. He was not a Church-goer though not particularly hostile to the Church. He refused to come to my missionary farewell because as he said, "I'm not gonna be a hypocrite, Son."

I used to work for him in that tavern - it's where I learned to count change - selling beer, cigarettes and candy over the counter. When I was 11 or 12 he had to stop me from using the billy club we kept behind the counter on the local chairman of the school board who was drunk and disorderly with me one night. Told me "Don't hit him son. We'll all be out of business if you do."

"As you might imagine, being a Utah Gentile can be tough. In fact, living as a non-Mormon in Utah may be the closest a white person can come to understanding what it's like to be a minority in this country. My parents were well aware of this, having come to Utah as children. It's not that Mormons are bad people. They aren't.
They have a church welfare system that is without rival, and their family focus makes Utah a safe place to grow up. There have been some great Mormon statesmen, too, such as Stewart Udall, John Kennedy's secretary of the interior. But the cultural differences between Mormons and Gentiles are significant.

While my parents made martinis and played bridge, the Mormons ate ice cream (Utah leads the nation in ice cream consumption) and played "Celestial Pursuit," the Mormon trivia game. Mostly, though, Mormons are reared to be part of the Thought Police, and their heightened sensitivity to moral infractions makes them rather humorless. Imagine living next door to the Osmonds.

Aside from the cultural differences, relations between the two groups have always been rather strained because of the aggressive proselytizing, and because the repressive religious culture tends to sear lasting psychic scars on outsiders.

My mother is still bitter about watching her non-Mormon high school friends march off to the Vietnam War while the LDS boys escaped the draft by becoming missionaries or fathers at 18. (That haunting memory recently prompted my mom to consult a Unitarian minister in a futile attempt to keep the Mormons from baptizing her into the LDS church when she dies.) My father still seethes when he recalls his best friend's family furniture store, burned by arson. They were some of my hometown's few Jews. Still, my parents stuck it out, in part because the state is, for all its weirdness, unspeakably beautiful."

My parents were not Church-goers and their social circle was - for me - a lot more exciting. While the "active" Mormons were at Church on Sunday, my family often went to picnics in the mountains with their non-Church-going friends. Or Dad might take us down the road to the next town (a kind of resort town) where we'd swim and chase all over.

After a year of college, When I went to Texas as a missionary, my student deferment was changed to a ministerial deferment from the Draft. When I finsihed and enrolled in college I got my student deferment back.

"We were one of only two or three non-Mormon families in our neighborhood. As such, the neighbors regularly sic'd the missionaries on us. We had what seemed like a never-ending stream of dark-suited young men ringing our doorbell. Kids would accidentally come by to collect tithes once in a while. (Mormons give 10 percent of their income to the church.) My father would try various schemes to scare off the missionaries, occasionally answering the door with a cigar in hand and his gut hanging out of a ripped-up Coors T-shirt, but that seemed only to encourage them."

The LDS Church calls young people to serve missions in all the states (including Utah) as well as around the world. When they come knocking on my door out here on the Washington Coast. I try to cheer them up, give them a lemonade or soft drink and ask about their home towns. I remember what it was like tracting - knocking on doors for hours at a time.

"My cousin was essentially raised by her dad. A harried single parent, my uncle never shielded his daughter from the dominant culture. She went to public schools and became a cheerleader with all the other blond-haired Mormon girls.

Last year, my uncle was totally shocked when, at 19, his daughter announced that she was getting married to a returned missionary she barely knew. It was God's will, as is her mission to start having children in a few months, even though she and her husband are college students, too poor to even rent an apartment. Her case isn't too unusual.

My cousin simply did what all Mormon women are trained to do in those after-school and seminary programs. Mormon men are encouraged to serve two years as missionaries after they from graduate high school, and then to get married within six months of their return, and produce a baby within a year after that. Basically what happens, though, is that since they can't have premarital sex (or masturbate, for that matter), Mormon kids often get married just to get laid. Because the girls are often a few years younger than the boys, the system has the added benefit of keeping women really stupid. Early pregnancies usually put an end to their college education. The joke in Utah is that girls go to college to get an 'R.M.'---Returned Missionary."

After my missionary tour, when my family asked me if I wanted to go to BYU, I told them I wasn't about to go down there and be some girl's project.

"It's kind of eerie, actually, how young the mothers are in Utah. No one seems scandalized by it, since most of them are married, but there's something really unnerving about a place where teen pregnancy is by design---and even encouraged by the church. (The age of consent for marriage in Utah is 14, and when some legislators recently tried to raise it, they encountered stiff opposition.)

Because of this particular aspect of Utah's culture, my mother lived in mortal fear that my sister and I would become pregnant before we were old enough to drink. Ever vigilant, she grew increasingly militant in her lectures to us about staying away from boys, getting an education, and her support for legal abortion. There was no doubt about the outcome of a teen pregnancy in my family, even if it meant driving to California to get the job done."

When my oldest daughter wanted to get married at 17 and I resisted, her groom's LDS family drove them from Washington State to Utah where she was able to get married without parental permission.

"President Bush believes that religion mingled with government will serve the public good, but I have witnessed first-hand how this forced faith creates its own sorts of pathology. You can see the reaction to Mormon domination in the underground punk scene in Salt Lake during the '80s, or the excessive drinking among Utah's non-Mormons, who cherish booze as a rebel's tool. It drove my mother's abortion militancy and the Gentiles' wholesale disdain for a group of people who, as individuals, should have gotten more consideration.

So many years of constant defensiveness against the Mormons' relentless proselytizing left me as intolerant of their views as they were of mine. I often reacted furiously against the claustrophobic culture that dulled the landscape like the smog-filled winter clouds trapped over the Salt Lake Valley. It took years away from Utah for me to unwind and begin to acknowledge that the Mormons do have some redeeming qualities.

I've finally stopped barking at the missionaries on the flight home.

Even so, I would never move back. My time in Utah taught me that the freedom of expression and the freedom from religion promised by the Constitution are precious things not to be given up lighty. I only hope that the rest of the country doesn't have to learn this lesson the hard way."

I remain a cultural Mormon and occasionally travel to Idaho and Utah. The contrast is not obvious to all the LDS who live there. I'm again reminded of the quote from Sam Keen:

" To a tourist in a strange land, an anthropologist studying a tribe, or a psychologist observing a patient, the myth is obvious. But to the person who lives within the mythic horizon, it is nearly invisible."

The American Christian is a journal based in Bay Center, Washington. 
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