Respond to this Article April 2001

Theocracy in America

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

By Stephanie Mencimer

If the government had been as effective in eradicating religion from public life as George W. Bush likes to insist it has, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) would not have been able to turn public park benches into church pews. But that's pretty much what happened in 1998, when LDS leaders secretly persuaded then-Salt Lake City Mayor Deedee Corradini to sell a block of Main Street to the church for $8.1 million. The church had been coveting the downtown land for years, as it slowly snatched up all the real estate surrounding the Mormon Temple, its religious capital.

Initially, the church said it would remove the street and build a landscaped park that would "bring a little bit of Paris to Salt Lake," complete with reflecting pool. The city planning commission approved the deal on condition that the new plaza be regulated as a public park. But the city council signed off on a slightly different proposal, which quietly granted the church exclusive rights to proselytize in the park and to keep out those it found undesirable.

As a result, people crossing the plaza on their way to Nordstrom can now be bombarded with religious brochures and broadcasts of LDS church president Gordon B. Hinckley droning on about the evils of "so-called gays and lesbians." Passersby, however, can no longer use the space to protest (as they did during the debate over the Equal Rights Amendment), listen to music, sunbathe, skateboard, smoke, or do any of the other things they used to be able to do on the city street and sidewalks. Mormon security guards will ensure that the poor schmuck smoking a Newport and sporting an "I'm with shithead" T-shirt finds another route to the mall.

I thought about those poor schmucks in January, when Bush announced his intention to create a White House office of faith-based initiatives. Bush believes that religion has been unfairly pushed out of the public sphere, and he created the White House office to ferret out roadblocks that prevent religious groups from receiving government money. As Bush railed against all the "obstacles" to religion in public life, I had to wonder if he'd ever been to Utah, where his walk to the mall could be accompanied by a voice-over from Prophet Hinckley.

Since Bush announced the creation of a federal religious office, we've heard a lot about Chuck Colson's prison ministry and the wonders of religious drug-treatment programs that could expand with some taxpayer dollars. A few civil libertarians have protested the constitutionality of mingling faith and federal funding, warning that prison inmates could be forced to read the Bible. But their worst-case scenario hardly signals the coming of the apocalypse. Plenty of nonbelievers, in fact, might actually see it as a good idea. At least inmates would be reading.

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.

The world's sixth-largest religion and growing, 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.

Modern Day Zion

Not everyone in Salt Lake was thrilled with the Mormons' "little piece of Paris." The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the First Unitarian Church sued the city, arguing that the deal gave the "indelible impression that the LDS church occupies a privileged position in the community" and blurred constitutional distinctions between church and state. So far, though, they haven't made much headway. But what did they expect? The federal judge hearing the case was a Mormon, hand-picked by fellow church-member Sen. Orrin Hatch.

The Mormons have been fighting Gentiles for control of downtown Salt Lake for more than an hundred years, and the Mormons always win. (Mormons call all non-Mormons---even Jews---Gentiles.) Salt Lake is their Holy City, after all, the capital of the religious state prophesied by church founder Joseph Smith.

Smith founded the LDS church in 1830, in upstate New York, after the angel Moroni supposedly led him to a set of golden tablets inscribed with the ancient account of the "lost peoples" of North America. Using a pair of magic rocks, Smith eventually "translated" the tablets into The Book of Mormon, a faux King James- style tome filled with names like Shiz, Ethem, and Ahah. Mark Twain dubbed the book "chloroform in print," but it captured the imagination of many pioneers in the New World---perhaps because it was so, well, American.

In his teachings, Smith told followers that the Garden of Eden had really been in Missouri, and that Mormons were God's only chosen people. Smith promised that they, too, could become gods in the next life and rule over their own planets through strict obedience to the church leader, and for women, obedience to their husbands. Something of a lady-killer, Smith also told women that sleeping with him was the path to salvation, hence the origins of the church's polygamist ways.

Because of his radical ideas, Smith and his followers were constantly attacked by anti-Mormon mobs, which eventually shot and killed Smith. After Smith's death, Brigham Young led the Mormons out West, beyond the borders of the United States, to create Smith's New Jerusalem.

Arriving in Salt Lake in 1847, Young founded Utah as a theocracy to insulate the Mormons from the evils of the outside world, which they fought off fiercely, even engaging in a minor guerrilla war with the U.S. Army. Despite attacks on the Mormon's polygamist ways, the church grew at a rapid clip, along with its business portfolio. In its quest for self-sufficiency, the church founded dozens of Utah businesses, department stores, and banks, and it essentially created the local political system. In 19th century Utah, it wasn't long before the church was the state.

The Saints Go Marchin' In

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).

You can't go far in Utah without encountering an LDS church. The identical buildings resemble motels wearing church spires, and there are so many of them that they have numbers, like police precincts, rather than names. Many Utah desert towns are named after Mormon prophets like Nephi and Lehi. (Lehi is one of my favorites, not just because it was the backdrop to the Kevin Bacon movie "Footloose," but because the town leaders really did ban dancing after the movie came out.) The church's empire also extends to a good chunk of the local media, which ensures that most reporting on the church is predictably favorable.

Last year, 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.

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.)

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. (My sister claims many Utahans also keep post office boxes on the border so they can mail-order porn videos.)

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.

Stranger In A Strange Land

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.

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.

Because Mormons have such large families, there were lots of kids in our neighborhood, but none of them played with us---at least, not for very long. When we first met them, Mormon children were friendly and would invite us over to their houses, where we could sneak a peak at the canned food and bottled water they had stored in their basements in anticipation of the apocalypse. They'd explain knowingly about their "Choose the Right," or CTR, rings, which little Mormon kids wear like secret decoders signifying their membership in a special club.

Eventually, they'd urge us to go to church with them. When I was seven or eight, I actually went once and was astonished to learn that the services lasted more than three hours, which was more torture than I thought any second-grader should have to endure. I never went back. Once the neighborhood kids decided we were lost causes, they disappeared.

My sister and I found companions in private schools, where our parents tried to shelter us from the influences of a religion that they considered a cult that preyed on the vulnerable. In our small town, the only private schools were parochial ones, so we went to St. Paul's Lutheran school, essentially a few dozen kids in a little red converted barn. Later, we went to St. Joseph's Catholic school. We weren't Catholic or Lutheran, but my parents figured there was less harm in the Hail Mary than the Book of Mormon.

Until I attended one, I didn't fully realize that Utah's public schools are essentially an extension of the LDS church. All junior high and high schools in the state of Utah are arranged so that there is a Mormon seminary building either right next door or across the street. Grade-school kids don't go to seminary, but they do go to "primary," a similar after-school program. Mormon students are allowed to take religious classes as part of their public education in these buildings.

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.

The church stretched into public school life in other ways, too. In high school, I had Mormon bishops as teachers who never missed an opportunity to bring the church into class lectures. Prayers before every event were common and coaches often blessed athletes before sporting events. My swim team would collapse into a crisis if we were expected to compete in meets in Idaho or Wyoming on a Sunday. Many of the Mormon kids on my team honestly believed that if they swam on Sunday, the devil would create an undertow that would drown them. Graduation ceremonies were held in Mormon tabernacles, and school choirs sang Mormon religious songs.

Until fairly recently, many public schools annually celebrated "Missionary Week," when Mormon kids were supposed to come to school dressed up in the uniform of the LDS missionary---which they were all aspiring to be. Non-Mormons might as well have put big signs on their heads that read, "Convert Me."

Some of the school districts even used missionaries as "tutors." They were supposed to be doing math and other such studies, but the ACLU was flooded routinely with complaints from non-Mormon parents saying that their children were being subjected to religious indoctrination, and the practice was finally ended.

The social pressure to follow the Mormon kids just to avoid ostracism is intense. More often than not, non-Mormons just join in and eventually cross over all together. The system works quite well. I was safely inoculated both by my parents and by the more free-thinking Jesuits and Lutherans. But my cousin, whose parents were divorced when she was young, wasn't so lucky.

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.

I learned the drill years ago after working with Mormon girls at Hot Dog on a Stick in the Ogden City Mall. One colleague moved her wedding date up three times just because the dry humping was getting out of hand. She had her first kid at 19.

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.

In George W. Bush's worldview, most of the Mormons' activities in Utah that sustain and promote church membership, like the after-school programs, should be encouraged, even funded with taxpayers' money. But in Utah, it's hard to see why the Mormons need any encouragement. The Establishment Clause is a thin reed standing between the church and its total domination of Utah. That and the ACLU.

The Utah ACLU is a busy chapter, and much hated for such things as its regular letters to small-town mayors reminding them that it is illegal to prohibit city recreational activities on Monday nights just because that's when Mormons are required to have "family home evening." The ACLU probably qualifies as one of Bush's "obstacles" to religious participation in public life, but if I still lived in Utah, I would give the ACLU every last cent I had.

Growing Up To Be A Porn Czar

Utah has been the source of many yucks in the national press the past few months after the state's attorney general appointed a "porn czar." Paula Houston, a 41-year-old Mormon virgin, was tapped in February to become the nation's first "obscenity and pornography complaints ombudsman." Houston now spends her time viewing skin flicks and X-rated Internet sites to ferret out and prosecute those who violate the state's obscenity laws.

As a Mormon, Houston probably doesn't need much training for this particular job. The porn czar is simply a public manifestation of the priggish side of Mormon church culture, which aggressively seeks to shelter its members from sinful temptations and, more significantly, heretical ideas that might cause them to question whether the Book of Mormon is as fictional as an L. Ron Hubbard novel.

Church leaders, usually men as old as Methuselah, long ago created a Soviet-style cradle-to-grave indoctrination system that practically makes independent thinking a mortal sin. To keep people in line, the church sends out "home teachers" to visit members and not-so-subtly remind them of the eternal damnation they might suffer from falling down on the job.

To root out dissenters and other reprobates, the church has also established a security apparatus worthy of the Kremlin. It has infiltrated and spied on gay Mormon groups, rival polygamist clans, as well as historical associations seeking a less censored study of Mormon history. (It's no surprise the CIA has found Utah a fertile recruiting ground.) Those who publicly question the party line are excommunicated. More than one observer has noted the Orwellian parallels in the LDS church. The church's control fetish extends to the larger world, and frequently turns up in its crusades against smut.

Porn is an favorite villain of church leadership, and increasingly so as the Internet has made it privately accessible in people's homes. At the church's general conference last year, President Hinckley preached: "To you, young men and women, I plead with you not to befoul your minds with this ugly and vicious stuff. It is designed to titillate you, to absorb you into its net... It will lead you into the dark and ugly."

Church followers have responded to the call with gusto. One state legislator recently moved to create criminal penalties for movie theater staffers who allow underage kids to get into R-rated movies. On President's Day, some 400 high school kids marched on the state capitol with signs reading "Porn---Heck No!" or "Scorn Porn" and chanting "1-2-3, choose decency." When interviewed by the Salt Lake Tribune about how they would describe porn, one student claimed it was "R-rated movies." Another said firmly that it was "Michelangelo's David."

Utah's holy war has bordered on persecution. In 1997, after a complaint from a concerned parent that her local video store, Movie Buffs, was carrying obscene materials, County Attorney Kay Bryson ordered law-enforcement raids on all of the chain's stores in the county. No matter that Larry Peterman, Movie Buffs' owner, had checked his materials with the local sheriff, and that the city council had signed off on his plan to stock "cable version" adult videos. The local prosecutor charged Peterman with 15 misdemeanor charges of distributing obscenity. He was tried twice before a local jury finally acquitted him. But the bad publicity and legal fees bankrupted Peterman and destroyed his business.

The anti-porn crusade is just the most recent example of how church edicts have become public policies in Utah. The church is highly intolerant of gays and lesbians. LDS church materials refer to homosexuality as a "perversion." The LDS church has pumped literally millions of its tax-exempt dollars into campaigns in Vermont and California to defeat gay marriage legislation. At home in Utah, though, the church has turned its anti-gay feelings into a very public mission.

For instance, in 1995, students at East High school in Salt Lake City attempted to create a gay/straight student alliance, which was immediately banned by both the school and the Salt Lake school board. Students sued, arguing that the policy was discriminatory as long as other extracurricular groups were allowed at the schools. A judge agreed. But rather than allow the gay student group, the Salt Lake School Board voted to eliminate all 46 extracurricular student groups in the school district, even the Young Republicans. It was the most extreme step taken anywhere in the country to outlaw gay student groups.

In 1998, a group of parents from the Nebo school district calling themselves "Citizens of the Nebo School District for Moral and Legal Values" filed a lawsuit trying to revoke the teaching license of Wendy Weaver, a lesbian psychology teacher. Parents claimed in the suit that Weaver's lifestyle violated the state's sodomy laws. (The only sex that isn't illegal in Utah is between married people.)

A judge allowed the group to pursue claims that Weaver also violated students' rights by having access to the women's locker room. The parents finally lost. Weaver, however, won a federal suit against the school district for violating her privacy and due-process rights after district officials told her not to discuss her sexual orientation with students, parents, or other staff members, and denied her a coaching position.

Live Free or Die

It's no small irony that the Mormons came to Utah for religious freedom, only to create a culture as repressive as the one they were fleeing. Obviously, the LDS church isn't the only religious institution in America to hold racist, homophobic, and misogynistic beliefs, but it is one of the few that have been able to impose those beliefs on a sizeable minority that doesn't agree with it.

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.

Stephanie Mencimeris an editor of The Washington Monthly. You can email her byclicking hereor read her other articles byclicking here


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