"The Church and the Public Square(s):

A Book Review of God and Country: Politics in Utah "

Russell Arben Fox

SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 1 (Spring 2009)






Note: Russell Arben Fox is an assistant professor professor of political science at Friends University. Full citation for the book under review is God and Country: Politics in Utah, Jeffery E. Sells, ed. (Signature Books, 2005)

            Here in 2009, the question of how Mormonism–as a faith, an institutional church, and a body of believers–fits into or might be best considered in light of American political life might seem to be a generally, if not explicitly, national question. Since 2007, the nation has seen a Mormon candidate (Massachusetts Republican governor Mitt Romney) very nearly capture the presidential nomination of a major political party, and has seen Mormon citizens, voters, and donors turn out in large numbers (and dollar amounts) to play a key role in passing a large and controversial bit of social legislation (Proposition 8 in California, which changed the state constitution to prevent the recognition of same-sex unions as marriages). Both of these events gave rise to–and continue to give rise to–extensive and contentious legal, political, and theological commentary, very little of which was localized but rather brought their respective arguments into the mainstream of American public debates. Thus it would seem that the public square within which Mormons ought to make an account of themselves and their beliefs and actions is the American one as a whole. At least some elements of the institutional church have embraced this idea, and have set their task to be one of speaking to broad national audiences, in many cases borrowing arguments and conceptualizations that have been thoroughly tested by other, similarly socially and morally conservative and traditional faith communities. [1]

            And yet, while all this is certainly true in principle, in practice it remains just as true that looking closely at a smaller arena, at arguably “smaller” issues, can reveal insights that might be missed, or at least be harder to discern, on the broader scale; insights that can be relevant to assessing and evaluating how far the larger whole has come, and where it appears to be going. This is one reason to use as a springboard towards a deeper discussion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and American public life a book about Mormons and Utah, the polity that the LDS church is still (and probably will continue to be for quite some time yet) most thoroughly and regularly identified with. Of course, any examination of Utah public life–which has been historically and materially defined by a single religion (namely, Mormonism) in a way which is unique in the annals of America’s history–brings with it all sorts of complications: problems and assumptions and suspicions which simply cannot translate to a larger framework. And the fact that the book in question was published at only the mid-point of this decade, and thus does not reflect all the events of the past four or five years, is to be taken into consideration. But still, to the extent that there are topics pertaining to Mormon political interactions–those taking place in courtrooms and the hallways of power, those taking place on the streets of public opinion, and every place between–which the aforementioned events beg to see more deeply investigated and reflected upon, then it may be that looking into the heart of Deseret isn’t a bad way to begin. In fact, in some ways it may be the most reasonable of all places to start.


            There have been many books written about the relationship which the LDS church has to state power in Utah and beyond. Most, however, have been written by outsiders to the Mormon heartland: one thinks of Wallace Turner’s The Mormon Establishment (1966), Robert Gottlieb’s and Peter Wiley’s America’s Saints: The Rise of Mormon Power (1984), and Richard and Joan Ostling’s Mormon America: The Power and the Promise (1999). By contrast, in God and Country (hereafter GC) we have a collection of essays written, for the most part, by long-time Utahns. The volume’s stated, overarching goal is an exploration of the intersections of church and state and their application to life in Utah, but in the end the book is both vaguer and more pointed than that. Vaguer because those essays which address the legal, philosophical and historical aspects of various church and state issues (primarily the contributions of Judith Atherton, Jeffery Sells, and Peter Appleby), while insightful, are not especially well-served by the editorial decision to mold them into contributions to a text focused on Utah; and more pointed because those essays which are primarily reflections upon “politics in Utah” seem for the most part to share a very specific, though often unexpressed, agenda. Perhaps the best way to identify that agenda is to turn to an event that may now seem small and insignificant, but which at the time gave rise to many heated arguments, and which, from a distance, may be seem to provide a synecdoche of the whole relationship Mormons have, or should have, with the public square.

            On October 3, 2005, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an ACLU lawsuit regarding the 1999 sale of a city block along Main Street in Salt Lake City to the LDS church, which it had turned into, as the court put it, an “ecclesiastical park.” The American Civil Liberties Union, which hadn’t originally opposed the city’s sale of the land, made the claim that the arrangements which the city agreed to in order to make certain the LDS church didn’t back out of the deal constituted an abandonment of the city’s obligation to protect free speech along public sidewalks. Back in 2002, the same appellate court had rejected the city’s position that there was nothing wrong with it granting the church a supervisory role over what was said or done by users of the public easement which crossed the park; in response to that legal decision, Salt Lake City sold the easement entirely, receiving from the LDS church $5 million plus some church property elsewhere in the city in exchange. The ACLU sued again, claiming such an arrangement constituted a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. This time, the court disagreed, stating that “the city [had done] nothing to advance religion, but merely enable[d] the LDS church to advance itself.” [2]

            Lee Siegel was one of the plaintiffs in the ACLU suit. He was quoted after the decision was handed as saying “I live in a state run by the American Taliban . . . Salt Lake City and the church have successfully weaseled themselves to a victory, but it doesn't make it right. I hope they enjoy their lily white, golly gee, clean, fun plaza.” [3]

            A rather incongruous set of terms are employed in this allegation: that the LDS church functions in Utah like the Taliban did in Afghanistan, and what they do with that oppressive power is . . . make things “golly gee” fun. This kind of attitude–and Siegel is surely not alone in holding it, not if the editorial pages of the Salt Lake Tribune back then were any indication–alludes to the complicated ways in which a particular kind of (historically non- or even anti-Mormon) pluralism has been framed as a cosmopolitan virtue, and contrasted with a set of popular (and generally “conservative”) social practices and expectations which are then attributed to an overt religious authoritarianism. Divining the state of God and country in Utah thus requires addressing the manner in which the unimpeachably modern LDS church–which these days rarely acts in a corporate way to influence state power in the name of any communal ideal that could plausibly be called Talibanesque–nonetheless shapes the social fabric around it in decidedly nonsecular ways, to the delight of some and the chagrin of more than a few.

            Unfortunately, such thoughtful reflections on modernity are rare in GC. The operative assumption behind several of the essays appears to be that the secretive, centralized power of the LDS church in Utah interferes with individual conscience and thus civic health; the solution, therefore, is for the LDS church to limit its engagement with the people and institutions of the state of Utah, and also to become more tolerant of dissent and disagreement within its own fold. These are solid liberal positions, which can be associated with the whole gamut of traditional church-state concerns: the problem religions presumably have with tolerance, the inappropriateness of religious arguments in public debates, and so forth. But still, such positions are limited in their ability to diagnose Utah’s political condition, as they make the same mistake which Christopher Lasch (exactly the sort of critic Utah today does need) accused Wallace Turner of making almost forty years ago: they confuse “Mormonism as a religion and the Mormons as the dominant social class in the state of Utah.” [4] Which is not to say that the two are always easily distinguished–they aren’t. But little real explanatory headway will be made, I think, unless one can see the difference between a community-minded and well-positioned modern social group–about which there are valid democratic concerns–and a sociopolitical religious imperative that (perhaps regretfully–as Rod Decker writes in GC, it is “Utah’s fate . . . to become boring” (pg. 97)) for the most part is present only in the mind of old-guard liberals.

            Of which this volume, not coincidentally, features plenty. Among the contributors are long-time liberal lions from the University of Utah like Jackson Newell and Ed Firmage; they are joined by representatives from Salt Lake City’s old civic and mainline Protestant establishment, including former Utah Governor Calvin Rampton and John W. Gallivan, for many decades the publisher of the Salt Lake Tribune. There are exceptions to this Alta Club feeling in the volume; the three short concluding essays, in which the authors discuss the challenges of being an African-American Baptist, a Jew, and a Muslim in Utah, are a worthy attempt to expand the discussion somewhat. But they are also clearly, and not just because of their placing, outside the intended thrust of the book. As for the more prominent contributors, it does none of them (good and perceptive thinkers all) any discredit to suggest that, in at least some cases, several of them have engaged the problems of living in Utah in the 21st century from a perspective that is not cognizant of what the culture wars of the day have done to modern liberal presumptions. The claim that Utah is a “theocracy” is thrown around rather casually throughout the text, despite the equally frequent acknowledgment (and the insistence by Rampton in his essay–see pgs. 89-91) that evidence of explicit theocratic mechanisms operating behind the scenes of Utah’s government is basically non-existent. That the LDS church at one time did govern the Territory of Utah as a practical theocracy, and that up through the early years of the 20th century many of its leaders continued to act as though such was still the case, is indisputable; but that is not what is at issue here. The contention is that the LDS church–with its authoritarian command over Mormon voters, and efficiently controlled public relations machines (thinking here of, perhaps, Brigham Young University and the Deseret News)–continues to introduce a theocratic sensibility into Utah politics which corrupts and oppresses; but even if one is sympathetic to that allegation, it is not so easy to identify, much less rectify, what is “theocratic” about any given civil society any longer.

            A few of the authors make comments which allow one to get at this point, if only obliquely. For instance, there is Decker’s observation that, whereas 40 years ago the state of Utah was about “on-third active Mormon, one-third inactive Mormon, and one-third non-Mormon” (pg. 119), today the number of inactive Mormons has dropped to only about one-sixth of the population. The Utah Mormon population has become more engaged in its own identity, and consequently more defensive of and involved in matters important to its church. In this it has taken a page from the playbook of other conservative churches in American politics, and increasing makes allies with such--with Mormons, evangelical Christians, and conservative Catholics thus jointly proposing a Christian response to an American culture which they regard as having become unmoored. D. Michael Quinn’s essay superbly synthesizes reams of data and anecdotes, painting a compelling picture of how “Mormon organizational behavior” has come to serve as a “backbone for the interfaith political coalition that is America’s Religious Right” (pgs. 130, 140; his observations about how Mormons’ organizational practices are more politically potent than many realize is echoed by Rampton, pg. 85). Yet here Quinn is telling a story which piggy-backs on the broad and multicausal rise of the culture wars, and not-so-subtlety mourns for that era during which it seemed that the famed “modernization thesis”–the claim that increased education and wealth would lead to religious moderation and acultural secularization–was being fulfilled amongst Utah Mormons, along with every other Christian denomination across America (Decker also alludes to the recent, changing fortunes of the “modernity theory” in Utah–pg. 119). Quinn’s attempts to document anything substantively theocratic about contemporary Mormon public engagement–to show, in other words, that there is something more going on that just the same cultural enlistment that has pre-occupied conservative churches for the last three decades, that Mormons really do at present desire to theocratically rule Utah or anywhere else–are quite weak (amounting a random comment from 1963 by an assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve and little more–pgs. 130, 148). And yet the “theocratic” allegation remains, perhaps because so much of liberalism in America remains hostage to an analysis which suggests that religious believers who do not act and vote the moderate way which the mainline social classes did a generation or two ago must, of course, be preparing to conduct witch trials in the public square. For so many well-positioned American Mormons to have departed from mainline moderation so dramatically over the past generation or two must, it seems, implies deeper plans on the part of the church they support than mere interest-group politics.

            This is not to say that those moderate liberal expectations formed decades ago, even about Utah, were groundless. There was a time, in Utah as well as elsewhere throughout the country, when America’s religious establishments, as Jan Shipps observes in her GC essay, were mere “cultural conventions” (pg. 70) that felt little need to draw explicit lines because the American people themselves were traditional enough and grounded enough in their local communities to feel little need to cross such lines in the first place. Such was the social environment of Utah, and much of the rest of America, half a century ago, during what might be considered the height of America’s mainline “civil religion.” This was an era when well-established and basically unquestioned moral and religious norms allow for a relaxed segmentation of religious belief and social involvement; since everyone (or at least, everyone who occupied or aspired to the dominant, majority-supported social positions in society) was religious, religious belief itself was politically irrelevant, and this described mid-20th-century Utah as well as much of the rest of white America. [5]

            The relative decline of those cultural establishments over the past decades has had many causes, but its primary result has been intense struggle over the meaning and bounds of the communities in which we live, including our national community. Mormons, no less than any other religious group, have become caught up in that struggle. But the LDS church no longer approaches that struggle theocratically, as its own divisive struggles with the “national de facto establishment,” as Shipps puts it (pg. 72), have mostly come to an end. What is at work in what both critics and supporters perceive as an energized and politically awakened LDS church thus is, for better or worse, basically just another instance of religiously based social activism, of the sort that has been often seen throughout America’s democratic history (abolitionism in the mid-19th century; temperance movements in the early 20th). Even Quinn, as much as he clearly wants to argue that contemporary Mormonism’s “exporting” of theocracy is the result of a unique, internal perversion of church doctrine, cannot avoid concluding that the trends he documents really just mean that the LDS church is an American success story, since “American politics has always praised pluralism while expecting voter management” (pg. 145). Clearly, both the LDS church’s official engagement in the Proposition 8 campaign, and the grass-roots (though coordinated!) engagement of many hundreds of thousands of Mormons throughout California is that same campaign, must be understood in these terms.

            In fact, it might be suggested that treating Utah as requiring unique justification before being incorporated into the recent history of church and state debates in America is a red herring. In the midst of all the sociological debate over why the liberation, diversification, and secularization of the public sphere has given rise to such a (from a liberal perspective) presumably perverse and unnecessarily fierce backlash, one could just as easily employ Occam’s Razor, and see the events of the past three decades across America as having made it clear that the conventional and communal religious establishments of the past always did hold within themselves strong–perhaps even arguably “theocratic,” if one insists on using the term–moral presumptions, all of which have burst forth once the real costs and implications of living without establishments became clear. This is not to imply that a tyrannical Talibanism lurks within the heart of Mormonism or any other religious faith, but only that those who speak of the Taliban, or of theocracy, as if it is something easily and always distinguished from other, more “civil” church and state arrangements, fail to understand that the actions of individuals depend upon their being embedded in some sort of collective, established, morally (and often religiously) substantive cultural order. In other words, as Graham Walker put it, “some form of religious establishment [even if a “secular” one] is inexorable.” [6]

            When that ordered establishment was less challenged, more parochial, more untroubled and stable–as it was in Utah (as well as in California and indeed in America as a whole) in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, the era of LDS Church President David O. McKay often hearkened back to fondly in this volume–then the need to actively ascertain one’s communitarian footing was felt by fewer individual members of the community. As it has become more challenged, however, individuals become engaged, joining with others in affirming their right to collective struggle to shore up, extend, and in a sense control what little space, both literal and conceptual, they see as still remaining their own. This is the real story of increased political activity in Mormonism, and the rapid growth of the LDS church’s engagements with the social fabric around it: not the lust for power or the retrieval of an antimodern mindset, but rather a response to a shattering of presumptions that governed the particular environments, such as Mormon Utah, which gave meaning to individual choice. The fact that one can see, in events ranging from the annual March for Life protests held in Washington D.C. on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, to the activism of Mormons and others against the extension of legal recognition to same-sex couples in California through Proposition 8, a denominationally and geographically broad reaction to many of the moral and cultural transformations that have undermined the settled communal understandings of previous generations, is simply evidence of the long assumed and thus unstated importance of those understandings–and not necessarily evidence of some sort of explicitly “theocratic” impulse.


            These moves are, it should be noted, potentially republican and participatory, not radical and authoritarian. By “republican” I mean, very broadly, actions which presume and pursue a notion of the res publica, the “public things” which belong to all who are members of the community, as having an essential nature, one capable of making moral and civic demands upon those who would consider themselves part of the whole. By “participatory” I mean, again very broadly, the notion that republican politics must partake of some element of democratic activity, of direct and inclusive action, or else the nature of the public the members of the community ought to feel obligated to will in practice seem truncated, detached from popular involvement and left in the hands of elites. There are implications for Mormons in Utah and elsewhere which follow from this observation, and by no means are they all positive. However, so long as the differences here are not comprehended, it is unlikely that liberals worried about the Mormon dominance of Utah, or about Mormons engaged in the public square anywhere else, will supply the sort of democratic criticisms which may well be truly needed.

            Consider again the Main Street controversy in this light. The intention of the LDS church in purchasing the land manifestly mixed religious and secular concerns–it wanted to create an “ecclesiastical park,” as the appellate court put it, but nonetheless a park, not a worship site. From the perspective of the LDS church, serving their faithful (who are responsible for a large majority of all the foot traffic in and around Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City) was perfectly compatible with serving the city, in that both would benefit from more green space downtown and the further social “harmonization,” one might say, of the city’s infrastructure with its most notable landmarks. (Given that the city had long been interested in building a pedestrian plaza along the very same block of Main Street, obviously at least some city planners shared the same civic aim.) Of course, there are many residents of Salt Lake City who consider those landmarks an all-too-notable presence in their everyday society already, and it was on behalf of such that the ACLU involved itself in a fight with the city. Stephen C. Clark’s essay in GC is a helpful guide to all the ins and outs which accompanied the negotiations between the city and the church, and what happened afterwards. But when confronted with the basic question as to the harm an ecclesiastical park posed to downtown Salt Lake City, he seems at a loss except to point to the LDS church’s lack of “toleration of public dissent” (pg. 278), invoking the image of excommunicated scholars, religious critics, and other dissidents being prevented from setting up booths alongside Main Street in order to express themselves to the crowds. This is foolish; there are far more effective (and less expensive) ways for the LDS church to keep various anti-Mormons and other assorted critics off their property than to purchase a bunch more of it from the city. The restrictions on speech and behavior within the park were not simple protectiveness, but part and parcel of the Church’s vision of an improved civic order (an vision which Siegel dismissively called “golly gee” fun, and which Thomas Goldsmith, in his contribution to GC, suggests is “choking a potentially lively downtown”–pg. 173). None of this is unusual. Churches, like any other social institution, have a long and valued history in expressing, architecturally and spatially, one or another set of values embraced by the people; if Mormon majorities are happy to support the extending of their church establishment throughout the community they live, and if such an extension does not depend upon any kind of exclusionary favoritism on the part of the state, then such a collaboration matches perfectly with republican standards: it is simply another kind of popular, collective tending to the public good.

            The usual problem with this kind of justification, and the reason why republican thought in America has long been mixed with, or subjected to, liberal concerns, is that there are always multiple “publics.” Which one did the sale of Main Street tend to? The vote on the Salt Lake City Council to approve the original sale was five to two; the Mormon members of the council voted for it, the others opposed. Of course, there were various reasons to both support or oppose the sale, but if one imagines that the vote truly was strictly a religious referendum, one has to ask: is Salt Lake City really 70 percent Mormon? Obviously it isn’t. In which case, how could such a council vote seriously claim to be expressing the will of the community? Ah, but suppose we assume the decision to have been taken on behalf of establishing public goods valued by the state-wide Mormon community? But opponents of such reasoning can just turn that argument around again: why stop with just the state? Why not the Intermountain West? Why not the whole country? Again, one may see the applicability of such questions to the actions of Mormons in California during the Proposition 8 campaign. On the one hand, there are very clear arguments–grounded in the history of American federalism, for one–in favor of seeing the states as the appropriate arena within which the evolving deliberations over same-sex marriage, and what kind of formal relationship said unions ought to have to the civic order, ought be played out. [7] On the other hand, one might assert that even simply as a state, California was almost certainly the wrong place for such kind of struggle: it is far too large and too diverse to be responsibly conceived of as a participatory arena wherein an argument about what it as a community wants or expects or believes when it comes to marriage could ever be worked out in a manner that would allow its members to feel real ownership of that particular public thing. Either way, the question of which public square a one’s community is attaching itself to, and sees itself as a legitimate player in the shaping of, cannot be ignored.

                  It is exactly this sort of struggle over determining the relevant community available for civic establishment (or even promotion) that leads most liberals to see almost any attempt to inject a positive conception of a public good into politics as by definition arbitrary, and therefore potentially exploitive of individuals. Far better that the public square be unadorned with moral preferences and hence be unrestrictive of individual choice, than to possibly crush one individual’s interests in pursuit of shaping the social environment in which they happen to live. Of course, few liberals in American history have really pushed this principle as far as it might go, particularly in regards to religion; generally speaking, a wide assortment of constitutional protections and exceptions have been extended to churches. Nonetheless, the reluctance on the part of many to see the state explicitly acknowledge–much less “enable,” to use again the words of the appellate court–the expression of a clearly defined “public philosophy,” or a moral or religious vision of the public good, has been held as a liberal fundamental in American society for at least the past half-century. The mainline establishments of America’s recent history were a compromise that most liberals were able to live with, and indeed often embraced. But as those establishments played themselves out, the sort of pluralism they fostered under the rubric of cosmopolitanism or even “enlightenment” seemed, to some at least, to threaten the fabric of the community itself. Hence the revival of interest in civil society, and the engagement of once contented social elites and majorities in community establishment. [8] The return of a more aggressively establishment-minded, republican politics to broader public debate (as any resident of the rural South or West knows, such popular conservative moralism never disappeared from democracy as practiced in small towns anyway) is no reason to cry “theocracy”–the problems of distinguishing the relevant “publics” and places for social shaping will never go away, but neither is that reason to refuse any engagement with them. This is assuming, however, that the participatory lessons of republicanism are fully embraced–which, admittedly, does not appear to have entirely been the case in Utah.

            Sheldon Wolin once commented, in a remark that echoes what has been said here about past American establishments, that the United States was once a “liberal society” tempered by “traditional values”–but he feared that it is now becoming “ultramodern and often belligerently illiberal, ultraconservative without being traditionalist.” [9] The individualizing of public battles, primarily through frequent reliance on the courts to sort out new forms of pluralism which have emerged in American society over recent decades, has had the effect of allowing our participatory political muscles to atrophy; modern life encourages a rush to extreme and judgmental corners, without much consideration for the traditions of democratic dialogue which makes the public substantive in the first place. The real force of Clark’s essay is not found in the high dudgeon he works up over the LDS church’s lack of tolerance for irreverent t-shirts, but in the documentation he provides for what must be regarded as a sloppy, secretive, irresponsible process by which some church and city representatives went about the sale of the property in the first place (pgs. 273-283). Utahns, and perhaps especially Mormon Utahns, were perhaps out of practice when it came to the participatory demands of republican politics and civic ordering generally, in part because their majority in the state allowed them to often exercise power casually, through back-channels, rather than making the process of their increased social involvement suitably public. It should not be surprising that an engagement with public matters which does not, in fact, respect the (always debatable but nonetheless generally present) requirements of public discourse, is greeted with unhappiness and suspicion. [10] The angry denunciations, the protests, the occasional boycotts and instances of harassment, and the lawsuits, both frivolous and serious, which followed in the aftermath of the passage of Proposition 8 in California is more evidence of the same principle. Of course, if may well be that in choosing to engage the broad and diverse Californian public square in a political struggle over the fate of a highly contested–to many simply nonsensical, to others perfectly obvious–legal right, the LDS church could not have possibly managed its discourse and participation and financial involvement in such a way as to satisfy everyone’s expectations for democratic discourse, no matter what their strategy or their sincere efforts. But that does not mean warnings regarding the need to attempt to do so needn’t be heard.

            It is for this reason that John J. Flynn’s essay is really the most helpful in the whole volume to a reflection upon the Mormon situation in the American public square today, for it articulates, in wise and careful prose, just such a “warning.” Going beyond allegations of Mormon authoritarianism, he writes thoughtfully and poignantly about how the social exclusiveness of many Utah Mormons, the easy way in which they describe those outside the faith as “nons,” their tendency in the legislature to rely on secret caucuses and to trade offices between local power brokers, the social divisions which their emphasis on herding their children into distinct LDS youth programs introduces in the public schools, and so on, all lead to paranoia, distrustfulness, and resentment on the part of Utah’s non-Mormon population, none of which is good for public debate (pgs. 206-213). Flynn is perfectly aware that dark ruminations on a revived Mormon theocracy are a distraction from the actual “theocratic” problem: “too much secrecy in government; strong-arm, one-party tactics instead of openness and scrupulous due process in deciding public issues; the absence of healthy debate on issues of public moment; and the division of political parties, not only ideologically but also religiously” (pg. 222). In short, if those who dominate Utah politics are intent on moving (as so many other energized religious conservatives across the country have been similarly moved) in a more communal direction, then they ought to take those steps necessary to make their religious shaping of Utah’s social fabric–and, perhaps, the other social fabrics within which Mormons find themselves engaged as well–more genuinely participatory, and that means rethinking who in fact gets to participate in this shaping. [11]

                  In an odd way, the fact that this change in Utah politics over recent decades has so little Mormon radicalism behind it actually makes this project more daunting. Modern life is overwhelmingly managerial, and the LDS church today often is as well; since “managing” a public is an outright contradiction, many commonly argue that even if republican and communitarian projects are worth pursuing, the procedural structures of modern life make them impossible to carry off. This criticism can be responded to, but it nonetheless has some force: despite theoretical discussion of churches and other social bodies inculcating their popular moral vision into the public square through democratic persuasion and collective engagement, the fact remains that these are large organizations and parties that put final decision-making power (or money to influence those who have such power) into the hands of frequently unaccountable, perhaps even unknown, individuals. The result is that what is defended as popular democracy is hard to distinguish from an elite construction; the genuinely public project of a particular people may seem to be absorbed into whatever dominant ideological forces have the most expressive force, what one scholar called the “dictatorship of the articulate.” [12] Some thoughtful Mormons have worried about the tendency of members of the LDS church to too-easily sacrifice the unique public vision their faith bequeaths to them (the ideal of Zion and so forth) in order to better line up with those conservative forces that have already enlisted in the culture wars, and perhaps they are right to so worry. [13]

            Flynn suggests that the solution to this problem is more politics, rather than less: “it may be time,” he writes, “for more vigorous intervention in politics by the leadership of the LDS Church” (pg. 223) (though admittedly I am taking Flynn’s suggestion in an unusual direction here). If part of the problem with the easy and often unquestioned equivocation of any possible new Mormon establishment with a conservative Republican one is the fact that, for example, LDS wards throughout Utah function informally as a way to legitimize the political opportunities of those conservatives who tend to socially dominate them (see Flynn’s comment, pg. 211), then the best response may not be for church leaders to continue to insist on wards being apolitical (as that won’t get at the problem of dominance, since the advantage they provide is informal anyway), but rather to get them to think through their political commitments, and the participation such social activism requires, more substantively. Mormonism contains within itself a long legacy of shaping society so as to prioritize “local autonomy, noncontentious governmental operation, communitarian living, cooperative economics, personal religious freedom, and family privacy” [14]–much of which is amenable to the dominant conservative agenda in America today, but much else which is not. Getting members of the LDS church to understand the validity of the many different positions which can be taken–even simultaneously!–within the bounds of their own faith towards the establishment of public goods may be difficult at a moment when the Church, pushed by its divine mission and the complicated realities of globalization, has implemented mechanisms of decisionmaking and curriculum-development that are rather narrow. But such seems the most promising route to a greater acceptance and less suspicion of Mormon republicanism. This process may already now be underway as the consequences of the Proposition 8 campaign have obliged many Mormons in California and elsewhere to articulate a more coherent defense of their church’s role in their own political activities.

            Perhaps the social activism of today’s Mormon majorities–in regards to gay marriage in particular, but also abortion rights, pornography, lotteries and more–are baby steps towards a reconnection with and an articulation of a unique Mormon participatory voice; if so, we can look forward to the LDS church working to bring its civic vision out from behind the sort of managerial political alliances and casual deal-making which at present, particularly in Utah, occasionally leaves it masked, inchoate, and open to charges of abuse. Politics in Utah–and wherever Mormon communities are to be found–would then be anything but boring; moreover, while they certainly wouldn’t be any less controversial, they would inspire far less directionless frustration. Of course, in matters like Main Street (not to mention California), it may be that none of this would have made any difference: the same accusations would have flown, the same antagonisms would have resulted. But still, if the dispute over Main Street, and all the other extensions of Mormon moral concern that the LDS church has pursued in recent years, could be considered preparatory, experiments in finding a footing which is not within either culture war camp, but also is not intimated by dated praise for a system of establishment that has passed away, and isn’t afraid to extend itself into the struggle to establish new “publics” in American life, it would be an asset to American pluralism, not just broadening it but adding much to its meaning and significance. But all that depends on whether or not the leadership of the LDS church sees the modern world in light of this argument. For the moment, if seems that it does; while some of those communities that have become activated in response to the changes in long-accepted religious establishments in this country have spoken as it the culture wars have been lost and a general retreat into devotional enclaves is for the best, the way Mormon leaders have responded to the controversies initiated by Proposition 8 suggests otherwise for the LDS church. Which is a good thing in an America where Mormons are increasing visible, and where Mormon communities are willing to flex their democratic muscles. The contentiousness of the Proposition 8 fight, and perhaps many other fights to come, is preferable to a continued unofficial or even unconscious (and thus sometimes dubious) involvement in a contest over God and country, without having ever actually acknowledging that one is playing the game. What is good for the Church in its national politicking would be good for Utah as well.



[1] The comfort that many Mormon leaders and thinkers have with addressing social and moral issues through the language of tradition, natural law, and other non-denominationally specific Christian ideas can be found in many documents located on the LDS Newsroom website (http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/), and in particular in the amicus brief which the church filed at the beginning of the campaign regarding same-sex marriage in California along with dozens of other religious groups (http://newsroom.lds.org/Static%20Files/Newsroom/News%20Releases%202007/DOCS-1002214-v1-California_SGM_Brief--Supreme_Court.PDF). [Back to manuscript]

[2] Heather May, “ACLU: Salt Lake City-Mormon Church deal is unconstitutional,” Salt Lake Tribune, October 3, 2005, A1. [Back to manuscript]

[3] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[4] Christopher Lasch, “The Mormon Utopia,” in The World of Nations: Reflections on American History, Politics, and Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 57. [Back to manuscript]

[5] The classic statement of this aspect of America’s civil religion is Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1960); for the Mormon version of the same phenomenon, see Part 2 of Armand Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994). [Back to manuscript]

[6] Graham Walker, “Illusionary Pluralism, Inexorable Establishment,” in Obligations of Citizenship and Demands of Faith: Religious Accommodation in Pluralist Democracies, Nancy L. Rosenblum, ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 111. [Back to manuscript]

[7] See, for example, Jonathan Rauch, “Give Federalism a Chance,” National Review Online (http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=ZGJkNjA4N2VjNDg1NzhiYjJhNTNhZTQwOGE5OWFlOTQ=), August 2, 2001. [Back to manuscript]

[8] The literature on the contemporary communitarian, civil society, and “neo-Tocquevillian” movement is so extensive as to defy summary. A good start is to look at discussions of the work of some of the major figures in this intellectual movement, include Jean Bethke Elshtain, Amitai Etzioni, William Galston, Robert Putnam, and Michael Sandel. The volume of essays dedicated to exploring Sandel’s contribution to the search for, and defense of the establishment of, a “public philosophy,” is especially helpful; see Debating Democracy’s Discontent: Essays on American Politics, Law, and Public Philosophy, Anita L. Allen and Milton C. Regan, Jr., eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). [Back to manuscript]

[9] Sheldon S. Wolin, “Democracy, Difference, and Re-Cognition,” Political Theory 21 (August 1993), 479. [Back to manuscript]

[10] Perceptive Mormon observers of Utah’s politics and culture have raised this warning before; see, for example, Eugene England, “Why Utah Mormons Should Become Democrats: Reflections on Partisan Politics,” in Making Peace: Personal Essays (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 85-105. [Back to manuscript]

[11] This may seem an unreasonable burden; must those who have been driven to collective action in response to the atrophying of the once-settled establishments upon which their have constructed the bounds of their respective communities be wholly responsible for resurrecting a public both capable of and interested in democratic engagement with said community? Unfortunately, such would seem to be the case. Those who are most resistant to efforts to re-instantiate or at least buttress remaining establishments have the status quo–the individualistic, ofttimes emptied status quo–on their side. Like it or not, Mormon public activity, both outside and sometimes even inside Utah, is a reforming, resisting, interventionary activity, and those who choose to engage in such acts must accept the burden of a political environment where interventions confront the comfortable self-interest of others. One wonders if Tocqueville might have something to add to all this. [Back to manuscript]

[12] Will Kymlicka, “Liberal Individualism and Liberal Neutrality,” in Shlomo Avineri and Avner De-Shalit, Communitarianism and Individualism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 179. [Back to manuscript]

[13] Frederick Mark Gedicks, “‘No Man’s Land’: The Place of Latter-day Saints in the Culture War,” (Bloomington, Ind.: The Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions, 1999), 12-13. [Back to manuscript]

[14] Eric A. Eliason, “‘An Awful Tale of Blood’: Theocracy, Intervention, and the Forgotten Kingdom,” FARMS Review of Books 12/1 (2000), 111-112. [Back to manuscript]


Full Citation for This Article: Fox, Russell Arben (2009) "The Church and the Public Square(s): A Book Review of God and Country: Politics in Utah," SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 1 (Spring), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleFoxUtahPolitics.html, accessed [give access date].

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