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LDS Church politics in Utah

Representative Carl Wimmer with LDS Apostle L. Tom Perry

There are some people who think that the LDS Church should not be allowed to lobby with regards to political issues.  I am not one of those people.  However, I think there are tactics the church should avoid, or they cross over boundaries with regards to the separation of church and state.

Carl Wimmer served in the Utah legislature from 2007-2012.  This past week he gave some very interesting insights into LDS Church lobbying efforts.  He said that “The church is very selective regarding the legislation they engage…” and ” rarely want things badly enough to engage openly.”  The reason?  “This is due to the fact that because most of Utah’s legislators are LDS members, the majority of legislation already aligns with the LDS Church position without their influence.”

However, the conservative legislator notes that sometimes the church (1) has surprising positions, and (2) the church crosses some ethical lines when lobbying.  With regards to the recently passed anti-discrimination bill in Utah, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints just passed a pro-LGBT piece of legislation in Utah” Wimmer noted on his blog.  “Does that sound odd to you? It does to me, but it is essentially true.”

Wimmer names names.  “John Taylor and Bill Evans are full-time employees of the LDS Church and their job is to monitor the Utah Government, and to act as the paid lobbyists on behalf of the church. They regularly meet with legislators behind closed doors, (as do other lobbyists, this is nothing nefarious or unusual,) to push the agenda of their employer. ”

He also notes how they talk to LDS legislators.

When the LDS lobbyists contact a legislator, the conversation goes like this:

We are here to discuss such-and-such bill. We have received our orders “directly from the top,” and we want you to vote for this bill.

They mention that they received their orders “from the top,” so that the legislator would know unequivocally that the LDS Church’s First Presidency sent them.

Hi cites some examples of surprising positions of the LDS Church in the legislature.  He noted with dismay that the LDS Church has more moderate stances with regards to abortion and sex education.  Wimmer was one of the conservative legislators who wanted further restrictions on abortion.  According to Wimmer,

Learning how powerful the LDS Church was politically, several pro-life legislators and I set up a meeting in my office with the two LDS Church lobbyists. Our intention was to recruit the LDS Church in the battle for the right-to-life.  For weeks we had worked on legislation that would prove to make Utah the leader in the fight against abortion.  We presented our idea and expressed our eagerness to have the LDS church help in the fight to pass a bill that had failed the year before. They turned us down flat, telling us that “the First Presidency has made it clear to them that they will not engage on abortion issues.”

The conservative legislator was also upset with the LDS Church’s interference with illegal immigration.

HB116 was an extremely controversial bill dealing with illegal immigration and proposed issuing state worker cards to illegal immigrants. For at least two weeks prior to the final passage of HB116, the two church lobbyists practically lived in the back halls of the state capitol and in the office of house leadership. I was vocally opposed to the legislation, but was still contacted repeatedly by both lobbyists who attempted to change my opposition. The calls became frequent enough from the LDS Lobbyists, that I stopped taking them.

What bothered me most was when my local ecclesiastical leader contacted me and attempted to persuade me to vote for the bill as well. When I asked him, “Who from the Church headquarters had asked you to contact me?” he simply confirmed that he had been asked, but would not say by whom.

The night HB116 was debated for final passage was insane. There was intensity I had never felt before or after on the house floor. It was the intensity that comes only from political bullying, and it killed me to know that this time the “bully” was my own church.

I was approached by a younger representative who was on the verge of tears. He expressed to me that he had just gotten out of a “PPI meeting” and asked if I had had mine yet.  I knew what he meant and I was sorry for him.

A legitimate “PPI” or “Personal Priesthood Interview” is conducted within the confines of the LDS Church. It is an ecclesiastical meeting between an LDS leader and a male member under their “authority.” When I was an Elders Quorum President, I held PPI’s with the elders under my charge.  A PPI is used to check on the spiritual welfare of the man being interviewed, and to make sure they are on the “straight and narrow.”  But that is not what this legislator meant…

What he had just experienced was an intense, closed-door meeting with select members of house leadership and the LDS Church lobbyists who made it abundantly clear that when HB116 came up for a vote, he was to support the bill, period.

Sometimes, if the legislator felt strongly enough about the legislation, they would allow him to vote against it, but ONLY after the bill had the necessary votes recorded to ensure passage.  This was the deal this particular representative was under, and both he and I knew it. He was clearly shaken and expressed that he had no idea that his “church would do this kind of thing.” I hurt for him.

House leadership was split on HB116, so when I saw a member of house leadership who I knew was opposed to the bill walk onto the house floor, I went up to him and engaged him in conversation. The following is our word-for-word conversation:

Me: Hey, (name of House leader) how much of what is going on tonight regarding HB116 has to do with the LDS church?

Him: All of it; I hate this.

Me: It’s going to pass isn’t it?

Him: Yes, and in fact if the vote is close, I have to vote for it, I have no choice.”

Me: You had a PPI?

Him: Yep…(walks away).

HB116 passed as the LDS Church lobbyists looked on from the gallery.

I was not in the legislature this year, but the look and feel of the passing of HB116 and the current non-discrimination bill are quite the same. One can only guess how many legislators had “PPI’s” before the vote on the church-endorsed LGBT legislation, but there is no doubt in my mind, that as legislators read this blog, one or more of them will know precisely what I am talking about.

So, what role does the LDS Church really play when it comes to Utah politics? From my experience, it all depends on how badly the church wants a specific piece of legislation passed.

-Carl

It should surprise nobody who frequents this blog, that I am not politically conservative.  Part of me is encouraged that the LDS Church is moderate with regards to immigration and abortion.  But I do share Representative Wimmer’s  concerns with regards to PPI’s over legislative issues.  Do you think these PPI’s are a violation of the separation of church and state?

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5 comments on “LDS Church politics in Utah

  1. I have been involved with Idaho and federal politics for over 25 years. I’ve never seen the conduct described in you column — but I’ve seen similar arm twisting by various groups demanding that legislators vote certain ways. There are over 20,000 interest groups in the United States and each one applies pressure in different ways — often in diametric opposition to other groups. That’s democracy at work — the clash of ideas.

    The influence of the LDS church is unique in Utah because of the large numbers of legislators that are LDS. The actions of those legislators impacts the national and international view of the LDS faith, so I can see why the church would from time to time want to weigh in on legislation.

    But under our Constitution, any church, club, organization or group of people can weigh in. It is a free country after all and I’m glad our Founder’s set it up that way.

    I am currently reading an autobiography on James Madison, who is considered the Father of the U.S. Constitution and a man who largely crafted what we now know as The Bill of Rights. Like other Founding Fathers, Madison had a strong faith in the uplifting power of religious belief. But he also saw firsthand the abusive power of a state religion (The Church of England) in Virginia’s Colonial period and the abuses the king’s church had taken against Colonial era Baptists in Virginia.

    In the late 1780s as Madison was drafting the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution (the Bill of Rights), his first draft of the 1st Amendment said drew upon the Virginia Declaration and thus stated: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any NATIONAL RELIGION be established.” After some debate, Madison’s language was modified to, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

    The concept of opposing the creation of a national church was clearly what the Founders had in mind when they finally settled on the 1st Amendment as it reads today. But even after the Bill of Rights was established, many legislators of the day believed that it only applied to the federal government and the establishment of a national church. Many thought that states could still establish a state-sponsored religion if the state so chose. But while Madison did not go that far, as president he endorsed public and official religious expressions by issuing several proclamations for national days of prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving, and in 1812, President Madison signed a federal bill which provided financial aid in the distribution of the Bible.

    I bring these things up because while our Founding Fathers were clear that there was to be no national church, there were also clear that religion and religious people were important to the establishment of a wholesome society, and free to interact to influence the society in which they lived. The same is true today — religious people and religions in general are free under the law to exercise their influence on the political process — the same freedoms that are granted under our Constitution to people who are not religious or antagonistic toward religion.

    So, the question about LDS Church efforts being a “violation of the separation of church and state” is a non sequitur (a conclusion or statement that is not logical) since Utah has no state-sponsored church. Put another way… the LDS church, like other people and organizations, is free to approach legislators and discuss their concerns and wishes. And legislators are free to ignore any and all requests, and vote as their conscience dictates. It would be interesting to see what would happen if a significant number of LDS legislators voted against a position the advocates of the Church promulgated. I seriously doubt that any would face any action by the church.

    Indeed, when Prohibition was being repealed across the nation, Church leaders in Utah asked members to sustain it. Despite this support, the citizens of Utah voted in November 1933 for both national and state repeal.

  2. Carl Wimmer was one of the most extreme politicians in Utah. Unfortunately, the corrupt way Utah politics work, the local politicians often end up being more conservative than the average Utahn. (For example, the moderate conservative Senator Bennett wasn’t even given a chance to run again in the primaries, and instead primary voters could only choose between two extremists). It seems to me that the Church is trying to counterbalance this extremism with their own influence.

    It’s actually good to hear how passionate the church is about the immigration issue. It gives me hope.

  3. Tim, I agree with you that Utah politicians are too conservative. I think that’s pretty common knowledge, and I do appreciate the church’s moderating influence.

    Jeff, I am sure there are lots of unscrupulous lobbyists. Whether a lobbyist offers bribe money to a candidate, threatens to tie campaign contributions to certain bills, or threatens ecclesiastical action against them, I think these are all unethical forms of “influence.” I don’t like PPI’s any more than I like bribery. I think both are unethical.

    I also think the CItizens United decision created a new method for corruption of our political system, and I think the justices who allowed such corruption should be replaced. It was a terrible, corrupting influence upon campaigns.

  4. Yeah, I’m not buying that the church is threatening ecclesiastical action against them.

  5. I posted this at Wheat and Tares as well, and one commenter wrote,

    Annon on March 23, 2015 at 6:07 AM
    My great grandfather was in the Utah legislature during the ’60’s and described the. exact. same. thing.

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