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.
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? Are these PPI’s appropriate?