There have been many charges that the LDS Church controls Utah politics. Rod Decker says the Church is involved in state politics but doesn’t wield as much influence as it could. I was really surprised at his answer.
Rod: The church is somewhat involved in state politics, but it depends on what you mean by involved. Utah politics are essentially what Latter-day Saints want. Mostly that’s what it is. They elect the Republicans and they control the governor and they control the legislature, and they decide what happens in Utah politics, but the church as an institution doesn’t do a lot. It does some, but not a lot in Utah politics. There are two polls…
GT: Would you say the church is less involved than the critics claim?
Rod: Yeah. Now if you talk to conservative Latter-day Saint Republicans, real conservatives, they say they teach them correct principles and let them decide on their own. That’s sort of what happens. The Latter-day Saints are conservative. They don’t like Washington. They’re conservative economically, and giving rise to everything else, they’re conservative on moral issues. They are conservative about sex and families and morals, and that’s the way they vote. That’s what determines Utah politics and that’s what has determined it since 1976. So Utah politics are Latter-day Saint politics. The church hires a permanent staff of lobbyists. They go up the legislature, tell lawmakers what they want–the lawmakers refer to them privately as the home teachers. The home teachers came by and talked to me.
But the church doesn’t get what it wants all the time. They wanted a rule to make it illegal to secretly tape an interview with your Bishop. The people said, what’s this? Or secretly tape a phone call with your bishop. No, they didn’t get that. They’ve had other things they don’t they don’t get, but mostly on moral issues they get what they want. Sometimes they speak. They say they only talk on moral issues. They get to say what a moral issue is. They try to speak mostly on moral issues. They don’t want to appear bossy and powerful and running things. Utah legislators don’t want the Church telling them what to do. Utah voters, the Latter-day Saints vote Republican. Non-Mormons vote Democratic. There are more Latter-day Saint voters than non-Mormon voters, so they win. But by and large, bishops, etc don’t tell them what to do. There are two polls. Both of them polled people of various religions. Latter-day Saints was the one that said they are least likely to hear politics from their pulpit of any religion. They say no.
GT: So compared to evangelicals, the LDS Church does stay out of politics more than say evangelicals.
Rod: That’s what [LDS members] say.
We also talk about some recent political issues in Utah, and the LDS Church’s influence, including medical marijuana, Medicaid for the poor, and even how gerrymandering affects non-LDS voters.
Utah politics are different than national politics in a few different ways. For example, Utah governors enjoy the highest ratings of governors in any state! Does LDS Church culture play a role in this?
Rod: The best explanation I’ve heard was [former Utah Governor] Mike Leavitt. I asked him about it. He said, “If you do an okay job, they sort of sustain you.” Sustain is a Latter-day Saint word. The Latter-day Saints sustain people in their congregations and they always do it unanimously. There is a Latter-day Saint tradition of supporting leaders, and it extends to governors, if you do an okay job. So Utah has popular governors, more popular than maybe any other state. They’re certainly contenders and Utah has long serving governors.
And state politicians are more concerned with balance budgets than cutting taxes.
Rod: Utah Republicans are tax-cutters in Washington and budget-balancers in Utah. The Utah legislature and Utah governors are scrupulous about balancing the budget. They’re careful. Occasionally, there might be a very small deficit that slips in and they immediately pay it off the next year. They’re careful, and they’ve been that way for decades. They weren’t always that way. But they’ve been that way for decades. But in Washington, all the Utah Republicans voted for Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts, voted for Donald Trump’s tax cuts, voted for George W. Bush’s tax cuts. Now, they say we should cut spending to balance the budget, but they know that’s not going to happen. They voted for tax cuts, even though it increased the deficit.
Now here, they like tax cuts too. They cut taxes, but they don’t cut taxes, if it’ll make a deficit ever. And they’ll raise taxes if they need to, to balance the budget. In Utah, a balanced-budget comes first. In Washington, tax cuts come first. The difference is that Utah Republicans own Utah State Government. They want it to be strong and properly run. Whatever strength Washington has, it’s eventually going to be used against us. Put them in deficit. Cut the taxes. Starve the beast. Do everything you can to beat up on them, because even so, even after you’ve done everything you can, they’re going to come out here and run you off federal land or declare a monument or make you allow abortions. I mean, they’re going to do bad stuff to you out here. So you don’t want them any stronger than you have to have them.
We’ll also talk about the national monument controversies among Presidents Clinton, Obama, and Trump. Rod Decker tells more about how Utah politics are different from the nation.
Up to this point, Rod Decker and I have discussed mostly Utah political history, but I also talked to BYU professor Dr. Alex Baugh. Of course you all know that Joseph Smith had a revelation that Jackson County, Missouri was the promised land. It turns out that the Jackson Country residents weren’t on board with that revelation. It was a very tumultuous time when Mormons and Missourians both wanted to control the local politics. Dr. Baugh describes many of the reasons the two groups didn’t get along.
Alex: So, politically, we’re basically Democrats now in Jackson County.
GT: Mormons were Democrats. Did you just say that?
Alex: No question. Yeah. Yeah.
GT: What happened?
Alex: So politically, we were Democrats. Jackson County is named after Andrew Jackson. I mean, the Jacksonian Democracy, Jackson. So politically, we we’re a little more aligned that way, but that pans out differently depending on where we were, and so on. But there were definitely not many Whigs in the church. So there’s the political issue, although, again, I think what Missourians were more worried about, Rick, was not so much that Mormons were Democrats, but that the Mormons would hold office and be the ones who would govern. They kicked us out of Jackson County in 1833, at the right time if you want to say it that way. Had Mormons continue to immigrate, they would have outnumbered the local citizenry. There’s no question. So the political aspect was more numbers than the difference in political power.
Alex: They just didn’t want the Mormons being the the ones who are making the laws and carrying out the edicts, whatever.
GT: So was it religion, or was it politics that was the bigger issue?
Alex: Yeah, well, it’s always religion, and, that was my point. You can look at the slave issue. You can look at Northerners versus Southerners. You can look at the social. I think we can safely say that at least in Jackson County, the Mormons were a little bit of a cut above some of the frontier Missourians. That doesn’t mean that some of the Missourians were not well educated and not sophisticated, but at least bright people. I think the Mormons were probably a little bit of a cut above, at least in, like I say, Jackson County, maybe not as much in Clay [County.] There are some bright people in Clay County. Oh, my gosh. We’ve got a future U.S. senator in David Rice Atchison. There were just some bright political figures in Clay County.
But the point is political, social, economic, the Mormons were rather clannish. We traded among ourselves. That doesn’t mean we didn’t help support the local economy and local merchants, but we were trying to implement consecration. But the underlying thing, Rick, was we were seen as religious radicals. I mean, we went against the Christian elements of the day. We believed in strong prophetic leadership. We didn’t believe in the Trinity. We claimed visions. I’m just trying to think here, again, we practiced Consecration. That was part of our economic element that we combined together to support each other. We believed in additional scripture. Oh my gosh, that went against [everything.] “A Bible, a Bible.” So we were seen as on the religious fringe. If we would have been any other faith, there would have been no problem and we could have still had some of those differences, and probably lived peacefully. But it was oil and water, and we just didn’t mix. So it was a lot of things.
What are your thoughts regarding the LDS Church, Utah, & Missouri politics? Did you know Joseph Smith was a supporter of Democrats and Andrew Jackson?
 The Republican Party was founded in 1854. The Whig Party were essentially replaced by the Republican Party.