Robert Gehrke: The long, strange trip of Steve Urquhart, from GOP lawmaker to founder of a church of magic mushrooms

I first met Steve Urquhart when he was still serving in the Utah House, a prototypical conservative Republican from Washington County and line-toeing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He was a champion of school vouchers in 2007. He cast one of five votes against a hate crimes law a year earlier. And he sponsored legislation to repeal Utah’s progressive immigration laws.

Then his worldview started to change.

In the years since, Urquhart became a champion of LGBTQ rightssponsoring the state’s anti-discrimination law. He was a leading proponent of legalizing medical marijuana. He floated legislation to put a moratorium on the death penalty and nearly got it passed.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Since leaving the Legislature in 2016, he has become even more vocal on those causes.

It has been a long, strange trip — and the trip is getting stranger and much more literal.

Last week, Urquhart announced he was forming a new church, The Divine Assembly, dedicated to the healing and mind-expanding powers of psilocybin mushrooms, sometimes called “magic mushrooms.”

The pragmatist in him recognizes how crazy it might sound to some, but he said he has benefited immensely from the mind-bending mushrooms and wants to help others have their own “noetic” — mystical and revelatory — experiences.

“What I’m attempting to do is set up this religion that believes in this very active sacrament that works,” Urquhart told me Friday, “that people can have their own noetic experience, they can commune with the divine and receive direct guidance.”

For Urquhart, the journey started three years ago when he and his wife, Sara, while on a trip to Amsterdam, tried ayahuasca, a concoction made from a vine that grows in the Amazon with powerful psychedelic effects and whose proponents say it can free their minds and reshape how they view life.

Urquhart said that experience, another a year later, and his transition into taking mushrooms offered him “incredibly profound” and life-altering experiences.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Republican state Sen. Steve Urquhart has created a church built around the use of psychedelic mushrooms.

“In a lot of them there was just this gooey puddle of Steve on the floor,” he said. “I realized with Sara, my kids, Lucy, my daughter, who really needs me to show her the world, I had only loved partially.”

He said he had been trained to maintain barriers that kept him from giving 100%. “That’s just so sad. So sad.”

“That’s the kind of stuff I get. I see the circus. I see the carnival. I see the lights, and it’s just amazing. And all of that is to grab my attention and to focus me in on Sara, Lucy … and my kids.”

After several life-changing visions like that, Urquhart said the idea came to him during a mushroom trip that what he was experiencing was a religious experience more profound than anything he ever got sitting in church pews.

“I’m just seeing really wonderful things, really glorious things, and just almost coming out of my skin it’s so marvelous, and the only word I can think of in our language for that is ’rapture,’” he said.

It was the inspiration for The Divine Assembly.

On June 3, he filed papers with the state incorporating the religious nonprofit. He envisions a structure similar to the mushroom itself.

Mushrooms, he explains, grow mostly underground, branching out through a complex network of mycelia. Urquhart doesn’t intend to be the mushroom prophet at the head of his church, but instead sees it as a network of people who believe that the mushrooms can bring about mystical experiences.

He intends to provide a safe space — to try to avoid “bad trips” — and experienced advisers to coach people along their spiritual quests. He won’t grow the mushrooms or provide them to anyone and that way believes he can run his church “without in any way shape or form be a drug dealer to the [Drug Enforcement Administration].”

Urquhart understands there will be those who will see it as an attempt to use a church as an excuse to take otherwise illegal drugs. On that point, he seems to have a strong legal argument on his side.

Back in 2001, I wrote about James “Flaming Eagle” Mooney, who was fighting Utah authorities for the right to use peyote as part of his church’s religious ceremonies. In 2004, the Utah Supreme Court unanimously ruled that members of his church — whether or not they were part of a recognized American Indian tribe — could use the drug.

In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — the same law religious conservatives used to justify them not having to bake cakes for gay weddings — the government must have a compelling interest to prohibit the use of controlled substances in religious ceremonies.

If Urquhart’s sincere religious beliefs are built around the sacrament of the mushroom, why should the government be able to challenge that or stop its practice?

And so, this once-conservative legislator will now venture out on his next surreal journey, his ministry of the mushroom, as ludicrous as it may have seemed all those years ago when we first crossed paths.

Urquhart got to this point because he has been willing to question what he’s been taught and confront his core beliefs. I’m not suggesting we all go sign up for The Divine Assembly. But maybe we should all be more receptive to new ideas, a little more willing to evolve, less afraid to reevaluate our perspective and take some risks, and to open our minds to whatever it is that is out there.

Is it maybe a little kooky? Urquhart would be the first to acknowledge that it is. And no doubt there will be those, including his fellow Republican legislators, who will see this and think Old Urquhart has finally lost his ever-loving mind.

From what I can tell — perhaps for the first time in his life — he feels like he has finally found it.