Michelle Quist: Religion and politics don’t have to conflict

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake LDS Temple and the Utah State Capitol are seen together, Wednesday, July 26, 2017.

A recent article in The Salt Lake Tribune turned the spotlight on the oversized representation of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah’s Legislature.

The complaint, really, is that their numbers are disproportionate – that there is a higher percentage of church members in the Legislature than there are in the population.

But that isn’t really that unusual.

Catholics comprise 22 percent of the U.S. Senate and 32 percent of the U.S. House. Approximately 24 percent of Americans consider themselves Catholic. So their representation in the Senate is pretty even, but they are over-represented in the U.S. House.

Those who practice Judaism comprise 9 percent of the U.S. Senate and 6 percent of the U.S. House. In 2012, the Jewish population in America was between 1.7 percent and 2.6 percent of the population. So, members of the Jewish faith are very over-represented in Congress.

Yet I don’t see newspaper articles about how Catholic and Jewish representation is disproportionate. What would such articles even imply?

So what, then, are the numbers for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Utah Legislature?

According to The Salt Lake Tribune, 88 percent of the Legislature are church members, compared to 62 percent of Utah’s population.

OK, that’s pretty lopsided.

But good and bad reasons explain the disparity. White, male patriarchy tend to elect white, male, patriarchy. On the other side, church members are encouraged to give back and serve the community, and many do. So there may be a higher percentage of church members running, and not necessarily a bias among voters.

But what is the purpose of heralding such facts and figures? Are we going to start asking candidates their religious affiliation? Do we want legislation to correct the disparity? Um, no. Hello SB54v.2. Meet the Constitution.

Idaho tried that for about 100 years. It wasn’t a good look.

The battle between religionists and non-religionists is old and tired. Both sides need to get over it. Yes, some people adhere to religious faith. They believe in something they likely can’t explain. So what.

On the other hand, yes, some people don’t believe in God. And while it’s almost impossible for religionists to not try to convert non-religionists, it’s really not necessary to do so to live together in peaceable, productive society.

Because church and state don’t have to marry.

And that’s where the rub is, in Utah. Too often, church and state intermingle. Just look at the Utah Compact, the Utah Compromise, and the more recent Prop 2 medical marijuana deal.

But is the intermingling a result of the over-representation? Correlation does not equal causation.

And it’s not always a bad result, anyway. The Utah Compact encouraged a more compassionate, inclusive attitude toward immigrants.

The Utah Compromise succeeded in passing antidiscrimination legislation while preserving religious freedom in a conservative state, when most conservative states were pushing back against the cultural shift energized by gay marriage.

And the changes made to Prop 2 allowed for quicker, and safer, adoption of legal medical marijuana. (OK, the jury’s still out on Prop 2.)

Former state Sen. Jim Dabakis has a better read on the issue. He noted that the outsized influence is more a result of who is doing the influencing, specifically, the church’s lobbyists.

Dabakis saw “a dramatic change” when Marty Stephens was hired as the church’s lobbyist in 2017. Stephens is a former Utah House speaker. Thus, his former approach was partisan. His current approach is partisan.

In fact, rumors are circulating that the church’s public affairs office has recently had an exodus of staff. It’s not only non-members who find aggressive middle-managers off-putting.

Dabakis noted that gone are the days where the church’s goal was to “listen to concerns, communicate, and negotiate.” The new goal seems to be pressure and control.

I don’t think member-voters are intentionally trying to elect church members. And I hope non-member-voters don’t intentionally try to elect non-members. Because that just seems un-American.

Utah is a pretty great place to live. I mean, really fantastic. I would love to see some new actors get involved in local and state politics. But I’m certainly not going to bemoan the efforts of those who serve now. They’re doing their best, and it’s pretty dang good.

And quite honestly, it could be worse. Just listen to the recent This American Life podcast 666: The Theme That Shall Not Be Named.

Michelle Quist

Michelle Quist is a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune.