George Pyle: Church and state and the shoe on the other foot

In this file photo from Nov. 4, 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, left, walk to lay flowers at the monument of Minin and Pozharsky at Red Square in Moscow, during National Unity Day. (Alexander Nemenov/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Religion ... is the opium of the people.”

— Karl Marx

The irony, of course, is thick.

The Salt Lake Tribune’s ace religion reporter, Peggy Fletcher Stack (Twitter handle, @religiongal), recently returned from a trip to Russia with an extensive report on how difficult it is for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, among other Western religions, to establish a foothold there.

Why? Because of the effective merger of the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church. Similar to the situation many Utahns blame for what they view as silly and repressive laws, favored by the LDS Church, concerning alcohol, cannabis, sex education and equal status for women and LGBT folks.

Nobody can reasonably claim the situation in Salt Lake City rivals that in Moscow, if only because of federal constitutional protections and state laws that do not grant the LDS Church official status.


The old Soviet Union was actively hostile to all religion. The official reason was that religion was bad for the people. It was a tool used by the rich to oppress the poor. A way to convince the laboring classes to expect their reward in heaven, not on earth, and for the powerful to claim that their status could only have been granted by God and so could not be questioned.

Fair enough.

Except the real reason for the oppression of religion back in the USSR, as well as in China today, is that those states push their own brand of opium, and they don’t want any competition in that marketplace.

China still oppresses religions and philosophies because they don’t trust that anyone who identifies as a Christian or a Muslim or a follower of Falun Gong can ever be fully loyal to the state.

That’s a serious misunderstanding of the part of human nature that allows multiple intersecting loyalties all through life. And a collection of puppet strings that Russian leader Vladimir Putin knows how to pull.

Putin has by the force of his will — and the secret police — folded space and moved the whole nation from far-left communism to far-right fascism without passing through any space in between.

The tell-tale signs of his fascism are the government’s relationships with organized religion and big business. Soviet communism was opposed to both, to the point of pretending that they didn’t exist during the day and having them hauled off and shot at night. Putin fascism aligns with, co-opts, controls and exploits religion and capitalism to give it moral cover and economic power.

It is the same path forged by the fascist regimes that ruled much of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, making an uneasy peace with big churches and big deals with corporations such as Daimler-Benz, Volkswagen, IBM and that generation of today’s billionaire Koch family.

It is the same route envisioned by the current occupant of the White House. Or would be, if he ever read a book and knew what his historical model was.

In Utah, we have been witness to a flurry of thrusts from former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, holding that Luz Escamilla, a candidate for his old job, is suspect because she is a Mormon who must be loyal to the church because she doesn’t do anything to call out its evils.

Followed by parries by Tribune columnist Michelle Quist, among others, that such an accusation is religious bigotry. And a statement from the other candidate for mayor, Erin Mendenhall, separating herself from such religiously oriented attacks.

Both the LDS Church as an institution and many individual Mormons have power in this state even beyond their large numbers. But that’s not because they are formally aligned with the secret police. (Except for on the BYU campus.)

It’s because they stick together, have an organizational structure that can be turned to any religious, social or political purpose, and vote.

In political and economic matters, from inland ports to prison relocations to building codes that are soft on air pollution, the pull is less about any spiritual belief than a simple old boys network that might as well be the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo for all the real religious purpose it serves.

A multiplicity of religions, including no religion, is a sign of freedom. A single religion, whether enforced by law or by custom, can only exist as a dictatorial arm of a dictatorial state. That’s what Vladimir Putin knows, and what some Utahns worry about.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune staff. George Pyle.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is descended from a man who stopped going to church after an overly aggressive slide into second base took out the pastor at a church picnic softball game.