Ken Roach: Church and state are inextricably intertwined in Utah

Utah is harmed by alliance of LDS and GOP.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Onlookers fill the gallery of the House Chamber as the Utah Legislature voted to override Gov. Spencer Cox’s veto of HB11, which bars transgender girls from participating in school sports matching their gender identities, in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 25, 2022.

I was a naïve 17-year-old California boy when I first met a Latter-Day Saint. I was surprised at first; I thought that all of the Mormons had died in Donner Pass.

One thing led to another: I converted and was a devout Latter-Day Saint for nearly 20 years.

By the time I moved to Utah in 1990, I no longer believed the doctrines of the LDS Church. My subsequent experiences in Utah persuaded me that I could no longer affiliate with the organization, and I resigned my church membership in 2001.

I have reflected often on the challenges of living under the “Utah Taliban” as a non- or ex-Mormon. It is an odd place, where a small religious minority — less than 3% of the U.S. population — is dominant. What have members of this ostensibly Christian religion done in this state with the power they enjoy?

First, they have managed to silence folks like me, in part by concentrating their power in government. Only 60% of Utah residents identify as LDS, yet 90% of the Legislature is LDS. The Republican Legislature ignored Proposition 4 (“Better Boundaries”) and gerrymandered voting districts to further reinforce its super-majority.

As constant reminders of who wields power, I see LDS churches and LDS temples everywhere I turn, and I’m bombarded daily with news and gossip about the LDS Church. The LDS folks I know seem to own more guns than Bibles, as if semiautomatic weapons are a sign that one worships the Prince of Peace.

Second, LDS doctrines and cultural practices have an uncanny way of becoming law in this state. Our alcohol laws are notoriously bizarre – Remember the Zion Curtain? – and the Legislature initially ignored Proposition 2 (medical marijuana). The Legislature has blocked every attempt to pass a Death with Dignity law, which would permit terminally ill patients to mercifully end their lives. I guess it proves that we are pro-life if we force people to die in agony.

Third, our treatment of LGBTQ+ folks is shameful. If it weren’t for the Supreme Court, Utah would still have its ban on gay marriage, and our citizens would still try to meddle in the affairs of other states (e.g., California’s Proposition 8).

Utah consistently ranks as one of the worst in the nation for women. We were one of the last states to criminalize marital rape. Now we have limited the right of Utah women to access reproductive health care. Research indicates that we’ll see a range of negative consequences, including “back-alley” abortions and higher rates of maternal mortality, infant mortality, childhood poverty and adolescent suicide.

We do not care much about human life outside the womb, but we care deeply about nonviable clumps of cells inside the womb. What’s next? Will our Legislature prevent girls from going to school so they can begin preparing to be mothers?

Fourth, we have the most abysmal funding of education in the nation, and the Utah Legislature works tirelessly to ensure that our children are shielded from reality. What if our children questioned the fairy tale that we live in the best state in the best country on the best planet in the best solar system in the galaxy? What if our children learned to think critically? Would this end Republican hegemony?

While our Legislature spends time on unimportant matters (e.g., adults viewing adult pornography), it fails to address serious problems, including suicide, sexual violence, homelessness, housing, food insecurity, air quality, access to health care (including mental health) and COVID. When local governments attempt to address these problems, the legislature typically prevents them from doing so.

Fifth, Utah voters repeatedly elect con artists to represent us in Washington. With few exceptions, mendacious LDS Republican candidates win statewide elections, even when they endorse the Big Lie about the 2020 election (e.g., Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Burgess Owens). The future of our nation is in peril, yet Utah leads the charge in trying to subvert our democracy and our Constitution.

Long after I retire and leave this state, these problems will persist. There’s apparently something about the combination of the LDS religion and Republican politics that results in ignorance and viciousness, perhaps because church and state are inextricably intertwined in Utah. For many of us outsiders, life under the thumb of the Utah Taliban is difficult. If these are Christian values, then please, Lord, save me from your followers.

Ken Roach

Ken Roach, Ed.D., is a Salt Lake City educator and a licensed mental health professional. He teaches graduate students about critical thinking in ethics, supervises an outpatient mental health clinic and serves on several professional boards. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.