Inspired by: “Jesusland” (2005) from the Ben Folds’ album Songs for Silverman
Two straight posts kinda centered on the dominant religion of Utah. Oh joy!
When I listen to “Jesusland,” I can picture the type of southern or rural area that Ben Folds is describing. He grew up in North Carolina, and I’ve seen those places with giant crosses, dollar stores, and other indications of religiosity undergirding everything. I also see the same thing here in Utah, never failing to pass an LDS meeting house when I venture out of the house, unless I am driving in one specific direction and not that far.
If you’ve ever been to Utah, it’s probably to come see all our amazing National Parks and Monuments. Or the mountains, for summer hikes or winter skiing. We have a “booming” tech industry with a dumb name (Silicon Slopes), trying to take advantage of our generally well-educated citizens and lower cost of living compared to the Bay Area or other tech hubs.
Otherwise, what’s the point of coming here? We have terrible air for half the year, from the winter inversions (January to March) and smoke from wildfires in the summer (June to August). We have funny laws related to alcohol, and despite being surrounded by states with versions of legalized gambling (either lotteries or actual gambling) resulting in funding for schools and whatnot, our Republican-led supermajority legislature will never allow those “vices” to come to Utah, letting the citizens of our state to fund our neighbors through their “illicit” border runs for PowerBall, weed, or fancy booze.
A lot of this is because of the dominant religion in the state. After all, nearly 175 years ago, Brigham Young led the Mormon pioneers to this desert, declared “This is the place!” to finally escape 20 years of persecution since Joseph Smith kneeled in the Grove and founded his religion.
The religion has changed since then. They got rid of the practice of “plural marriage” in 1890 in order to aid the attempt to make Utah a state, which finally happened in 1896. From there, the Church stayed relatively staid for much of the next century, though it remained a fabric of the state. Most governors since statehood have been a member, and most Senators as well. Ezra Taft Benson, who would later become President of the Church, served in the Eisenhower administration as Secretary of Agriculture. He was also a member of the John Birch Society, thought the civil rights’ movement was infiltrated by Communists, and attempted to run for vice president with segregationist governor George Wallace, but that’s kind of been whitewashed from his story for some reason.
While nominally apolitical – as required to maintain their tax-exempt status as a religion – the modern Church, at least through the current acts of the Utah Legislature, has moved to the right politically. The Church hasn’t always leaned to the “modern” right of the political spectrum, though the move was more pronounced over the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st century.
Among numerous indicators of this:
- “Black men of African descent” were not eligible to receive the Priesthood until 1978, which coincided with the need to further expand the Church into Africa.
- The Church publicly supported Proposition 8 in California, which was an attempt to ban same-sex marriage in the state.
- In Utah, they generally oppose things like the implementation of medical marijuana or relaxation of state control of alcohol, and support things like declaring pornography a public health crisis.
- They support the idea of the “nuclear family,” and do not allow same-sex marriage within their temples, nor for openly homosexual people to fully participate in their religion.
- Power in the Church is held solely by men, and any attempt to open up the required priesthood to women is often met with excommunication.
This is not to say that there are not Mormon Democrats. Harry Reid, former Senate Majority Leader from Nevada, was Mormon. Some current members of the Democratic minority in the state legislature are Mormon. But the majority of the supermajority is, with some former legislators leaving to go work full-time for the Church to lobby their former colleagues.
The Utah legislative leadership focuses on the same dumb culture war fights that the national GOP seems to do in general. One of the first things they did when the 2022 legislative session opened was to run a joint resolution to overturn local health orders requiring masks in Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, and Summit County – the “liberal” parts of the state – because they gave themselves the power to do so in last year’s session, when they declared the COVID pandemic over. The Senate president, Stuart Adams, tested positive twice the day the session opened, then lied about testing positive, and didn’t wear a mask despite CDC guidelines indicating that asymptomatic people with positive tests should do so.
There haven’t been more than 30 Democrats among the 104 members of the legislature since 2001, and after the 2020 election, there is currently 23 (17 in the House and 6 in the Senate). Despite Utah House voters giving the Democratic candidates 30.1% of the votes cast in the 2020 election, they hold 22.7% of the seats in the House (17 of 75). Incremental gains in the House by Democrats over the past few elections will likely be undone with the most recent reapportionment, but we’ll have to wait and see how that all shakes out. Regardless, the Republicans operate like what they say is what everyone feels, and while in most cases that might be true, it isn’t representative of the state as a whole. I could provide numerous recent examples, but I’ve already gone on too long.
It’d be one thing if certain parts of the state were like the “Jesusland” described in the song, but when the dominant religion, however much that domination is declining, has a major say in things that affect everyone in the state, it’s a problem. Brother Brigham wanted a “State of Deseret” where early Mormons could be finally left alone to practice their faith and build really wide streets on a grid. Through the strength of gerrymandering and the bully pulpit, the Utah legislature is getting closer to achieving that vision, regardless of what the non-believers want.