Dalley: The LDS Church Should Be Careful Not to Abuse the Important Power it Holds in Utah

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Dalley: The LDS Church Should Be Careful Not to Abuse the Important Power it Holds in Utah

By Nathan Dalley, Opinion Writer

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As a person who has lived in the state of Utah while being a part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a non-member, I have had personal experience with the flaws within the separation of church and state. Utah has a large ​religious majority​ and it is only fair that those views be represented in our legislation, as they are integral to our communities. However, it is also important that the state is conscious that some beliefs may not be shared by everyone and that they must protect the needs of everyone. It is incredibly difficult — and sometimes impossible — to create a fair balance between different religious views and the amount of influence that they are able to have within our communities. That being said, we must strive for balance and Utah can and must do better.

In ​”Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind​,” author Yuval Noah Harari explores the idea that throughout humanity’s history, strong communities have been bound together with common narratives such as fables, myths, legends and religious belief. These shared narratives help our values, beliefs and ideas become more unified. When we feel a sense of kinship, we are more likely to be generous, kind, accepting and connected as a community.

This reminds me of growing up as a member of a tightly knit Latter-day Saint congregation. I shared a strong kinship with those within my own congregation and felt stronger trust towards people who I knew shared my faith. I formed lifelong friendships and learned from incredibly kind and generous mentors. I gained outdoorsman skills and an appreciation for nature and had a deep sense of gratitude for what I have instilled within me. I was devoted to serving those around me and was passionate about improving my community. I gained so much through this community and I am so thankful for the person that it helped me grow into. I am also thankful that, through the ​First Amendment​, I have the freedom to choose if and how I express my religious beliefs, and this includes leaving some beliefs behind. Without such protections from religion, myself and others could be compelled to worship in ways that are untrue to our conscience.

While some may argue that the United States was established as a Christian nation within the colonies, it is often forgotten that many Christianity sects were not even considered Christian in early America. This is tied to Queen Elizabeth’s ruler over England and the declaration of ​the Church of England​ as the one true religion. Because of this, many in England felt that had to leave their homes in order to exercise their faith in the ways that they intended. As the ​13 colonies​ formed, some began declaring one denomination to be their colonies’ official religion, creating a religious identity that sometimes varied drastically. This led to a lot of disagreement on how the government should be run, which was troubling for an emerging nation. In order to unite as one, the Founding Fathers included the guarantee of freedom of religion through the First Amendment, making it so individuals are able to determine their own beliefs about religion and the expressions of those ideas without hindrance or penalty from the government.

Religious freedom is an integral part of American identity and is especially important in those of us who live in Utah. A lack of religious freedom is partially to blame for the forcing of the Latter-day Saint pioneers from their homes and the pressure for them to​ settle in Utah​. Despite the establishment of the First Amendment, several groups have been denied their right to freedom of religion such as the Sisters of the Holy Name of Jesus and Mary, atheists and members of the Church of Jesus Christ. In fact, Mormon pioneers and Latter-day Saints today are ​construed as un-Christian​ within popular media.

Early Latter-day Saints were forced to flee ​New York, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois​ because of anti-Mormon hostility and violence. Before settling in Nauvoo, ​Governor Boggs​ of Missouri issued what is now called ​the Extermination Order​. This order called upon the ​state militia​ to expel the Latter-day Saints out of Missouri on the claim that they had been in ​“open and avowed defiance of the laws.” The order resulted in members losing their homes, possessions and hope of finding a final resting place. After the Saints settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, Boggs blamed a failed assignation attempt from mid-1843 on “Mormon agitators.” In response, the governor of Illinois agreed to extradite their leader Joseph Smith to face trial. Smith avoided the extradition until 1844 and shortly after was charged with treason and conspiracy by Illinois authorities and was then imprisoned with his brother in Carthage, Illinois. Both men were ​murdered​ by an anti-Mormon mob after their sentencing.

Before this, Latter-day Saint leaders had been considering ​moving west​ so they could finally settle beyond the reach of the United States. The murder of the deeply loved Smith solidified these plans under the new leadership of Brigham Young. While the early Saints weren’t always saintly, their right to express their religious beliefs freely was unjustly denied by multiple state governments.

Today, their religion itself now holds influence over a state government. The church’s hand can be seen in political capacities, not only within state politics but also on some national issues. The church has become involved in ​Prop. 8,​ ​medical marijuana​ and ​current legal battles​ that could allow businesses to fire people because of their religious beliefs or identifying as ​LGBTQ. The church currently holds so much power that it is even a big deal when they take a ​neutral stance​.

While I do think it is logical to see that the LDS church has immense influence in the political process, a line is crossed if they openly ask members to vote one way or another or to support initiatives financially. It is also wrong to filing amicus briefings to limit the rights of others. The church is a powerful advocate of legislation that affects all Utahns, even those who hold different values. If it is constantly outspending and overstepping the proper use of its influence in politics, it runs the risk of unduly violating the basic principles of democracy. This influence may cause citizens who are not of the dominant faith to participate less in local politics, and that is a shame. Utah must conscientiously work towards a better balance hand-in-hand. When Utahns work together, Utah does its best work. Finding a better balance will be hard but worthwhile if we are to preserve our democratic processes.

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@ndillydalley