Church uses its clout subtly — and seldom

Published: Thursday, May 17 2001 12:00 a.m. MDT

Some power is overt, heavy-handed, out-in-front-of-the-cameras. Some is amorphous and subtle. There are those who throw around their political and professional influence with abandon and those who wield cautious influence on specific topics.

A study of power and influence in Utah conducted in recent months by the Deseret News shows leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints indeed have a great deal of clout in Utah's political, social and community arenas but use this influence rarely and — mostly — in a subtle way.

"I think that the level of influence they choose to directly exert is dramatically overstated in the minds of most people," said Gov. Mike Leavitt, who recalled a conversation with a member of LDS Church leadership.

"He told me that they spend a lot more time trying to keep the church out of things than get them into things," Leavitt said. "And that's consistent with my experience."

The newspaper's research asked a group of 30 community leaders to name those people in Utah who have great influence but rarely use it. And LDS Church leaders — including President Gordon B. Hinckley — dominated the responses.

Also included in that group by the newspaper's experts are: President Thomas S. Monson and President James E. Faust, who serve in the church's governing First Presidency; Elders Neal A. Maxwell, Dallin H. Oaks and David B. Haight, of the Quorum of The Twelve; and Mary Ellen Smoot, president of the church's Relief Society women's organization.

Although most people interviewed by the Deseret News said President Hinckley rarely uses his behind-the-scenes clout, it is clearly there, dormant; a big influential stick politicians and the public recognize.

One insider summed up President Hinckley's influence: "To what other church leader or church would Salt Lake City, regardless of the price, sell a block of Main Street?"

Leavitt said in his eight years in office he's talked with church leaders about some legislative topics and some tax issues. "You would expect any constituent to call you if they have a problem with a tax provision that could have an impact on them."

The governor said church leaders' interest is "almost always on issues that would be predictable, be within the nature of their mission — the moral issues. But it depends on the issue."

House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, agrees. "I think people would be surprised about the limited amount of contact there is between the church and the Legislature."

He's only met President Hinckley once, when he shook hands with the church president at the dedication of the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah.

Stephens said he meets with the church's Special Affairs Committee once a year at a luncheon.

"But beyond that, the only interaction we have is from time to time with Bill Evans, who is a registered lobbyist with the church, who talks to us. That is primarily about alcohol-related issues." The Special Affairs Committee is headed by a church general authority; it's the place candidates, officeholders and others go when they want to formally inform the church about issues dear to them.

Meg Holbrook has seen LDS Church leaders deal with community and moral matters for a decade. As the two-term state chairwoman of the Utah Democratic Party, Holbrook says it is proper that the LDS Church speak out on issues its leaders feel strongly about.

"We do have to have separation of church and state," said Holbrook, a non-Mormon raised outside of Utah. "I think it's impossible (for the church) to stay out of everything. Sometimes religious groups have a moral duty to be involved.

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