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Church uses its clout subtly — and seldom

Published: Saturday, Aug. 29 2015 6:42 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.
"People do talk about the abuse of power by the church. But I haven't seen it. Sometimes it is hard for people to see the difference" between church policies and political action by elected officials. "That's especially true because so many of our officials are LDS. And conversely (critics) make assumptions that aren't always accurate. Look, if we lived in Vatican City people would make the same arguments.
"The LDS leaders are very much of the community. They live here, just like the Jews, Catholics, Greeks. You see the Unitarian Church active" in community and political affairs. But people don't talk about it like they do the LDS Church, Holbrook said.
President Hinckley declined to be interviewed for this series of stories but told CNN newsman Larry King in a 1998 interview that the church does get involved in some moral issues, though not in politics. The two were talking about North Korea, where the LDS Church has donated money and expertise from agricultural experts to help North Koreans raise crops.
"This is politics aside then," King asked.
"Politics aside," answered President Hinckley. "The church does not become involved in politics. We don't favor any candidate. We don't permit our buildings to be used for political purposes. We don't favor any party."
"But you do speak out, or will speak out on moral issues?" King asked.
"We speak very strongly on moral issues," President Hinckley said. "Gambling, liquor, what have you. Yes."
Certainly in Utah, the LDS Church is concerned about alcohol use and regulations. And the state officials who oversee alcohol laws listen carefully to the church voice.
In 1999 and 2000 former state Rep. Susan Koehn considered a measure that would have changed the law on special alcohol permits for banquets. The hotel and hospitality industries believed it was too hard to get a permit to sell alcohol at a special event that lasted more than 72 hours, such as a four- or five-day convention.
In 2000 Koehn introduced a bill that would make it easier to get long convention permits. And, sources said, within 24 hours she got a call from Bill Evans, the church's official lobbyist. It was a cordial but short conversation: The church didn't want any changes to state liquor laws.
Even though Koehn was the House Rules Committee chairwoman — and so controlled the flow of all the bills in the House — she didn't push her own bill. She knew it was finished. And it died in her own Rules Committee with no hearings.
A similar situation occurred in 1989 when former Sen. Richard Carling, an active Mormon, was co-chairman of a special state task force exploring changes to Utah's archaic liquor laws.
Carling made sure church officials were invited to every public meeting of the task force.
"I made a real point not to ask the church directly" what church officials may or may not like about the proposed changes, Carling told the Deseret News last week. "If you ask, they may say no." And Carling guessed that any inquiry on changing the liquor laws would bring a "no."
Jerry Fenn was then chairman of the state liquor commission. He is now one of the church's lobbyists on Capitol Hill. "Jerry may have said something to them, informed them. And (church) representatives were always in the audience at hearings," Carling recalled.
In the end, the church did not oppose eliminating mini-bottles and other changes Carling's task force recommended. And the overhaul bill flew through the Legislature.
"We had a good argument: A minibottle was an ounce-and-three-fourths of liquor," Carling said. Going to a dispensing system would put only one ounce in each drink. People were actually getting drunker, driving drunk and harming themselves and others because of the then minibottle law, Carling said.
"We knew liquor by the drink would never fly" with the church and others, Carling said. "But step by step — find the reaction and deal with it — we were able to" overhaul Utah liquor laws for the first time in decades. "And people could get a drink at their restaurant table without having to get up, buy a minibottle, bring it back and pour their own drink."


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