By Dave Buer
Utahns can set their watches by several worn-out themes that are repeated each and every legislative session. One such example is the influence that the state’s dominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has on public policy. Note that you will rarely, if ever, hear progressives complain about meddling from another faith, as when the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City weighs in on immigration, Medicaid, social services and so on.
That’s because, critics argue, the LDS Church has an outsized influence in Utah public policy, and that’s why it’s worthy of complaint. But are critics of the LDS Church’s political involvement simply concerned about the church’s wide influence, or does the concern lie more with the actual positions the church takes?
Do you remember the huge outcry from the left last year when the LDS Church held an almost-unheard-of news conference featuring members of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles to announce support for specific legislation that added protections for sexual orientation and gender identity to Utah’s employment and housing laws? No, I don’t remember any sort of progressive outcry, either. There were no liberals complaining about the church’s outsize influence then, only laudatory remarks about how essential the church’s support had been.
Some on the left were critical, but they were critical of the substance of the actual bill, not of the LDS Church taking a role in the “Utah Compromise.” The complaints being raised about the church’s involvement were actually coming from some on the right. Like the left on other issues, these folks on the right wished the church had stayed out of that particular piece of legislation.
And you can’t blame anyone for feeling this way. Everyone wants their view of good public policy to win the day and gladly welcomes support from just about any organization that can help get the legislation passed.
The real threat is from those who call for a ban on religious involvement in political issues. Rather than supporting true freedom of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment, some would like to see faith communities silenced in the public square. “Fine,” they say. “Preach in your churches and pray in your homes, but don’t try to have an influence on public policy issues.”
- no substantial part of its activity may be attempting to influence legislation;
- the organization may not intervene in political campaigns on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office
Within those parameters, churches are free to educate and do limited lobbying on issues, but not in favor of or against specific candidates.
The mere suggestion of taking away tax-exempt status reveals that opponents hope to use taxation as a tool to punish or regulate religions they think deserve punishing or regulating. Professor Richard Garnett of the University of Notre Dame wrote in The Washington Post:
Instead of asking whether churches and religious organizations deserve to be tax-exempt, we should ask why governments should be able to tax them at all. Taxation, after all, involves interference by the state, and in a free society such interference needs to be justified.
The power to tax involves the power to destroy, as Daniel Webster argued in the Supreme Court nearly two centuries ago.
In a pluralistic society such as ours, we don’t say your opinion is welcome as long as it’s not too influential. We welcome a diversity of voices and opinions on issues, and we should reject attempts to silence viewpoints through government force. After all, if we don’t, you’d better hope that your opinions are always in line with the government’s opinions.