Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A New Sheriff In Town?

Is it my imagination or is the Church taking the gloves off in the public arena?  Specifically I refer to Church PR head Michael Otterson’s recent letter published in the Tribune.  He has some pretty harsh words for reporter Rebecca Walsh.  Walsh, a few days earlier, rather snarkily called out the Church for its yearly pre-legislative session with lawmakers.  Walsh sees these meetings as proof that Utah is just short of a theocracy.  She thinks the meeting is a violation of the separation of Church and State.  I don’t really agree with her but I can see her point, and her criticism is nothing new. 

But the response from the Church PR -- now that caught my eye.  Otterson, the managing director of PR for the Church, blasts Walsh for thinking the Church isn’t entitled to its say in public issues like everyone else.  He makes some valid points but his manner in doing so it pretty surprising.  He gets a little personal and mean about it.  He doesn’t do a full Glen Beck on her but he comes close.  He even makes it personal, calling her "someone who invariably sees a conspiracy behind every pew.

Now I have to think that something like this gets run up the Church flagpole before it gets sent to the newspaper, so what gives?  Is this PR or is this a dog fight?  It almost seems like the Church has decided that it is not going to be a punching bag anymore.  Could it be that with PR savvy President Hinckley’s passing, the new leaders have decided they are not going to take it lying down anymore?  Is President Monson less willing to turn the other check?  Or is this just an angry manager making what I think is a poor PR move?

I don’t think President Hinckley would have authorized such a response.  I can see him reading Walsh’s column and shaking his head a little bit and then saying leave it alone. When I was just starting college my brother and I were canvassing our neighborhood to drum up business for a lawn fertilizing company.  We knocked on the door of our neighbor, Gordon B. Hinckley, and he invited us right in.  He was very friendly and curious about what we were doing with our lives.  I told him that I went to the U. of U. and mentioned that the university newspaper, the Daily Chronicle, had been running some stories that were critical of the Church.  He nodded a little and said that that was nothing new and what could you expect?  He wasn’t particularly upset; he had seen it all before. He just shrugged it off.  I think maybe that’s how he ran the Church as well.  He may not have liked criticism of the Church but he was careful not to encourage more by issuing angry responses to it. 

Which brings me back to Walsh and Otterson.  Have the brethren decided to quite shrugging?  

45 comments:

kevinpeaslee said...

"In my experience, reverting to extreme and overstated language like this simply reflects an absence of legitimate argument."

Kudos, Otterson. You're so right with that comment. And I'm pleased that you illustrated this point brilliantly earlier in your piece with this:

"Of course, it's difficult to calm someone who invariably sees a conspiracy behind every pew, but here are the facts."

But what are the facts? He says that "anyone remotely familiar with American political history and the principles of democracy knows that churches have always had a legitimate voice in the public square." Well, I consider myself remotely familiar, and I don't think that it's that simple. Nor did Jefferson, who surely met the "remotely familiar" standard, who believed that the First Amendment established "a wall of separation between church and state." Oh, and Madison said something similar.

Now, some might argue that this wall only applies to our government's ability to control religion, not the other way around. We surely don't want an official national religion, certainly. At least I don't. But when we live in a place that has a dominant religion, shouldn't we, the minority, have the right to retain this wall to ensure our own rights aren't trampled upon by the elephant in the room? And isn't it imperative to our democratic principles that one set of religious beliefs doesn't become the rigid template for our civil laws?

Thanks for letting me participate in your community. Maybe someday soon it'll be mine, as well.

kevinpeaslee said...

Addendum: Sanford, sorry I didn't respond to any of your specific questions. I guess Otterson's letter was a shiny object, and I was a goat.

kevinpeaslee said...

And yes, I think it was a horrible PR move. With which "public" did it build any sort of "relations"?

ostrich said...

I'm nonplussed by this. And at the same time I'm fascinated with when, where, and how the LDS Church responds to, or takes action on, certain issues. It's a like a pendulum swinging back and forth from one extreme to another; being active in the media or appearing unaware anything is even happening.

Perhaps it's not so much related to who's at the helm, as who's in the PR department and how they consult with church leaders.

One thing that concerns me about this: It seemingly gives some anhedonic LDS members the idea that they can be vigilantes with the media and others in our community. They'll start writing incredibly stupid things that only widen the gap in this state. I perceive this as more of a wedge being driven than a stand being taken, unintended as it may be.

There's a fine line between taking a stand and just creating more noise...or another shiny object, as one commenter noted. And I don't see the principle in this worth taking a stand on..

I was also interested to see is that there are 400 comments on the Walsh article and only about 86 on the Otter's article online. It makes my head hurt to wade through the comments section, so I don't have any idea about the tone of those comments.

Fifthgen said...

Sanford: Like you, I think the interesting thing here that the Otterson letter made it through the process (whatever that might be) to publication. Walsh’s piece was characteristically silly. “Constitutional outrage.” “Ring-kissing.” “Consulting oracles.” It is hard to be over-the-top AND dismissive, but Walsh pulled it off. I understand the LDS Church’s impulse for a smack down; but, impulse does not always lead to the best decision. My guess is, had Otterson not responded, Walsh’s story would have run and some people would have chafed. Then, it would have died (until next year, anyway). The Church’s response seems like a sure way to fan the flames. But, why? It’s not like they are going to convince anyone to switch sides on this particular debate.

Rubymainia said...

Hmm. Interesting. Go to my blog and read MY book!!!! <(`;)> :) ``)

jupee said...

Ostrich and Fifthgen and Sanford: Do you think the Walsh article contained any legitimate observations? Goat: Look. Something shiny.

Rubymainia said...

Jupee: Go to my blog. I have something new there!!! :)

Fifthgen said...

I don't really have a problem with Walsh raising the issue she raised. That is not to say that I agree with her. It was her tone that I found annoying. Otterson's was also annoying. For me the curiosity was that the LDS Church chose to respond in kind, or at all.

ostrich said...

Jupee: I have no issues with Walsh's observation. I think her point is a valid one, but might have been better made with a different approach, although it was very effective...we're all discussing it.

And like Fifthgen, I was left shaking my head at the Otterson response regardless of tone. You'd think a seasoned PR man would know better and take the high road.

Maybe there's something more personal here between Walsh and Otterson that we're just not seeing. Or this is a continuation of an ongoing Trib vs. Church battle we only see from the outside.

pb said...

I vote for kevinpeaslee. Otterson's article seems to miss the point. "The Church" is a constituent, certainly. But other constituents like, for instance, "The Nonbelievers" (and we are a legitimate constituent b/c Barack Obama mentioned us in his inauguration speech) are not getting their rings kissed by the legislature.

Maybe the Church's new pugnacious PR approach is a response to the inclusive message of our nation's leader. Perhaps The Church feels it needs to maintain some level of antagonism between the Right and the Wrong, now that Bush is no longer able to do it.

Sanford said...

Jupee asks

Do you think the Walsh article contained any legitimate observations?

Sort of but I think her premise is bad. Here is why.

Her major issue is with the Church’s yearly personal briefing. She apparently doesn’t take issue with the Church trying to influence legislation. She just doesn’t like the way legislators, both Democrat and Republican, get together pre-session to talk shop. She ends her column with this solution:

End the annual meetings. Send church lobbyist Bill Evans to the hearings with everybody else.

Ok, so the issue is personal briefings. I am not sure I see the problem in that. As a legislator I think I would be pretty careful to sound out any and all major power players as I prepared to roll out my legislative program. Just because the power player we are talking about is a church doesn’t mean I would cut it out of the loop. So I can’t really fault the legislators for meeting with the Church.

How about the Church itself, should it cancel the meetings as Walsh suggests? Why? The Church has a right to participate in the public sphere if it so chooses. I sort like it that they are upfront enough to have these meetings. I suspect there is plenty of deal making and breaking behind the scenes so why not encourage openness? I suppose there is an argument that the Church should cancel the meetings just so it doesn't appear to get favorable treatment but that seems a little overdone and counter productive for the Church.

Based on Kevin Peaslee’s comments, I suspect he would assert that the wall of separation between church and state needs to be more robust and that these meetings violate that principle. I don’t know. The situation as described by Walsh seems pretty innocuous. Do we really want the wall so high that a church can’t have a consultation on their home turf with lawmakers and voice an opinion as to what they will and won’t support in way of legislation? That seems too stringent to me but I am far from certain in my thinking about how high the wall should be.

pb said...

How is it "innocuous" for a "major power player" to have a PRIVATE meeting with the legislature each and every year? This is not what is meant by the democratic notion of participation in the public sphere. This is exactly the reason that many, many people in this country felt so betrayed by the Bush administration -- secret meetings with oil execs to inform energy policy, etc. etc. If a player wants to influence PUBLIC policy, it should be done openly, we the public should know what positions are being advanced and why, and airtime should be given to all the various interested constituents, regardless of whether they are a "major power player" or not. Public policy is -- or should be -- about addressing matters of public concern. To do this appropriately, we don't figure out what the major power players want and then force that agenda down the throats of everyone else. Instead, we listen to the ideas of all the interested parties, engage in reasoned debate, and determine a course of action that appears to make the most sense in light of the concerns that have been brought to light by all the various interests. I don't fault the church so much as the legislature on this. Clearly we need better -- and yes, I would say, non-mormon -- representatives who would have the integrity to say NO to the church's lunch invitation, while inviting the church to participate legitimately in the democratic process.

It is also annoying, however, that the Church's PR person is so daft that he doesn't get that these secret meetings that "of course" exclude the likes of Rebecca Walsh, would be deemed problematic to the citizens of this state. (And, yes, we still feel it's problematic even though he has been so kind as to summarize for us what went on.)

jupee said...

I need to re-read Walsh's articles, but sounds like part of what peaves Walsh is the high rank of those involved in face-to-face meetings -- an apostle and the presiding bishop, right? I guess I can understand that peave. I don't have ANY problem with the church trying to push its legislative agenda. We're all trying to legislate our beliefs in one form or another. But, I am sort of troubled by what looks like inappropriate or undue influence. If I were Mormon and believed apostles were called by and acted on behalf of God, I would be much more influenced by meeting an apostle in person then dealing with the church's lobbyist. (It is my personal experience that I am much more likely to say yes to something when Tom Goldsmith asks me, then when someone else asks me on his behalf, for example.) It may be hard for a Mormon legislator to exercise independence in doing right by his constituency after receiving personal direction from a living apostle. It's hard to imagine that one can stay objective in that situation, just like it's hard to imagine that legislators can remain objective when they receive junkets, money, etc. Some types of attempts to influence legislators are heavily regulated. This one is not and I cannot even begin to conceive how it could be. But, I can understand the peave. You feel me?

kevinpeaslee said...

Although I’m probably more skilled at talking about the church in terms of marketing—the purpose and effectiveness of its positioning in the media, the tone of its PR and its relationship to its brand, whatever—I’d much rather discuss the age-old subject of church and state relationship. So I’m glad the conversation here is still following the shiny object some.

And separation of church and state is age-old, of course, although I think that Utah presents an entirely unique spin on it, especially in American politics. No other state I know of has one dominant religion, where every political office of any importance at the state level is held by members of that religion.

So, to answer Sanford’s question about how high the wall should be separating church and state, I’d say higher than the complete lack of a wall now. (See Paul Rolly’s column on Sunday for a pretty good example.) Of course the church should have an opportunity to voice its opinions, since it, to a large degree, designates, or at the very least, reflects the morals for a majority of people in this state. But our democracy was designed from the very beginning to provide not only freedom for religion, but also freedom from religion. And I think you’d be might hard pressed to find an example here in the U.S. where that freedom from religion is more challenged.

Sadly, I don’t have any answers as to how we create this wall—other than to have the church voluntarily decrease its involvement in some way, meaningful or, failing that, symbolic. Perhaps that’s what Walsh was hoping to achieve with her column against the yearly gatherings.

But the opposite is happening right now, I’d say, with more involvement instead of less. Prop 8 is the most obvious example, but the Otterson piece sure is good supporting material. And from the responses I’ve seen on this page, none of the faithful here seems to think it’s a big deal—and would, in fact, rather dissect the church’s communications strategy on this issue than the issue itself. Am I wrong in this?

kevinpeaslee said...

Various nations, to varying degrees, have dealt with the church and state issue with something I hadn't heard of before: laïcité. The wiki entry is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La%C3%AFcit%C3%A9.

But if there are any freedom fry lovers out there, be forewarned: laïcité was conceived of by those devilish French.

Fifthgen said...

I just do not agree with the general notion that a church, because it is a church, is not allowed to express its views to political leaders. The irony of the “wall of separation” argument in this context is that Jefferson penned that phrase in response to a religious group that was lobbying him. He did not say, “Whoa! We should not even be talking about religious stuff, you and I!” He reassured them that they would be free to exercise their religious beliefs without state interference.

I also do not agree that there is anything necessarily wrong with or unusual about “major power players” having private meetings with political leaders. It happens all the time. Sunshine laws are enacted to prevent secret interference with the legislative process (i.e., drafting and amending legislation), and that makes a lot of sense. But, private meetings with power players, large and small, to discuss general policy matters happen all the time, everywhere. These, in and of themselves, are not a big deal to me. Would we all be equally rattled by, say, Kennecott or IHC hosting a lunch with legislators to which the press was not invited? I can’t say for sure, but I bet it happens.

Like Sanford, I am more comfortable with the LDS Church holding meetings with legislators from both parties to express their general views, and disclosing the fact to the public, as opposed to expressing its views “behind the scenes.” Paul Rolly’s examples were much more troubling to me than the annual meetings that bug Rebecca Walsh. But, let’s put the Rolly examples in context: He gave two (2), decades-old examples of perceived Church interference (the “Fun Bus” incident was, I believe, in 1988; Rolly got the Governor right, but the year was off by 10). And both involved alcohol, an issue in which the LDS Church’s interest is no secret. Pardon me for not seeing a theocracy.

I think the LDS Church is in a sticky spot. Like kevinpeaslee, I think Utah is a unique place. The LDS Church is obviously very influential here. It should be sensitive to that. I think it probably could be a little more sensitive to that. But, I don’t think its influence disqualifies it from engaging in the political process, even by hosting a bi-partisan lunch meetings.

kevinpeaslee said...

Fifthgen: thanks for the well-reasoned, very smart post. A couple things, however. First, the letter Jefferson wrote was to the Danbury Baptists, a religious minority, in response to Connecticut making Congregationalism its official religion--like the good old Church of England of Jefferson's youth. In other words, it was written to battle a state pushing one specific religion and, by extension, its ideals. That doesn't seem so ironic to what we're talking about here.

Secondly, I am equally rattled with Kennecott, IHC, Altria, or any other corporate behemoth pushing their agendas behind closed doors, especially if their interests are made into law without any true deliberation, consideration, or perspective. As PB alluded to, corporate-dictacted governance was a big contributor to our country and economy going to hell. One of few good things Bush did for us was to remind us of how evil public and private collusion can be.

Rubymainia said...

I posted chp. 2! Go to my blog to hear more about Flare!! Extra, extra read all about Flare!

Fifthgen said...

kevinpeaslee: You are probably right. Ironic may not be the right word. My point is that the concept of "separation of church and state" was not intended to prohibit religious groups from expressing their views in the political sphere.

And, while I agree that private meetings with legislators could raise some conerns, I am not sure what a workable alternative would be. It seems that allowing only public meetings with lawmakers is not practical. Do you think the rules in general should be changed? Or that churches, or a particular church, should be required to play by differnt rules from everyone else? And if so, why?

Fifthgen said...

And just to be clear, that is "differnt," the pronunciation used by many of our esteemed Utah legislators.

kevinpeaslee said...

Fifthgen, I totally agree: it's tough to know what to do. Even if someone came up with incredibly brilliant and fair religion-oriented sunshine rules that applied perfectly to our state's unique circumstances, a state legislature that must be more than 90% LDS (anyone know the exact count?) would never consider them. So what are we left with? Courts? Federal intervention? (By the way, this particular train of thought led me and my googling to the most fascinating things about the Utah War.)

What I think we're left with isn't mandatory, but voluntary. First off, it's a church that does its best to understand and appreciate its unique position in our community, that uses its power very sparingly and fairly in the public arena, that doesn't have a tin ear for differing perspectives, that seriously asks itself if its yearly meetings with legislators should be reconsidered instead of having the PR guy go on attack. Maybe the church already does all of these things and we just don't know--and perhaps some of us are even a bit paranoid because, unlike Ott, we're not behind those closed doors.

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, it's politicians and leaders who listen to their religious leaders, but who are also willing to think for themselves. Governor Huntsman, anyone?

jupee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sanford said...

For those you who didn't see Mayor Ralph Becker's letter to the Editor in the Tribune on 2-10-09, here it is:

In my 11 years as a member of the Utah Legislature I had several meetings with the Public Affairs Committee of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a member of leadership, I participated in annual pre-session meetings.

In my entire experience, I found my interactions helpful and appropriate. Church officials understood and were careful to explain their positions on a very limited number of topics, and they consistently were careful to be sensitive to the separation of church and state while expressing their opinions. Most the meetings were spent by church representatives listening to priorities we brought to the discussion. The discourse was frank and respectful. Never did LDS Church representatives step over appropriate boundaries.

It is understandable that people would be suspicious of an institution as powerful in our state as the LDS Church. While I have not always been in agreement with LDS Church positions, in my experience, in secular matters the LDS Church has carefully considered the opinions and effects of their opinions on others having different perspectives.

I hope that other interests in our state can exercise comparable civility in their interactions with government officials.

Ralph Becker Mayor,Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City

Anonymous said...

I wish the LDS Church had a little more influence over the legislature. Maybe then we could ban handguns from college campuses and pass more compassionate immigration laws. Unfortunately, the legislature is selective and listens to the Church only when the Church tells it what it wants to hear.

kevinpeaslee said...

In the Deseret News a year ago:

House Majority Leader Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, a member of the LDS Church himself, said immigration issues did not take up much time in the Republicans' meeting with church leaders. "But they did say we all need to approach this subject with compassion."

When asked about the legislative meetings, church spokesman Rob Howe said, "We communicated our policy ... The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken no position regarding currently proposed immigration legislation."

++++

Not exactly a full-court press, Anon., but, yes, a sign that, if left to their own devices, many of our legislators will often be more conservative than their church. I appreciate the “be careful what you wish for” advice that seems to underscore your post. It’s good to be reminded that many of our representatives are a differnt breed. Mavericks, I think they're called.

pb said...

This thing ate my post and now I can't -- or don't want to -- re-post. Let me assure you, it was brilliant.

pb said...

It probably all comes down to this: We need to elect better representatives. kevinpeaslee, will you please run for office? And by the way, I thought Ralph Becker's comments were a bit silly. I don't think anyone is worried that these private pre-session meetings between the church and the legislature are "unfrank" or disrespectful. As far as "appropriate boundaries," I guess that's in the eye of the beholder. To me, a rank-and-file member of the public, private meetings between legislators and special interest groups are inappropriate. I don't think we even realize anymore how cynical we have become, sort of shrugging our shoulders and saying, "It happens all the time, that's politics as usual." It may be politics as usual, but it is not governance as it should be. I, like the late Walter Oberer, believe that we should still be asking that utopia question. Here's a thought: whenever a legislator meets with a lobbyist, a church official, a CEO of Kennicott, or any other person or group with a particular agenda, the time and place of the meeting is noted and a recording of what took place at the meeting is placed on the legislative website. This would be simple and easy, and the public could then be advised of what positions are being advanced and by whom. We could then judge for ourselves whether we think there is something to be concerned about with these meetings, rather than being told in a condescending fashion that it's all good, everyone is polite, we should keep our mouths shut.

Okay, I guess I am re-posting my eaten post (and you can see for yourself it's not the brilliant post I claimed -- see, transparency is a good thing). But second point, undue influence is also a major consideration, as jupee pointed out. We are very sensitive to matters of material comfort as they may impact the judgment of a legislator. We think our congressman from Alaska, for example, can't separate matters of public interest from matters of self-interest when he receives help with the renovation of his home by some interested constituent. Are not the stakes much, much higher when we are talking about the influence of a person or group who claims -- with credibility for 90% (?) of our legislators -- to speak for god here on earth? How can our merely mortal legislators be expected to parse out the public interest from their own interest in the salvation of their eternal soul, or if not that, at least in the position that they hold in the community to which they owe their FIRST allegiance. And no, I'm not talking about the community of this blessed democracy. The potential for undue influence is extremely high, it seems to me. For that reason alone, church / legislature contacts should be very, very regulated and very, very public.

The church already owns the hearts, minds and souls of 90% (?) of our representatives. This we can't change, other than through the democratic process of getting rid of them (or balancing the proportions). How is our democracy advanced by the church having additional influence over matters of public policy in the form of unregulated, nonpublic pre-session meetings with the legislature? Why is the church singled out for this special privilege? It seems to me that people would be absolutely jumping up and down if the legislature granted this kind of access to some other special interest group. Why is it fine and okay because it's the church? Why are we talking about who is polite to whom in these meetings, as if that matters?

middleground said...

The legislators meet with all kinds of groups that have a special interest before the session, for instance they meet with the school board on issues that matter to the district, the city council on issues that matter to the city, gun lobby on gun issues, etc. of course churches will weigh in. I've found the church to show great restraint on what types of issues they care about, they are very direct on why it matters to them, and how high up it matters. It is not unusual to assume they might care about a particular issue and you ask an opinion and the answer back is, "this is not an issue we will get involved in."

When they do decide to lobby they are very, effective.

Ralph is weighing in because it is critical to Salt Lake city to build partnerships and coalitions. He wouldn't have said what he said if he didn't believe it. It is his style to take feedback and input from everyone and he finds it valuable.

Rebecca Walsh see's a conspiracy behind every pew.

Fifthgen said...

kevinpeaslee: Please do run for office. I will contribute to your campaign. Unless you run against pb, in which case I may have to remain neutral. A couple of questions, though. Do you think the LDS Church should have been more forceful on the immigration issue? And if so, how should they have done that?

It seems to me that this is an example of the sticky situation to which I referred earlier. Some might say, if the Church pushes too hard on one issue, it is abusing its power; if it does not push hard enough on another, it is not trying hard enough to address legitimate, societal concerns. Kind of a tightrope.

ostrich said...

pb said: "It probably all comes down to this: We need to elect better representatives."

I like the warning attributed to Plato: “Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.”

I'm not necessarily calling all our representative dumb, but why is it that all of us here sense the need for change, have strong (and legitimate) ideas on how it can be done, yet we all continue to voice them only through methods of limited influence? I for one am not going near the poli-tickle arena.

I'm only thinking outside the box here...but maybe the LDS Church wants to be involved so those representing the state don't perform at an even lower level than we've witnessed in the past. Or to temper the legislature from going even farther to the right. Some of the 90% pb refers to may feel they can make their dent in the universe by making a crater in local politics.

pb said...

What -- you mean posting on this blog is a method of only limited influence? I guess I better go back to ranting at passersby on the street corners.

kevinpeaslee said...

Fifthgen and pb: me, run for anything? Ha! Good one. However, if either of you two decide to run for an office, I'd be honored to pitch in pro bono on your campaign advertising. Same goes for Sanford or Jupee. But be forewarned: the win rate for political campaigns I've worked on has to be around 10%.

Anyway, fifthgen, on to your thought-provoking question. Yes, at a gut level, I'd be tempted to cheer on the church loudly if it pulled its powerful behind-the-scenes levers for what I agree with. But at a conscious level, I'd hopefully step back and say no. For the particulars of our state and our time, I think there needs to be transparency and separation.

I'd be tempted mostly because I know that, as middleground says, "when they do decide to lobby they are very effective." But that's also the root of the problem. As jupee and pb have alluded to, when the church brings an apostle or other high-ranking church official to the table, how does a believer say no? With that trump card, it has a power that no other special interest in our great state has. Not Energy Solutions. Definitely not Salt Lake City. Heavens no to any environmental group, or even for Ducks Unlimited. Not even gun lobbyists wield that kind of power--unless they show they're carrying heat and a happy trigger finger, I guess.

That said, there seems to be some folks posting here who feel, to varying degrees, that this is just how politics is done. Powerful people, public and private and ecclesiastic, strike deals, sometimes upfront, sometimes not. But isn't freedom from backroom deals and influence peddling the promise of this moment in our history?

By the way, Fifthgen, thanks for engaging in such civil dialogue. To plagiarize Mayor Becker a bit, I can only hope to offer comparable civility.

Fifthgen said...

kevinpeaslee: Sorry it has taken so long to comment. Other priorities have taken precedence (however fleetingly) over Three Feet High.

It has been a good chat about a very interesting and complicated problem. Utah certainly presents a unique situation, but excluding the LDS Church from the political debate because of demographics (how many Utahns, or leglislators, are Mormon), or its doctrine (LDS Church leaders speak for God) does not seem to be the answer. To me, anyway. And, I do not think of the LDS Church's lobbying efforts as "backroom deals" a al Haliburton or Ted Stevens. Those situations present a direct financial conflict of interest that does not seem present in the Church's lobbying efforts on things like alcohol, immigration, guns, etc.

Miss Kendra said...

Happy B-day!!

Rubymainia said...

Sorry dad. I told her that.

middleground said...

Are you all saying that you think there is something dumb or amoral about an elected official meeting with a particular group that has an opinion? I guess I still agree with Ralph Becker that elected officials do a better job when they can with an open mind consider all sides of an issue.
An elected official spends most of their day getting educated on an issue mostly behind close doors with folks who care about an issue, they have several meetings behind close doors on just one issue hearing from all sides. There is rarely an issue that everyone agrees on and it's the responsibility of the elected official to hear from everyone, even large organizations that have opinions. I think they're doing their job when they do that, I don't think it means they are irresponsible or immoral, or dumb. I think it's sort of dumb to think these meetings usually happen in public. Public testimony happens in public, educating happens in lengthy private sessions so the elected official can ask questions, educate the concerned party, and do some educating themselves. The elected official probably doesn't want to do that in public.

I think you'd all be surprised at the self restraint the church shows on 99 percent of issues that come before the elected officials in Utah. They don't want to get involved. They are painfully aware of the religious divide and want to be a party of the solution. Occassionally an issue rises to a level they decide to weigh in. I suspect the closed door meeting with the legislators was done for no other reason than to show respect to the legislators and to let the know the LDS church appreciates the work they do. I would be surprised if they cared about any issue beyond alcohol. And I bet some legislators pushed back behind closed doors and their was a healthy debate.

I

Anonymous said...

One more thing. If the church cares about an issue they will say so in public also. They official testify at public hearings and everyone knows their position. So the healthy debate that happens in private also happens in public. Their really isn't a conspiracy behind every pew sometimes it's polite to say things in private that might sound disrespectful in public, that goes for parties involved.

pb said...

liWe need to have more faith in our elected officials, I guess is what you're saying. That might have been persuasive pre-Nixon. Now, I'd just like the information please. Set up a website. Email me. Tell me who you're meeting with & what issues are being discussed. The meeting doesn't have to be "public" per se, but the issues under consideration should be reported. Members of the public with an interest in the issue would then -- of course -- have equal access to lengthy private sessions with the legislature to do their own educating. How else are public officials to become educated about all sides of the issue, which as you note, it is their duty to do?

The opaque governmental strategy of our twice-elected former president appears to have been a dismal failure. Our newly elected president, by contrast, is using technology readily available to all elected officials to set a new standard for transparency and information-sharing. It is my hope that elected officials who do likewise will remain elected officials, while the rest will become unelected officials.

middleground said...

I think the issue at hand in this discussion is whether it was inappropriate for the LDS church to have a private meeting with legislators. I don't think it was inappropriate because the access is no different than any other citizen would have. Private Citizens do meet every day in private with elected officials, they send emails, they telephone and have private meetings. If you've ever been on a board or cared about an issue enough to call an elected official, hopefully they were willing to talk to you. I think most private citizens would feel uncomfortable if their email was made public (maybe not everyone who feels free to weigh in on this blog with their real name) but I think it would make a lot of folks uncomfortable to have that conversation in public.

I am not defending the practices of the legislature, I agree that I wish there were fewer decisions made behind closed doors. But that doesn't mean votes are taken behind closed doors or debate happens behind closed doors. After listening to a few of their floor debates, I think we the public hear enough of their view point to know, we don't want to know more.

But everything you suggest exists, all topics voted on are posted on a public agenda, public comment is taken and meetings are on line.

It's impractical to think there won't be private meetings. As the Church spokesman said their intent was to "thank" the legislators for their service. Does that sound sinnister? Every non profit organization wants to have a positive relationship with the leaders in our state and community and it would be impolite of the elected officials not to agree to a meeting with all of those different interest groups, one at a time in private, if requested.

Fifthgen said...

Hmmm. The idea of a website run by the government, keeping track of who contacts their elected officials, when and why sounds a little too "Big Brother" for me. I would prefer that the government NOT track my every contact with elected officials. I am a little worried about the database in which that information would end up.

I have worked for an elected official, and have “lobbied” in the sense that I have met with elected officials on behalf of organizations with which I am involved. I have a passing understanding of some of the legal requirements imposed upon how, when and with whom elected officials meet. The idea of private meetings with elected officials does not bother me, so long as those legal requirements are met. Beyond that, I really do not think that a system can be developed to track all contacts with elected officials that would be practical, meaningful, cost-effective and protective of people’s privacy.

pb said...

How is it big brother for a legislator to take note of all meetings with special interest groups, private citizens, lobbyists, or whoever and post it on the legislative website? This is information-sharing, to make these contacts more transparent. I am troubled if a lobbyist, for instance, or a legislator, does not want this contact to be a matter of public record. Why would that be? If a legislator is enjoying the jazz game in that box seat with the CEO of Energy Solutions, he reports it on the public website. Sounds like a good idea to me. If either party is uncomfortable with the information being made public, then maybe the contact should not be occurring.

Emails being made public? No. You subscribe to your legislator's email updates, if you choose. This shouldn't seem sinister; it should be routine. Obama emails millions of citizens regularly. To get on the email list, you sign up. Presumably if you felt this was an invasion of your privacy, you wouldn't sign up. Obama has also established websites where citizens can provide comments & give feedback re: policy initiatives. Again, if you felt that this was an invasion of your privacy, you wouldn't go to the website, you wouldn't post your comment. I just can't link the fact that we live in a digital age where politicians have the capability of receiving direct input from citizens through these easy and convenient means with big brother.

As for the question, Is it creepy for the church to meet with the legislative leaders and "thank" them for their service? Yes. Very. Such a meeting, as it is described by Otterson, appears to serve no purpose but to grease the wheels of cronyism.

And maybe I'm clueless, but Otterson says that the church "convenes" these sessions every year. Okay. So you're going to tell me that any non-profit group can "convene" a session with the legislature every year? That would surprise me.

Changing tacks for just a moment, I think it is worth considering the point made by Jennifer Michael Hecht in her book (which I haven't read yet), A History of Doubt. That is, the more religion becomes intertwined with public policy, the more push back against religion occurs. Apparently, the founding fathers' vision was one in which the public square, where issues of concern to all are openly and public debated, stands in contrast to the private sphere, where religious beliefs and practices are nurtured and our spiritual selves developed. I think there is a very legitimate question to be asked, and that is, what is the church's purpose in entering the public square? Wouldn't it be better served to voluntarily limits its sphere of influence to the private, metaphysical realm? That's what religion is about, after all, right? Why mix these two?

Fifthgen said...

1. Call me crazy, but I do not want the government maintaining a database of when I contact my elected representatives and why. Nor do I want them maintaining information on what books I check out at the library or what private clubs I frequent.

2. I do not think a clean division can be made between religion and politics. Both are about values and, for many religious people, it is difficult to separate the two. (MLK, Jr. had a really hard time with this, for example).

There is a long tradition in this country of religious groups and individuals voicing their opinions, arising from religious values, on public policy issues as diverse as peace, poverty, civil rights, the environment, alcohol, gambling, pornography, etc. I am not uncomfortable with religious groups and people participating in the market place of ideas.

pb said...

I don't believe MLK was a lobbyist for his church, nor was he acting as a representative of his church in his role as civil rights leader. He was a church leader who was active in a particular movement. It was not the founders' view that church leaders should not be active in politics or political movements. Rather, it was assumed, it would seem rightly, that one's religious beliefs will inform, nurture, and catalyze political activism. That's different from a religion, as religion, entering the political sphere. There has been in this country a tradition of a healthy divide between these two, distinct spheres. There is a reason for that division -- as your own Mitt Romney appeared to recognize in his bid for the presidency. I would argue that it's as much about maintaining the sanctity of the religious entity, and it's usefulness as a place of refuge from the mundane world of politics, as anything else. The church, which claims that its truths are universal, can only sully itself by taking positions on issues -- such as the civil rights movement -- that turn out to be wrong in the eyes of history.

Fifthgen said...

pb: First, and perhaps most importantly, Mitt is not mine, nor am I his.

Second, I guess we just see things differently on issues of church and state. I think religions/churches (I am not sure which we are talking about here) participate in the political sphere in their capacities as religions/churches all the time. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Christian Coalition come immediately to mind. But, give me Google and 10 mins and I could probably come up with some other examples.