Review: Utah Politics: The Elephant in the Room

Title: Utah Politics: The Elephant in the Room Author: Rod Decker
Published by: Signature Books, 2019, 404 pages, Paper binding 
ISBN:  978-1560852728, Price: 24.95

Candidates debate during the 2019 Salt Lake City mayoral race. One is Mormon and one is not, should that membership come into consideration when people are voting?

I am very behind in getting this review written, months behind in fact.  But, being behind has been a bit enlightening.  As I have been working on this review of Rod Decker’s “Utah Politics: The Elephant in the Room” several stories and numerous social media posts have demonstrated for me just how relevant and topical Decker’s book is.  In the 2019 Salt Lake City mayor’s race, one candidate’s suitability to run based on their membership in the LDS church became an issue while another candidate (the eventual winner) had a letter of support from a couple of dozen prominent Mormons mailed out in their behalf and then published in the local newspaper.

Another major story in recent weeks was that the government of Utah issued a proposed ban on reparative therapy for LGBT youth.  This was almost immediately followed by the LDS Church objecting to the ban and asking the state to make changes to the rule in their favor.  This led to headlines and social media posts such as this one from Salt Lake City’s Fox 13, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is defending its objections to a proposed rule banning conversion therapy on LGBTQ children.” And to social media comments such as this one on Fox 13’s Facebook post on the same story,

“The fact that the church spokesman (and lobbyist) is the former Utah legislature speaker of the house says it all.”

On a humorous note, a recent meme surfaced on social media poking fun at the whole Utah/LDS Church/Political situation.  It featured an image of LDS actor Kirby Heyborne and the statement “Hey Bro, so like, why do all these Non-Mormons think they should get to vote on Utah laws, I mean they don’t even pay tithing.” Then on Nov 10th 2019, the Salt Lake Tribune ran a Facebook post linking to an editorial that read, “Ria of Woods Cross says Utahns aren’t being represented well by the state Legislature and won’t be until they vote to keep church and state separate.”  Stories like these make it undeniable that there is a cat’s-cradle of connections between the LDS Church and Republican Utah politics which is a constant source of frustration for many. But these stories and the many more that I could list off are just a small piece of a political picture of panoramic proportions.  For anyone who wants to know the full history and story of these interweaving connections between Utah Republican politics and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, if they really want to know about the “elephant in the room”, then they need to read this book. 

Pat Bagley Cartoon (Copyright Salt lake Tribune) expressing the concern of some Utahans that the LDS church controls the Utah State Legislature

I lived in Utah from 1977 to 2010. During this time there were several things that could generally be counted on in Utah’s politics and news:

1) The Republicans would win
2) Mormons would dominate the state’s political discourse
3) The LDS Church would wield influence over the state legislature
4) Rod Decker would regularly deliver hard hitting investigative journalism.

All four of these along with a lot of history and expert analysis have now come together in Decker’s excellent book.

Rod Decker reporting from the Utah State Capitol

Near the end of “Elephant’s” first page Decker writes,

I argue that the key to understanding Utah politics is resistance by the Latter-day Saint Church and its members to American social change (ix).  

Over the book’s 17 chapters, Decker guides the reader through the stories, facts, and figures of Utah’s political history and the Mormon’s involvement in that history in a way that deftly proves his thesis to be true.   

“Elephant” is divided into three parts: the first six chapters under the heading “The Second Separation” “tell how politics changed in the 1970’s, so that Utah became different from the rest of America,” the second section of the book is “Issues of Land and Climate” which consists of four chapters that “show how land and climate have affected (Utah) politics,” the final seven chapters are titled  “The Republican Ascendancy”, and describe a state government run by Republican members of the of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

perpetually in power because of Utah’s conservatism (ix).

Being a consummate newsman Decker is excellent at mapping out where he is going and then leading and guiding his readers on the trip there with a careful recitation of facts, figures, and historical information.  Once the information is provided, Decker then offers a careful and insightful interpretation of the data that he has provided. 

Chart from “The Elephant in the Room” showing what percentage of the state voted for the Republican candidate and where Utah ranked nationally (by percent) when voting for the republican in that election

I’ll be honest, having spent the majority of my life in Utah, I believed that I “knew it all” and that I really would not learn much from this book. I also assumed, based on the way things have been in my lifetime, that the political situation in Utah has always pretty much been as it is now.  Turns out that I was wrong on both counts.  In the six chapters of Part One, Decker lays out the whole fascinating history of Utah politics. In the first chapter he goes back to “The Founding” and walks the reader through the beginnings of the territory of “Deseret” through statehood and all of the various events that eventually led to “The Republican Ascendancy” in the 1970’s. One of the major things that I learned here was that before the 1970’s Utah generally sided with the majority of the US populace in national elections, BUT in a major switch in the 1970’s Utah became consistently the most Republican state in the nation. Decker was an investigative journalist for nearly as long as I have been alive and his ability to provide evidence, facts, figures, and proofs of his points and weave them all together in a way to keep his readers fascinated from page to page made him the perfect author to write this book.  I hate clichés, I give my students a whole lesson on NOT using them in their essays, BUT it is hard for me to find a way to describe “Elephant in the Room”, and especially this history section, other than to say that the way that Decker pulled the story all together made it impossible for me to put the book down.  I just wanted to keep reading and learning. 

As you might expect, if you are familiar with Utah and Mormonism, many familiar subjects come up in “Elephant”: Polygamy, Liquor, Tobacco, Gambling, “Blue Laws”, School Prayer, Pornography, Sex Ed, etc.  But Decker takes the narrative way beyond these subjects. The reader will learn about every aspect of Utah political history when they read this book.  

It is important for me to point out here that this is NOT “A liberal beats-up on the Mormons and Republicans” book. It is, well, to borrow a phrase (it HAS to work for someone!) a very “fair and balanced” book. In fact, if you look on the back of the book, it not only has endorsements from major Utah Democrats and the president of the Utah chapter of the NAACP, it also has endorsements from former senator Orrin Hatch and governor Gary Herbert as well. 

There are several places where Decker’s balance and willingness to tell the whole story rather than supporting a popular or a personal political agenda are really apparent and important.  One of the subjects that I learned a lot about in “Elephant”, one that really shocked me, and that will likely shock many readers, is the tale that makes up the major story of chapters seven and eight which are the are the first two chapters in the “Issues of Land and Climate” section of the book. 

Nuclear bomb test in New Mexico

Growing up in Utah I was often told about the “Downwinders” in school and by family members.  I remember being taught that many people in Southern Utah were negligently exposed by the US government to very harmful levels of nuclear fallout during the nuclear bomb tests of the 1940s and 50’s. I distinctly recall being told that these tests led to cancer and disease in the “Downwinders” of Southern Utah and that the government was okay with this because they looked down on Utahans in general and Mormons in particular and saw them as “expendable”. Decker’s “Elephant in the Room” taught me a whole new version of the story of this all-important event from Utah history.  He carefully documents not only the development of the folklore around this tale but also shows why the modified story of the “Downwinders” is so important in Utah and continues to shape and develop the attitudes of Utahan’s toward the federal government today.

This whole book is fascinating, I could go on and on for pages talking about it.  I expected to be mildly informed and maybe even slightly entertained by reading it, but I LOVED it, I am still amazed at how much I learned from it.  By the time that the book ends, Decker has more than proved his thesis about Mormon’s resistance to American social change to be true.  

Decker on the KUTV News set where his voice was very familiar for many years

The one, slightly weird thing for me about reading “Elephant in the Room,” was that, after having watched Rod Decker’s news reports on TV for 30 odd years, as I read the book, it was like I could hear Decker’s voice and diction in my head. This made for a quirky reading experience at first, but hey, it saved me money on buying the audio book version!

“Elephant” proves that Decker is as excellent of a writer as he is a reporter.  I highly recommend reading “Elephant in the Room” to everyone: Mormon, ex-Mormon, never Mormon, Republican, Democrat, Independent, etc. no matter where you fall on the religious or political landscape you will learn not just about Utah and its Mormon influenced politics, I think that you will learn quite a bit about the American political landscape in general. With the number of related stories that continue to break, with the political evolution in Utah that is trying to happen, with Trump in the White House and who knows what is to come in US politics, the timing for it could not be more perfect.  If you have interests in Utah politics, Mormons in politics, Utah history, Utah political history, just why do Mormons vote the way that they do, just how intertwined is the LDS Church with the governing of Utah, then “The Elephant in the Room” is for you.


Review: Utah Politics: The Elephant in the Room — 1 Comment

  1. Sounds like it supports the historical reality that we will always have to drag conservatives (and most Mormons) kicking and screaming into the future.