The Role of the LDS Church in Utah’s Politics: An Insider’s Look

By Carl Wimmer, Former Utah state legistlator

Editor’s Note: The following was originally printed in the May/June 2015 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here

Page 126 of the LDS Church manual titled Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith cites the sixth president of the Mormon Church as saying, “The Church does not engage in politics; its members belong to the political parties at their own pleasure. . . . They are not asked, much less required, to vote this way or that.” Is that an accurate appraisal? 

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints just passed a pro-LGBT piece of legislation in Utah. Does that sound odd to you? It does to me, but it is essentially true. For years, there have been those in the Utah legislature who have pushed for statewide legislation that would prevent businesses and landlords from prohibiting homosexuals from working at their business or renting a home from them; they called it a “statewide anti-discrimination” bill. And for years the legislation failed.

Year after year the bill sponsor would bring the bill forward simply to have it die before it got off the ground, but this year was different. This year the most powerful entity in the state of Utah, the LDS Church, endorsed the legislation. This year the legislation passed.

Having served in the Utah legislature, I have been asked several times what role the LDS Church really plays when it comes to Utah politics, and until now I have remained largely silent. While in the legislature I was a faithful member of the LDS Church; to speak of things that might bring embarrassment to the church would have been unwise, not to mention political suicide. Today, the issue is very topical with the recent passage of the pro-LGBT legislation, and I feel it is time to break the silence and provide some insight.

A common question from people is whether or not the LDS Church leadership gets whatever it wants when it comes to Utah politics, and the answer is a resounding, “Yes.” If the LDS Church wants something in Utah politics, they get it.

To be absolutely fair, they rarely want things badly enough to engage openly.  The church is very selective regarding the legislation they engage.  This is due to the fact that because most of Utah’s legislators are LDS members, the majority of legislation already aligns with the LDS Church position without their influence.  During the three terms I served in the Utah House of Representatives, I was only approached twice by the LDS lobbyists for a vote.

John Taylor and Bill Evans are full-time employees of the LDS Church and their job is to monitor the Utah government and to act as the paid lobbyists on behalf of the church. They regularly meet with legislators behind closed doors (as do other lobbyists, this is nothing nefarious or unusual), to push the agenda of their employer. When the LDS lobbyists contact a legislator, the conversation goes like this: “We are here to discuss such-and-such bill. We have received our orders ‘directly from the top,’ and we want you to vote for this bill.” They mention that they received their orders “from the top” so that the legislator would know unequivocally that the LDS Church’s First Presidency sent them.

The first piece of legislation they contacted me about dealt with alcohol. For better or worse, it is an unarguable fact that legislation regarding alcohol never gets passed without the express consent of the LDS Church. They control all changes to the state alcohol laws. In 2008, SB 211 was proposed to remove “flavored malt beverages” from grocery stores and place them for sale in state liquor stores only. The day the bill was to be heard in the House of Representatives, I was summoned to the hall, where I was met by the LDS lobbyists. They gave me the “from the top” introduction and then asked me to support the bill. I told them no. Although not a drinker, I simply could not bring myself to take a profit-producing legal product out of the hands of private business owners and give it to the state to sell. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now.

Keep in mind, in 2008 I was a faithful Mormon with a current temple recommend and had only recently been released from my LDS leadership position as an Elders Quorum President. To tell my church leaders “no” was anathema to how I was raised. As I turned to walk back into the chambers, one of the lobbyists said to me, “Don’t worry, voting against us will not affect your church membership status.” I was relieved. SB 211 passed.

Learning how powerful the LDS Church was politically, several pro-life legislators and I set up a meeting in my office with the two LDS Church lobbyists. Our intention was to recruit the LDS Church in the battle for the right-to-life.  For weeks we had worked on legislation that would prove to make Utah the leader in the fight against abortion.  We presented our idea and expressed our eagerness to have the LDS Church help in the fight to pass a bill that had failed the year before. They turned us down flat, telling us that “the First Presidency has made it clear to them that they will not engage on abortion issues.” We asked them why they had come out so strongly on alcohol use but would not engage in the fight for the life of a baby. And in what can only be described as a brief, unguarded moment, the head lobbyist expressed his confusion as to the apparent misappropriation of priorities, but they stuck to their guns.

Then came 2011; the year my rose colored glasses regarding the LDS Church got scratched a bit. HB116 was an extremely controversial bill dealing with illegal immigration and proposed issuing state worker cards to illegal immigrants. For at least two weeks prior to the final passage of HB116, the two church lobbyists practically lived in the back halls of the state capitol and in the office of house leadership. I was vocally opposed to the legislation, but I was still contacted repeatedly by both lobbyists who attempted to change my opposition. The calls became frequent enough from the LDS lobbyists that I stopped taking them. What bothered me most was when my local ecclesiastical leader contacted me and attempted to persuade me to vote for the bill as well. When I asked him, “Who from the Church headquarters had asked you to contact me?” he simply confirmed that he had been asked, but would not say by whom.

The night HB116 was debated for final passage was insane. There was intensity I had never felt before or after on the house floor. It was the intensity that comes only from political bullying, and it killed me to know that this time the “bully” was my own church. I was approached by a younger representative who was on the verge of tears. He expressed to me that he had just gotten out of a “PPI meeting” and asked if I had had mine yet.  I knew what he meant and I was sorry for him. A legitimate “PPI,” or “Personal Priesthood Interview,” is conducted within the confines of the LDS Church. It is an ecclesiastical meeting between an LDS leader and a male member under their “authority.” When I was an Elders Quorum President, I held PPI’s with the elders under my charge.  A PPI is used to check on the spiritual welfare of the man being interviewed and to make sure they are on the “straight and narrow.”  But that is not what this legislator meant….

What he had just experienced was an intense, closed-door meeting with select members of house leadership and the LDS Church lobbyists who made it abundantly clear that when HB116 came up for a vote, he was to support the bill, period. Sometimes, if the legislator felt strongly enough about the legislation, the church would allow him to vote against it, but ONLY after the bill had the necessary votes recorded to ensure passage.  This was the deal this particular representative was under, and both he and I knew it. He was clearly shaken and expressed that he had no idea that his “church would do this kind of thing.” I hurt for him. House leadership was split on HB116, so when I saw a member of house leadership whom I knew was opposed to the bill walk onto the house floor, I went up to him and engaged him in conversation. The following is our word-for-word conversation:

Me: Hey, (name of House leader), how much of what is going on tonight regarding HB116 has to do with the LDS Church?

Him: All of it; I hate this.

Me: It’s going to pass, isn’t it?

Him: Yes, and in fact if the vote is close, I have to vote for it, I have no choice.”

Me: You had a PPI?

Him: Yep…(walks away).

HB116 passed as the LDS Church lobbyists looked on from the gallery. I was not in the legislature in 2015, but the look and feel of the passing of HB116 and the  non-discrimination bill is quite the same. One can only guess how many legislators had “PPI’s” before the vote on the church-endorsed LGBT legislation, but there is no doubt in my mind, that as legislators read this, one or more of them will know precisely what I am talking about.

So, what role does the LDS Church really play when it comes to Utah politics? From my experience, it all depends on how badly the church wants a specific piece of legislation passed.

Reprinted with permission

Carl Wimmer was born and raised a member of the LDS Church and served in various leadership positions within the church. He and his wife Sherry were married in the LDS temple, and he continued to be an active Mormon into adulthood. Carl and his family were called out of Mormonism and into a relationship with Jesus in 2013, and he is now attending Liberty University, where he is majoring in theology. Carl served in the Utah House of Representatives for three terms and ran for the United States Congress in 2012. The Wimmers now live in Gunnison, Utah with their three children and two foster boys who both have severe disabilities.