I just snared an advance reading copy ("ARC") of God and Country: Politics in Utah (Signature, March 2005), edited by Jeffery Sells, which I added to my February 2005 Book of the Month slot (upper left). The book is a collection of essays by a diverse group of scholars and civic leaders in law, politics, and religion, giving what amounts to the non-LDS perspective on the role of church and state in Utah. As such, it certainly provides some novel views of life in Utah that even career Utahns have probably never considered, such as "Living a Jewish Life in Utah," by a Jewish Rabbi who is also an adjunct faculty member at BYU. It also provides a contemporary example of a locality where a type of informal religious establishment can be examined and observed, nicely complementing the 18th- and 19th-century American examples that are generally used to frame such a discussion.
It really takes an effort for Mormons, who often think of Utah as "a Mormon state," to remember there are hundreds of thousands of regular non-LDS Americans who live, work, and vote there but who think of Utah differently. The point is best made in the short introduction by Michael D. Zimmerman, a non-Mormon and a former Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court. On the bright side, he said that in his lengthy experience on the court "the religious affiliation of each of my colleagues was the least important thing one needed to know about them in attempting to predict how they might vote in a given case" (ARC p. xv). On the other hand, despite his many years as a civic and professional leader in Utah, he confesses that sometimes he still feels like "a stranger in a strange land. A central fact of life in Utah is Mormon hegemony. For those who have never been either cultural or religious Mormons, there is always a tendency to see ourselves as 'the other'" (ARC p. xvi).
Those two remarks frame two alternate models for a state like Utah that echo through the various essays in the book: Is Utah a modern secular state where church and state are functionally separate, or does Utah present a case of modern establishment where the dominant religion plays a significant, if unofficial and informal, role in the political and civic life of the state? In the essays I have read so far, that is not a hostile inquiry; as a "natural experiment" in 20th-century informal establishment, the Utah experience is, in fact, a unique and interesting case of considerable interest. And as individual Mormons take on increasingly high-profile political careers, that whole issue seems to be taking on new and surprising relevance.
I'll profile a few of the chapters over the next couple of weeks.