Sometime over the past few weeks, two curious local agendas crossed paths. Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson arranged a huge be-in at the downtown Salt Lake City Library, where all and sundry aired their feelings concerning our community’s “religious divide.” Close on its heels, The Salt Lake Tribune revealed that, prior to releasing her sweeping tax reform plan, outgoing Gov. Olene Walker sent three envoys to meet with church leaders. Specifically, she let them know that if her proposed flat state income tax were implemented, well, the lower proposed tax could hurt the traditional deduction for charitable giving. You know, tithing. We can’t really have that, now, can we?
No, we certainly can’t. Not with the massive powers of political persuasion roosting high above us from that building near Temple Square. So only a fool would put any political muscle behind Walker’s proposed lower flat state income tax. If reform’s going to happen, it will happen only through the higher flat rate. And how about the Jones-Mascaro Plan, which would limit state income-tax deductions to two children per household? Since hardly anyone’s discussing it at this point, that’s probably doomed as well. Critics charge it labels children in large families “a burden.” Well, of course they’re not. When the cost of that child’s education gets shifted over to individual taxpayers, it becomes our burden instead. We’re sitting ducks, individual taxpayers. If you aren’t raising a family, the reasoning goes, you aren’t contributing to society. Walker and the rest of the state want a tax plan that’s “business friendly” and “family friendly.” Rest assured, that is what they’ll get.
Only in Utah would the issue of religion and tax policy meld so seamlessly, and cause such irritation in the process. It’s most unfortunate that, during a time when so many in the Salt Lake Valley are making an effort to address the religious divide, that divide seems to dig itself in deeper. This isn’t the fault of any one person or institution, although there’s sometimes plenty of blame to go around. The mechanisms of this divide are so well primed and greased it sometimes seems like a universal law. Who’s going to defy something so commonplace as gravity? No one would compare life in Utah to Belfast or Belgrade, but everyone knows who has the power.
When the vast majority of state lawmakers share the same religion, and when the LDS Church issues statements on gay marriage with the expectation that its members will fall into line, no one need connect the dots. They’re already connected. Anyone who benefits from or agrees with the patterns of power in our community will, of course, have a difficult time understanding anyone who complains. That’s because people with power rarely understand the discomfort of those without. At its most obscene height, that’s the sort of sentiment that gives way to phrases like, “Let them eat cake.”
In the context of the larger divide facing our nation, the LDS Church often likes to point out that lots of non-Mormons agree with them. There are non-Mormons with large families, too. There are non-Mormons who find gay marriage distasteful, too. Catholic, Baptist, Jewish or Muslim, it matters little who constitutes the majority or what the proportion of its makeup is. So perhaps our “divide” is a lot less about religious bigotry and a lot more about the balance of power.