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Utah: Young, tolerant and surprising

Published: 05/02/2015
The Economist -- MUCH of America was built by religious exiles. Utah was founded by exiles from the United States. After leading his disciples from Ohio, Illinois and Missouri in 1847, Brigham Young, the polygamist leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, chose a plain fringed by the snow-capped Wasatch mountains deep in the desert West as the place to found his Zion, Salt Lake City.

For the next 40 years the Mormons’ insistence on polygamy stopped their homeland being fully accepted into the United States; only after the practice was formally renounced in 1890 could the Utah Territory become a state.

Utah’s curious history still defines it: the state’s population is nearly two-thirds Mormon. And so it may seem a strange place to look for lessons for the rest of America. Yet in recent years Utah has taken a surprising political path. The state is among the most Republican: in 2012 just 25% of its people voted for Barack Obama. Its governor, both senators and the entire congressional delegation are all Republicans. Yet, oddly, it is not the most conservative state in America. In several aspects of policy, Utah is quietly forging a model of constructive Republicanism.

In March Utah’s state legislature passed a bill that banned discrimination in housing and employment on the ground of sexuality. The bill did not extend to most public services, leaving open the possibility that businesses could refuse to serve gay customers (though few do). Nor, predictably, did it apply to religious organisations. But, says Clifford Rosky, a professor of law at the University of Utah and an advocate of gay rights, it strengthened the legal protections offered to gay people and passed with a thumping majority.

In the same session, the state also passed a bill which changed many drug offences from felonies to misdemeanours and redirected money towards treatment for the mentally ill and persistent drug users. A similar policy of harm reduction is applied to homelessness. Over the past decade Utah has reduced by around 75% the number of people living permanently on the street, by giving them homes without first insisting that they quit alcohol or drugs or solve their mental-health problems. This policy was controversial, says Gordon Walker, the head of Utah’s housing division. But, he argues, because such people use the emergency services a lot, it saves money.

On immigration, the state has long been fairly tolerant—and much more so than its neighbour Arizona. In 2010, when Arizona passed a law compelling police officers to check immigration papers, Utah became the first in America to issue a special class of driving licence available to illegal immigrants who can prove their residency. That was followed in 2011 by a law which proposed to introduce state-level work permits for illegal residents: an idea ultimately blocked by the federal government, but which was meant to send a message. The state is also among 18 which allow certain illegal-immigrant students to claim in-state tuition benefits, and it enthusiastically takes in refugees under the federal resettlement programme.

Utah’s liberalism should not be overstated. This year the state passed a law reintroducing the firing squad for murderers. It has not yet accepted Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state health programme for the hard-up, though it may do soon. It continually fights with the feds over environmental policies and land ownership (over half of the state is owned by the federal government). Yet Utah is different, argues Spencer Cox, the state’s young lieutenant-governor. “Our brand of conservatism is…very practical,” he says.

The clearest way in which Utah differs is in its religion. Mr Cox reckons that Mormons, long persecuted themselves, are tolerant of other people’s opinions. Because many serve overseas as missionaries, they are more open to foreigners, he says. Whether that is true or not, the Mormon church has a direct influence on the state’s politics. The sexual-discrimination bill passed largely because the church supported it, says Tim Chambless, a political scientist at the University of Utah.

Mormons also make the demography of Utah unusual. The state is 92% white; and yet, because Mormons marry young and have large families, it is the youngest state in America. It also has the lowest level of income inequality and one of the lowest poverty rates. That is partly thanks to a highly successful economic policy: it has a flat income tax of 5% and invests heavily in infrastructure. In recent years Salt Lake City, which is a more liberal, less religious place than most of Utah, has become a magnet for finance and tech companies.

Can Utah’s model be exported? Its demography, history and religion are unique. In other equally Republican-leaning places, such as Texas and the Deep South, politics is more raw and fiercely fought. Yet even if political culture cannot be exported, ideas can be. Perhaps what Utahns need is a little more missionary zeal

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