Did Gov. Leavitt cross the line?

Governor and his top advisers had 'seminary' meetings to discuss the role of LDS teachings in government

The Salt Lake Tribune/December 30, 2007

Former Utah governor and current Cabinet secretary Mike Leavitt sought to infuse the lessons of his religion into his inaugural address and into state policy, conducting a series of "Early Morning Seminary" classes in which he and top advisers discussed how to incorporate "just and holy" Mormon principles into his governance, archival records show.

The disclosure of those 1996 meetings, never before reported, comes at a time when the interface between God and government is dominating political dialogue and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been forced to take great pains to assure distrustful voters that his Mormon faith will not drive his policy decisions.

Romney promised in his recent "Faith in America" speech that, if elected, he would not take marching orders from his church leaders or doctrine - and pointed to his record as Massachusetts governor as proof.

The transcripts of the Leavitt meetings, held over several days in 1996, offer a glimpse of the extent to which faith can influence political philosophy and the degree to which Leavitt incorporated his Mormon faith into his administration.

The gatherings included his top staff and trusted advisers, including chief of staff Charlie Johnson, now chief financial officer at Health and Human Services; former U.S. Attorney David Jordan; Matthew Durrant, whom Leavitt later appointed to the Utah Supreme Court; Henry Eyring, the son of the Mormon general authority; and former Brigham Young University professor Bud Scruggs.

God in government

Over several mornings in late 1996, the group delved into the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, exploring the lessons from Mormon scripture and how they apply to modern government.

Leavitt told The Tribune he has not held comparable gatherings in his current role as HHS secretary, or previously as administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency.

In the transcripts, Leavitt said he felt an obligation, looking ahead to an easy 1996 re-election win, to use the "blessing" of his popularity to convey a message strong on values.

"I mean, I think that the opportunity I have in January the 6th is to get up and to say something in a form that's big enough and appropriate enough for me to lay down a marker. I think that's going to be done in a little way and a big way, really, with this values campaign. I think that's going to be a big marker, because it's using all the tools of communication and it's going to draw on this trust that's been created by whatever combination of circumstances and personality and just blessing."

After inquiries from The Tribune, Leavitt asked the state archivist to review whether the transcripts should be removed from the public archives, which has been done pending the review.

"My best thinking often occurs in conversation where people feel comfortable in trying out new thoughts and challenging each other's ideas," Leavitt said in written responses to questions. "We occasionally recorded them to free ourselves from note taking. These were private conversations among friends."

A Utah Republican consultant, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said he was surprised the meeting transcripts ended up in the state archives, but they offer a fascinating insight on a figure who "always is thinking of different ways of doing things."

"This is the kind of thing I would've guessed that Brigham Young would've had when we had a theocracy here rather than necessarily in modern times," he said.

Private and personal

LaVarr Webb, Leavitt's policy adviser at the time, said the scripture study was intended to be a philosophical, not practical, discussion of government and explore how religious principles might inform good policy.

"We certainly weren't attempting to establish public policy or state policy based on those meetings or discussions there, but religion certainly did form the context for discussions of basic underlying philosophies," said Webb, now a political consultant.

John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Center for Religion and Public Life, said the Leavitt meetings are unusual. Religious scholars often look to doctrine to shape public policy, and those efforts formed the foundation for President Bush's Faith-based Initiatives. But elected officials usually don't engage in the scriptural study themselves, he said.

"That's just really intriguing to me. I have heard of examples before, but they're so rare that I can't summon them up," Green said.

Stephen Clark of Salt Lake Valley Atheists called the gatherings "curious."

"I don't like the use of religion in government any more than I like it when Mitt Romney does it, for instance," he said. "It does seem strange to me that they would do that, but, of course, he is a well-known religious person."

Brian Barnard, a Salt Lake attorney who has filed several religious-separation lawsuits against various Utah government entities, doesn't see a problem with the Leavitt meetings.

"When someone becomes a politician, they don't stop being a human being and don't suddenly erase all of those memories or precepts or values. And acknowledging and talking about those doesn't violate the separation of church and state," said Barnard. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said he meets with leaders from different faiths in the normal course of business, but he does not hold scripture studies.

Prayer and scripture study

Leavitt's group gathered before work, beginning about 7 a.m. They did not meet at the state Capitol, but did hold sessions at the Governor's Mansion. Meetings opened with a prayer before the group explored the Book of Mormon stories of Korihor, the Gadianton Robbers, Alma and Mosiah, and King Benjamin, seeking insight into what LDS scripture defines as the proper role of government and discussing how they could be communicated in a "bilingual" manner to a secular audience.

The principles the group settled on - free agency, accountability, equality, stewardship, marriage, unity, goodness, heritage, worship, safety and a sense of order - were not overtly religious.

The principles also show up in Leavitt's policies in his second term. He initiated a campaign to strengthen marriage and supported a law preventing unmarried couples from adopting. He implemented changes to state welfare and indigent health insurance systems, and he spoke of a societal force beyond government he called the "Economics of Goodness."

Jordan, now a Salt Lake City lawyer, said he and Leavitt often talked about faith and public policy in informal settings, like on the golf course, but the morning meetings provided a forum where the discussion could be "a little more focused than what one might have between tees."

"I thought they were interesting, thought-provoking conversations," Jordan said. "Public policy intersects with one's views of things like choice and accountability and personal responsibility - all those things are not only part of one's view of life but they impact one's view of public policy, or at least inform one's views."

Politics was a frequent topic of conversation. The governor complained that then-Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole was unable to offer a vision to compete with President Clinton - who, like Leavitt, was cruising to re-election.

At one point, comparisons were drawn between Clinton and Satan, because the group saw Clinton's slickly packaged message of an expanded federal government as depriving people of free agency, one of the "just and holy" principles they agreed should be at the government's core.

Leavitt himself appeared reluctant to step onto the national stage but confident that Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch would run for president in 2000, and anticipated the national media would make a spectacle of his faith, as it had when Romney ran for the Senate in Massachusetts in 1994.

"That environment in Washington, that national media environment, is just so unbelievably brutal," Leavitt said. "I think Orrin will run for president in the year 2000. I really do. It'll surprise me if he doesn't, and it's going to be fascinating to see how the Church is treated in this thing."

Johnson, Leavitt's chief of staff, suggested they refer to Hatch as "John the Baptist," the biblical forerunner to Jesus who was beheaded for his belief.

'Almost a secular sermon'

Leavitt hoped the meetings would provide the foundation for a book on the proper role of government, but it never materialized. What they did produce was the theme for Leavitt's inaugural address - which the governor called "almost a secular sermon." It referred repeatedly to God, Utah's Mormon pioneer heritage and the need for a "solid moral infrastructure," strong marriages and self-reliance.

And the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed at the Capitol event for the first time in more than a century.

"Our society has developed a misplaced politeness which says we shouldn't talk about God because it might offend someone. Heaven save the society that's too polite to speak about God," Leavitt said in the speech.

Leavitt said the meetings do not reflect an undue influence from his faith, and the LDS Church has never tried to affect his decision making, either as governor or since.

"Like everyone else, my faith is part of a complicated chemistry of experiences that shape the way I see the world," he said. After being elected governor, Leavitt met with Gordon B. Hinckley, then in the church's First Presidency, who said: "Governor, I have a suggestion on how we conduct business. You run the state, and we'll run the church."

"That was our relationship during my eleven years as governor, and since," Leavitt said. "My church is respectful, but when it comes to public policy decisions, I make them according to my own judgments."

Several hundred pages of material, including five days of transcripts of "Early Morning Seminary" meetings held during Gov. Mike Leavitt's administration, have been pulled from the Utah Archives on Leavitt's request. After inquiries from The Salt Lake Tribune, the former governor and current secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asked the state archivist to review whether the material in the meeting transcripts, where participants discussed how "holy and just principles" from Mormon scripture apply to government, were public documents or a private gathering of friends. Patricia Smith-Mansfield, director of the archives, said the records have been pulled from the publicly available material pending a review, which will be completed within 30 days. In a letter Thursday to The Tribune, Leavitt acknowledged "the role of faith in public policy is a legitimate story." But he said the comments of other participants in the discussions should remain private because they expressed thoughts they "may deem to be personal, in some cases even sacred." Although the meetings included senior staffers in Leavitt's administration, including his chief of staff Charlie Johnson, his policy adviser LaVarr Webb and spokeswoman Vicki Varela, Leavitt told participants the meetings were not official state business and asked them repeatedly to keep the discussions confidential. "Can I suggest we protect these commentaries?" Leavitt asked at the conclusion of one meeting. "There are thoughts and feelings and emotions and so forth here that just go way beyond anything that I'd be comfortable having [public]." The transcripts were among thousands of pages of material from the Leavitt administration that were posted online late last year.

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