The order in which some U.S. territories gave women the right to vote was reported incorrectly in the American Journal on Sunday. The territory of Wyoming was the first U.S. jurisdiction to give women the vote, approving the action in 1869. Utah did so the following year.
With the water level rising and rivers running full, the commissioners of six counties bordering Great Salt Lake held an urgent joint meeting last month to prepare for floods expected to hit here this spring. After reviewing the facts, they realized that the impending disaster is likely to swamp existing flood-control mechanisms.
"If present weather patterns continue," the commissioners concluded, "nothing that we can do with human resources is going to avert disastrous consequences." And so the commissioners decided to seek help from a nonhuman resource.
The county commissioners passed a resolution calling on residents of Utah to devote May 4 to "a day of fasting and prayer in supplication to the Creator . . . that the potential disaster might be averted."
In most of the nation, the idea of a political body issuing an official request for divine intervention to change the weather might be startling. But Utah, a state founded and fashioned by a single pervasive religious institution, is not like most of the United States when it comes to the nexus between church and state.
The elected commissioners knew, after all, that an overwhelming majority of their constituents belong to a single church -- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- and that this Mormon constituency has an abiding faith in the power of prayer.
Every Utah schoolchild, for instance, learns the history of the harvest of 1848, shortly after the first Mormon pioneers arrived in this splendidly scenic natural basin.
Just as those first settlers were about to bring in the crops that would keep them alive through the harsh Utah winter, millions of crickets swarmed over their fields, devouring the corn and wheat. The Mormons fought back with fire and water, broomstick and hoe -- to no avail. Finally, they left the fields and gathered in church to pray for deliverance. Soon flocks of sea gulls from the islands of Great Salt Lake flew into the fields, eating the crickets and saving the Mormon colony from starvation.
Today a tall, gleaming statue of flying sea gulls stands at the heart of this bustling city -- a constant civic reminder of the settlers' faith in prayer. A grateful legislature has made the sea gull the official bird of this landlocked state.
As the Mormons struggled in this hostile desert environment, official pleas for divine help were repeated time and again -- most recently in 1977, when the legislature passed a resolution asking Utahans to fast and pray for rain to relieve a severe drought.
The people prayed. It rained.
"The use of prayer as a tool of public policy is seen as perfectly natural in this state because of the enormous influence of a religious organization," says J.D. Williams, a political scientist at the University of Utah. "There's simply no question that the biggest political and cultural force is a church. There's no other U.S. state where this is true."
Just over 70 percent of Utah's population is Mormon; in about half the counties, the figure exceeds 90 percent. The governor, the congressional delegation and more than 90 percent of the legislature are Mormons. The church owns the local CBS-TV affiliate, the local afternoon newspaper (The Deseret News), the state's major chain of bookstores (Deseret Book) and the biggest private university (Brigham Young).
The next most concentrated state in religious terms is Rhode Island, where more than 60 percent of the people are Roman Catholic. But that state's history and culture have made the church less powerful. Neither Rhode Island senator is Catholic; Utah hasn't sent a non-Mormon to the Senate in half a century.
Utah does have some tradition of pluralism, and the stereotypical view of this state as a sort of theocracy can be misleading.
While many feminists consider the Mormon Church a bastion of male sexism, the Utah Territory in 1870 became the first U.S. jurisdiction to give women the vote; women held elected office here while their counterparts elsewhere were still confined to the kitchen. Utah elected the nation's first Jewish governor in 1916, when Jews were effectively banned from high office in more "progressive" eastern states.
In the 19th century, church and state were almost synonymous in the Utah Territory. Brigham Young was both president of the church and territorial governor. After a hostile Congress denied practicing Mormons the right to vote, people gave up on the two major parties and formed a Mormon party. But when Utah was admitted to the Union in 1896, the church party was dissolved and Utahans entered the political mainstream.
Former church president David McKay recalled in a memoir how bishops stood in the aisles of the churches, assigning one side to the Republican Party and the other to the Democrats.
Today, notes Richard Lindsay, a former Democratic state senator who is an official in the hierarchy, "The church as an institution generally stays out of political affairs." Every election year the leadership issues a statement that "the church does not endorse parties or candidates for office," and Mormon politicians are sometimes rebuked for hinting that they have support from on high.
While the church occasionally takes a stand on a political issue -- it has opposed legalized abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment and the "racetrack" basing mode for the MX missile -- its influence on politics here generally is more subtle.
"The church's political power really comes from the group-think of church members," said political scientist Williams, who is a Mormon.
"What you have is a strong, strong consensus on issues that divide most American communities: abortion, ERA, adult movie houses. In Utah, you can't bet on a horse race or buy a lottery ticket or walk into a bar and have a whiskey -- not because the church dictated those laws, but because the legislature knows exactly where a huge majority of the voters stand on those things."
And the influence of the Latter-day Saints also dictates the regular governmental appeals for celestial assistance. "Public officials here tend to fall back on a basic LDS principle," Williams said. "When you're in a jam, start praying."