Asking the nasty, logical question about that Utah judge

It’s often like the force of gravity in American politics and it has been gaining power for about a quarter of a century.

We’re talking about the “pew gap,” that mysterious X-factor that keeps showing up in surveys about the most controversial political and social issues in this land of ours. Simply stated, the more often a person sits in a pew inside a religious sanctuary, the more likely they are to vote for morally conservative candidates (in either party, but these days this tends to show up as a GOP bias).

So does his mean (a) that all moral conservatives are Republicans? The answer, of course, is “no,” especially when you start hanging out with Latinos, African-Americans and people in blue-collar jobs and/or labor unions.

Does this mean that (b) all Republicans are moral conservatives? The answer, of course, is “no,” especially when you are dealing with country-club members and people far outside the Bible Belt.

Does this mean that (c) cultural liberals are godless heathens who never go to church? Of course not, but they are a minority of those found in pews and they tend to be active in smaller, doctrinally progressive flocks of all religious brands.

So this brings us to that New York Times story about that judge in Utah — all together now, UTAH! — who has become an instant hero among supporters of gay-rights and same-sex unions.

This story provides lots of relevant information, all focusing on how his decision has shocked Republicans. Let’s look at a slice or two of the text:

DENVER – For a judge who would go on to make same-sex marriage legal in Utah, a deep-red state where streets in the capital are numbered by their distance from the Mormon temple, Robert J. Shelby arrived on the bench with enthusiastic praise from Republican leaders.

He had been a combat engineer in the Persian Gulf conflict and was, according to state voter records, a registered Republican. Senator Orrin G. Hatch, a seven-term Utah Republican, recommended him for a federal judgeship, calling him an experienced lawyer “with an unwavering commitment to the law.” Senator Mike Lee, a Tea Party Republican, said that Mr. Shelby was “pre-eminently qualified” and predicted he would be an outstanding judge.

Now, less than two years since he joined the bench, the same-sex marriage case has transformed Judge Shelby into a hero for hundreds of newlywed gay couples and an object of derision for many social conservatives who supported Utah’s 2004 ban on such unions.

OK, so remember point (b) mentioned above?

What is the logical information that readers almost certainly need to know to understand this legal puzzle?

Moving on:

It is an unlikely cacophony created by a man who quietly ascended through Utah’s legal ranks, mostly avoiding media attention, law review articles and other totems of success in the legal profession.

Born in Fort Atkinson, Wis., Judge Shelby, 43, moved to Utah for college and now lives in Salt Lake City with his wife and their two children. As a young man, he worked for Snappy Car Rental and was a night manager at a Maceys grocery store in Logan, Utah.

OK, so he is a Republican from the upper-Midwest, from deep blue America. By the way, he moved to Utah to attend what college? That could be crucial. Where did he do his law degree?

But we are still waiting to see if anyone asked That Nasty Question.

Former colleagues said they did not know his religious background. The judge did not respond to emails and a phone call requesting an interview.

So he has spent his entire legal/political career in Utah — all together now, UTAH! — and his colleagues do not know his religious background? That’s amazing.

In other words, at this stage, the Times team is still two questions away from being able to answer the “pew gap” question.

In other words, stay tuned. What makes this judge tick, when it comes to moral and social issues? Readers get few clues in this particular story, but at least a reporter appears to have asked a question about, you know, religion.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • helen

    It would not be the first time a young man moved away from religion when he left the Upper Midwest. I’ve met some like that in Texas.
    His wife’s religious background might tell you something.

  • Thomas Nichols

    I think most people are more concerned with his oath of office rather than his profession of faith. The two are both solemn. But they are supposed to be as relevant to each other as a grocery list is to a recipe.

    • tmatt

      I’m not sure of your journalistic point here. Try again.

      I am simply noting that — like it or not — the pew gap is relevant to this story. The information is relevant, whatever you think of this reality in American politics.

      • Thomas Nichols

        Okay. Aren’t judges supposed to uphold the law without regard for particular preferences about what they would like to see in it? Especially if those preferences are based on particular religious beliefs? It seems so. Especially if one’s court case became a crapshoot based on whether the presiding judge was a Jew or a Catholic or an Episcopalian. Maybe that is why there is a pew gap here – the press is assuming that being a person of a particular faith or no faith at all is not relevant to the discussion because it shouldn’t be.

        • Darren Blair

          The big issue here is that this was a judge in Utah.

          The mainstream media still thinks that:

          1. Utah is 100% Mormon (hasn’t been since the late 1800s)

          2. Mormons hate gays (the church is far more tolerant than other conservative Christian denominations, and simply draws the line at marriage vs. civil unions)

          Thus, the media and critics of the LDS faith are treating this like it’s a big thing.

          • John Pack Lambert

            Utah was never 100% Mormon, since there was never 100% conversion of the Native Americans.
            In the 1950s active Latter-day Saints may have even been a minority in Utah’s population.
            The fact that Judge Shelby is not a Latter-day Saint, but Judge Waddoups who made the ruling on polygamy is, should be mentioned in news articles.
            Of course, how we reconcile Judge Waddoups leaving polygamy as a crime that can lead to jail time if you actually try to formalize your marriages in a legal way with Judge Shelby’s claims, no one has yet tried to explain.

      • steve weatherbe

        Tmatt: you are actually implying (hinting, speculating not out loud, musing) something more (as would I) : that the Pew gap applies not only to the general public but to judges, and that which pew this judge sits in and how often he sits in it might well dovetail nicely with the Pew gap. In fact, that the reason no one knows his religion is that he has none.

        • John Pack Lambert

          No one has “no religion”. Everyone has a set of beliefs that control their actions.
          If Judge Shelby does have no religion, this should be said more clearly, since most people assume Utah=Mormons.
          Utah is the only state in the US where the majority of the population belongs to one denomination.

      • RayIngles

        Can you explain why “the pew gap is relevant to this story”? So far as I can tell, it would apply if – and only if – the decision were incorrect as to the law. Is that in fact what you’re claiming?

  • David84103

    I wonder if this “nasty question” is more passé than anything. If you read the case, it’s clear that the Judge upheld his oath by using legal precedent to defend the rights of a minority group from Utah’s voter-sanctioned discrimination. His religion, whatever that may or may not be, had no bearing on it. More interesting questions than those of “pew gap” might be: “do religious conservatives believe in the constitution and how it protects minority groups, including religions; always, occasionally, or just when it serves them?”… or, “what percentage of Utah Mormons are progressives?” Or, how is Utah — “all together now – UTAH” — responding to this new development?” Frankly, I have been pleasantly surprised by the public support for this ruling. Utah is a lot more progressive, despite it’s RED color and its Mormon saturation, than one might think. At #18, Utah will go down in history as a leader in equal rights, while those same 17 states with anti-interracial marriage laws on their books in 1967 continue to fight same sex marriage, right up until the SCOTUS says it’s illegal — just like they did in Loving v. Virginia, the key case the judge cited to invalidate Utah’s discriminatory law. Go Utah!

    • Darren Blair

      The LDS faith was one of the leading forces behind SLC adding “sexual preference” to its list of protected classes in regards to protection from housing discrimination.

      In fact, the church’s entire stance on matters has been to draw the line at marriage; civil unions were largely being tolerated.

      • John Pack Lambert

        The Church has never come out in favor of civil unions. It also would only support a very limited ordinance in SLC, one that had a broad religious exemption.

    • tmatt

      And how do you know what you are claiming to know?

      Do you have a JOURNALISM comment on the post?

    • John Pack Lambert

      Judge Shelby engaged in activists judgement by not staying his case and creating disorder. He also seems to have coluded with others to create this situation. The fact that Justice Sotomoyor stayed his ruling when he would not shows he is an unrestrained judicial activist who believes in exercising uncontrolled power.

      • David84103

        What disorder? Please enumerate…

  • Darren Blair

    Basic research fail:

    For a judge who would go on to make same-sex marriage legal in Utah, a
    deep-red state where streets in the capital are numbered by their
    distance from the Mormon temple,

    I had to stop reading right here.

    The grid plat system that was used when planning out Salt Lake City was not based on the Salt Lake City temple. It was based on a monument on the grounds of the temple. The temple itself is 50 West North.

    edit: http://www.lds.org/church/temples/salt-lake?lang=eng

  • Darren Blair

    OK, so he is a Republican from the upper-Midwest, from deep blue
    America. By the way, he moved to Utah to attend what college? That could
    be crucial. Where did he do his law degree?

    Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_J._Shelby – says that he did his undergraduate work a Utah State University, but went to the University of Virginia for law school. Another basic research failure.

    So he has spent his entire legal/political career in Utah — all together now, UTAH! — and his colleagues do not know his religious background? That’s amazing.

    Utah isn’t 100% Mormon; the percentage varies widely depending upon where you are in the state, and IIRC is as low as 40% in Park City and Salt Lake City. In that sense, it’s entirely realistic for him to not be Mormon.

    That being said, what religions do his colleagues follow? If the reporter had asked that, then a process of elimination could have been initiated.

  • ModerateBob

    A lot of hand-wringing here Mr. Mattingly. You can certainly ask the question of the man’s faith, but I hope you’re equally at peace with maybe not every knowing–or even more likely that particular nugget of ephemera will have less bearing as his statement that he would uphold laws based on facts and precedent.

    People are free to ask him his religion, he’s free to not respond, and none of that has anything to do with if he’s a good judge or not. I think he is and will continue to be an excellent jurist–especially after reading his 53 page opinion.

    BTW, he was an Aggie for his undergrad, still bleeds blue when they play football, and UVA for his law degree. He married his college sweetheart, has two kids, and a dog.

    • Derek Johnson

      Mattingly explained why it is relevant, and how faith/church attendance patterns influence political views.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Shelby seems not to be a Latter-day Saint. The political divide in Utah often comes down to active Latter-day Saints being Republicans, and most Democrats being atheist, non-believers, or Latter-day Saints who are not very committed to their religion. There are a few active Latter-day Saint Democrats, and a few non-Latter-day Saint Republicans.
    Shelby went to Utah State University, a public school that has a primarily LDS student body. I believe Senator Reid actually joined the LDS Church while a USU student, and its LDS Institute Program, a religious education program, tends to rival Utah Valley University as the largest. BYU and other Church-owned schools do not have institute programs, they have religious education integrated into the curriculum.
    The fact that people claim to not know Shelby’s religious affiliation tells us he was probably either a member of a liberal Christian Church like the Episcopal Church (the Episcopal Bishop of Utah was the first episcopal bishop to come out as a practicing homosexual) or a total non-believer.
    In Utah, especially in political circles, people are so afraid of somehow “alienating” non-Mormons that they try to avoid asking questions about the issues at all.
    Having grown up in Michigan in Detroit Suburbs where at least the most vocal segment of the population was Catholic, to the point where they talked of “first communion” as if everyone should know what it was, and lunch room staff would make comments about you eating meet on Friday during Lent, while somehow my liberal teachers felt it was necessary to attack the Mormon Church, at times in ways that bordered on ethno-religious intimidation against me, I have to say that non-Mormons in Utah who think they are in any way discriminated against are a bunch of wining wimps.
    I also have to point out that Utah newspapers do not do a good job covering the cultural issue backgrounds of candidates. Although, the one that comes to mind fastest is Huntsman, and he was in favor of the no-recognition, keep the traditional definition of marriage Admendment 3, so he seems more to exemplify the politician who will change to fit the current circumstances than anything else.
    With Utah political reports you often have to read what is not said. If the bio of a male politician does not mention having served a mission, start suspecting they are not LDS, and likely to be a cultural liberal. There are exceptions, like Jason Chaffetz, but any bio of him will mention he is a convert to Mormonism.

    • David84103

      Your statement “most Democrats being atheist, non-believers, or …not-committed” is false. “LDS Dems” were by far the largest caucus at the two most recent conventions. And, even quick perusal of state election results by county won’t bare out that claim statistically. Finally, if you live in Utah, and are LDS, and especially in the SL Valley, you simply know too many “active and faithful” LDS Dems to credibly make that statement.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The fact that people are able to pull up on Wikipedia and identify so quickly where Judge Shelby got his education and that these are public schools tells us something. The writers on him have not done enough background checking.


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