Leaving the Fold
James W. Ure, editor
Scrutamini scripturus. (Let us look at the scriptures).
These two words have undone the world.
[p.189]We meet at Lamb’s Grill on Main Street in downtown Salt Lake City, the so-called “Little Alta Club.” It is summer, and Rod Decker has just returned from the Republican National Convention in San Diego. Dole will lose, except in Utah. Perot will not come close to recreating his big win in Utah in 1994. Rod predicts less than 10 percent of Utah’s presidential vote will go to Perot. He’s later proven right.
When the appointment for this interview was set up, Rod had one stipulation—that he could drink coffee. Wearing a dark sport coat and tie, he consumes several cups of black coffee as we talk. The shock of sandy hair that falls over his forehead is familiar to hundreds of thousands of Utahns who watch his news and commentaries on KUTV Television, Channel 2. As Rod related to the University of Utah’s alumni periodical, Continuum, recently, “I never had a journalism class.” He wanted to teach political science.
“Professors Francis Wormuth, J. D. Williams, and Jack Adamson had a great effect on me; they were influencing me to be an academic but I was a lousy graduate student. So when it became apparent I wasn’t cut out to be an academic, I ‘sank’ to journalism.” He subsequently [p.190]wrote for the University of Utah Chronicle, then moved to the Deseret News, where he spent an illustrious career as a political reporter before joining KUTV. He has won numerous awards for his work.
Rod Decker’s most distinctive feature are his eyes—they seem to burn from beneath his brows, pouring direct heat on the subject of his vision. Rod is mostly business, alertly comfortable as he leans back against the red leather of our booth. Kitchen sounds bang intermittently. He seems to want to get right to work.
When were you born?
On July 18, 1941.
In Salt Lake City?
No, in New York.
Were your parents from Utah?
Yes. My father’s family went through Hole-in-the-Rock and settled Bluff. My mother’s family settled Lehi.
Old pioneer stock.
My father’s great-grandfather was a Mormon Battalion member. My mother’s great-great-grandfather was Joseph Smith’s bodyguard.
Was he a Decker?
No, an Allred.
How long did you live in New York?
Until I was eight.
At that time were your parents active in the church?
You moved when you were eight?
To Utah. My parents had gone to New York thinking it would be temporary. My dad went to graduate school there and worked for a while. [p.191]They stayed about twelve years. Then they thought they wanted to raise their kids in Utah, so they came here.
Once you arrived back in Salt Lake, where did you live and go to school?
We lived at 1422 Perry Avenue, which is about 50 North and 14th East, in Federal Heights.
Close to the Pi Kappa Alpha house (just north of the University of Utah campus).
Yes. That’s why I later became a Pi Kap. I went to Wasatch School for half of my third grade year, then to Stewart School for fourth to ninth grades, then East High School, and then the University of Utah.
Did your parents remain active after they moved back to Salt Lake?
Mom was always very religious. Dad became less religious, and finally not religious.
Was he ever openly critical of the church?
He became non-religious?
My parents got divorced. My dad drank and caroused a bit. He was never a drunk, but he drank and caroused. He just was no longer Mormon.
Did you go to church as a child?
I went regularly. I was a faithful member until I was eighteen.
So you were almost an elder?
No. They said they’d make me an elder; I said I didn’t want to be an elder.
Growing up, did you feel any conflict with the religion?
I felt conflict with the ward, with personalities. But not until I was out of high school did I really feel it.
Even as a child you felt worthy …
I don’t know that I felt worthy, but I believed it and practiced it. I felt it was what I ought to do my whole life.
[p.192]How old were you when you quit going to church? Eighteen?
Yes, my freshman year in college.
Two things. First, I went to the university and joined a fraternity, and it was an issue in the fraternity. My friends were anti-Mormon. Second, it then became an intellectual issue—is the church really true? I thought about it for a long time, a number of years, and finally decided that it wasn’t.
Why did you choose anti-Mormon friends? Weren’t there many active Mormons?
Yes, there were. But the kids whom I’d gone to high school with—most of them, not all—they’d been Mormon in high school but then had decided they weren’t Mormon any longer. They decided this before I did. Then, in the fraternity, the older guys we hung around with were anti-Mormon. So it’s true that I chose anti-Mormon friends, but …
They were vocal about it.
Yes. They aren’t anti-Mormon now. It was a phase one goes through in college. “Sophomoric” is the usual adjective. But the attacks were mostly: “Well, it’s untrue. It’s ridiculous, false belief.” That was buttressed more or less by teachers at the university like O. C.Tanner, Waldemer Reed, Sterling McMurrin—those guys.
They wanted to make you an elder, but you declined. Tell me about that.
The bishop called me in and said he wanted to make me an elder. I said I don’t want to be an elder. I guess the reason I didn’t want to be one was because I was afraid they were going to pressure me into going on a mission, and I thought if I don’t become an elder they can’t send me on a mission. This was my first line of defense. Besides, I thought, I don’t believe this stuff or, at least, I’ve got serious questions about it at this point. The best way to be was to say I don’t want to be in the Melchizedek priesthood, given that I’m not a believer. So I said no. He said, Well, I’m not surprised, but you should keep coming to the priests quorum and things like that.
[p.193]You said that you had some problems during those years with individuals in the ward.
I was younger than the rest of the kids. I was born in July, and was the youngest kid in my class, or one of the youngest. They kept dividing the Sunday schools and the older kids would go ahead but I would be left back with the younger. That distressed me when I was young. I couldn’t get much sympathy out of the guys who were running things. My friends who went ahead made an issue out of the fact that they were older and I was the younger. I’d say, No, I’m in the same grade as you, but they’d say, No, our dividing line’s different, you go back with the younger kids. It wasn’t serious, but it bothered me when I was that age.
Your mother remained active. What did she say about your refusal to be an elder?
She didn’t comment specifically on that but wanted me to be active. She’s a serious Mormon, and it saddened her that I was not. We argued about it.
Is she still alive?
No, she died twelve years ago.
Do you have fond memories of those early days?
Yes, I was a Boy Scout and we had a good time. I had good times at Sunday school. I went with my mother to take classes at the Institute of Religion. I enjoyed those, as well. I took seminary classes when I was in junior high. I had a problem getting up early enough in the morning to go, but other than that I enjoyed them. A lot of my friends were ward kids. Yes, I was a happy Mormon when I was young.
Do you ever attend church today?
I occasionally go to a Mormon service if one of my friend’s children is going on a mission. My wife and children are Catholic, so occasionally I go to the Catholic church, three or four times a year.
Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
Not at all.
How do you reconcile the conflict between faith and reason?
I decided I didn’t believe, not in Christianity or Mormonism or religion in general.
[p.194]What happens when you die?
Probably you’re just dead. I’m not dogmatic about it, but that seems to me the best bet.
Would you say you’re agnostic?
But you haven’t left Mormonism.
No, I haven’t.
Did that ever occur to you?
Never very seriously. Sometimes I think, What will I do if the bishop says to me, Okay, either come to church or get out. I’ll say, Okay, I’ll get out. But as long as they leave me alone, I’ll just let things go.
Has your inactive status ever caused problems for you in a social or business sense?
When I worked for the Deseret News, they didn’t have any problem with my belief, whatever it was. Surely, had I been interested in becoming “the boss,” it would have been a problem at some point. I suppose there’s a spiritual ceiling at the Deseret News. But that wasn’t what I wanted to do anyway. So as long as I was a reporter, they didn’t care about my beliefs. However, I wanted to “poke” journalistically at the church and at some of its beliefs, and that led to problems.
They suggested that I not write about Planned Parenthood or about pornography. I’d stick up for the First Amendment. I’d chafe under the strictures such as that.
Was that one of the reasons you accepted the offer to work for KUTV?
Yes, that was one of the reasons.
Do you think KUTV is viewed as the station for inactive Mormons?
I don’t know. It isn’t an especially inactive LDS station. Mostly it’s non-LDS. Most of the people there are non-LDS. The boss, nowadays, is active LDS, however. And Michelle King’s active LDS. But most of the people there are from out of town and are non-LDS.
[p.195]I’ve wondered about the composition of the viewing audiences of the television stations …
I don’t know what it is. I’m sure somebody’s got those numbers. I guess we get some Mormons, but probably not as many as KSL does.
Have you ever called yourself a Jack Mormon?
I don’t know that I’ve ever said Jack Mormon. I call myself an inactive Mormon.
Do you think there’s a stigma to the term Jack Mormon?
It doesn’t bother me.
Why do you think some people leave the church?
I think for most of them Mormonism is an onerous religion. One of the things Mormonism does is to pattern your life for you. It’s one of the reasons it’s successful. But a lot of people don’t want their lives patterned that way. They don’t want to put up money, they don’t want to put up time, they don’t want to live at slight odds with the rest of society. So they become inactive. I would think some people become inactive because they think hard or read hard and decide it isn’t true. In my own case, it became a social issue from friends, and then an intellectual issue. I thought about it and decided that I didn’t believe it. To some extent—I suppose it’s true for many religions but more so of Mormonism—Mormonism intrudes on your life more than most other religions. To some extent, you have to want that kind of intrusion, that kind of direction, if you’re going to stay an active Mormon. Some people want that kind of patterning, and feel good in the ward. Mormonism is like a dance step; it helps you to move gracefully to the music and time. You go to church and they tell you what to do when you get married. I don’t mean this in any derogatory way. You get married and they have plans for your kids and uses for your time, and they offer you a community and the chance to be an important person in your community—or as important as you choose. It’s a way of living. People who are good Mormons and people who aren’t. It seems to me to be the major factor.
We often hear the term “good Mormon” contrasted with “inactive Mormon.” We never hear “bad Mormon,” but it’s certainly implied when they [p.196]say an active Mormon is a good Mormon. Is there any shame or guilt around what Mormonism may do to some people?
I guess in some instances there is. I felt guilty when I left the church. I still feel guilty, though in a very abstract way. I really believe the church isn’t true.
Why do you feel guilty?
I was raised a Mormon but no longer am, that’s all. Though far from perfect, I still try to be a good person, to obey the law, pay taxes, raise a family.
Do you think the Word of Wisdom has anything to do with it?
I guess it did when I was younger. I was raised to be a Mormon, to go to church, to be in the community, and to be active. Giving up coffee and booze wouldn’t be especially difficult, if I decided that I wanted to be a Mormon.
There seems to be more of a stigma attached to smoking than to drinking. Perhaps that’s because smoking is more visible.
That may be so, I don’t know. Drinking is more episodic. You start to drink occasionally. Yes, I still feel guilt, I think. I don’t feel guilty about anything in particular now, just guilty that I should be a religious person.
Could any of it be connected to your having descended from a long line of active ancestors?
No, that’s not the big thing. The big thing is that, while I’m sure in some respects that most of Mormonism’s specific claims aren’t so, whether they are or not seems to be less important. I guess I could be a Mormon now and still say that Jesus didn’t appear to Joseph Smith or that the Book of Mormon isn’t historical, that those teachings don’t matter much. Even if the Book of Mormon isn’t historical, one can choose Mormonism as a way to worship. Most of Christianity is like that. My wife’s a good Catholic, and literally believes that Jesus rose from the dead, but a lot of Catholics don’t. A lot of Christians don’t worry about it either. They think it’s a good way to live and that’s the way they live. They think and have a desire to worship, so they worship in a traditional forum. I could do that with Mormonism, if I chose. But I don’t want to go to church a lot and sit through [p.197]all those meetings. I don’t want to be a ward member. I don’t want to feel limited, to feel in any way afraid of what I say or write for fear they’ll excommunicate me. I don’t think they’ll excommunicate me as long as I don’t care if they do or not. I don’t want to live the discipline.
Can you foresee any circumstances under which you might return to active status?
I guess it’s possible, but I think it’s unlikely.
Can you think of a scenario where it might be possible?
It would be primarily an internal process. It wouldn’t be a change in my outward life or in my circumstances. I left the church largely because I thought hard and became convinced it wasn’t true. I’d go back, perhaps, if I thought first that the truth doesn’t matter. I suppose it might happen if I were to become persuaded it was true. I think that’s unlikely, though. I’m also persuaded now that its untruth doesn’t matter very much. I might go back if I thought this would be somehow good for me.
How do you think active Mormons view inactive ones?
By and large, actives see themselves in the business of saving souls. They believe souls are saved through the Mormon church, and they’d like to get inactive people active again. They don’t like people who oppose them or ridicule them or set themselves up as enemies to the church. Other than that, for the most part, what they’d like is for an inactive person to have some kind of conversion experience and become active again.
How do you think the church could reactivate the inactives?
In my case, the church would have to be true. But it isn’t. I guess they could change the universe, so that it conformed to what they say it is. But I don’t think it’s like they say it is. Or they could change my beliefs. But I don’t know how they’re going to change my beliefs. Otherwise, Mormonism’s extraordinarily successful. It’s astonishingly successful as measured by its growth. The reason it seems to me to be successful is that it provides, as I said before, a strict patterning of life. It seems to me that they have to work. They don’t do it consciously, or [p.198]not entirely consciously. But they have to work to get the right amount of discipline, the right amount of friction, of dissonance, between themselves and the rest of the world. Polygamy was too much. The kingdom of God on earth was too much. They had to get the right amount so that Mormons who join the church, or who are active in the church, feel that this is something real, a commitment, and that it’s a religion, that they feel God is a presence in their lives. But not so much so that it marks them as too different from other people or too weird or provocative. They seem to have it about right. Now I’m not going to tell them to change. Would it be easier on me if they said, Okay, you can drink coffee? Yes. But would I then believe that Jesus rose from the dead? No. So surely there are things they could do to appeal to some inactives. They could adjust the mix. Maybe a few inactives would like even more discipline, though most would like less. But it seems to me that they have the mix about right. Some people aren’t going to like it, but enough do. I’m not going to tell the Mormon church how to tweak their belief system.
Are there any negatives with being inactive?
If you’re an active Mormon, then you believe the biggest negative is that you’re deprived of the benefits of the church. You don’t get the help of the church in raising your children. You don’t get the fellowship of the priesthood members. You don’t get feelings of worthwhileness that come from paying tithing. And you don’t feel that you’re living in tune with the universe and with the commandments of God. Active Mormons tend to have strong feelings about Mormonism, but inactives are so scattered and few that nobody else in the world shares their strong feelings. There’s a whole culture regarding to what extent one should believe or disbelieve in Judaism or Catholicism or Christianity. In Mormonism there are people writing books, but few of them read each other’s books. There’s no real culture. Active Mormons don’t pay much attention and non-Mormons can’t figure out what all the fuss is about. So Mormonism by itself is small and marginalized, although it’s becoming larger. Moreover, it chooses marginalization. It chooses to be different. Inactives are at the margin of the margin, so the things that seem important to an inactive Mormon are doubly marginalized. There are those, I guess, who just go away and aren’t Mormons at all anymore. I obviously chose not to do [p.199]that. It was never a conscious decision. But it’s clearly what I’ve chosen. So I live in the rock pool at very edge of the Great Salt Lake. It isn’t the ocean; it’s just a little puddle somewhere.
Is there an overall Mormon character that you can describe?
Yes, and its strengths and weaknesses seem to me to be exactly the same. Mormons are provincial. There are Mormons who think seriously and deeply about their faith, but by and large Mormons don’t. They aren’t any different from everybody else. But they are different in this respect: the church is very skeptical of independent scholars. In most religions, a person can obtain status and respect by studying very hard about that religion. There are Catholic theologians who are theologians simply because they have read all the Fathers and know the scriptures and have read the Greek and the Hebrew. Their words are listened to by everybody in the church and are respected. That’s eminently true in Judaism. It’s not very true in Mormonism. In Mormonism people respect you as a scholar as long as you provide apologetics for the views of the brethren, who themselves are not scholars. The fact that all Mormon men are clergy means that the clergy is not learned in the sense that they go to school to become clergy. So while Mormons think of themselves as an intellectually respectable religion, in the church as a whole intellect plays a very subordinate role. Anyone who thinks things through and comes to a conclusion different from that espoused by the brethren, no matter his or her evidence, is simply wrong. If he insists on his position, they may kick him out. No matter how respectable scholastically his or her view may be, to be a Mormon is to live somewhat at odds with the rest of the world—to be different, visibly different, in some respect. The brethren seem almost to need to be at odds with enlightened opinions. First they were polygamists, then they wouldn’t admit black men to the priesthood, now they’re anti-feminists. That may not be quite accurate, but they’re seen as being a target of feminists. They’re like a man who has walked so hard into a cold north wind that he’s afraid if it stopped he’d lose his sense of direction. In part, they need that idea of being provincial and being at odds with avant-garde thinking.
That helps bind the flock, too.
[p.200]It’s us versus them?
A little bit, although this may be too strong. They have no animus, I think, toward enlightened liberals. They simply don’t believe that. That makes them different and provincial. Now you could emphasize that side of things too much. Mormons want to succeed in the world, to be respected and praised by non-Mormons. But they want to be a little different, too. They want to live on Mormon terms.
Do you think the political influence of Mormonism has a bearing on whether one is inactive? I ask that because my father, who was raised by devout Mormon parents, was politically angry with the church.
Nowadays the church tries to steer clear of politics for the most part. They don’t succeed entirely, and I don’t know if they ever can. They are conservatives—moral conservatives and economic conservatives. I suppose there are some people who aren’t Mormons because of politics. I’d guess in most instances if somebody has a problem with the church’s politics, the real problem is something else. You don’t have to fight with them. You can be a liberal Democrat and a Mormon. They say you can be that, but they may never pick you for bishop. But, heck, you don’t want to be bishop anyway. Liberals tend to think that liberalism is Christ-like, that welfare is like alms, that the church ought to be in the forefront of social activism, and that’s following the teachings of Jesus. They can’t understand why the church can’t see that those are the teachings of Jesus. Well, they may be the teachings of Jesus and they may not. Some liberals accuse Mormons of being self-righteous, but liberal Mormons seem to me to be self-righteous in their own way. They say we need to vote Democratic and increase welfare payments, that Christ would have us do that. That bothers people who don’t believe that’s what Christ wants. So, yes, the church is conservative. Yes, the church participates in politics some. Yes, in the past the church has participated in politics a lot. The church is a bit hypocritical about its participation in politics in that it’s been kind of secretive in the past. They tend to sneak around, and even when they’re participating in politics, they tend to say, Oh, no, this isn’t political. They do that out of habit. There’s no good reason for it; they just do it. I guess you can fault them on that. But politics isn’t a terrible problem for me.
[p.201]How many inactive Mormons do you think are in Utah’s legislature?
Some, but not many; maybe 10 percent; maybe not even that. There are non-Mormons in the legislature, but most Mormons are active. A lot of them are big-time Mormons: stake presidents, mission presidents, bishops, former bishops, people like that.
Is inactivity a hindrance to a political career in Utah?
No. Look at Cal Rampton or Scott Matheson. No, I don’t think it’s a hindrance. Being an active Mormon is probably a help, though. Being a devout something else is probably a help, too. Being an inactive Mormon probably makes it more difficult, but it doesn’t make it significantly difficult.
Did you ever pay tithing?
Haven’t since I was eighteen.
Have you ever been confronted by an active Mormon about your degree of faith?
Yes, maybe a dozen times.
How did it make you feel?
There was a time when I used to relish arguments with them. But for the most part now, I don’t want to argue with them. I just tell them what I believe. Usually what they’ll say is, What do you mean, you don’t believe? And I’ll say, I don’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin. I don’t believe he rose from the dead. I don’t believe he appeared to Joseph Smith. I don’t believe he’ll return in glory. I could go on, but you get the idea. They usually leave me alone after that.
Do you ever feel lonely or isolated because of your inactivity?