Decker: Utah had no desire to join the Sexual Revolution

Rod Decker keeps the audience enthralled Tuesday at the Museum of Moab, which hosted the former reporter and current historian for a talk and signing of his book, “Utah Politics – The Elephant in the Room.” Photo by Doug McMurdo

If iconic Utah journalist-turned-historian Rod Decker’s book, “Utah Politics – The Elephant in the Room,” is half as entertaining and informative as was his lecture Tuesday night at the Museum of Moab, readers are in for a treat.

Decker never mentioned his new book a single time during the more than 60 minutes he spoke. It was an hour filled with laughter from the audience at some points and somber shakes of heads at others as Decker explained how Utah went from being not only mainstream, but mainstream Democrat, to one of the most Republican states in America.

It all started with the Sexual Revolution, a term Decker said was coined in 1963 and the celebration of “sex, drugs and rock & roll.” As the rest of America became more promiscuous, as more people lost their religion, as the country abandoned the era of what Decker referred to as “Victorian Protestant morality,” Utah lawmakers and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints resisted the revolution and maintained the paternalistic mores that existed before 1960.

He proffered a few stunning statistics that indicate the Sexual Revolution began not with a bang, but slowly and relentlessly.

A woman born in 1942, for example, stood a 30 percent chance of having sex outside of marriage before the age of 21. The percentage increased to 72 percent for a woman born in 1955.

In 1969, 75 percent of all Americans believed sex outside of marriage was always or almost always wrong. The number was down to 33 percent by the early 1980s, he said.

The Latter-day Saints “stuck to the old morality,” he said. The only time sex was permissible was when it was between a man and a woman who are married to each other.” It was the ideal that had been in place for hundreds of years, when the idea of sex was tied inexorably to raising children.

But the change in sexual attitudes led to a change in families.

Globally, he noted, societies changed more dramatically in the second half of the 20th century than at any point in recorded history, “and this wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Birth control provided a means to participate in the sexual revolution. The net result, he said, is that today in America 42 percent of children are born to parents who aren’t married. People began cohabitating and putting off or eschewing marriage altogether. If birth control inspired Latter-day Saints to become even more conservative, the landmark abortion law known as Roe v. Wade in the 1970s sent them far to the right, noted Decker.

Census workers in the 1960s didn’t know how to categorize the growing demographic, so the government came up with “Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters.” Decker said the unwieldy term remained in effect until the 1990 census, when unmarried men and women living together were dubbed cohabitating couples. By then, the number of people in such relationships had increased 15-fold in just 10 years.

“The Latter-day Saints didn’t like the family change,” he said. From the 1950s to ’70s the church “kept preaching traditional families,” and family was No. 8 on its priorities. Today, however, the issue of family is No. 2 in the church’s focus – behind only Jesus Christ. For the past 25 or so years, family proclamations have been made.

Here are some other statistics Decker mentioned that are worth pondering. In 1960, 70 percent of Americans lived in marriage. Today, the figure for Americans is 48 percent. For Latter-day Saints it’s 66 percent.

A statistic Decker acknowledged is controversial and has “been disputed” posits 40 percent of Latter-day Saints have had sex outside of marriage. The figure for Americans in general is 75 percent, which Decker dryly noted is not in dispute.

Latter-day Saints get married younger than do members of any other group in the nation and they have more children than any other group.

“What do you call a man who lives in Orem and has four children? Impotent.”

Rod Decker’s book, “Utah Politics – The Elephant in the Room” is available at Back of Beyond Books. Photo by Doug McMurdo

It was a joke that earned Decker his biggest laugh of the night, but 60 percent of Utahns are married and that, too, is tops in the nation.

The state’s resistance to the Sexual Revolution changed everything. “We used to be normal,” he said. “Now we’re a contender for the most Republican state. We were mainstream from statehood in 1896 to 1976.” Indeed, Utah was so mainstream that voters consistently selected the person who would eventually win the presidency.

But from the state’s territorial days when Utah was a polygamous state to abortion and a multitude of public lands issues, many of the morality-based laws Utah has passed over the years have failed to meet constitutional muster. The federal courts consistently overturned the Utah Legislature and, by extension, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The federal courts even took away the right of women to vote in Utah elections because “they only voted for Mormons,” said Decker.

While women in Utah were the first to have voting rights in the nation, however briefly that lasted, they don’t fare as well as do women in some other states.

The church is “strongly conservative” and preaches traditional families, which leads to an unspoken but nonetheless significant urging for women to stay home and raise children. As a result, said Decker, Utah has a smaller percentage of women who have careers than do other states; they lag behind in education with the largest imbalance of college degrees and the second largest wage gap. Decker said nationally, women earn 80 cents to every dollar a man earns; in Utah it’s 70 cents.

But if Utah is hard on women, said Decker, maybe it’s better for kids. More children are born to married parents in Utah – only 19 percent of Utah children are born to parents who are not married compared to more than 40 percent nationally. Decker said such children are five times more likely to live in poverty, to perform poorly in school and to have negative interaction with law enforcement. “Poverty is hard on kids,” said Decker.

“Utah Politics – The Elephant in the Room” is available for sale at Back of Beyond Books, 83 North Main Street.

Tuesday’s at the Museum resumes at 7 p.m. Sept.10 when local writer and rock art researcher Rory Tyler discusses “The Snake: Seasons of the Sacred Sky.”