The “Utah way” has become a mantra of sorts in politics and public life. It describes a set of values that translate into civility, respect and the desire to work toward inclusive solutions.
But it’s more than just the Utah way. It is a uniquely American way — the ideal that drove the Founders to include the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.
Sadly, many Americans, including in Utah, have been disrespecting this founding principle lately. Many delegates tossed it aside Saturday at the state Republican convention, which garnered national attention because delegates booed two of their own most successful officeholders.
They booed Sen. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president in 2012 and the man often cited for saving the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics, because he had voted to impeach former President Donald Trump.
They booed Gov. Spencer Cox, ostensibly for his careful handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including support for the wearing of masks. They booed him despite a recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll showing the governor with a 66% approval rating statewide, including 70% among Republicans.
Then, on Tuesday, parents at a Granite School Board meeting became unruly in their demands that the district remove its mask mandate for school. Videos show them screaming and chanting, with some parents walking menacingly toward where board members and staff were seated. The board was forced to adjourn the meeting early.
Also this week, some Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are pushing to remove Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming from her post as the party’s No. 3 leader in that body, because she continues to speak her mind, calling out those who say the election of Biden was illegitimate, and voting her conscience. Some Republicans say she has lost the confidence of her fellow party members and should no longer be allowed to lead.
On Wednesday, Facebook announced that former President Donald Trump will continue to be banned from that social media platform. This, too, is not the American way. Even foreign leaders agree it’s dangerous to try to silence a former president. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called it “problematic” last January, when Facebook first imposed the ban.
“The right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance,” a spokesman for Merkel said. Other solutions to mitigate disagreeable speech, such as warnings, are a better solution.
“Aren’t you embarrassed?” Romney asked the Utah convention crowd Saturday, as hecklers continued to interrupt his speech.
That’s a good question. Indeed, it’s embarrassing when foreign leaders have to lecture Americans on something so fundamental to our bedrock tradition of freedom, civility and tolerance.
John Milton, a 17th century poet, author and an influence behind the First Amendment, urged people to let truth compete with all ideas on a level playing field.
“Who ever knew truth put to the worst in a free and open encounter?” he asked.
Milton believed a strong, blazing light is the only thing that ultimately will separate truth from lies. Absent that, if false ideas are forced into the shadows, they might grow and fester. Lies become more convincing in the shadows because they aren’t exposed to the strong light of truth in a free and open exchange.
The question is, do Americans still believe in this foundational principle today? Do they stand with the Founders on the need to listen to things they may find offensive, then counter them with reasoned debate?
Utahns have shown that they do. They demonstrated it, for instance, when a broad cross section of politicians, community and religious leaders came together in 2010 to sign the Utah Compact, which enumerated guiding principles for effective and compassionate immigration reform — then again in 2020 with a compact on racial equity, diversity and inclusion.
It was on proud display when a similarly wide-ranging group came together to help the state Legislature pass a landmark bill protecting the rights of LGTBQ people while also protecting religious liberties.
It shown brightly when Cox and his Democratic opponent, Chris Peterson, appeared together in a commercial last year pledging to “stand united” once the race for governor was over.
The past 200-plus years have provided plenty of examples to show that Americans shine best when they live up to that faith, and that ugliness follows when they don’t.
It’s time for all Americans, in Utah and beyond, to recommit to the civility and respect in public life that has made this nation great.