CHEYENNE — People who know Pat Hacker know a big, lumbering man who talks constantly and seems to enjoy any task at hand. In high school, he must have been the tall kid who thrived in debate.
Naturally enough, he’s a lawyer. Rare for Wyoming, however, he’s a union lawyer and a Democrat. For decades he’s represented the teachers’ union, the Wyoming Education Association, in a tangled series of lawsuits that ended in the overhaul of Wyoming’s school finance system. He also does civil rights law, taking cases for victims of race, sex, age, and religious discrimination.
He served a term and a half in the Wyoming House in the early 1990s, sitting on the House Education and Travel, Recreation and Wildlife committees. He ran for the state Senate in 1992, lost, and hasn’t been a candidate since. People sometimes approach him about running for office again, he said, but he doesn’t have time.
And he’s Mormon, an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Active” is code in Mormon country for devout, tithe-paying, and busy.
“People think Mormons have to be the same,” Hacker said to me one day late last summer. “They think all Mormons are right-wing Republican hardheads.”
I first met Pat nearly 20 years ago when I was with the Casper Star-Tribune, covering the Legislature and the convoluted 1990s school-finance lawsuits. Back then it never occurred to me to wonder about Pat’s religion. Only last summer did I learn he was Mormon.
I figured I had to talk to him about it. Everything I thought he stood for — Democratic Party politics and articulate, sometimes loud, advocacy for teachers against school boards and legislators that sometimes didn’t seem to respect them much — ran counter to Mormon stereotypes.
He took time out of an August work day to talk about his life and faith. From time to time, seated at his big, plain desk talking, he would clasp his hands behind his head and look at the ceiling. Other times he’d lean forward, laying his forearms on his big, paper-strewn desktop.
Democrats are a clear minority among Mormons, Hacker said, but they are far from an endangered species.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, is a Mormon Democrat. And so was James E. Faust, one of the top two longtime advisors to former LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley. Faust served as a Democrat in the Utah Legislature long before he was called to full-time church work.
Hacker says no one connected with the church has ever given him trouble over his politics. Even when a gambling proposal came before the Travel and Recreation Committee, the church, which strongly opposes gambling, put no pressure put on him, he said.
“One of the doctrines that goes through the church is political freedom. Mormons often refer to the U.S. Constitution as divinely inspired,” he said. “I believe that.”
He represents unions, he said, even though many of his Mormon friends don’t much like the idea, “I didn’t think much of [unions] myself until I went to work” he added.
Hacker sees himself neither as a conservative Democrat nor a liberal Mormon.
“Labels are for people without the intellectual capacity to figure stuff out.”
“What’s real’s real. What works, works … I think we pigeonhole too many people into religious boxes — one of the current downfalls of modern politics, and by the way, one of the downfalls of modern journalism, too,” he said, nodding toward my note pad.
Hacker’s father managed an independent grocery story in Elmo, Wyoming, after World War II. Elmo began as the not-company town next to the wholly owned Union Pacific coal-mining town of Hanna. Elmo was the place thirsty Finns could go, off company property, to get a drink.
“All the outcasts lived in Elmo,” Hacker said. Mormon missionaries traveling on the railroad stopped in from time to time.
Later, Hacker said, his family moved to Montpelier in southeast Idaho, then and now “heavily LDS.” Two years after that, they moved to Rock Springs, “which is heavily everything,” he said. Back then the town was heavily union, too, among scads of religious denominations, each linked to an ethnic group.
Hacker was 13 when his parents — his mother was a teacher, his father by then an industrial electrician — decided to join the Mormons. Whether Pat would also convert was left up to him. He did.
This voluntary quality extends to all aspects Mormon life, he said. Mormons in good standing tithe; that is, they give 10 percent of their income to the church. Yet there are no plaques honoring donors on church walls.
“No one knows who gave what … you anonymously hand it to the bishop,” Hacker said.
Similarly there is no “progression of rank,” he said. Mormons have no paid clergy, and local leadership positions rotate. A man who finishes out a term as bishop one year — spiritual leader to a ward of hundreds — might find himself teaching kindergarten Sunday school the next, Hacker said.
Everyone who is able and active has a calling.
These involve service to the church, the world, or both. The result that the LDS church has a well- organized social service system, offering members everything from emotional counselors, to adoption services, to regular checks on the home-bound, to consultations with public agencies on emergency preparedness, to straight-forward disaster relief.
“Brigham Young said — and I’m paraphrasing here — If you have a religion that talks only about the faith but can’t help you now, in your life, it basically isn’t worth the powder to blow it away,” Hacker said.
And though only men, under Mormon doctrine, form the priesthood — with its administrative and spiritual authority — everyone relies on women to get things done, he said. Women have done hard work since the church’s earliest beginnings. Church practices now are moving more and more towards including women in decisions at all the local levels, Hacker said.
Mormon stakes are likce dioceses; wards are congregations. As holders of the priesthood, men hold the official leadership postions these organizations; women lead and make up the relief societies, primaries, and young women’s associations in the stakes and wards.
“But there has been great emphasis in recent years on councils” — mixed gender committees — as the best way to run the wards, he said. “We’ve had several talks strongly emphasizing the need to operate through councils and specifically to listen to the sisters,” he said. “In the real world, LDS congregations are run by men and women,” he said.
Hacker said he realizes the church is growing fast, and that the growth brings new pressures and tensions.
Joseph Smith founded the Mormon Church in western New York in 1830. Church membership first passed 1 million in 1947, the year Hacker was born. The church now claims about 13 million members worldwide, well over half of those outside the U.S.
They all get the same Sunday school lessons every week.
“Essentially the Sunday-school students have been given scripts and basic principles. So, yes, it’s the same thing. And, no, it’s not the same thing,” taught everywhere every Sunday, he said.
Mormons are encouraged to seek personal revelations, and personal relationships with God, Hacker said. That means any teacher will mix basic doctrine with his or her personal experience.
“The doctrines are matched up with cultures across the whole world. The ways these principles apply” whether in Madagascar or Finland, where two of his children have served as missionaries, or in the U.S. “are going to vary,” Hacker said.
“The same church lessons are being taught worldwide, yes. The same basic doctrine. But you add personal revelation and personal take — sometimes you wouldn’t recognize it,” he said.
“Homogeneity … the impression the world has that all Mormons are the same, is not right,” he said.
At the same time, he noted that Mormons sometimes leave the church, often out of spiritual crises that begin when people get their feelings hurt. These conflicts usually result when people communicate poorly with each other, he said.
Besides, church life demands great commitments of money and, especially, time, besides requiring an enormous spiritual outlay, Hacker said. He would not say that people find the church too confining, or oppressive.
But he did say that church views on such issues as abortion and homosexuality “simply have to do with doctrinal moral beliefs.
“There is no anger, no ill will, nothing like that” on these subjects on the part of church authorities, he said. And the church recognizes these doctrines have brought real anguish to some families, he said.
“That’s my experience. I can’t speak to the doctrine. We’re all children of God,” he said. “We’re all entitled to respect.”
The church focuses, he said, “on the doctrine of belief in the family. Using issues like that as a means of dividing up people is wrong,” he said.
“If my faith is true and it works — and I know that — then there are many different issues that I don’t fully understand,” Hacker said.
“Frankly, I relish the variety of people out here in the world,” he said.
Other WyoFile Items By Tom Rea:
A Play in the Old Rock Church
Six Star Valleyites Inducted Into New Hall of Fame
About the Writer
On the Trail to Deseret, 161 Years in Wyoming
Star Valley’s Helen and Bill Call, Mormons Outside the Church
The Black 14 Movement – A Low Point for UW and LDS
One in Nine: Wyoming’s Mormons – Wyoming’s Star Valley Provided Refuge from the “Mormon Haters”
One in Nine: Wyoming’s Mormons -When Holy Land is Public Land – Managing Mormonism on the Mormon Trail
One in Nine: Wyoming’s Mormons -Mormon Studies Chair at UW? Some LDS Members Are Wary
One in Nine: Wyoming’s Mormons – LDS Voters Bolster Wyoming’s Conservatism, But Does Wyoming Have a “Mormon Vote?”