non-Mormons in Utah
Image: “Martyrdom of Joseph and Hiram Smith in Carthage jail, June 27th, 1844” (public domain)

Sometimes it feels like everyone in Utah is looking for a fight, and just like some of the greatest fights in history [read: wars], the foundation of these conflicts revolves around religious differences.

It bothers me to see such contention in what is arguably the most beautiful state in the Union. Maybe my friend in college was right when he said Utah would be the best state if it weren’t for the people. So perhaps it’s time that some Utahns leave the state for a little while.

This goes for both sides of the dispute. Non-Mormons in Utah need to live somewhere else for awhile, whether they moved to Utah without an understanding of the true depth of the religion in this state or have lived here all their life. Likewise, every Mormon in Utah needs to live somewhere else for awhile, whether they have spent their whole life here or moved here because of the safe haven that has been granted their people since 1847.

Because many Utahns—Mormons and non-Mormons alike—either don’t know or have forgotten what life is like outside of Utah, and leaving can offer some amazing perspective. It worked for me.

Just before the end of my eighth grade year, my family moved to southern Utah from a city about 60 miles north of Atlanta. Talk about culture shock. At that age, I had no understanding of the LDS religion, only that “Mormons” predominated in the state.

[Just to give you an idea of the naivete of my peers, I still remember one of my friends telling me that all my classes were going to be taught by priests. Wrong on so many levels.]

The first thing I noticed was that while there still existed the cliques I was familiar with living in Georgia, they weren’t as strictly divided as I was used to. Everyone shared the common bond of the Church. People I would’ve never seen associating in Georgia would stop to talk to each other about “ward activities.”

I survived the initial culture shock, but I never felt like I fit in. In high school, I found “my people” among other social outcasts, and suddenly I was no longer just “not Mormon,” I was NOT MORMON. This attitude carried with me through high school and into the first couple of years of college at what was then Southern Utah State College. When I left to finish college in Missoula, Montana, I was “leaving Utah” almost as much as I was “going to Montana.”

Then a funny thing happened. I moved to a place full of other “transplants” like myself. It was the great melting pot we call our country, except on a smaller scale, and when you get that many different people in the same place, the differences between them aren’t that big of a deal. I’m fond of telling people that you could walk into a Missoula bar and see a rancher, businessman, and environmentalist all sitting together without getting in a fight. They may not agree with each other, but they allowed the others to have their opinions and beliefs without feeling the need to impose their own.

So here’s that “funny thing.” When I came back to Utah to help my family, I kind of dreaded the return. Not because of the Mormons. Well, not solely because of the Mormons. I still wasn’t crazy about the restrictive lifestyle, but oddly enough, it was also the non-Mormons. Because something about Utah seems to force a distinction. For many non-Mormons in Utah, you can’t just be “not a Mormon;” as I alluded to earlier, you have to be NOT MORMON! The fact that some Mormons likewise assume that non-Mormons and anti-Mormons are the same thing doesn’t help alleviate the friction.

It’s chicken-or-the-egg stuff we’re talking about here.

So who’s to blame? Well, both sides probably, but since I can only come at this from a non-Mormon standpoint, I’ll try to explain my side of things.

The genesis for this opinion piece was kind of a perfect storm of events. I had just witnessed another barrage of comments on a Facebook post where someone dared make a comment about “the predominant religion in Utah,” which was then taken as an insult, which then turned into insults from both sides. *SMH* to use the parlance of the youth (that’s “shaking my head” for the rest of you).

Then I saw a Huffington Post article posted—coincidentally enough—by the first friend I made in Utah, who actually moved away not long after I met him and later grew up to be an LDS Seminary teacher. The article was entitled “The Mormonizing of America,” and my friend called it “an excellent summary.” Well of course I had to read it. Given the recent events (as well as an admitted flurry of controversy at The Independent over the perception of the paper as being “anti-Mormon”), I was hoping they could shed some light on the subject.

The first thing that jumped out at me was a quote popularized by former-LDS Church president David O. McKay. He apparently used to charge his followers with “Every Member a Missionary.”

Well, there it is! Maybe that was the issue with non-Mormons in Utah. We weren’t allowed to just be non-Mormons without someone trying to convert us.

But then I thought about it, and c’mon, can you blame them? I’m not a huge sports fan (more on that in another column), but one thing I do understand is “home field advantage.” When you’re on your own turf, you’re going to do a little bragging. Utah is not just home to Mormons, but as far as us white folks are concerned, it was kind of theirs first, an important distinction when you consider they were kicked out of and persecuted in their last home.

So I kept reading. And then I stumbled on something else. I won’t reprint the whole article here, but under the subheading of “The Mormon Machine,” the author goes on to describe in great length the many virtues of the LDS Church. At this point, I understood what my friend meant by “an excellent summary.”

The author defined the Mormon Machine as “a system of individual empowerment, family investment, local church (ward and stake level) leadership, priesthood government, prophetic enduement, Temple sacraments, and sacrificial financial endowment of the holy Mormon cause.”

Then he went on to say, “Plant Mormonism in any country on earth and pretty much the same results will occur. If successful, it will produce deeply moral individuals who serve a religious vision centered upon achievement in this life.”

If you’ve spent any time in Utah, you know that’s hard to argue with, and maybe part of the problem is that it’s also hard to be on the outside of. As a non-Mormon in Utah, whether real or not, you can’t help feeling like you’re being sized up in comparison. And those are some pretty lofty ideals.

But maybe another part of the issue is that not all Mormons live up to those ideals. Something you definitely hear from non-Mormons—but also many Mormons—is that members don’t always practice what they preach. However, we can’t use that as justification to cast aspersions on the whole religion.

If you only met one Catholic in your life, and that person went to church every weekend but didn’t live up to those ideals, you might call that person a hypocrite, but you most likely wouldn’t condemn all of Catholicism. Likewise, just because some Mormons don’t live up to these lofty ideals doesn’t condemn the whole church. Granted, you could say it’s not just one Mormon like my one-Catholic analogy, but in a state with this many members, you’re bound to find some hypocrites. Hypocrisy isn’t exclusive to one religion.

The truth is, for all these arguments and justifications and trying to decipher if non-Mormons in Utah become anti-Mormons because of how they are treated or just because of the environment they live in, I don’t much care, and I do my best not to get incensed … by either side. Montana did me good. It made me confident in myself and respectful of others.

However, don’t misunderstand my intentions here as defending the LDS Church and saying they are in the right with everything they do. Just like practically every religion, there are some things I like and some things I don’t care for. And just as a rabid anti-Mormon isn’t going to sway me to their side, neither is a rabid Mormon.

The point I’m trying to make is that we could all do a little better. If you can’t respect people for their differences and can’t communicate without getting angry or offended or wanting to fight, then maybe it’s time you moved and left this beautiful state to those of us who just want to get along.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Great article Paul. Consider a third alternative: ex-Mormon. This is a subset of non-Mormon. The spectrum (btw, is that a bad word?) of attitudes for ex-Mormons are the same as non-Morgan except more intense. As an “ex”, I am astounded by some of us that take a position to be anti-Mormon. I’ve never had an issue with any Mormon, never. I’ve always admired the LDS lifestyle. I feel that when someone cops an anti-Mormon attitude, it is targeted at the religion, not the members. Otherwise, we go from dislike to prejudice. Even as an “ex”, I admire the LDS church and its members.

    On the other hand, you have a spectrum of attitudes pointed towards non-Mormons. You explained this well. But what does the LDS church and its members think of the “ex” folks? Similarly, the answer is varied, except when you are disliked, you are really disliked. Fortunately, this is rare. I have never heard of a specific case, but I’ve heard Internet accusations.

    So here’s my take on all this. For non-Mormons in STG there are mostly very good attitudes towards the LDS community, seldom anti-Mormon attitudes. For Mormons in STG, there is normally a cooperative spirit towards non-Mormons, occasionally discriminatory. Towards ex-Mormons, no conclusions can be drawn.

    My point is this, people are people. Each individual has a unique outlook. It is when “birds of a feather flock together” that stronger attitudes develop. The comfort of the group eases people in prejudice and discrimination. At that point, they become captivated puppets. So, don’t buy the koolaid of a like minded-group and each member of society has a chance for live life to its fullest.

  2. Paul,
    Very good read. As a member of the LDS church, I would find it difficult to put a lot of thought about non- members or ex members. It seems we stay busy with church responsibilities, family and community as a whole. I am surprised by the anti LDS things I read on FB etc. I am sure there are those members who treat people poorly, it is these same people who will do it to members as well.
    In the very small, LDS town I live in I am happy to see many no members right in the middle of the important things that make this little place nice. I agree with the words you said along the line of, why if things are so bad don’t they move.
    Aaron Tippetts

    • Mr. Tippetts,
      In regards to your final sentence. Maybe the same reason the original Mormons didn’t want to move. We are all under the impression that this is a free country. And we shouldn’t be “kicked out and persecuted” for our choice of how we chose to live our lives. You evidently missed the whole point of the article.

    • Mr. Tippetts,
      I find it alarming that you do not put a lot of thought on he gross majority of humanity that exists outside the LDS church. Is this close minded approach indicative of your church or yourself? Perhaps the friction that comes about in Utah is that there does exist a cold-shouldered approach to ex and non LDS members.
      Just food for thought

  3. This article is written so gracefully with things that I’ve thought forever about this state but words I could never think to say.
    Thank you

  4. I never had any negative feelings whatsoever towards Mormons. In fact, I never thought twice while growing up, as I went to school with a few Mormons, that they were different from me in anyway. It wasn’t until I moved here, after great assurances from friends that it was a cool place to live, that I changed. On a Sunday morning, after living here over a year, I had my 1st and 4th amendment rights violated. I clearly feel I was targeted because I was not in Church. After that, my opinion changed. I have forgiven the police officer, not in person, but in my heart. It was probably one of the worst things I have experienced as a citizen of this country and the psychological impact was devastating. I don’t belong here. For me, it is Soviet America, and I am a second class citizen. Without separation of church and state, the constitution is toilet paper.

  5. Great article, Paul. And it seems to be something that people are interested in so I thought I would toss in my two cents since my experience is slightly unique.
    .
    I was born and raised in Carbon County, Utah … one of the very few places in Utah where the Mormons don’t reign supreme and possibly the only rural place. I like to tell a story about how Carbon County is the best example of the far sighted and excellent judgment of the early Mormon pioneers. When they got there, they kept right on going to a garden spot by comparison: San Juan County. Consequently, Carbon County was populated by sheep ranchers, railroad workers, coal miners … distinctly non-Mormon stock. Still, the Mormons do exercise a powerful influence there as in the rest of Utah.
    .
    My own extended family is mostly composed of that distinct sect of Mormons known as the “Jack” Mormons and my dad is remembered for what I think was one of his most insightful comments. He described his Mormon friends and family as “otherwise intelligent people”.
    .
    Growing up, I attended early morning Mormon seminary in high school and was the champion of the seminary ping pong team. (We only had one tournament. I got lucky.) I got a scholarship offer from BYU. All of this while I was a very public, very vocal, and sometimes very tiresome Gentile. Not anti-Mormon — just convinced that their story had too many holes in it to be believed. The seminary teacher used to reserve a few minutes at the end of classes for me to state the opposition point of view. Today, I sing in the Springdale Mormon ward choir and thoroughly enjoy my association with some of the finest folk in Springdale. And they all know that I’m just there because I like to sing in a choir with friends.
    .
    My point is that it certainly IS possible to be non-Mormon and not anti-Mormon. I’m living proof.

  6. Dan, you are a class act. Alas I tried to participate in local government to bridge the divide. But I hit a wall of obfuscation and at one point had a council member pray for me while attending a civic meeting when I was one of two people in the audience. It was embarrassing. When the entire community stands up for everybody, when it comes to the Constitution, that is what DEFINES America. When the community does not stand up against tyranny against the minority ,, albeit Hispanics, African Americans, Muslim Americans, and for that matter non-mormons, to name a few minorities, then it is a tragedy. BY GOD, I SHOULD HAVE THE RIGHT TO GO TO THE PARK ON SUNDAY MORNING WHEN THE CITY IS DESERTED TO PLAY MY FAVORITE SPORT AS I HAVE DONE FOR OVER 35 YEARS WITHOUT A POLICE K9 UNIT INTENTIONALLY SEARCHING MY VEHICLE WITH NO PROBABLE CAUSE WHATSOER. If that is OK with Mormons, let’s get the police to search Ward parking lots with K9s. Don’t forget the Hispanic soccer games too… etc… If this is OK with Mormons than I am damn proud I am not a member of their tribe. PS. I love human beings regardless of religion. And my next door neighbors who are Mormon are great people. If it wasn’t for them I would truly have lost faith in people here… thanks Dan, perhaps I should have bought my house in Springdale… I have only heard good things about the local culture there…

  7. Well … it’s hasn’t all been tea and crumpets … ahhh … “hot chocolate” and crumpets. For example, one day when I was absent from the high school seminary class, the teacher asked the rest of the class to write down what they thought of me. Then … possibly to resolve his own internal moral dilemma about doing it … he gave the whole pile of notes to me. How would you like to get the unvarnished view of your peers in high school like that?
    .
    But in general, I think that people usually bring that kind of reaction onto themselves. If you act aggressive, you get aggression back. When I’m in their church, I try to be respectful and remember that I’m in a place that they believe has special significance. But one day when the choir director asked if I would like to give the opening prayer, I politely declined saying, “You don’t like my gods. I worship Thor and Odin.”
    .
    Everyone laughed and she asked someone else.
    .
    It’s only embarrassing if you get embarrassed. I would have thanked your council member his kind consideration and then asked for equal time to pray for him.

  8. Well I found errors in the city budget after 20 minutes of analysis. Probably were more issues but didn’t try hard… The difficult part was getting a copy of the budget. That took two visits. To be honest I had immense fun working with the historical committee. Not only was it incredibly insightful into local culture, it was like going to a comedy club. We would laugh so much it was amazing we made any progress… With that being said, I gave up as citizen oversight was futile due to procedural obstruction. I would rather spend my time cleaning up trash and garbage left in our nature preserves and by the rivers. I have cleaned miles of canyons. Pulled my share of tires out of riverbeds. BUT ALAS, playing disc golf on Sunday is no longer on my list unless I am in another part of the country. I wasn’t the only one. Another local kid (18 something) had the same experience. The K9 barked, and he refused the request to search. So a warrant was obtained. Guess what? It was a false alarm. The officer found NOTHING. So now you understand why for some this is Soviet George. God Bless America. .. Disc golf is a GREAT SPORT and NEVER have I seen any criminal activity of any kind in the local parks. For me it defines freedom, and it is truly sad you cannot play on Sunday morning when the park is empty. The local disc golf association has NO BACKBONE. Too bad, it will be a spectator sport in the Olympics. Remember, snowboarding was also once deemed an outlying sport decades ago. Great Story Dan. This is my last post on this embedded old article. I went to the county attorney but I am not sure it made any difference except making me feel less victimized. I just don’t belong in a place where my favourite sport is attacked along with my constitutional rights. One of the best local disc golfers lives in Springdale by the way.

  9. PS. Dallas was in the room when I confronted the county attorney and told him of the incident …. At least the person looked like Dallas… It was a political gathering for the heated election. Seeing Dallas at that moment confrmed my resolution which as crazy as this sounds, was inspired by Alma from TBOM. I Had a copy of the Constitution in my hand. THE END

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