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.

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