“Utah culture” from the outside looking in


I have been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for roughly 25 years, and the concept of the “Utah culture” has always fascinated me. The stories and folklore, the “quirks” of those who have left Utah and come to another region of the United States, and the legends of “doctrine gone awry” fuel my inner puzzle-solver.

This summer brought the chance to spend a few days in the Salt Lake City area, meeting my husband’s family for the first time. They are great, wonderful, open people who have no desire to put on airs – I totally love them!

However, having the “culture” up close and personal, I spent a lot of time thinking about it. On one hand, Mormons are a loving group who will help out pretty much anyone who is in a bind. On the other hand, Utah is known for a history of excluding non-Mormons from social events and even for banning their children from playing with “those children.” There is talk of taking the gospel to a lost and fallen world, but ostracism for someone who “falls from” the Mormon lifestyle – even if they follow all the steps required to regain full fellowship in the church. Some children grow up never thinking about anything other than their love of Christ and his gospel as taught by the LDS church, and others find the atmosphere oppressive and delight in being rebellious to it.

What happened?

When I first heard (years ago) of the hatred that some people in Utah feel toward the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I was personally offended that members of the faith that I love could ever behave in a way that would cause anyone to feel animosity: “No one should ever have a reason to hate a Mormon.” I figured that there must just be some misunderstandings that needed to be resolved.

I was right about misunderstandings, but they run deep. As my husband and I had many discussions about these ideas, I have come to some personal conclusions:

  • The Mormons left the eastern and middle areas of the United States because they were constantly being harassed (you know, murdered, raped, mobbed, etc.) by people who were afraid or offended by the people and their faith. Fighting back would have (and did, on the occasions it happened) fan the flames of bad feelings even higher. The only other choice was to leave. When the Mormon Saints reached the mountains of Utah, they believed that they had finally reached a place far enough away, protected in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, and they could now live their lives and practice their religion in peace. What happened, someone told the president of the United States that they were planning a massive rebellion. The next thing they knew, the Army was on the way to “keep the peace.” In the end, it became very easy to fall into a mindset that anything not Mormon and coming from outside the mountains was evil and hurtful.
  • Even with some problems with the U.S. government from time-to-time the Mormons basically lived in isolation for decades. Even with prophets and apostles to lead and guide them, there were some problems with what people actually believed that cropped up.
    • Since human beings are usually keyed toward being the best, the idea of three differing degrees of heaven kind of morphed into “the celestial kingdom or bust.” Lost was the idea that good people will enjoy where they are placed for eternity, even if they haven’t grown to the point of wanting “all that the Father hath.”
    • Some forgot about the divinity that exists in every person who comes to earth because they are spiritually a son or daughter of the Most High God. It was culturally much safer to believe that of people who belong to your church and believe what you do.
    • Service seems to have kind of become a measuring stick of the worth of souls. If you are doing lots of service and good things, and you are a member, then it is obvious that you want to go to the celestial kingdom and you are safe to be around. If you don’t believe in what the church teaches or won’t live up to its highest standards, you are dangerous and should be shunned. The terrible gossiping that can occur becomes a warped “protective service” for other “good” members.
    • Service also means that if you are one of the “poor and needy,” you’ve got value because you need help. You’re also not a threat. However, coming to Utah with no interest in becoming Mormon and being self-sufficient raises a lot of suspicion.

I’m never quite sure if I’ve gotten my thoughts out in a way that others understand, so thank you for bearing with me. In the end, despite our high values and goals, Mormons are people, too. We make mistakes. We give in to the baser parts of our characters. We misunderstand. We have weak, ugly moments. Some of us don’t quite “get it.” We’re all works in progress.

The truth is that any group of people who are separated from the rest of society for a time will develop odd ways of thinking and doing things.

So, if you have had a negative experience with a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, may I extend my deepest apologies?

And, if you are member, remember that everyone you meet is important to our Heavenly Father and our Savior, Jesus Christ. Each person, no matter who they seem to be or how they behave, is deeply loved and deserves respect from us.