Growing up in the Salt Lake State offers two choices: fit in or get out.
Field Report, Brandon McBride, University of Utah, Feb. 27, 2006
Growing up in the Salt Lake State offers two choices: fit in or get out.
By Brandon McBride, University of Utah
In high school, my brother and I were widely believed to be gay simply because we had the nerve to wear something other than baggy jeans and button up shirts everyday. When my mom stopped attending church regularly, my little sisters were left out of the neighborhood school carpool even though my mom organized it herself. From 7th grade till the end of high school, most of my friends took a full-credit (though optional) class each day in public school dedicated to the Mormon church. Seminary, the class’s official name, includes praying, singing hymns, and scripture study. Temple Square, the home of Latter Day Saints church headquarters, is literally the center of our city. Every building in the Valley is numbered by its exact positioning in relation to the block the church sits on. Welcome to Salt Lake City, Utah.
A few weeks ago, the Washington Post ran an article about a small town in the northeastern tip of Utah where George W. Bush received his largest victory in the 2004 election against John Kerry. It depicted Randolph, a quiet little area completely disconnected from political (and social) reality. Most people I talked to in D.C. were shocked by this portrait of a fundamentally distant place. (Perhaps they were shocked by the cliché description of a town that doesn’t know or care about dijon mustard. Oh the horror!) I, however, know the strange stories of the Utah political scene all too well, and what the reporter experienced in the sleepy town of Randolph holds true for much of the state.
Growing up in Utah, I found that people are either conservative or don’t bother with politics at all. Elections don’t come down to who will win, but to how badly the candidate on the left will be whipped. “Liberal” is a dirty word there.
Why is Utah so conservative? Mostly because of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), (AKA Mormons). Mormons accounted for 62.4% of the population in 2004. Even though I am not currently a Mormon, I was raised as a Mormon, and I am the only non-Mormon in my immediate family. Growing up LDS, I used to be sent to ask non-Members for money every 4th Sunday of the month at the age of 12. (Sure they don’t believe in our cause, but who can say no to cute little kids?)
One might think things would change once you got out of high school but as it turns out, my college life isn’t much different. I used to get continually guilt-tripped by an old boss because I did not spend two years of my life seeking out and converting new members for “the church” on an LDS mission. Yes, that would be the same boss who ranted and raved about how global warming is completely made up. He always claimed that the world is in great shape because God is taking care of us. There is also that Political Science 1100 class that I took at Utah Valley State College where I was the only non-Republican in a class of sixty students. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because my “in-class participation” grade was incredibly high (the teacher wanted to have an actual discussion involving more then one point of view and I was his go-to-guy for all things not conservative.)
The church owns the largest university in Utah, Brigham Young University. BYU’s policies include tacking on an extra $2,000 for non- LDS students’ tuition, prohibiting consumption of alcohol, tea, coffee and any other caffeinated drinks, and cigarettes, and expelling students who are discovered participating in any sexual activity (anything from possession of pornography to pre-marital sex). The other major university in the state, the University of Utah, the school I attend, is the liberal hotbed of the state. “Liberal hotbed” in Utah, however, is still defined in contrast to Mormon rules. There is a large building on campus where LDS students can study and take classes on the church. Known as “institute,” these classes are similar to seminary but this time it’s geared to the college crowd. Teachers at “the U” have to watch every word they say for fear of offending Mormon students. One professor I had would sometimes accidentally swear and then immediately follow it with a five minute speech pleading with students to not report him to the department head.
Outside of the classroom, the impact of Mormonism is felt even while simply partaking in typical leisure time activities. Almost all culture in Utah passes through the hands of the Mormon church in some way. Larry H. Miller, a devout Mormon, owns one of the largest car dealerships in the world, a sporting goods retail store that is in every mall in Utah, and a TV and radio station. But his most prominent business is the Utah Jazz professional basketball team. He attends most games and regularly threatens to have people removed for using foul language. Miller also has a near monopoly on the movie theater industry in Utah. He regularly pulls films that don’t coincide with his Mormon beliefs such as 8 Mile and Brokeback Mountain, while screening the trailer for The Work and the Glory, an extremely dull trilogy about Mormon pioneers that happens to have been produced by Miller, before every movie. The church itself owns many of the most prominent media outlets in the state including the Deseret Morning News, which is the second largest newspaper in Utah, many radio stations, and the NBC affiliate for Salt Lake, KSL-TV.
It is critical to understand that Mormons in Utah are different from other Mormons. Because of the large concentration of church members in Utah, an enormous amount of “groupthink” goes on and people end up taking stances so extreme that they go even further than the stance of the church. Abortion is a prime example of this. The Utah way of thinking frowns upon all abortions. I asked several of my LDS friends from Utah, all of whom have been LDS their entire lives and are still very much involved in the church, under which circumstances the church would allow an abortion. All ten of them said never. This is clearly to the right of the LDS Church nationally—Mormons officially allow abortion if the mother’s health is at risk or if the child is the result of incest. I personally wasn’t aware of this stance until a few years after I left the church.
All of this sets Utah apart from every other state. Both U.S. Senators, all three U.S. House representatives, and the Governor are Mormon. Somewhere near 80% of the elected officials in Utah are Mormon. Moreover, in the recent election, there were only five counties in Utah that gave Bush 60% or less of the vote, all of which were one of the only six counties in the state to have LDS populations less than 55%. Similarly, of the seven Utah counties with an LDS population of 75% and up, Bush won by more than 85% in six of them. The state functions within the parameters laid out by the LDS leadership and any deviation from LDS norms is harshly criticized by the huge number of active church members. When 62.4% of the population have the same general opinion on an issue and claim to know that it is God’s will, the opposition can either go with the flow, which many do, or keep a low profile and bow out of politics altogether.
When someone does speak up, they are often excluded from society in a very passive-aggressive fashion. My single working mother is forced to drive my sisters to two separate schools before work. A friend of mine gets a restraining order slapped on him by a girlfriend’s parents for telling her he doesn’t believe in the church. Many kids go through elementary school without friends because other children’s parents won’t allow their Mormon children to associate with non- Mormon children. I think I could best describe the treatment of non-Mormons in Utah as something akin to racism. I often feel that I am treated as different and inferior.
I am readily expecting harsh criticism of this article from Utahans, Mormons, friends, and, sadly, even my family back home. Here in Utah there seem to be only two options, you either climb aboard the Mormon train or you get run over by it. Right now, the Mormon leadership operates in total synergy with the conservative agenda, from the desert towns of the south, through the affluent Salt Lake suburbs, and all the way up to Randolph. And so, though it is painful for me to walk away from fighting for what I believe in, I need a third option – an escape hatch.