Okay, I was actually born in California, but my family moved to Utah the summer I was five years old, and I don’t remember much before that time. (I do recall wondering how we would attend church after the move, as I’d gleaned from Primary that we were the “one true church,” which I took to refer to the physical building we attended. Little did I know that there would be “true churches” on every block.) I lived in Utah County for the next eighteen years, from the time I started kindergarten to the time I completed my undergraduate education at BYU.
I grew up in a world where you could buy CTR stickers along with bread and milk at the local grocery store, and where you’d usually see at least five members of your ward while you were there shopping. The neighborhood was shaped by invisible ward boundaries; we lived at the edge of the ward, and as a result I was well acquainted with the people living to the north of us, but those in the houses to the south were near strangers, people you might see twice a year at stake conference. (They re-drew the boundaries after I left for BYU, and I’ve never quite adjusted to the fact that those people are in my parents’ ward.)
I had non-member acquaintances, but in all those years I never had a close non-LDS friend. Many of my friends in high school questioned their faith, wondered about feminist issues, perhaps dabbled in exotic things like Buddhism, but our religious conversations inevitably took place in the framework of Mormonism. My seminary teachers claimed that evolution was a theory of the devil, but the AP Biology teachers who taught me about it, and who had no trouble accepting the theory themselves, were also LDS. I never had the experience of “standing up for my beliefs” as a lone Mormon, but I do remember what it was like to wear a Clinton/Gore sticker to school in 1992, and be surrounded by a sea of Bush/Quayle supporters, many of whom took the view that it wasn’t possible to be a faithful Mormon and a Democrat.
When I went to BYU, I was fascinated by the stories told by people who’d grown up in other places, some where Mormons were tiny minorities. It was true that I couldn’t relate to many of their experiences, but I was nonetheless unsettled by the glib way in which “Utah Mormons” were often dismissed. I heard that people such as myself were sheltered, that we had no idea what it was like to have our testimony challenged, that we needed to get out in the “real world” and find out what life was like. After all, what obstacles could a Utah Mormon, living in the shadow of the everlasting hills, possibly have encountered?
Yet if there were ways in which I was less knowledgeable about the “outside world,” I found that I was often more aware of problems within the Church than were my classmates. I remember, for example, a student being shocked to learn that some German Mormons in the 1930s had joined the Nazi party. I was all too aware that being LDS wasn’t necessarily a guarantee of anything; I’d grown up hearing scandalous stories about Mormons. Bishops who turned out to be committing adultery. People using their Church connections as a way to further financial scams. The excommunication of George P. Lee. The Paul H. Dunn stories that turned out to be fabrications. Questions about the involvement of the Church in Utah politics. Tensions between LDS authorities and intellectuals. One didn’t have to go looking for this stuff; it was on the news, in the air.
I imagine that every place has its own unique challenges. I have to admit that I’ve found it easier to be a Mormon outside of Utah, and I think it would be hard to go back. And yet I still cringe when I hear people condescendingly referred to as “Utah Mormons.” I’ve been away from the state for a number of years, but I still consider myself in some sense a Utah Mormon; my Mormonness, for good and for bad, has been shaped by my experiences growing up there. I have plenty of my own complaints about Utah, but I find that it’s somewhat like having your family criticized. If you’re not a fellow Utahn and you start mocking the state and its people, I just might have to wash your mouth out with Jello.
- 23 May 2006