Look, anytime you have the chance to further your career by accepting a position in the middle of a desert, isolated from everyone, with a small homogenous group of people, most of whom are part of some weirdo religion…you GOTTA pull the trigger. 

Welp, now you’re here and you want to fit in. And if not fit in, you at least want to understand the culture. And if not understand the culture, you at least want to know why it’s so hard to get a decent beer

If you’re familiar with the feature “Ask a Mexican” (formerly found in Salt Lake City Weekly, so great!) this is very similar. Ask a Mormon! A lot less diversity, but just as many stereotypes! So sit back and allow me to take you on this non-musical tour of my people.

Are you sick of other continents being the source of major world religions? Well now experience the majesty of a distinctly American religion. U-S-A! U-S-A! All the Christianity, but twice the concealed carry permits! Ha, I’m only teasing. I kid because I care. But this is a good jumping off point in explaining Mormons in Utah. You are living at a nexus of Pioneer heritage, small-towniness, and high level of religious observance. Each paradigm leaks into the other until it is often difficult to distinguish what is religious doctrine from Mormon culture. This guide is meant to help you understand and navigate the culture here, so ultimately the finer distinctions are probably only interesting to me. But understanding the tension between culture and doctrine will explain why things like why a religion that essentially lionizes socialist principles can produce a Tea Party senator.

Quick history lesson: Back when America was still in it’s adolescence (1830), the Mormon church (officially the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or more succinctly, the LDS church) was founded. The small church made its way out west to Missouri, back when that represented the eastern-most border of America. The Mormons were not well-received and eventually a law was passed that it was totes cool to kill someone provided they were Mormon (still on the books as legal up till the 1970s btw!).

Rationally, the Mormons left America and settled (irrationally) in what was then technically Mexico but was really just Native American territory. But they were happy because finally they were going to be left alone. Until the United States sent an army through there to rattle some sabres. And then, in another outrageous overreach of power, when Utah decided they wanted to be a state, the government *disdainful spit on the floor* said we had to stop practicing polygamy! The nerve!

Anyhoo, the point of all this is that it created a very insular group of people. An us-against-them mentality that persists today and even affects Mormons outside of Utah. And while it may not be as aggressively anti-social as in days past, it is reflected in the tendency for Mormons to stick together, often to the exclusion of non-Mormon neighbors. It’s not (always) because we don’t like you but much more that we have a social circle that includes people we see at church every week and that our extraneous church responsibilities take up even more time and so it’s easy to be insensitive to how we come across.

One of the most pernicious insensitivities perpetrated by us is our missionary work. At its core, it’s really a good and noble thing. We believe that there is something in our lives that makes us happy so why WOULDN’T we want to share it with others? Unfortunately, as is so often the case when abstract concepts are operationalized into specific behaviors, the original motivation can be lost. Thus you will most definitely experience someone being friendly to you, invite you to some sort of spiritual activity (go to church, meet with missionaries, etc.), and gradually fall out of touch with you if you don’t get baptized. PLEASE be patient with us. It can seem insincere; at many times I’m sure it is.

Mormons are great rule-followers. Sometimes we even make up new ones just to have some more rules to follow. It’s a “rule” that we should be good missionaries and many people take that to mean being a living billboard for the church rather than creating genuine human connection. Again, I swear it’s from a place of love, no matter how many layers of BS church policy and misguidedness have been heaped upon it.

Like I said earlier, membership in this church requires a lot of time sacrifice and so it’s hard to interact with people outside of those who are serving next to you (that’s why I don’t serve anyone…so much free time!). Think of it as a compliment that they want to spend more time with you! 

This insularity explains a whole heckuva lot more about how we act. Remember how I said “it’s not (always) that we don’t like you”? Well sometime it is! Well, more accurately, it’s that we fear you. Our sermons are laced with sayings such as “be in the world but not of the world” and “stand ye in holy places” and “avoid the very appearance of evil” and so on. And while you may be able to see where the original intention was noble (sensing a theme?), when the nuance is stripped away in favor of pithiness, you create a culture of fear. Anything that is not “in-group” becomes “out-group” which devolves surprisingly quickly into “bad”. So no, you’re not likely to get your Mormon neighbor out to the bar with you even though he doesn’t drink[1]. You might sense discomfort if you’re tattooed, pierced, wearing something a little lower cut or high-hemmed. It’s not you, it’s me (well, not me PERSONALLY…I’m super cool).

FWIW (for what its worth), I don’t want to paint ALL Mormons with such a broad brush or give you a complex that everyone is neurotically judging you. It’s just that it happens, with a greater frequency than it should, and I want to introduce the idea to you so you can just laugh it off rather than feel unloved or unwelcome.

It might seem like I’m spending a lot of time trying to explain away our faults. Almost as if I’m defensive that we’re not perfect or something. That’s exactly right! Move over Catholics, there is a new major player in guilt and shame on the block! We are a church that believes in both grace and works. But we often overemphasize the works aspect of it (which isn’t theologically sound, but whatevs, it just dictates every interaction in our lives, nbd). So we spend a lot of time trying to be perfect which plays out almost exactly like one of those angel-on-one-shoulder and the devil-on-the-other scenes, only instead of the devil, it’s a Democrat and he’s tempting us to watch football on Sundays.

Whew, this is getting long! Guess I had more to say than I thought! OK, lightning round!

That was, uh, great and all. I just wanted to know more about those temples dotting the valley.

But all that INSIGHT!!! Ugh, fine. Temples are like super-churches. You have to be pretty good at not breaking the rules and then you get to go inside where some of the ordinances and rituals most sacred to Mormons are performed, including marriage. You, uh, aren’t allowed 

What?! I read through 1200 words of a ranting lunatic and THIS is what you reward me with?

If you’re interested, it’s not actually all that exciting if you’re not a believing member of the church. Even if you were, I’d say about half the people in the temple still nod off during the ceremonies. Tell you what, every now and again, a new temple opens up and they do open house tours. And if you’re interested in the stuff going on inside, you can find out pretty much everything on the Google machine.

Ok, but PLEASE tell me you have MAGIC underwear.

Yes and no. Anyone who goes through the temple makes a promise to wear specific underclothes to remind one of the covenants and promises made inside. They are remarkably like regular undershirts and boxer briefs and they have a disheartening lack of magic. I think we started the rumors that they were magic just to make them seem cooler to everyone else.

Real talk, you hate the gays don’t you???

Not if you ask us! In fact we’re boggled, BOGGLED I tell you, that people keep thinking that. All we’re doing is taking every chance we can to remind people that don’t believe the way we do that we think what they are doing is abominable and an affront to God and that the legal system should back us up. We LOVE the sinner, we just hate the sin. Btw, you’re a sinner. But we love you. Why would you think we don’t?

This issue is actually more complex than space warrants here. I broach it simply because it’s a very hot-button topic and I want you to know that people here SINCERELY believe they don’t have any problems with alternative lifestyles but have trouble realizing how their behavior implies otherwise. Just giving you a heads-up.

This is a pretty Red state, isn’t it? Should I bother voting since either way it doesn’t matter?

This is actually a good place to mention that politically, the LDS church takes no official position and members of the church are free to vote however they want. Harry Reid and Orrin Hatch are both practicing Mormons.

HAVING SAID THAT, you can vote any way you like as long as it’s Republican. That’s great if you’re a Republican, less so if you’re not. This is pretty solidly a one party-state, to the point that we don’t actually get many Presidential candidates because honestly, what’s the point? Fun fact: Mormons used to be super liberal with being among the first to allow women to vote and the first prophet of the church running a Presidential campaign with abolishing slavery as one of his platforms. 

Anyway, if your actual question is about voting, then yes, freaking vote. It’s your civic duty. Just know that it doesn’t actually matter ;) Actually, please vote, but pay close attention to more local efforts. You’d be surprised at the amount of shadiness that gets by from purportedly honest and ethical Christians. And there are several areas where your vote will matter in Congressional (well, mostly just District 4) and Mayorial and even gubernatorial elections

Grab Bag!

 

Hanging Out on Sundays

As mentioned before, Mormons are pretty good about rule-following and therefore Sabbath-day observance. You likely won’t get your Mormon neighbor to come to the movies with you on Sunday, but that just means more room for you! Sundays are a great time to do things with less crowds.

On Rated R Movies

Speaking of movies, a long time ago someone said we shouldn’t watch R-rated movies. Not an actual doctrine, but definitely a closely-followed rule. This often doesn’t extend to tv shows because those aren’t rated R. So while you’ll probably come up flat with your Hot Tub Time Machine quotes, you’re more likely to have a good discussion about who Jon Snow’s real father is (if it even matters anymore…too soon?).

Mormon Names & Families 

Those names tho! What’s with the weird names everywhere? It’s a combination of mommy wars (moms trying to outdo each other how accomplished and put together they are, that perfection complex again), having a strong connection to weirdly-named pioneer ancestors, scriptural names, and the natural consequence of just having so many darn kids (20% bigger families on average)

Mormons have so many kids because of a combination of factors: adherence to the “multiply and replenish the earth” ethos, social pressure, getting married years earlier than the national norm, and any jokes you want to make about this is what happens when you can’t have sex before you’re married.

Do Mormons Swear??

Mormons don’t like to swear…at least using the Carlin classics. So we’ve got our own that we use with just as much vehemence and vitriol. Ones you’ve heard like freaking, eff, shiz, and a-hole. And some new ones like flip and fetch and fudge

Conclusion

When I first moved to Utah, I hated it. I missed home SO much. Couldn’t wait to get out and I swore up and down that when I started a family that I would never subject them to the horrors of this place. It was, in my mind, literally the only place that could make someone say “Well Pennsylvania is still the worst, but it’s closer than you think.” Since then my views have done a complete 180 (on Utah. Pennsylvania is still the worst.) I love this place SO much. It’s gorgeous beyond belief. It has so many cool things to do. The arts scene is so much better than expected. The cost of living can’t be beat. It’s an up and coming player with businesses, especially tech. I miss being closer to the beach and let’s not pretend that the people can’t be weird and difficult. But they can also be incredibly friendly and magnanimous. As I was writing this post in the SLC airport I lost my wallet. It was turned in with everything intact. Let’s just say when I had the same experience living in Manhattan, the outcome was…different. 

I love Utah and I love the people and I love the potential of this place to be one of the great living destinations. Please forgive us of our faults and our fears and our eccentricities. If you can get past them and see us for who we want to be, together we can make your experience one you’ll always remember fondly.


David Mason, Ph.d David works as the lead researcher and consultant at global leadership consulting firm, DecisionWise located in Springville, Utah. Prior to that he was teaching at a university in London and looks for every opportunity to casually, and with great subtlety, mention that fact. His Ph.D. is in cognitive psychology and education and he loves statistics so he's usually the most popular person at parties. One day he might be invited to one so we can test if that's true.
He lives in Springville, Utah with his wife and 7 year-old son, both of whom are much more worthy of a bio than he. He loves sports and sport-type activities although he is not terribly outdoorsy which a real shame is given that he always hears about how great Utah is for that. He has lived in Utah for 10 non-consecutive years. And he has been a Mormon his whole life.
Connect with David:
  • Email: davidleemason@gmail.com
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