Utah(ish) Non-Mormons

Non-Utah Mormons like to complain about the supposed failing of Utah Mormons. Forgotten in this inevitable and highly stylized discussion, however, are the odd tics of Utah non-Mormons. I recently had a deja vu experience that reminded me of this strange breed. A couple of months ago, I had the good fortune to attend a conference where I had a series of conversations with several academics about law and religion generally and law and Mormonism in particular. Almost without exception, these conversations were extremely cordial and very interesting. The academics with whom I spoke were smart, respectful, and took it as a matter of course that one could talk productively about Mormon legal experience and relate it to broader issues in jurisprudence, law and religion, etc.

The one exception was a conversation with a group of academics from one Rocky Mountain (but non-Utah) law school. The only way that I can describe my conversation with these professors is weird. In contrast to my conversations with everyone else, there was a definite political subtext to the discussion. For them Mormonism was not simply an interesting historical or comparative case, useful for talking and thinking about the nature of the law. Rather, they seemed to think of religion in general and Mormonism in particular as a threat. I found myself being cross-examined about contemporary Utah politics by a group of increasingly defensive professors, who felt that it was necessary to deliver to me a short homily on the dangers of a “dominant religion.” The entire conversation was bizarrely strained, as though the academics were frightened that at any moment I might explode into a thunderous denunciation of Gentile wickedness and a prolonged defense of polygamy and blood atonement.

Of course, on one level the anxiety of these western profs was entirely understandable. In Utah and its environs, as opposed to just about every other place on the planet, Mormons are politically and socially powerful. It is natural that in such a context outsiders would feel defensive and threatened. Growing up in Utah, this threatened defensiveness was a fact of life with my non-Mormon friends and acquaintances. Indeed, I took it as a matter of course that all conversations about religion or Mormonism were tainted by the siege mentality of the Utah non-Mormons and Mormon defensiveness at the implicit accusation of oppression.

With a few brief interludes, I have not lived in Utah since 1998. Hence, I had forgotten about the odd dynamics among Utah non-Mormons and their close cousins in other western states. To be sure, when Mormonism comes up, I am used to being thought curious, odd, and perhaps even dangerously regressive in my social or political attitudes. I had forgotten, however, what it was like to be treated as a member of a powerful and threatening native tribe.

57 comments for “Utah(ish) Non-Mormons

  1. Edje
    March 1, 2006 at 12:25 am

    Nate Oman, I confess. I stayed up just in case you posted at midnight. Thanks. Now I’m going to bed so I can work on getting a life, first thing tomorrow morning.

  2. s p bailey
    March 1, 2006 at 12:39 am

    He’s back! Do you want to be back, Nate? Or should I snark you so that you can focus or more meaningful endeavors?

  3. Nate Oman
    March 1, 2006 at 12:48 am

    I am back but — alas — still extremely busy. I leave the decision to snark or not to your judgment of the quality of my posts (and whatever else people consider when they decide to snark).

  4. manaen
    March 1, 2006 at 2:41 am

    or……… much like the particularly self-aware, full-of-self, very-conscious-of-their-“sensitivity” white folks who become oddly defensive and apprehensive when actually in the midst of a preponderance of black people — maybe because of guilt about their hidden self-declared superiority — these people are worried about having their cover blown as either guilty of not really acceding equal respect for this particular “faith system” or, I believe more likely, their self-esteem is threatened by the lack of inferior ability, depth of thought, intelligence, and emotional health that becomes evident in direct interaction with many of us. Remember how surprised the eastern press was at SLC Olympic’s opening ceremony, which we we saw as a glorified LDS dance festival?

  5. March 1, 2006 at 3:22 am

    “For them Mormonism was not simply an interesting historical or comparative case, useful for talking and thinking about the nature of the law. Rather, they seemed to think of religion in general and Mormonism in particular as a threat.”

    I hadn’t fully realized just how sensible and non-threatening Mormons could be, compared to mainstream Christians, until I read this post about how Utah rejected a bill to force teachers to disclose to students that Darwinism isn’t accepted by every last scientist on the planet.

    Sure, we [Mormons] believe God had something to do with [intelligent design], but we’re…not going to force it down someone else’s throat, based on the 11th article of Faith… So the idea of making up a law saying “here’s how it is, suckers! Believe this way!” is against the typical belief of “separation of church and state”.

    You might have thought Utah would have been one of the first states to pass a bill of this kind, or even completely outlaw the teaching of evolution in public schools, but Utah Mormons seem to be much more similar to the country’s founders than other religious groups.

    A threat? I think not. Mormons are even supposed to be a “peculiar people,” but we appeared to have failed to be that, at least in Utah. :-)

  6. March 1, 2006 at 6:50 am

    Non-Mormon Utahns having a “siege mentality” … I hadn’t thought of using that phrase before but I think it is useful. I’ve observed this with some people myself.

  7. Otto
    March 1, 2006 at 7:47 am

    Perhaps social anthropologists have a term for this, because it seems to me sort of predictable that in a place where there is one very predominant and very sharply-etched identity (religious, ethnic, etc.), individuals of other “identities” would feel compelled to more acutely, or rigorously, or perhaps defensively, articulate their own identities. I certainly found this to be the case when I lived in Utah and studied among “gentiles in Zion.” I’ve had experiences similar to your own, Nate: my professional work has dealt on occasion with Mormonism from an academic point of view, and colleagues outside of Utah have been very open to my work while I suspect if I had conducted such work in Utah it would have been met with some defensiveness.

    I have had isolated incidents of similar nature outside of Utah, particularly among adherents of other faiths. On a few occasions in social situations, where discussions of my church obligations and activities came up (often as an explanation of why I couldn’t attend a particular event or something), or where discussions of church activities related to holiday celebrations came up, or things of that nature, religious friends seemed to think I was playing some kind of game of pious one-upmanship. So then they seemed to try to “outchurch” the Mormon by mentioning how churchy they were (even though I knew they were only occasional churchgoers).

  8. Lamonte
    March 1, 2006 at 8:08 am

    I lived the first 11 years of my professional life in Utah (after spending the first 23 years of my actual life in a neighboring, Mormon dominated state). I often felt like I was stuck in the middle. On the one hand I would cringe at how insensative some of my fellow church members could be when dealing with their non-member colleagues and at the same time I was exhausted by the constant complaining of the non-members who disagreed with the liquor laws or other cultural policies influenced by the Mormon faith. I always found it interesting that after listening dutifully to a non-member’s complaints about the idiotic culture I would ask where they were looking to relocate, because of their obvious disdain for Utah. They would typically answer, “Oh, I’d never leave her. I love it here.” Go figure.

    My old business partner still lives in Utah. He is a transplanted, cynical and sarcastic New Yorker. I recently ask him how he has managed to keep his sanity for the 30+ years he has lived in Utah. He said that although he has basic differences with the dominate culture, he knows he can go to the movies or the grocery stores on Sunday and almost never encounter long lines or big crowds. That, and few other things, keeps him happy.

  9. Jonathan Green
    March 1, 2006 at 8:15 am

    At an academic conference over a year ago in a state far from Utah, I overheard a fellow participant, who teaches at a public college or university in Utah, regaling his friends with tales of the backwards, benighted, and just plain weird folks that he lived among (also known as his students and the people giving him a paycheck for bringing his not-exactly-mainstream skillset to the Wasatch Front). The tale-teller even talked as if Prominent Mormon Expert in his field shared the same perspective as he did. I wanted to butt in and say, “You know another thing about Mormons? There’s one in every crowd!” but I had to go give a paper, and the miscreant disappeared from the conference after that. Instead I spent the rest of the day feeling like a parasite by association.

  10. Mark B.
    March 1, 2006 at 8:36 am

    I began working in a large NYC law firm in 1980, and was the only Mormon around (except for one ancient partner whose only connection with the church during his last 60 years was attendance at his mother’s funeral). The people I worked with seemed to be generally normal–some smoked, some didn’t, most swore more often than Mormons generally, but less often than adolescents in Provo junior high schools who have just learned “bad words”.

    Then I spent a few days in Salt Lake City with some lawyers that were acting as local counsel on a transaction. The senior man on the deal was a name partner at one of SLC’s larger law firms. He smoked incessantly. He swore without ceasing. It seemed he was stuck somewhere in his 14th year, trying hard to show everybody that he could cuss, chew, spit, smoke, get drunk and generally be a bad as he wanted to be.

    I was happy to get back to New York and be around normal people again.

  11. Adam Greenwood
    March 1, 2006 at 8:39 am

    I applied to a few Utah firms but was really turned off by how much an issue my being Mormon was.

  12. Randy B.
    March 1, 2006 at 9:58 am


    You’ve piqued my curiosity. Care to explain?

  13. Seth R.
    March 1, 2006 at 10:17 am

    The trouble is that Mormonism is successful in the Rocky Mountain region. Therefore, some are likely to see it as encroaching on their turf.

    But it’s not always that way. I lived in Laramie Wyoming for a while, where Mormons make up about a tenth of the population. Members there will tell you how Mormons used to be rather disliked in the community, especially around the time of a BYU football game. Some sitting in the BYU section reported being urinated on (by the above section) and actually having glass bottles thrown at them. But that was ten years ago. Things have changed a lot since then. The community is far less hostile now. My wife and I found it a perfectly friendly place and the members say it’s hard to believe how far relations with the non-Mormons have come.

    So I think it needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Some communities are hostile, and some aren’t. So I wouldn’t generalize Nate’s experience with the academics to everyone in the inter-mountain region.

    Politically and socially however, Mormonism can be a very threatening religion, especially to those who know us. We have the unique political position of menacing both liberal secularists and the Christian right at the same time. Feminists are wary of polygamy and a stubbornly patriarchal leadership system. The Christian right is fearful of a religion that aims to discredit them right where they are strongest – in the arena of religious legitimacy.

    When secular liberals complain that the Christian Coalition is injecting religious ideals into American governance, the CRs just snort and roll their eyes. “Of course we’re injecting religion! This is a religious nation!”

    But when the Mormons come along declaring their faith to be the ONLY faith authorized to speak for God, the CRs start to get uneasy. Then when thousands of Americans start trooping off to join ranks with this new challenger, they aren’t laughing anymore.

    The CRs claim to be the “moral conscience” of America. Our faith is directly challenging them for that position and undermining the foundation that supports their claims as the “moral majority.” Of course Baptist ministers are going to be spitting fire about Mormons. Our theology all but declares open warfare on their creeds and claims to God’s favor. That’s hitting them where it hurts.

    However, I think it’s important to remind everyone that it’s only those who are familiar with Mormonism that fear it. Those who aren’t familiar with it either dismiss it as “some fringe religion” or are unaware of it entirely. It’s those who have gotten to know us who are threatened by us.

    Which kind of calls into question efforts to improve the Church’s image with the unbelievers through familiarization.

  14. Seth R.
    March 1, 2006 at 10:40 am

    So tell me Nate,

    Is this post in celebration of your recent acceptance to the faculty of William and Mary?

    Because we all know Law Prawfs have plenty of spare time (just look at Kaimi …).

  15. Lamonte
    March 1, 2006 at 11:09 am

    Seth – do you think the cooling of hostilities by the folks in Laramie, especially at the football games, might be because BYU’s football team hasn’t been as threatening as they used to be? Could that be a metaphor for how to improve relations elsewhere? And is that our goal? Just wondering.

  16. s p bailey
    March 1, 2006 at 11:15 am

    Anyone looking to experience the non-Mormon Utahn fear, loathing, and caustic reaction to Mormons should enroll herself in a class in the college of humanities at the University of Utah. Not that it would come up in all classes or from all faculty. But in classes I took in the English and history departments roughly 9 to 6 years ago, I heard all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle jabs and accusations about Mormons. There were routine shots about ultra-conservative oppression by the “dominant religion.” There were rediculous and rude claims about Mormon history (i.e., early Mormons were a bunch of criminals who got what they deserved). More troubling to me, I was told more than once that sincere, believing Mormons are not to be taken seriously academically. This was raised in a number of contexts: an explanation for the absence of Mormons on the faculty, in criticism of creative writing (i.e., good poetry with Mormon imagery or themes was inconceivable), warnings not to apply to BYU law school, snide comments about President Hinckley’s qualifications when he was asked to speak at graduation, etc., etc. The message sent to the Mormon students (a majority): lose your religion or succeed.

  17. s p bailey
    March 1, 2006 at 11:25 am

    Congatulations on William and Mary, Nate! What a great jumping off point for your academic career! And what a nice place (Williamsburg) to live!

  18. March 1, 2006 at 11:58 am

    S.P. Bailey – In defense of my alma mater, which I think has been too often villified… I attended the UofU from 1996 – 2002, in the English and Art History departments, and that was not at all my experience. I never felt that I wasn’t taken seriously as an academic, and pretty much everyone knew I was Mormon. Certainly there were references to the “dominant religion/political power,” but I wouldn’t say that they were overtly malicious. More often, however, I would hear snide remarks in Sunday School about how everyone who teaches at the U (or studies humanities, for that matter) is anti-Mormon or apostate. The paranoia certainly runs both ways.

  19. March 1, 2006 at 12:42 pm

    I once had a conversation with a fellow grad student who came from an area dominated by Democratic politics (often the Republicans wouldn’t even field a candidate in local races). He went off about how evil Utah was because the church contolled everything, etc. etc.

    I asked him how it was any different than his home area, and he replied “well, if the the dominant principle is liberal and secular, than there’s no problem. Religous voices deserve permanent minortity, outsider status.” (I don’t think he knew I was LDS at the time – he likely assumed I was a far left socialist like most English grad students).

    I was so stunned I couldn’t answer. But I think his comment reveals a lot about the antipathy towards Utah from certain sectors.

  20. s p bailey
    March 1, 2006 at 1:09 pm

    As inconceivable as your experience is to me, Emily, I’m glad you made it through the U without endurring anti-Mormon cheap shots. Perhaps we chose different classes. Perhaps I brought it out of people. Who knows? I should note that my experience at the U was not unequivocally bad: I learned some good stuff, even from the professors who were certain my religion doomed me to half-witted mindlessly conservative provincialism.

  21. Kevin Barney
    March 1, 2006 at 1:30 pm

    William and Mary, huh? Very cool, Nate! I would be interested in learning from your perspective how this all came about. Maybe you could blog on it, if it isn’t too personal. (For instance, did your Mormonism come up at all in interviews at the school? Was it being a non-issue there part of the subtext for the instant post? Are you excited to finally be an academic?)

  22. Jeremiah J.
    March 1, 2006 at 2:25 pm

    Russell Fox has written a very nice review of the somewhat recent edited volume, “Politics in Utah”. The review has all kinds of great observations that are very relevant to this discussion.

  23. Mark B.
    March 1, 2006 at 3:23 pm

    I know a man who spent three years in the US Army during WW2, got his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Cal Tech, consulted at Jet Propulsion Laboratory for several years, was active in professional organizations, etc. etc. He says the only time he was ever looked down on for his LDS religion was during one quarter at the U at the beginning of his Army service.

    Maybe all those other folks felt the same way, but were too polite to be obnoxious about it.

  24. Liz O.
    March 1, 2006 at 3:43 pm

    …and I’m sitting here wondering which non-Utah Rocky Mountain Law School he’s referencing (is it mine???)

  25. Jeremy
    March 1, 2006 at 5:12 pm

    The only time I experienced severe harassment for my religious views at the U was when I was a member of the most godless, hedonistic, winebibbing, organization on campus: the Ute Marching Band.

    Actually, I did have one English professor in an honors class who did pose pointed challenges to faith (conservative religion in general, but, because of its local predominance, Mormonism clearly by implication) during his lectures. On the other hand, he provided some crucial early encouragement for my personal academic endeavors, and helped point me in the direction of a career in humanities academia, despite my churchiness.

  26. Blake
    March 1, 2006 at 5:17 pm

    Nate: I had the same kind of experience at the UofU law school and again when I interviewed with law firms in the state of Colorado (Denver). First, there are not any active LDS professors or associate professors at the UofU lawschool. Given the sheer ratio of LDS attorneys in Utah, what could explain that other than sheer bigotry (unless you engage the assumption that all LDS attorneys really are quite incapable of the liberal moral sensitvities to be trusted to teach the law)? It is OK to be bigoted against LDS at the UofU lawschool. There were comments constantly with derision and sheer hatred about the people “down the hill” and those who were the “dominant religion.” The basic premise was that anyone who is active is insensitive to legal issues and cannot think with the requisite moral sensitivity to be trusted on faculty.

    Then there was the chant in the student section at a UofU football game “Spencer Kimball is a faggot….” When my three year old son asked me what that meant, I responded that it meant we were leaving the game. I did and I have never returned. I am just wondering how we can justify spending tax money to support such bigotry?

    So Liz, if your lawschool is the UofU, yes it is yours and unfortunately mine.

  27. Nate Oman
    March 1, 2006 at 5:40 pm

    I am not going to say anything else about the identity of the school. Also, I don’t want to suggest that anyone that I talked to was anything like a religious bigot. They were not bigotted in the least. Rather, they were just defensive and wierd.

  28. Liz O.
    March 1, 2006 at 5:59 pm

    Nope, my school is not the UofU (I believe Nate indicated it was out-of-Utah), mine is much more likely to be related to your other experience…(I’m a Buffalo, if that helps).

    We’re trying very hard to divest my school of it’s LDS-unwelcoming reputation… just last Friday night, we had a pot-luck at the insitute to get the ball rolling for a J.Reuben Clark Law Society Student chapter.

    And Nate, if it is my school, I really do not want to know… I think it would bug me. But I’ve never met any professor with any attitude problem about Mormons (except the one property professor… and if he’s the one you met, he’s just weird, and hates everyone, equal opportunity).

  29. Mathew
    March 1, 2006 at 6:15 pm


    The examples you give don’t seem to me severe enough to justify pulling funding from the law school, although William Buckley might disagree.


    I have no doubt that Mormon experience can provide interesting and useful insights into broader topics, but it has been my experience that the phenomenon you describe in the Mountain West is only a particularly virulent strain of a larger disease. Those that entertain the Mormon angle often do so with the same condescending attitude they might accord a bushman’s thoughts. I’m not sure that Mormons ought to hold this against them–when Mormonism (not Mormons) has contributed more to any given field of study it will have a proper place at the table. Until then, pioneers in various fields will have to deal with their work being taken a little less seriously.

  30. Seth R.
    March 1, 2006 at 6:36 pm

    You know, the Colorado biglaw predjudice against Utah (if there is one) may not necessarily have anything to do with the Mormon issue.

    My non-Mormon Law Review editor in chief got a similar cold shoulder during her summer internship from the other Colorado school interns. She said the Utah interns were similarly snubbed. But she chalked it up to simply being considered a “country-bumpkin.”

    To their credit though, the firms partners were furious when they found out. My friend now works for them.

    Beats me what happened to the snotty Colorado interns.

  31. March 1, 2006 at 7:24 pm

    Congratulations on William and Mary, Nate!


    My only real experience with the UoU’s law school had to do with their stealing a large number of volumes of the Utah Code from BYU’s library after I had arranged for them to have study carrels, etc.

    Their law review was working on some project while construction was making a shambles of their home ground. I noticed one of them hiding in the BYU law library, set them up with the librarian and helped them feel at home.

    Then, one day, no students, and all the volumes they were using were gone with them, about eleven or twelve sets of the same volume. They struck me as the kind of people who betray hospitality.

    I’m hoping that things are better now.

  32. annegb
    March 1, 2006 at 11:10 pm

    Nate! Cool ! Where is William and Mary? Are you teaching or a student? I’m thinking teaching…
    teaching what?

    #8 Lamonte, my observation on your observation is that those who are different, although they are different, feel safer here. For the most part, Utahns are good people, religion aside for a minute. I really became converted to this while working at Wal-Mart, because almost without exception, the customers seemed like really great people. And you know I asked each one where they were from and heard their life story. As did they hear mine.

    I asked every person who came through my checkout, “do you like it here?” It’s possible some were dishonest with me, but the people I spoke with were universally happy here. They loved the small town life, etc., etc., well, we just got voted best community to retire, which I am moving. But you know….despite the religious problems, a lot of people of other religions like it here because the society is basically a good one, founded on solidly oh, crap, family values.

    (I can recall only a couple of southern Californians who were homesick and it struck me because I just couldn’t see being homesick for….digressing, no offense)

    I’m not sure about the crime rate, but for the most part, a gay couple can walk down the street. They could live down the street. The Mormons I know are about civility. Mormons basically have good manners. So someone like me, a little abrasive, fits in less among Mormons that a more discreet Methodist, or a discreet homosexual, or discreet anybody.

    #9 Jonathan, did you ever ask your aunt about me? I called her. On topic, I would so have stalked that guy down and corrected him. As I would do if he were a Mormon speaking ill of others, Bill actually shushed me Sunday because I thought the Sunday School teacher was being too hard on Lot’s wife. Won’t go there, but the democrats in the room (which I am not) were grateful. Long story.

    About U of U, my experience, limited it is, but it seems to bear out what sp bailey says. Although I think if I were given unlimited resources, that’s where I would choose to go. I found myself often contacting their profs for copies of their talks that I heard when we had satellite.

    My personal conclusion is that anywhere there is a predominant Christian (although I guess it would work with Budhists, etc., just never experienced it) religion, the society is going to be more desirable for families.

    My “We Were the Mulvaneys” family moved in to a small town in northern Kansas for a few years, there was one predominant Christian religion and life was tough, but those people were absolutely wonderfully kind to us.

    I’m too lazy to scroll back, but whoever that guy was who said religion should always be in the minority needs to go back to school. Or move to my neighborhood.

  33. Jeremiah J.
    March 2, 2006 at 2:30 am

    “I am just wondering how we can justify spending tax money to support such bigotry?”

    IMHO this thread is getting a bit out of hand. I’m not completely sure what Nate’s point was, but I’m sure it wasn’t this. Perhaps the more interesting fact is not that with those who live among many of our people in Utah and don’t understand our ways there is often a lack of understanding, but that most of “the academics with whom [Nate] spoke were smart, respectful, and took it as a matter of course that one could talk productively about Mormon legal experience and relate it to broader issues in jurisprudence, law and religion, etc.”

  34. Mark B.
    March 2, 2006 at 10:03 am

    There is one active LDS prof at the U Law School these days–how active he is at the law school is another issue. It’s Mike Young, the president of the U who received an appointment at the law school when he became the president. (He’s teaching a seminar this semester on Japanese law and legal institutions.)

    And, perhaps a sign of thawing–Pres. Young and Dean Matheson are regular attendees at the JRC Law Society annual firesides.

    And, what about Ed Firmage–has he quit the church altogether? The last I saw something, I got the impression that he still attended.

  35. DavidH
    March 2, 2006 at 10:25 am


    There was a great article in the Tribune about Firmage at the beginning of January (no longer available on the Tribune’s website) that said he was a high priest in good standing.

  36. Mark B.
    March 2, 2006 at 11:06 am

    Thanks, David. I suspect that’s what I read recently. So much for my memory.

  37. Matt
    March 2, 2006 at 11:19 am

    I recently attended the U for six years, and took classes in the history, English, and political science departments. For my last two years there, I was in the masters’ program in history. I know that faculty reasonably well. While I was there, I knew of three members of the Church teaching in the department (two of whom I know for a fact were active). I TA’d for one. After Dean May, one of those professors and a past president of MHA, died the department made a concerted effort to recruit a replacement competent in Mormon history; they ended up hiring Paul Reeve, who did his undergraduate work at BYU and was then teaching at Southern Virginia, the LDS-centric liberal arts school.

    At least half of the graduate students while I was at the U were Mormon; as far as I know none of us felt reluctant to discuss the church (indeed, many were the Mormon history bull sessions in the department lounge). Dean was scheduled to teach a Mormon history course the semester after he died; rather than canceling the class, the department persuaded Tom Alexander to commute from BYU to fill in. Several other faculty members I can think of (including the chair and an Americanist who is arguably the department’s most prestigious and influentual professor) are sympathetic toward Mormonism.

    This is not to say there are not faculty with rather caustic things to say about the Church; I can think of at least one and possibly three with such a reputation. It is to say, however, that it is hardly a point of view dominant in the history department.

  38. Nate Oman
    March 2, 2006 at 11:50 am

    Jeremiah: My point was the contrast in reaction that I got based — I assume — on the proximity to Mormon power. It was the transition from Mormonism as odd, strange, or perhaps interesting, to Mormonism as threatening and perhaps dangerous. My suspicion is that doing academic work on Mormonism is going to be easier outside of Utah and the West, not only because the fabled forces of Mormon anti-intellectualism yadda yadda yadda are weaker off of the Wasatch front but perhaps more importantly because the reactions of one’s non-Mormon interlocutors are going to be less defensive.

    Again, my point is not really about religious bigotry; it is about the correlation between proximity to Utah and intellectual defensiveness among non-Mormon intellectuals.

    Finally, I think that Matt Parke is right: No non-Mormons think that Mormon thought or Mormon studies is important. Even the most generous amongst the Gentiles are likely to think of Mormon thought as quixotic and quaint as best, and they will continue to do so until we do a better job of saying something of value and interest. Still, it is often easier to have a more fruitful discussion about quixotic and quaint than about dangerous and threatening.

  39. Jesse
    March 2, 2006 at 12:10 pm

    When I was at BYU I worked with James Allen on a history of Utah during the 20th century and one thing he had me do was catalog the various denominations in Utah for a chapter on religion in the state. As a result of that I ended up doing my masters thesis on folks of various religious persuasions, who lived in Utah. I interviewed Catholics, Presbyterians, Jews, Buddists and members of the American Baptist convention (African American churches mainly) for the thesis, but also others for Dr. Allen’s book, including Greek Orthodox, some Evangelicals, the Hare Krishnas in Spanish Fork, and the RLDS.

    A few thoughts:

    1. I interviewed active, churched people, both lay and clergy. I would imagine that their having that community made a difference in how they felt living surrounded by LDS folk. I can’t say anything about being unchurched in Utah, but I would bet that it’s socially tougher than being, say, an active Catholic person in Utah.

    2. The main sorespot was how children get treated. The geographic arrangement of wards means that LDS children see each other on Sundays and during the week at school. They develop a sort of automatic “in” group and unfortunately sometimes the non-LDS children are really on the outs. Though, several people I interviewed felt like the atmosphere for their children was much better than it had been, or might be in other places in the country and were grateful for the LDS influence.

    3. The groups who had the toughest time adjusting were those who were majority in other areas of the country. I interviewed a Presbyterian minister in SLC and the painting he had on the wall of his office was sort of emblematic of the feelings he conveyed, both from his experience and that of his congregants: it was Daniel in the Lions’ den. Jews seemed to be the most comfortable and the Rabbi I talked to said straight out, as did one of his congregants, that it was because they just expected to be a minority everywhere they went and were sort of used to it.

    4. There was a pretty wide range of individual variation. I only interviewed around 50 +/- people and didn’t do some sort of statistical survey, so you can’t take my findings as broadly representative. There was the presbyterian real estate agent who had only good things to say about the church. When his family hit some hard times when he was young (he grew up in Utah), their LDS neighbors helped them out quite a bit. One retired Catholic priest said that the LDS church teaches its members to be “good, true and beautiful” and was extremely positive about the state’s religious atmosphere. Another priest launched into a blistering attack of LDS doctrine two minutes into my first phone conversation with him to request an interview. The same Presbyterian pastor with the painting I mentioned said he liked that he could talk theology with other people waiting in line to buy Jazz tickets. It would be interesting to do more study into what helps people of varying faiths feel comfortable in Utah.

    5. Finally, there are a LOT of really good people in Utah, both LDS and those of other faiths. And many of these other churches are doing some really good things in their community and have made significant contributions to the life of the state. I think they sometimes get a bit overlooked. The one guy who said it best put it this way: “It’s a lot like going to someone else’s family reunion. They’re all really nice, and it’s a pleasant experience, generally, but you’re just not part of the family.”

    If anyone is interested in slogging through it, you can see the thesis at: http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/MormonThesesB&CISOPTR=10168

  40. Jesse
    March 2, 2006 at 12:11 pm

    Oops, got that Baptist convention wrong. National Baptist Convention is correct.

  41. Jeremy
    March 2, 2006 at 1:46 pm

    Nate said:

    Finally, I think that Matt Parke is right: No non-Mormons think that Mormon thought or Mormon studies is important. Even the most generous amongst the Gentiles are likely to think of Mormon thought as quixotic and quaint as best, and they will continue to do so until we do a better job of saying something of value and interest.

    True enough, but I think there’s at least a possibility of change on the horizon. The Chronicle of Higher Ed., for example, has featured a few articles related to Mormonism in the last couple of years. Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith has been noticed rather widely. And there’s the not-altogether-unimaginable possibility that four years from now we could have a Mormon POTUS (Romney) as well as Mormon Senate Majority leader (Reid)–a situation that would surely help put the “who ARE these people” question on the intellectual community’s radar.

  42. ronin
    March 2, 2006 at 2:03 pm

    I wonder whether the sort of anti-Mormon bigotry displayed in various U of U depts is all that uncommon, compared to the better Univs in this country. I think that Univ faculties generally tend to draw from among people with a very extreme Left to strongly Liberal political views. And so, it is only to be expected that they will talk in terms of moral relativism, po-mo multi-culti type of ideology. being thatthe U of U is smak in the middle of Mormon country, I would expect all the libs and lefties to have their panties in a major twist, talking about Mormon hegemony, oppression etc. At my univ, the Univ of Michigan, faculty and grad students, mostly very ardeny leftists rail against Republicans and the Christian Right and Pres Bush. I bet if Ann Arbor hosted the Church HQs, I bet o ur faculty would be yelling as loud as they could about being “oppressed by the Mormons’ etc.
    Our Church is a powerful, positive religious institution, and so, one would only expect leftist faculty screaming and lisping up a storm. pay them no mind. Their influence ends the moment t hey are outside the Univ grounds.

  43. Eric Russell
    March 2, 2006 at 2:29 pm

    At the recent AML conference, Gideon Burton spoke on Mormon studies taking place outside of Utah. He had a long list he had compiled of papers that were published on Mormon themes from non-Utah/non-Mormon schools. Granted, there’s no way of telling whether each of the papers were written by Mormons, but the point was that Mormon studies are staring to pick up in non-Utah regions, which may point to a growing acceptance of Mormon related topics as a serious subject of inquiry.

  44. Jesse
    March 2, 2006 at 3:30 pm

    When I entered the history grad program at Penn State, there was an opening social of sorts for the students and faculty. One of the professors (a brand new one), asked what I was interested in in terms of a field of study and I replied that I was looking at minority religious groups during the 1800s and listed a few, including Mormons. Her answer was something like “Yeah, isn’t it weird how anything can be a religion.” Then she asked me where I went to for my undergraduate degree.

    When I told her it was BYU she sort of spluttered into her drink and quickly departed. It was pretty funny.

  45. Concierge
    March 2, 2006 at 3:36 pm

    >>>>> I found myself being cross-examined about contemporary Utah politics by a group of increasingly defensive professors, who felt that it was necessary to deliver to me a short homily on the dangers of a “dominant religion.�

    I believe the intellects you were speaking with wrongly surmised that the LDS religion is in deep with far-right conservative politics based on religious principles. That group is chipping away at the Bill of Rights so they can forward their notion of a Christian nation governed by biblical principles:

    BoR, Amendment 1:
    “Congress shall make no law encouraging the establishment of religion…”

    For the Evangelicals running that show, they are using simple moral issues to chop away the rights of others in seemingly innoculous movements in local judicial and legislative politics. Because you were viewed as UT, Mormon, or whatever, you were lumped in as a conservative – and the definition of a conservative these days, tends to be lumped in with the scary view of a future US held by Evangelicals.

    Clearly, the agenda of the far-right is to change our First Amendment to reflect their views – and only “one true” religion exists for them – everyone that doesn’t presribe to that view is evil, wicked, doomed to live in hell – and shall be purged from the holy ground of America.

    What your collegues did not understand is that to be LDS is to be tolerant of all beliefs – and recognize that others need their agency to progress. We need to forge our own path and find alternative ways to help them progress rather than forwarding an agenda that supresses/oppresses.

    We believe that the Constitution is divinely inspired. Because we have a living prophet, we view counsel as a process of change that is right for our time. Just as polygamy was outlawed, we still hold that it may come back at another time for another purpose. We should be be grateful that divine inspiration allowed for changes and debate over the Constitution. Much like the D&C, we view the Constitution as a living document.

    Constructionalists, Reconstructionists, Dominionists (Focus on the Family, 700 club, Buchanan, Bork, Hannity, Rush, etc.), believe the Constitution was founded on the Bible and OT law. With this view, they argue that the Constitution is unchangeable – we only need to look to the Bible for the groups deemed iniquitous and then look again, for the punishment guidelines.

    You were lumped in with the wrong crowd. Unfortunately, you were either too stunned, or ill equipped to respond. LDS members (especially those in law) are only beginning to look for alternatives that keep the family safe and sacred, yet allow others to use their agency. Today, Meridian had an article about LDS attorneys gathering to discuss priesthood/work duties. I hope they begin to forward protections that are in line with LDS doctrine – a wonderful start to protect our religious freedom.

  46. Jeremy
    March 2, 2006 at 3:40 pm


    You’re painting with a pretty broad brush there. There are plenty (of us) in academia who “rail against Republicans and the Christian Right and Pres Bush” but who don’t consider ourselves “moral relativists” or “po mo ideologues” and who take a respectful but circumspect view of “multi culti.” And I don’t lisp. (Neither, for that matter, does my gay colleague down the hall, if that’s what you’re getting at.)

    I’m not trying to threadjack here: I’m just saying I think it’s sloppy to look at a lack of respect for Mormon studies and chalk it up in David Horowitz fashion to “those crazy elitist lefty hedonists” in America’s universities. Likewise, I doubt there’s much respect for Mormon studies among the faculty at Oral Roberts, Bob Jones, or Regents either.

    As we produce more good scholarship, we’ll gain respect more respect among scholars.

  47. March 2, 2006 at 4:54 pm

    Jeremy: As we produce more good scholarship, we’ll gain respect more respect among scholars

    Will less of that respect come from the right than the left? I don’t know, but I wonder.

  48. Jeremy
    March 2, 2006 at 5:55 pm

    I’m not sure, Jim. It’s been my experience that resistances to or surprise at the idea of “Mormon studies” by those on the left has more to do with ignorance of mormonism or a lack of awareness of Mormonism’s growth and cultural impact. Resistance to “mormon studies” on the right seems to me more of a matter of antagonism, or at least reticence towards the idea of “legitimizing” Mormonism by recognizing its permanence within American culture.

    My first publication, as a grad student, dealt heavily with Mormonism and music, and it appeared in what is one of the most “multi culti, po mo” journal in my field, In fact, I initially presented it as a conference paper (complete with a close paraphrase of the First Vision passage from the missionary discussions…), and shortly thereafter the editor of the journal solicited an article-length version of it from me. I think the academic left (and, I suspect, the secular academic right) sees Mormonism (when it sees it as all), as an underexamined curiosity, while the religious right sees it as a threat.

    Also, I think it’s worth mentioning: it’s not at all uncommon, when the subject of Mormonism comes up in informal conversations with colleagues at academic conferences, etc., that people quite frequently recall someone they know/knew–a coworker, a neighbor, an administrator–that is Mormon, and that left a favorable personal impression upon them. It seems to have a kind of triangulizing effect, as if the bubble above their head reads “Hmmm, you presented a decent paper, and that one Mormon neighbor of mine is an incredibly nice guy. Perhaps that’s not as ludicrous a worldview as I thought it was.” In other words, I think in academia, as in any field, Mormonism’s acceptance–both as a lifestyle and as a subject for study–benefits from the positive personal interactions of members of the church with their neighbors. I’m drawing attention to the obvious here, of course, but it’s an aspect that I suspect will have as much or more impact on Mormonism’s position within academia than the political climate of the academy will.

  49. annegb
    March 2, 2006 at 7:46 pm

    Skimming through, but I have to wonder who are the bigots? Sounds like the non Mormons to me.

  50. queuno
    March 2, 2006 at 9:21 pm

    I’m a first-generation “from Utah but never lived there”, as my parents settled in the midwest right before my birth and I was born/raised there (but my ancestors go back to the original pioneers and have buildings at BYU named for them). I always found it amusing/annoying (depending on the context) that my fellow native-Utahn BYU classmates considered me an unwashed gentile because I hadn’t lived in Utah … even though my family history in Utah predated theirs by 100 years in some cases.

    I always felt more kinship with the non-Mormons in Utah than the Mormons, for some reason.

  51. Minerva
    March 3, 2006 at 3:23 am


    Here is a good example of some real live non-Mormon Utahn bigotry: http://www.slmetro.com/2006/04/aberrant.shtml

  52. ronin
    March 3, 2006 at 2:08 pm

    Jeremy – I appreciate your comment, and now, looking back, I might just be guilty of that. However, my point remains. Most academics in the humanities and in the social sciences tend to come from the left to ultra Left o dthe political spectrum. And then when confronted by Mormonism and mormons, they generally tend to react in the way, a normal leftist would tend to do. I.E, they just assume the worst. For example, just earlier today, while discussing The Bushman biography of the Prophet, one historian interrogated me about whether we solemnise gay/lesbian weddings in our Temples, and then went off on a very negative rant. Everything he said just confirmed to me that a lot of leftist academics just assume thet our Church is a “conservative” Church, and thus an enemy of intellectual activity, and an enemy of social progress. Admittedly , this is an example of one, but, I think your understand what I am trying to get at.

  53. annegb
    March 4, 2006 at 10:12 am

    I’m way tired this morning, but I’m thinking this woman has a point. Was that your point?

    I guess I’m too sheltered because I have never thought too much about this. I think about the jerks in church and the good guy down the street who’s a drinker, but I haven’t thought much about what Nate describes.

    Although I had a recent letter to the university paper heavily edited because of some references to sodomy (nothing to do with Brokeback mountain) and a slight insult to the Japanese students–oh a hint for the female students to keep their money in their bras. I thought that was rotten of them, but everybody else agreed with them on the sodomy part. You guys on T&S probably would have edited it, too. But it was good advice.

  54. March 4, 2006 at 1:23 pm

    Ronin, though I’ve seen some of what you describe, most of my experience in academic settings has been more like Jeremy’s. Over the long run, I think that my being a Mormon has helped me present and publish in settings I might not have had access to otherwise.

  55. Peter Brown
    March 5, 2006 at 12:29 am

    I went to high school with Nate and had not one close LDS friend even though I was LDS. It was on the east bench, and the high school was about half LDS half Non-LDS. The siege mentality was definitely present in the defensiveness at being non-oppessive on my part as it was in the defensiveness at being oppressed on the part of my friends. Much of the cultural subtext of Non-LDS-ness has to be framed within the geneology of the Non-LDS Utahn, because many are former LDS or have LDS DNA in their family. Some of this religious culture seeps into these people and adds an effective oppressed feeling from closer quarters than say, an immigrant. However, in the Non-LDS social circles, the true immigrant seem to be defensive at not being part of the family feud. Some of my more neutral non-LDS friends were from Virginia or from somwhere else back east and were here because of parental relocation. They were like spectators more annoyed at not knowing the rules than anything else.

    My years at BYU don’t count, but when I moved to California it was there that I realized this truly unique Utah relationship. One of my coworkers was a gay Jew from Utah who had roots in the state. We quipped at work using semantics the befuddled everyone else. Had our circumstances been different, we may have clashed, but the fact that we we lived outside of the Utah context, our mutual defensive postures became a comfortable reminder of home. Stange bedfellows we were, but only metaphorical ones;)

    Utah culture has its differences within itself. The Murray/Ogden Wasatch corridor reflects the us vs. them feud more so than the Draper/Payson corridor does. The monoculture of Utah County is unobstructed. In talking to Non-LDS in Utah County, they either keep silent about perceived abuses, or they just melt in. I talked to a Baptist Pastor in Pleasant Grove who was much more accepting of the social dominance of LDS Stake Presidencies in the power structure of the city that I ever would have seen in Salt Lake County. He even talked the language without any of the defensiveness I was so used to. I then had an experience to interact with the communities of San Juan County and saw a very entrenched society of LDS Utahns whose subcultural roots were much more pre-1890 than I ever would have though possible. Warriness of outsiders, even LDS was evident. They laid siege against any perceived attack on a very protected way of life that was very rural, conservative, unpretentious, fundamentalist, patriarchal, and cooperative. I had an opportunity to work down there and chose to stay on the Wasatch Front where things were daresay, more open to diversity.

    I became aware I had more in common with my high school friends who were not LDS than any LDS person I met from Monticello.

  56. MullingandMusing (M&M)
    March 5, 2006 at 1:09 am

    I’m not sure I agree with the following comment: “No non-Mormons think that Mormon thought or Mormon studies is important. Even the most generous amongst the Gentiles are likely to think of Mormon thought as quixotic and quaint as best, and they will continue to do so until we do a better job of saying something of value and interest.”
    There may not be a huge group of non-Mormons studying Mormonism, but there ARE a few out there. (Take Jan Shipps, for example.) There have been other non-member history/religion experts I have seen on at least one documentary. And the recent Library of Congress symposium on Joseph Smith is an example in my mind of how there is a subset of people who think Mormon studies have value. The non-member scholars jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the symposium. It was co-sponsored by the Library of Congress, for heaven’s sake! Maybe it’s more about Joseph Smith than Mormondom in general, but I still think it’s an inaccurate oversimplification to say NO non-Mormons have an interest in studying our faith. (Then there are those who make it their life’s course of study to try to disprove it, but that’s a different scenario altogether.)

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