There is no nationally available discourse to understand Utah and its region as other major national regions are understood.
In the United States a large and well-developed tradition of debate and discussion has developed around the US South as a distinctive region with its own culture and mores. The South has its literature, its folklore, and its kitsch. It is a strong part of national consciousness.
A similar discussion has grown around the Southwest. It too is a strong part of national consciousness, as is the West. But here I find myself in the situation of Richard Rodriguez who had to explain to a national audience that the West is east of his California. The discourses and discussions used to explain the West, historically and today, were not very useful to understand his California. They are similarly not very useful for comprehending the Mormon Culture Region.
This is the hole in the middle of the Western doughnut, to paraphrase Jan Shipps. As a hole, though, it consists of much more than simply empty space in the middle of the West and defined by the US West.
The only category available to discuss this area is religion, and Mormonism’s existence as a Church. Yet that is inadequate. It does not, among many other things, capture the nuances of unity and immigration that also make the state and region distinctive. This issue is evident in Sunday’s (March 30, 2008) edition of the Salt Lake Tribune. In an extended section it spoke of changes in what it called the Mormon Empire. And yet the key issue for the authors was the decline in relative percentage of the LDS population across this region as well as its loss of regional integration through the Church. The articles do not capture the changing civilizational and societal aspects of the region.
The hole of the Mormon region tends to be claimed by a Mormon history that emphasizes a Church. The Church is doing well and is growing, even in this region. Yet other changes are afoot. They include changes in the secular mission of the Church. But there is more to this region of the country than simply the Church.
To make the situation worse, despite the attempts of The Tribune there is almost an avoidance of the issue, except when Mormonism comes up as in the case of Mitt Romney’s candidacy. This is a doughnut whose hole is squared. It, alone, with its silences does not enable people to have the tools to reasonably comprehend the complex society that is Utah and its region.
When the Church is an issue two structures of feeling seem to canalize conversation. First there is the national stigma around Mormons as somehow illegitimate. We saw this structure of feeling strongly expressed in Mitt Romney’s campaign. There is also a Latter-day Saint persecution complex often expressed today in words like “they do not understand us.” I call these structures of feeling rather than ideologies precisely because of the affect they mobilize. In neither case are the issues completely rational. This dual set of highly charged and emotional structures, when conjoined with the lack of meaningful alternative ways of understanding particularly within Utah, can make conversation on religion or on social differences difficult. The arguing twin structures of feeling tend to canalize discussion.
Nevertheless Utah and its region has a curious and important presence in American history and consciousness. It is distinctive, even if that distinction is seldom grappled with openly as it is for other regions. Traveling the West one can see the reality of this culture region, written into the landscape of its towns and villages. Its Lombardy poplars and distinct urbanism mark the towns founded by Latter-day Saints, even when far from Utah, such as Colonia Juarez in Mexico. Even though the Church was one of the key institutions defining the region, it is not he only issue. Nor is this region simply defined by the dynamics of religious belief and faith, though that is an important part of the story.
The Church, and its people, spawned in this area a distinctive culture, a distinctive folklore—such as the three Lamanite corpus of tales, a distinctive vernacular architecture, but most of all a distinctive society. And that society continues. It includes both people who belong to the Church and people who do not, as well as their conflicts and divides.
For Latter-day Saints, Utah is more than a society and a culture. It is the center of their faith. That symbolism tends to cover everything else. Though the regional social customs and mores influence their lives elsewhere in the US, where the diaspora from this region has gone, the region alone is seldom discussed except through the lens of the Church. That is unfortunate. The issues of Utah’s divide, for example, arguably continue to influence Utahns even when they live far removed from the Wasatch Mountains and even when they are a generation or two distant from the experience itself.
One feels the weight of this national region, even when talking with people who were raised here, but who are not-LDS. I noticed it in Albuquerque, when talking with a librarian who was raised in Salt Lake as part of its Black and “non-Mormon (her words) population. I noticed it when talking to a senior colleague who was raised in a mining camp in Utah that is now a ghost town. She belongs to no religion and has never been Mormon, and yet the region is part of her.
To live in this region is to be drawn into a conversation, of which the Church is part but not the whole. Like all cultures, that conversation has its key themes—such as the Church for good or bad—but it is more than its key themes. It has a language, a history, a set of arguments and quarrels, an architecture and a language. Yet it is almost unspoken.
However, to fully understand the Church, even in Bolivia, I find that I need to understand this region and its weight on Latter-day Saints and other people. Hence I must name the silence and speak the unspoken. Call it Deseret, the Mormon Cultural Region, or simply the Mountain West; it is not the same as the West. It exists within the West but it was a community of farmers and townsmen mostly, not ranchers and cowboys. It extends from Canada to Mexico, so even the notion of the doughnut does not encompass it. For now, though, it is enough to notice the silence and to turn up the volume so it becomes audible, and then perhaps visible and thinkable.