David Knowlton is an associate professor of Anthropology at Utah Valley University (the institution FKA “UVSC”). He studies religion in Latin America as well as Mormonism in the United States. The ideas in this post were originally presented at the University of Utah and Salt Lake Community College. David will be posting with us for the next couple of weeks.
Some seven years ago the Salt Lake Tribune announced that Utah suffered an “unspoken divide” that split the people of the state into two divergent and often tense life worlds, Mormons and non-Mormons. The division, once spoken, motivated counsel in General Conference and numerous discussion groups in the Salt Lake Valley, yet it still continues. As a result the division is a sociological phenomenon worthy of exploration. It is both more and less than simply a divide of religious membership.
Part of the issues underlying the divide is the relationship between Utah and its region. Utah is at the center of one of the most distinctive regions of the United States, which also forms a distinctive segment of the American West. Through relative isolation from the rest of the country the region has produced its own unique civilization, genetics, values, and language, as well as its own social divisions. Although the degree of isolation has varied in Utah’s 160-year history, still the separation of Utah and its region from the nation allowed it to develop differently from the rest of the country.
Utah’s population has different origins. According to the 1980 census, when people were asked their ancestry, Utah was both the state with the highest percentage of its population claiming English origin as well as Danish origin. These national groups were two of the most important immigrant streams from the nineteenth century. Arguably these immigrants have had a lasting effect on Utah as well as the region. The issue is not simply a matter of the Church that may have motivated them to come here, it is also the ethnic identities and social realities of these people that contributed to the state Utah became and the region of which it is part.
Everybody knows that Utah has a distinctive dialect, Utahnics, as some call it. This language is not just Mormonese, but it similar to other dialects in the Great Basin. The Linguist Labov points out how the vowels of this region, as shown on scattergrams, are produced differently from those of the rest of the nation. Other linguists insist that the particular English the large number of Englishmen brought to Utah must have given it many of the characteristics it developed.
The Church is an important part of Utah and its history. There can be no doubt about that. But, as the issue of dialect shows, there is more to the development of Utah’s distinctive culture than simply the Church. Native Utah Mormons and non-Mormons tend to sound alike. This similarity suggests there is more to the divide than a religious dualism; there is a common dialect, stemming from a shared background and interaction, even if a religious divide splits people apart.
Part of the distinctiveness of Utah does stem from its religious make up. No other state in the nation has such a large percentage of its population who are members of a single religious body. Rhode Island comes close if one uses the lower figures of what percentage of Utahns are Latter-day Saints. The 2007 Deseret News Almanac states 72% of the state is LDS while the Salt Lake Tribune supplies a figure of 62%. The Pew US Religious Landscape Survey recently stated 58% of the state is Mormon. In any case that number is declining as the state’s population grows rapidly by attracting national and international immigrants.
Still Utah stands out in the West. This area of the country claims some of the lowest rates of religious participation. Yet Utah claims high rates, more similar to those in other parts of the nation. It stands out for being religious in a less religious part of the country. People from other western states who move into Utah may find themselves astounded at the degree of religiosity in the state. In Utah, even those who may not attend religious meetings still have an unusual intensity in the religious beliefs with which they engage. This is true both of Latter-day Saints and people who affiliate with other traditions.
Another complexity with which people who move into the state must deal is the difficult issue of who is and who is not a Mormon. The category of members in Utah needs careful observation and thinking. As used in daily life this category does not refer to those on the membership roles simply.
The category of Mormon does include active members, though they are already less than half the population of the state and probably even less than that of the region. Inactive and former Mormons, along with people who stem from other faiths are the majority in the state and region.
Nevertheless there is considerable movement among these categories. Active members may become inactive and people who announce themselves as former Mormons may become active Mormons. There is social fluidity here, even if there is some categorical rigidity. Furthermore Mormons participate in other faiths, often even as members (without necessarily renouncing their LDS membership) and non-Mormons join the LDS Church, even if only for a time.
This fluidity is important. It means there is a circulation of people through the Church that builds a common reference point. It also means that the descendents of the nineteenth century Mormon immigrant community have, by now, created a common culture in the region even though people’s current religious identification may not be active LDS.
Despite the fluidity of categories, in those regions of the country where the percentage of people belonging to a single body approximates Utah’s or where there are high levels of religious participation, religion is organized very differently within society. The LDS Church in Utah has a single, unitary administrative structure that owns Church buildings as well as significant property and is a strong presence in members’ lives. In other cases there may be a central organization, but congregations experience strong local autonomy. Most large faiths are associations of congregations, not unitary Churches. Even within Catholicism dioceses claim more autonomy than stakes can have within Mormonism.
For people moving to Utah from other states this different structure of the space of religion gives them a sense of something out of sync with their taken-for-granted notions of how religion should be part of a social order. Utahns are more religiously involved than people in other states in the region and other faiths are organized differently from the Latter-day Saints. Furthermore the space of religion is dominated by the size of the LDS Church and the ways it fits into society. Other religions find themselves drawn into the religious dynamics of Utah. Not only is the structure of the space for religion an issue, a significant portion of their congregations will tend to be former Mormons.
Utah and its region differ from the rest of the culture. That difference, with its own sets of commonalities and differences, underlies the categorical division of Mormons and non-Mormons making Utah hard for outsiders and insiders to fully comprehend.