To comprehend the often-tense divide between Mormons and other people in Utah one must understand that Utah has had different population dynamics than most states. The issue of the divide is not simply the Church and its place in Utah’s society; it also is a matter of historical demographics.
Mormonism has had its own immigration policy. The gathering brought converts to Utah from places where the Church had grown. For example, in England the Church grew large quickly in the mid-nineteenth century. A similar growth occurred in Wales. Douglas Davies notes that about one third of all Welshmen who came to the US during that period went to Utah. In Scandinavia, the Church also grew like a wildfire and Danes poured into Utah. These immigrants, English, Welsh, and Danes among others, laid the population, and cultural, base for what is now the LDS Church and the region in which it is centered. They also provided the base of an expanding economy.
In Utah, among these immigrants, original languages were lost within a single generation, in part because of the common religious belonging. Even the Welshmen with their strong commitment to Welsh switched to English. This was not the case in most of the United States. There ethnic languages persisted a generation or two longer. This relatively quick building of a common society in Utah, despite Yankee and Anglo prejudices against Scandinavians, made Utah’s history of immigration and society building distinctive.
Nevertheless, dissidence developed among these immigrants. Many of the early Protestant Churches in Utah, such as the Episcopalian and the Lutheran were formed at the behest of Saints who changed their minds about the LDS Church once resident in Utah, although they often had family who remained Mormon. These dissident Mormons also formed, and continue to form, much of the other Churches’ membership. In cases, such as the Episcopalian, the former Saints were joined by Americans who came to Utah for one reason or another. This complexity alone gives the religious divide a peculiar character.
Beginning in the early twentieth century Utah began to draw a diverse set of immigrants to work its mines and fields. These people were not Mormons. The nineteenth century heyday of Mormon missionary work had passed and the twentieth century’s had not yet begun. The gathering was over, yet Utah needed workers, especially for its mines and fields. The economy was more a secular concern and less a Church concern now. As a result, the relative percentage of Latter-day Saints in Utah dropped to levels around those of today.
The kinds of social possibilities for identity formation the immigrants found had an impact on the communities that resulted. In most cases there were two large elements of identity available to them, an ethnic identity based on national origin, such as Italian, Greek, or Japanese, for example, and the fact they were not Mormon. They may have been Catholic, Orthodox, or Buddhist, but the positive presence of those religions would tend to collapse into the social reality of being different from the majority. That non-Mormon-ness also turned into a badge of social belonging. Even when the positive identity was Italian, say, that would merge with Catholicism as a means of symbolizing they were not Mormon. Religion and ethnicity conjugated.
An example can be shown in the current boom of immigration. Economic growth in Utah over the last two decades has drawn hundreds of thousands of non-Mormons, most of whom may well be Mexicans, to work in the state. That is one major populational dynamic. Yet another dynamic also holds. People from regions where the Church is growing tend also to come to Utah. No longer part of Church policy, the immigration is part of a long-standing practice. Latter-day Saints immigrate to Utah from other areas of the US and from abroad. Nevertheless, the influx of non-Mormons far surpasses the immigration of Latter-day Saints, although that immigration is not insignificant. Mormon immigrants fit into the majority, even when they are an ethnic minority. They are Mormon. This makes their situation different from that of non-Mormon immigrants.
But there is more. It is likely that the LDS immigrants from Mexico have much higher levels of education than those who come as laborers. Certainly this is the case with immigrants from other Latin American countries, such as Argentina, for whom the Church serves a large magnet motivating immigration. And, it is demonstrable that Mormon Mexicans have achieved more education than the majority of Mexicans who migrate as workers.
As a result it is no surprise how many of the leadership positions in the Latino community are filled by Mormons, though the vast majority of Latinos are either Catholic or Pentecostal. The experience of interacting with elites, for Mexicans and other ethnic groups, tends to be the experience of interacting with Mormons. This can give a peculiar nuance to Mormon non-Mormon interactions; class conjoined with religion splits the ethnic group.
Strangely, this class association with Mormonism is not simply something found in Mexico or among Mexican immigrants. Utah’s Latter-day Saints tend to be of middle or upper middle class, while the working class tends to be heavily composed of lapsed Mormons or people of other faiths. As a result, the experience of class differences in Utah is heavily framed by religious difference. There are exceptions to this, of course, such as the Jewish population, nevertheless the general principle stands.
Outside of the recent boom of economic immigrants, Utahns have tended to intermarry. Even the Greek community, which has maintained a high degree of separation, has intermarried with Mormons. As a result Utah, despite differences, has an unusually cohesive population untied by a web of kin connections, common language, and common expectations for how religion is to be structured in society, even when the population is separated by religion. They are one large and complex interrelated population, even though religion divides them. People, who are moving in now with the economic boom, do not have the advantage of a kin network to mitigate the religious divide.
Move-ins, including Mexicans as well as Anglos who come to work in Utah, are out of the cultural loop. They do not understand the complex civilizational aspects of Utah and its religious situations. They are not part of the family quarrels. This can make Utah all the more frustrating and alienating for them. It can also be frustrating for Utahns who try to appeal to national or international standards for purposes of internal arguments.
One final nuance: with the great depression Mormons began to emigrate from Utah and settle in other cities, especially in the west. As a result there is a Mormon diaspora, with the complexities of other diasporas. That family diaspora, which has a quasi-ethnic and definitely religious quality, arguably draws Utah Mormons away from the population issues in the state. It also enhances their focus on the Church and reduces their attention to the demographic changes in Utah.
Utah is amazingly complex; it is also distinctive in the United States. Its distinctiveness comes not only from religion, but also from the ways demographics have intertwined with religion to make it what it is. Utah is its people. And they impact the Church.