Confessions of a Utah Mormon

By Betsy VanDenBerghe

Depending on who you ask, we're either fire-breathing zealots out to run whatever ward we move into or religious slackers only going to church because everyone else in the neighborhood does. The butt of jokes in Mormondom throughout the world, we of the Utah variety grow used to answering "Where are you from?" with a sense of chagrin, knowing the various incarnations of naiveté, insularity, or hokeyness that being a Utah Mormon evokes.

I'm as qualified as any to address what it means to come from a religious enclave, having grown up in Salt Lake City during the 60s and 70s, and having once asked a childhood friend of another faith, in complete sincerity, "Do Catholics drink milk?" Aside from a few families in the neighborhood, everyone we knew was a Latter-day Saint, and in the houses I walked past on the way home from school lived my Sunday School teachers, Primary classmates, past and current bishops, and other familiar figures from the ward. My ancestors crossed the plains with Brigham Young, settling in various parts of the state -- but up in Salt Lake, where my family lived, it was the Utah County Mormons, down in Provo and at BYU, who were the parochial ones. Even in Utah, we needed other Utah Mormons to make us feel more sophisticated.

I didn't realize other bubbles existed until I left the state and, over the years, met Catholics, Jews, and Baptists from their own enclaves in Boston, New York, and the South, some of them more tight-knit than others, but all of them having a My-Big-Fat-Greek-Wedding sense of shared vocabularies, traditions, food, and community. Expatriates from other faith communities, too, felt stifled at times by the homogeneity, but, like me, they also missed the encircling comfort of a geographical safety net of acceptance and shared beliefs once they left their religious hamlets.

Chaim Potok's novels speak to the tension even the most devoted experience at times in their spiritually and physically interconnected communities. The allure, worldliness, and genuine good of the outside world tantalize those inside who yearn for a wider berth. But even though Potok's Jewish protagonists frequent art museums or psychology departments frowned upon by the rabbi, the religious enclave is never simplistically dismissed. That's why the novels ring true -- the author was too wise to malign the embodiment of so much meaning, faith, and joy, alongside the restrictions.

Potok gave a lecture in Salt Lake City when I was in high school and described the small circles religious communities worship in -- particularly those in which members live in close proximity, often gazing at the vast secular world outside with fear and longing. Three basic options exist, he said, for those inside, the first two being the easiest. Reject the outside world altogether, the good with the bad, and stay as barricaded as possible inside the faith community. Second, embrace the outside world and all it has to offer intellectually, culturally, physically, meanwhile leaving the circle of faith behind as a rite of passage -- a loss, Potok emphasized, much too deep, but all too common. And finally, a third, better way. Widen your religious circle to include what's good on the outside, bringing it into your enclave and taking your faith with you into the vastness.

Yet, the shock of entering the world at large for we Utah Mormons, and our ilk, probably isn't as immense as those on the outside imagine because our bubbles were never as impermeable as people assume, even back when I was growing up. Siblings like mine served missions and not only exposed us to Thai food before it became trendy, but to visitors from Italy, Norway, and Southeast Asia. People moved into our wards after converting in various parts of the world, and a foster brother lived with us during the school year as part of a now defunct LDS program to improve educational prospects for Native Americans. The sixties, the Beatles, the Vietnam draft, Carter-era stagflation, Cold War fears, and disco all made their way into our lives, just like everyone else's. And especially in Utah, old-school inflammatory anti-Mormon literature made the rounds, handed to us as we walked into LDS seminary. The University of Utah cast a wide shadow of skepticism from its perch on the city's east side, and local playwrights skewered Mormon foibles in satirical musicals long prefiguring Broadway's The Book of Mormon.

Even Provo wasn't all that insular, I disappointedly discovered on study abroad programs in which BYU students represented more geographic and socio-economic diversity than the undergraduates at an out-of-state liberal arts college I'd previously attended. My own kids have also experienced a spectrum of international BYU roommates, students, and professors whose intellectual and political viewpoints might represent greater diversity than the cultural groupthink evinced on secular campuses. "I grew up thinking of Mormonism as monolithic," wrote Evangelical student Sarah Taylor, who graduated from BYU before going on to Fuller Theological Seminary, "probably because I grew up thinking of Mormons as one-dimensional. It's hard to imagine diversity of thought existing among caricatures of people, and it was the surprise of my life to find it wasn't true. I discovered just as much theological diversity among faithful Mormons as there is among faithful evangelicals-a group that, ironically, most non-evangelicals would have a hard time believing includes a wide variety of perspectives."

But it's hard, almost mentally painful, to give up caricatures. Surrendering easy notions of Utah Mormons or, as Christian Lander discovered, flyover country rednecks, requires messing up our paradigm and adding complicated nuance to our prejudices. When Lander left his own enclave of progressive academia for a graduate program in Indiana, he became aware of the "elite snobbery on the East Coast about the Midwest, the idea everyone there is exactly the same," and of his own left-wing parochialism, a bubble he began lampooning in his immensely popular blog and books about "Stuff White People Like" -- from film festivals to microbreweries to writers workshops to religions their parents don't belong to.

Satire aside, bubbles and insularity have their dark sides, and reasons for discomfit are often valid. Former LDS Church president Gordon B. Hinckley admonished enclave Mormons in particular to "set aside any element of suspicion, of provincialism, of parochialism" that intimidated people of other faiths, kept their children from being included, and made those outside the fold feel "invisible" -- the word my friend uses to describe her experience living among busy Latter-day Saints speaking their own jargon, serving in projects that don't involve her, and oblivious to neighbors yearning for acknowledgment. When a Jewish friend described the isolation her family experienced in a heavily Christian town on the other side of the country, I apologized to her for feeling relieved that it wasn't just us.

It's also hard on the inside, too. LDS bloggers use the phrase "too much salt" in expressing wariness of moving to Utah and joining Tevye's Anatevka, in which matchmakers, horse-swindlers, rabbis, busybodies, butchers, and bakers all worship, interact, and forgive each other or go crazy. As the late Father Richard John Neuhaus used to say about the interesting personalities populating his Catholic parish, "Here comes everybody!" But a deepness exists in the circles, too -- one outsiders find difficult to appreciate, but which we feel strongly inside. Along with the casserole making exists a brother and sisterhood you'd be hard pressed to find in the outside world, and it's a buffer you actually take with you into that outside world when you move from a Utah ward to a northeastern or Asian one.

Renowned psychologist Martin Seligman, in Learned Optimism, points out that depression and anxiety afflict people born in the last half of the twentieth century in far greater numbers than those who survived the Great Depression. He correlates rising rates of anxiety with a decline in family-faith-community safety nets and a strong uptick in rogue individuality. But as Anne Lamott and other have noted, most people would rather stay alienated and independent than risk a tainted association with uncouth religious circles.

In Barbara Pym's Excellent Women, my favorite literary heroine, churchgoer and doer of good deeds Mildred Lathbury, gets her comfort zone rocked by a wordly academic couple who move into the London flat adjoining hers. As they expose her to their sophisticated society of anthropology conferences and irony-filled conversations, Mildred finds herself defending the pews of excellent women like her, always volunteering to run jumble sales and bake refreshments. After enduring a particularly grueling outing with her new friends, deflecting derisive comments aimed at "so-called good people who go to church," Mildred runs into her fellow enclave dwellers:

"Just as we were walking past the parish hall, Teddy Lemon and a group of lads came out laughing and talking in their rough voices. My heart warmed towards them, so good and simple with their uncomplicated lives. If only I had come straight home...This was Julian's boys' club night and I could have been there serving in the canteen -- much more in my line than the sort of evening I had just spent."

Simple, uncomplicated, unaffected by the world at large. I doubt in today's Internet age, and with the emergence of a non-LDS majority in Salt Lake City, that Utah Mormons and others we once knew, or thought we knew, figuratively exist anymore. But enclaves live on, and contain their own wisdom and rewards.

Back when I first ventured from Utah to attend college, I quickly discovered everyone else seemed to be ahead of me in sophistication and academics. But toward the end of a humbling freshman year -- during which I found an enclave in the local LDS ward while expanding my circle with amazing new friends -- a surprise vote of confidence came during an intense philosophy class dealing with moral issues surrounding the Holocaust. I can't for the life of me remember the trick question the professor had posed in a final paper, but he berated the entire large class for failing to make the moral connection. All except for two students: an orthodox Jewish young man from an enclave somewhere in the east, and me, the Utah Mormon. Was it something in their faith communities, he wondered aloud, even though he himself remained uncommitted, that gave us this insight?

I had no doubt then and now -- the answer was yes.

Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer based in Salt Lake City and served from 1986-88 as Sister Siddoway in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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