I posted a Twitter update the other day that set me to thinking. Yes, I know, I probably ought to think BEFORE I tweet, but really, who does that?
(Disclaimer: This is a long post. Save yourself and find hilarity here, if you know what’s good for you.)
In any case, I had seen several posts that referred to the alleged lameness of Utah and the people herein. I responded by saying that I love Utah, its people, culture, safety and more.
My tweet got no reaction, and that’s fine. But I’ve been thinking about this, about how so many people I know look at Utah, particularly Utah Valley, and make very unfair and patently untrue assumptions about this place and its people. I have also noticed that a lot of people who live here seem to take pains to make it clear they dislike it here. Before I make my defense of Utah, allow me to list the stereotypes that seem to be the most common ones involved in people’s perceptions and misperceptions.
- Utah, especially Utah Valley, is more or less homogenous. Almost entirely made up of white, middle-class Mormons.
- There is very little in the way of real-world experience here; this is essentially a sheltered mini-society.
- Everyone’s a conservative Republican.
- Most people are Mormon, and most of those Mormons are hypocrites.
- It’s a very insular place; like its own little world. Not a lot of the ‘real world’ makes it in and not much gets out.
- Full of blindly ignorant and bigoted people who accept what their authority figures say at face value, completely without questioning it.
- Everyone has lots of kids—probably too many.
- Self-righteous and holier than thou attitude.
- Poofy hair.
- There is a church every couple of blocks.
- Lots of spouse-seekers leading to a high-pressure dating culture.
- All-in-all, there is a feeling of goody-two-shoes in Utah Valley.
Some of the above perceptions are true. I can say this with authority because I first moved to Utah in 1991, and I wasn’t Mormon at the time. In fact, I was atheist (which is really agnostic, since there’s all this talk of ‘evidence’). I was a happy Daoist when I moved here and had no use for organized religion, particularly of the Christian flavor. If you’ve followed this blog, you probably understand more or less why I felt that way.
However, I joined the LDS Church, a Christian religion, at the end of 1992 and have stayed faithful ever since. I served a mission in Brazil and have lived in Utah off and on since 1996. The ‘off’ part of that sentence includes 19 months in Japan, 9 months in Taiwan, 2 months in England and more than 2 years total in Alaska.
So I’m not sheltered, and I have lived in multiple parts of Utah, thus I believe I can speak with some authority about this state I live in.
Now back to the true stereotypes:
- Most people are still Mormon in Utah. Some info on this can be found here. In 2004, about 62% of Utah was Mormon and all of the counties of Utah reported a decrease in the percentage of Mormons. The guess is that by 2030, most people in Utah will NOT be Mormon.
- Inasmuch as Mormons are as human as anyone else, there is plenty of personal hypocrisy amongst the Mormon population. Case in point, I am a hypocritical bastard (both technically very true). But I still make a good steak and try to do the right thing.
- There is a disproportionately large number of people with poofy hair. This phenomenon is, however, much more common in small towns around the country than in the major cities of Utah.
- There does indeed seem to be a church every couple of blocks in Utah Valley. My family lives in an area wherein we could WALK to any of four Mormon chapels in ten minutes. This phenomenon is not the same all over Utah. Kanab only has 2 or 3 chapels and has at least fifteen ‘city’ blocks.
- The dating situation in this state, and very specifically in Utah Valley, is extraordinarily high-pressure. Young men who have completed their missions are, not unfairly, seen as desperate to get married. This no doubt has many causes, not the least of which is the pressing desire to take the next important step in one’s life. Another major cause? Mormons really, really, really frown on any kind of sexual activity outside of marriage due to the commandments of God. Remember that we’re talking about young men and women in the prime of their lives and you follow the logic yourself, please. What is more, these young men and women are actively encouraged to take dating very seriously and see it as essentially a process for finding one’s spouse. I see nothing wrong with that. There’s plenty of good fun to be had while taking relationships seriously.
And that’s it for the true perceptions/stereotypes. Now for the ones that are wrong. I will draw upon the area I live in for specific examples, not using the names of these people whom I have sincerely fallen deeply in love with.
- Utah is not comprised of only white people. Neither is Utah Valley. Huge groups of Polynesians play terrifyingly brutal rugby in the park five minutes from my house. My older lads have played on multiple soccer, baseball and track teams now. They have competed with and against kids with a wide variety of nationalities, including Japanese, Hmong, Chinese, any number of Central and South American countries, Samoan, Australian, Korean, and many more. It is true that there are not many Black people here, but their numbers are growing. And they do NOT get stared at. Also, visit any school, any time and glance in the classrooms. ESL students are becoming more and more common here. One of my good friends, who lives two houses down, is Hawaiian.
- Utah and Utah Valley are not all middle class. Nope. Drive through any city in this state, even Payson. This is just patently false.
- This is not a place that lacks in real-world experience. The University of Utah has a nobel prize laureate on its faculty. This state ranks high on the best places to start a business. There are multiple Fortune 500 companies here in Utah; I work for one. The executive board of my company has vast experience from across the nation; this is true of many of the companies here. I challenge you to knock on any random door in my neighborhood. You are more likely to meet an entrepreneur or lawyer or business person who has lived in several states and worked in several industries than you are to meet a life-long Utahn. This is not only true of my neighborhood. I have friends who live two blocks away and have traveled extensively, I think to every continent except Antarctica. I know a woman who works as a Stay-AT-Home-Mom and a writer who lived and volunteered in Africa for some years. I have friends who worked in DC and for Langley. I am not unique in this.
- Everyone is NOT a conservative Republican. The one time I was registered as a member of any party, it was the Democrats. Sure, that was because the girls at my high school that I liked were volunteering for the Democrats, but there you go. Judging by the campaign signs that dot the lawns in my community, my neighborhood is more Democratic than Republican. Yes, there are more conservatives here in Utah than in California. Why are you complaining? Utah is the best managed state in the freaking Union. I sure don’t care about people’s party affiliation. What bothers me is that we have people who sign up as Democrats so that they can run against the incumbent, but many of these people only do that so that they can get on the ballot. Something ought to change when the incumbent is always a shoo-in. We have a systemic problem here. I would also point out that there are plenty of liberals in Utah, even in Utah Valley. And the main difference between liberals in other states and these ones is that I find I can actually have a civil conversation with many of them– this is also the case with conservatives. People are a lot more chill and civil politically here than you might think. I like Mormon liberals and conservatives more, truth to tell. Hate me if you want, but the Mormon church encourages being in touch with one’s history, and I think that really colors the dialogue around these parts.
- The people here, specifically the Mormons, are not blindly ignorant. And you aren’t showing your education, my Mormon friends, by blindly disagreeing with unpopular Mormon stances. I was here during the Prop 8 mess. There was nothing blind about what went on. And frankly, the Mormon Church explained its stance pretty well; if you didn’t take the time to read all of the press releases during that time… well that’s on you. People struggled mightily to find the right path for them. Support was not blind; it was painful at times. If you could have heard Barta Heiner’s incredibly moving talk on the issue, you would know where I’m coming from.
- Not everyone has lots of kids here, and that’s actually pretty offensive for some people here. Not everyone here is married; not everyone here is able to have kids. I know a marvelous couple that has one child. They love him and he is a spectacular young man. They would have had more if they could. I know a lot of couples who aren’t able to have kids. I am blessed with six kids. I’m not better than any of these people, but am daily humbled by the trust my Father puts in me to raise these delightful children. Mormons do tend to have more kids. Big deal. What’s your point?
- Name one major religion that doesn’t think it’s the right way: the right path to God or Nirvana. I can think of one, can you? But all in all, it’s pretty standard for a religion to consider itself the right way. And in any religion, heck, in any culture, there’s going to be self-righteousness. I don’t think it’s at all true that Mormons, or even Utah Mormons, tend more to a holier-than-thou attitude. I wouldn’t say they’re generally more humble either. Because we are ALL humans and children of God. We’re all weak, imperfect and humbled regularly by miracles and joy. Just step back and do some meta-thinking: have you ACTUALLY allowed yourself to judge another as ‘self-righteous?’ Think about it. Think about it….. Y’see? I’m self-righteous too. We all have a place at the table.
So quit it. Utah’s great. It’s safe. Who would actually complain about how safe it is here? Seriously. It’s populated by people who are trying to do the right thing, no matter their religion. Sure, there are those who don’t care about others, don’t care about doing good things, enjoy doing bad things. Isn’t that true of any state?
Now it’s your turn. Why is Utah so gosh-awful? Or why do YOU love Utah?
You are spot on my friend, Spot on.
Thanks! So why do YOU love Utah?
Great post! I love Utah for the awesome scenery (mostly in the southern part, but I’m biased). Living outside of Utah has given me different perspectives than I had before. I’m not so sure I’d really fit into the “Mormon culture” there like I used to. Not because I’m now a “pagan Gentile” or anything, but because I’ve had much more experience with people “in the world” (or the “mission field” as it were) and that has changed my perception of it as well as being from Utah.
Then again, it would be nice to once again live in a place where people who offer me wine or coffee at a business meal don’t look at me like I have lobsters crawling out my ears when I say “No, thanks!”
Dude. Thanks for the comment. I know there’s a kind of Mormon culture here, but it has faded somewhat over the years I think, which is good. Because it’s not really about having a culture of certain rites, lingo and practices; it’s more about being good, open, loving, serving people.
I completely agree with everything you said. It often frustrates me when people complain about Utah. I’ve lived all over the country, and I’d prefer Utah over anywhere else I’ve been even if I wasn’t Mormon. Northern Utah is beautiful, clean, safe, and convenient. Two perceptions/stereotypes I believe are false are:
1. People in Utah are bad drivers. People everywhere are bad drivers. Get over it. Most of the problem, especially in Utah County, is that there are people from all over the world here with different driving styles and expectations. When they all come together, there’s bound to be problems. (Case in point? Honolulu.)
2. There’s nothing to do here. With all the outdoor activities, professional and college sports teams, world-class entertainment, and hit concert tours, what more could you want? And just about any restaurant or store you can think of is never more than a short drive away. If you think there’s nothing to do here, I can show you plenty of places that will open your eyes.
Good points, Tyler. The drivers are not especially bad around here– certainly no more than elsewhere. Nice thought about the cause of the difficulties.
Also, I’ve never lacked for things to do. “There’s nothing to do here” is actually code for, “My favorite kind of clubs aren’t here, and it’s harder to get drunk and high here.” Although that’s not even true, really.
Thank you!! Well said. I must admit that I miss Utah–especially when my kindergarten-er recently came home from school having learned the f-word. Billboards and radio talk shows are generally quite tame compared to other markets and I do miss all of the cultural/educational/recreational activities that abound–many of them very inexpensive or free. Though there is some hypocrisy/”I’m better that you” attitude in certain segments, I think that happens whenever you have large groups of similar people together–no matter what the culture. Also, the number of students at the local elementary school from foreign countries is unreal. There is a lot to be admired about a family friendly location that is also economically strong in the private and public sectors. Another question worth looking into: What % of Utah county speaks more than one language? (Disregarding the MTC of course.)
Gah. Sorry to hear about Gideon, Jen. That’s ridiculous. How did he like the taste of soap?
It’s true that there is some holier-than-thou stuff, but really, in all fairness, I see that everywhere. It’s Utah’s version of racism.
Totally true about the languages.
1. How do you figure Utah is the best-run state in the Union? That strikes me as debatable at best.
2. Over 92% of Utah is white. That’s a lot, by any standard.
3. Barta Heiner was in my ward when I lived in Provo. Do you know if her speech is available online anywhere? I would love to read it.
4. I don’t live in Utah anymore, and don’t ever anticipate doing so again, but I enjoyed living in Utah and don’t begrudge anyone the privilege.
Oh: And I can’t find your Twitter feed linked to anywhere. What is it?
Hey Theric. I’ve been to your site– good stuff.
1. Yeah, I should’ve been more clear. Best shape fiscally. Best run overall? Very debatable indeed.
2. Looks like reliable info. In the bigger towns, that’s not so obvious any more. In the smaller towns, still very clear.
3. I looked around for it. Our stake is the Provo East Stake, and I think the conference was in 2007 or 2008. I couldn’t find anything, but feel free to try.
4. I love Utah. Where do you live now?
Oh, and my twitter feed is just twitter.com/jaredgarrett. Still trying to get that widget up on here.
That was my stake too! Although they’ve rearranged all the ward boundaries since I was there. Which made returning to visit with friends impossible, but I really think the new strips down the hills will make for healthier wards.
I currently live in the San Francisco Bay Area and I wish it weren’t so dang expensive because it is home as no other place has been. We’re hoping to leave for gradschool next fall and then we hope to return.
But I really did love my years in Utah, though for philosophical reasons I prefer living in areas where Mormons are more scarce. (Although scarcity is certainly a relative term. We have about twenty stakes here so it’s not like we never run into fellow Mormons.)
I enjoy visiting San Francisco; family there and I like the ocean breezes and hills. I’m glad you’ve found a home there.
We returned to the area the same week that all of the wards were rearranged in the East Stake. It’s working really well; very solid wards with even slices of demographics. Our ward still sees about a 30-40% turnover every year, but we can handle it.
I’m curious about the philosophical reasons for wanting to live where Mormons are more scarce, but I can restrain that curiosity.
I’ve many reasons, but as a parent looking back at my own childhood, I think — to risk a tautology — it’s easier to be peculiar where peculiarity is peculiar. If you know what I mean. And I want my kids to confront and own their peculiarity soon and often.