I’m not LDS, and I live in Utah County. What is up with this place?

Dear Ask Mormon Girl:

I’m a twenty-something year old who lives in Utah County and am not a Latter-Day Saint (nor have I ever been).  I have recently embarked on a “quest” to try to better understand both the LDS Church as a whole, as well as what it means to be a LDS member. Is there something about the culture of LDS religion in Utah County that is different from your experience as a practicing member living outside of Utah? I don’t care how many different people I talk to, whether LDS or not, every time I bring up the culture of Utah County, I get smirks and knowing giggles, but no one seems to be able to put a finger on exactly what is different about this little county. There seems to be just something in the air that makes people want to differentiate between the LDS Church as a whole, and the LDS Church in Utah County in particular. Any thoughts on this?

Drew

Thanks for your message, Drew.  If you’ve lived in Utah County for very long, surely you’ve heard the the place described as “Happy Valley.”  As the home to Brigham Young University and the Missionary Training Center, two institutional icons of Mormonism, Utah County can feel like a company town.  It is a land of abundant Mormonness, a land flowing with Osmonds (or the residue of Osmonds), BYU Creamery ice cream and  fry sauce.

Utah County is also the solid demographic core of the Book of Mormon belt.  According to the best data I could find, about 85 – 88% of the county’s residents are members of the LDS Church.  Which gives Utah County top rank for Mormon-dense counties in the US (and, obviously, the world).  Thanks to a strong recent population influx, Utah County now even outranks smaller, more rural counties in northeastern Utah and southeastern Idaho that may have been more uniformly Mormon just a decade ago.  And that Mormon population density, Drew, makes all the difference.

Imagine moving through your daily life—work, school, grocery store—safely assuming that at least 75% of the people you encounter every day share your religion.  And not just any religion, but a religion with a discernable multi-generational ethnic component, a religion capable of functioning as a holistic culture, a religion that stresses its difference from the rest of the world and the importance of unity among its members.  That sense of social totality is what Mormons in Utah County—those who were born there as well as those who have self-selected in—can experience every day.  By contrast, most Mormons worldwide are tiny minorities in the communities where they live.  (In Southern California, where I grew up and now live, Mormons make up about 2 – 3% of the population, enough of a population group for us to be recognizable to one another and have our own social geography. It feels like the southwestern edge of the Book of Mormon belt, and it is.  Not so in Austin, Texas, where I lived for five years, and where Mormons barely register on the demographic map. And I felt it.)

There’s a term I encountered when I was studying the New England Puritans in grad school years ago that seems to apply to the Utah County situation:  Assurance.  In Puritan terms, one observed signs of the grace of God in one’s life as evidence or assurance that he or she was among those chosen (or predestined) to be saved by God.  But assurance was not just an individual phenomenon:  it extended to the whole community.  When the Puritans of Plymouth looked around and saw a well-ordered community, set apart from the rest of the fallen world, populated with others who shared the same views on the world, how could they help but feel some assurance that they had it all figured out?  On a beautiful spring Sunday afternoon in Utah County, when cherry trees are blooming, and everyone’s come home from church, and the streets are so very quiet, and everything is in its place, how could one not feel a profound sense of well-being?

But living in a Mormon social totality can have its downsides too, among them insularity and, well, how shall we say it, a lack of appreciation for the more complicated facets of human experience?  Which is to say that if your life falls outside the majority patterns, Happy Valley can be a very lonely place indeed.

That’s why LDS folks beyond Happy Valley refer to the place with a wink and a smile.  It’s a fairly intense Mormon immersion experience, a wonderful place to visit, but not a place some of us would choose to live.  After all, if it’s great to be a Mormon among majority Mormons, being a Mormon among non-Mormons has its own distinct pleasures too.

Readers, let’s talk about Utah County. How shall we explain it to Drew? Besides the fudge at the BYU Bookstore, what do we love about it so?  And what makes it a difficult place for a cos-mormo-politan soul to be?

Send your query to askmormongirl@gmail.com, or follow askmormongirl on Twitter.

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22 Comments

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22 responses to “I’m not LDS, and I live in Utah County. What is up with this place?

  1. Ryan

    My brother-in-law introduced me to a great analogy.

    Mormons are like manure in a garden, spread out it does a lot of good, but if it you get too much together it starts to stink.

    Having been born and raised in Provo and calling it home for the first 28 years of my life, I know of its goodness and its stink. I was always glad to get out of Happy Valley for a mission, study abroad or even vacationing. Yet, when I finally moved out of Provo my wife and I both felt an unanticipated longing for some aspects of the culture. It was easy to not have to explain why I don’t swear, drink or why I’m 29 and in grad school with 2 kids. I agree that there was an assurance found in Utah County.

    I have no question that we could return and raise our family in Utah County and still raise them with an appreciation for the “more complicated facets of human experience.” But there is also a growing that is happening spiritually by not having that constant social assurance that I find exhilarating and priceless. Maybe the balance will have to be spending prolonged vacations visiting relatives.

  2. Shut up, I love you to pieces. I can’t believe you nailed Utah County so succinctly. There are aspects of it that I appreciate but when I have tried to articulate what I find off-putting about the place I stumble around the idea of a certain relentless homogeneousness. In the future I ‘ll just point people to this post.

  3. Russell

    Assurance is clearly a motif in the student wards I attended. Yet for all the talk of security, I also saw a strange unease among the student population, as though they were quite cognizant with how perfect things were supposed to be. But few are so deluded that they are capable of ignoring ironies in their own life. I am reminded of a political cartoon where it has a number of Latter-day Saints strolling the town streets. Young women were talking to themselves, saying: “I run ten miles a day because it’s good for me.” Old men talked about how they ate a pound of prunes, and young men congratulated themselves (rather gloomily) on giving up their IPods.

    I saw this dynamic all the time. I’ve attended school at two major universities outside of Utah now, and I’ve yet to see as many young 20-something women out running in an attempt to keep their trim waistline. I haven’t heard men obsess over earning a lot of money–”follow your dream” is the mantra. As assured as the student populace tries to be, there’s a tremendous insecurity that they simply can’t make the cut–that they’re not going to be pretty enough, wealthy enough, or brilliant enough to live the dream. Maybe people might be just people after all. Maybe “Zion” is just another city, hard as that is to swallow. Some have recognized this and become bitter; others have ignored and become the happy, happy, happy valley stereotypes we all deplore.

  4. One of the things I absolutely LOVE about living in downtown Philadelphia is that our congregation is so diverse that we are forced to seperate what is the doctrine and principles of mormonism, as opposed to cultural Mormonism. Here I live my religion for the religion’s sake while in Utah, especially Provo, it is almost unnavoidable to not live the religion for the culture’s sake.

    At the same time I would love to send my kids to BYU (gasp… I’m a Ute). Here, ate work, or in the community, I am “THE Mormon”. I view myself as so many things but those outside of my faith can’t get past that one thing. All this results in people only taking the time to get to know what I am as opposed to who I am. My children may suffer the same way.
    When one has lived asd a minority for a long time, but then experiences some time as the majority, it can be an enlightening and wonderful experience. At BYU my children could finally experience social interraction where their personality is the defining characteristic as opposed to their faith.

    Realize that a large portion of the students there are currently experiencing this for themselves. They are kids from somewhere else who for the first time can be open and free about their faith and glory in that fact. Perhaps glory a little too much.

    Provo is a result of human nature, not religious furor.

  5. Pingback: I’m a SAHM in Utah Valley, and I want to meet some non-LDS friends. Help? « Ask Mormon Girl

  6. colowe

    My question is about Mormons. Is it a religion or culture?

    • good question. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often called Mormons) is definitely a religion (see http://www.mormon.org). But, In the inter-mountain West, where there are cities with significant Mormon populations or majorities, I’d say there definitely also a “Mormon Culture.”

    • ChrisF

      As Bryce said, it is definitely a religion, but the peculiarities that are demonstrated in Utah County, among other places has deceptively little to do with religion and more to do with human nature. I would not say that there is a ‘Mormon culture’ but rather that there is an entire class of cultures with many unique identities but nevertheless sharing core beliefs. I have seen distinct Mormon cultures first hand in Southern California, Southwestern Virginia, Southern England, and the Salt Lake Valley. When I refer to Mormon culture, it is similar to the idea of American culture. While there are similarities that are not coincidences, there are definite differences between Californian, Texan and New York cultures within that class.

  7. JesusTubeUSA

    Drew nailed it perfectly. Everybody giggles, but nobody can put their finger on it. This place isn’t just “different”. If you’re not Mormon – it’s downright Spooky! Utah County brings to mind three classic films – THE STEPFORD WIVES (happy, smiley faces hide major prescription drug abuse and suicide rates), NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (they’ll walk right into you in the supermarket – as if you weren’t even there), and ROSEMARY’S BABY (everyone Rosemay knows – is in the Coven. Say one bad word about Joseph Smith – and watch your best Mormon friend turn into Chucky before you can say, “Fliipin’, Fetchin’, Oh my heck”.

  8. Servant

    Mormons are just plainly arrogant – at last that’s what comes across to us “gentiles.” Better they stay in Utah County, as far as I’m concerned.

    • frankly, I think you’re right about Mormons being arrogant. As a Mormon that’s only lived in Utah (except for the two years I spent in Germany as a Missionary), I have a lot to learn about civility! More and more–and I know this represents how insular I’ve been (hope I’m using that word correctly)–I realizing how hard it is for non-Mormons to live in Utah! So, help me understand! (and I pledge to do more to see where you’re coming from!)

    • ChrisF

      They’re better in other places. I’m LDS, from SoCal, lived in England, married a girl from VA, and am currently residing in Salt Lake. I’ll be happy to leave Utah. There are lots of nice people, but the majority of them are arrogant. The interesting thing is that it really has little to do with their being LDS. The LDS Church does not teach people to be arrogant, nor does it encourage insularity. Rather there are two factors that lead to this. 1: there are the extremists. There are always some people who have taken cautions to ‘avoid associating too closely with people who don’t respect your standards’ and twisted that into ‘shun all those evil non-mormons’. In Southern California, I had lots of friends that were thought it was weird that I wanted to stay a virgin ’till marriage, or that I didn’t swear, nevertheless, once you showed them that you meant it, they respected you as any good friend should. This is lost on many Utahns. 2: Human nature. Everyone wants to be happy. The etymological roots of the words happiness means literally ‘to consider yourself fortunate’. Human nature tells us that we are most fortunate when we are better off than others. People who follow this line of thinking use the Church as an excuse to say that they are better off to make themselves feel better about their own shortcomings. This is not what the Church teaches or encourages. What the LDS Church teaches is that happiness should come from within, and from a knowledge that God loves all of his children. When LDS people truly follow what the LDS Church teaches they are much less arrogant, though still self-assured and confident. Both of these factors are extremely prevalent in Utah and Idaho.

  9. Lacey Connor

    Well, I was born and raised off and on in Southern Utah and let me tell you it stinks to high heaven!! But its beautiful :/ Anyways, I made the mistake of moving back here from Idaho with my four small children almost ten years ago and we have paid for it ever since, especially my poor girls. We are Non-members but try very hard to be active in our community to no avail. My children are shunned and have been for so long that it’s accepted by them, they are less than and not good enough. My 15 year old Wont live here and moved back to Idaho with her grandparents and if I could for the sake of my kids I would. We aren’t rich but we live in a beautiful house with a gorgeuos view and have a good income…I think its worth it to just turn my back on this place for the sake of my kids, but on the other hand we’ve worked so hard to have what we do and if I didn’t have kids I would love it here because Ive learned not to care what anyone thinks of me or my religious views. But my kids… Im so torn

    • Stacie

      I find that sad that they shun you and your children, I am a mormon and I am not o.k. with that. I left the church for a long time and am a woman covered in tattoos, who has returned to church, I am nethier ashamed or regretful of them (tattoos), but I have experienced the feeling of being isolated by church members, because of it. Truly, not all mormons are like this, and it is not very mormon at all if they are. It is one reason that keeps me from moving to Utah, will people not let my kids play, because thier mom has tattoos or thier dad isnt a mormon? Will I be judged, by people of my own religon? That is when I stop and say I am not a mormon for the people at church, I am a mormon because I love Christ. I am saddend to hear your children being treated as such, yet it is not the first time I have heard this. Just know, we are not all like that. p.s. I know this is an old post but I had to reply. ;)

  10. I was born and raised Mormon(inactive) but thankfully not in Utah. My Dad was in the Army so we moved around a lot. My sister did go to BYU and now lives with her husband and 4 kids in Coalville, Utah and my parents retired and left Washington, DC to live in Draper, Utah. They are trying to get me to move there (I live in a suburb of Philly) but I’m afraid too. I don’t like the looks I get when I’m out there visiting and stop in the Starbucks in Draper…

  11. I think this comment thread demonstrates that Mormons tend to be a bit self-loathing and hypercritical of themselves. I’m Mormon, attended BYU, and moved on to Grad school elsewhere. I loved the atmosphere, and loved it when it was time to go. I agree with Brohammas’s comments. Don’t you think Vatican City has a distinctively Catholic culture? It shouldn’t surprise you to find that Mecca’s culture is imbued with Muslim undertones. Wherever you find a dense cluster of any religion, you’ll find a distinct culture, reflective of that religion, (the deep south stands out). But Mormons are a bit insecure about being fully accepted into the broader society, so they downplay their Mormonism with self-loathing. The culture highlights all of the ways Mormons are different from the rest of the world, and that just hits a little too close to home for some Mormons.

    There is good reason for this, given the crap Mormons have to put up with from society and the media, (if you took 90% of the articles written about Mormons and inserted “Jews” for “Mormons”, the double-standard would become immediately apparent). Playing down the less palatable elements in our religion and culture merely gives ammunition to the critics, since it comes off as disingenuous. Let’s stop apologizing for all of the ways that we’re different and demand acceptance as we are, (like every other religious group in America). And no, Mormons as a group are not arrogant. What a ridiculous and bigoted thing to say.

    • Topes

      Agree!!! Exceptance is key! I lived in many places in the midwest to where my family and I currently reside in Los Angeles. I am sad that these children are treated this way. Maybe someone should go to the school and suggest a tolerance group. Education is key. The parents installing this behavior are afraid of their children being led astray which to us non mormons is ridiculous. But look at how they lead people to,their church. If thats all they know why would they expect different. Also values may be a key judgement. I am not religious at all. But knowing in life god leads us on our own journeys. This is a hard lesson for children but many go through it. It doesnt have to be about religion either. Isolation is every where. I would pray for the families with your children. I would kill them with kindness as well. Show them that good people do exist beyond their religion. Mow their yard and leave a plate of cookies that quotes love thy neighbor. And sign it just doing our neighborly duty. Drop off home made gifts for their kids. If all their world has shown them is to do this to others then this is what they know. You may not be able to unharden their heart but at least you have taught your kids an important lesson. I have seen other religions do the same and try to isolate their children and feeling as though they are protecting their kids from the evils of the world. But news flash Evil exist and I believe raising our kids to be armed with knowledge is key to defeat and having them be productive no matter where they live. I also know morals are important I have four,children two are teenagers. There are things from others we do not allow in this house but it does not meen we dont learn from it. God throughs lessons everywhere . It is up to us to learn and maybe help others. I pray you and your family find peace with your situation and make the most of it. We only have one life and we should dwell on the uncontrolables like the actions of others.

  12. Grace

    Hi, I live in Sacramento in an area that has a large Mormon population. When my son was in elementary school, I would invite his entire class to his birthday party. Since I volunteered in the classroom and knew all of the kids, it was important to me to invite all of his classmates. I would invite 30 kids and 7-10 would be Mormon. Every year, the Mormon kids rsvp’d no. Every other kid came, as it was always a great party at a local museum or play event. I am a white single mother who is an educated working professional with an adopted ethnic son. And…… he was not invited to their parties, although the parents talked to me very friendly. There is a disconnect with the forced friendliness and actions.

  13. Anonymous

    So, I think you may have answered my long awaited question. Will my Son be accepted at Bringham Young if he is Non-Morman? Meaning, will he be socially alienated due to being Catholic? Thank you for your honesty, these posts have been more than helpful!! Thanks!

    • More Anonymous

      There are lots of Non-Mormons at BYU that I’ve known personally who enjoy their experience very much. I’m sure it comes with some challenges, but it’s definitely possible. The ones who do want to go to BYU are ones who feel like going to a school with a guarantee (with a few rare exceptions) of being free from the distractions of alcohol, drugs, and roommates having sex in your dorm is important to them. It’s also a good education for a really good price. However, they say prayers at the beginning and ending of classes, religion classes are required, and if subject material of any class can be tied into the doctrines of the church, professors are encouraged to do so. Utah is a beautiful, wonderful place, particularly if you are outdoorsy. There is lots of culture (plays, art, etc.), and lots of Non-Mormons and Non-Mormon experiences in Salt Lake City, although that is an hour drive away.

  14. Chris

    I grew up non LDS, living in Southern California. When a job transfer brought my family to Utah County when I was 14, it was a horrible culture shock for me. I found the Utah teenagers to be sneakier, meaner and much more elitist than the kids in Orange County! As an adult I became an LDS ‘member’ and I still live in Utah County. For me, the hardest part about living here is when the behavior of the people doesn’t match the religious convictions. There is a strong emphasis on having athletic -especially football playing – sons, instead of academically strong ones. The little girls start cheer leading by kindergarten. The adults spend a lot of time honing their bodies and breast implants are very common. There is a lot of debt to keep up the appearance of financial success. Children are left to wander or on their own much too often, and the safety of children seems to hold less value to UV parents than parents elsewhere. It is common to see well groomed, expensively dressed parents with a gaggle of straggly kids. There is a definite culture of 25-35 year olds that have become parents at a young age, but still try to live as if they too were young and free. Aside from the ‘Mormonisms’, there is a ‘family’ culture that is peculiar to UV that I think is caused by very young parents having many children.

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