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?
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?
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