Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Behind the Zion Curtain

First of all, I ought to acknowledge that I got the title of this post from Pooflingers Anonymous--I don't know if Matt of PA invented the term, but that's the first place I saw it. (A commenter did use the phrase in a reply to a recent post here, but I had already decided to use it as the title of this post before that.)

So, anyway, like I said in the last post, I got back yesterday from a trip to Utah with my family to visit my brother for Thanksgiving. Utah is not one of my favorite places. And that's not just since I've become an atheist. Even when I considered myself a faithful Mormon (I seem to open a lot of sentences here with that phrase), I didn't like Utah. It seemed to me that while where I lived, most of the Mormons I knew were serious about their faith (not that I now think that's really a good thing either--but that's another matter), in Utah people were Mormon just because everyone else was Mormon. It was just the way things were, and it went largely unexamined. And anyone who didn't live the perfect Mormon lifestyle was looked down on at best, and more often shunned. No doubt there are exceptions, and I certainly haven't spent enough time in Utah to really have a broad base for my judgments. But that's the impression I've gotten in the time I have spent there.

Actually, this was more evident on a previous occasion when I was visiting my brother in Utah. At that time, I went to church with him and my family, and the whole lesson in the priesthood meeting was about dealing with non-Mormons, and trying not to make them feel unwelcome. At one point, when the teacher cautioned against the attitude that non-Mormons living in Utah were interlopers in a place intended for members of the church, one person protested, "But it's true!" This time, while I again went to church there with my family (again, I'm not quite ready to let them know about my disbelief just yet), there was no such blatant manifestation of the insular Utahn attitude, but there was still that feeling, that apparent expectation that everyone had to live the same lifestyle--not just with respect to the commandments of the church, but with respect to cultural matters as well.

(Oh, yes, by the way, another thing that happened during that same previous visit referred to above: A visitor from elsewhere was introduced, and the family member introducing him took pains to mention apologetically that he was a Democrat. I don't remember the exact wording, but some wag made a remark implying that while technically members of the church were not enjoined against being Democrats, Democrats would be punished after they died. Har, har. When my brother introduced me, he then added, equally apologetically "and he's also a Democrat"--which, incidentally, didn't happen to be true, but apparently my brother had assumed that if I wasn't a Republican I must be a Democrat...)

Another characteristic of Utah is a Pharisaical devotion to the letter of the Church's mandates, even when clearly in opposition to the intention. I've heard that, at least in some places in Utah, it was fairly common for young men and women to make a road trip to Las Vegas, get married, and then get the marriage annulled the next day--so that they could have sex and technically not be violating the "law of chastity", since they'd have been married at the time. I'm sure those who participate in such practices are very much in the minority, but that same kind of letter-of-the-law lifestyle, if not usually to such an absurd degree, does seem all too prevalent there.

I regret to say that my brother, since his move to Utah, has shown signs of coming into accordance with the dominant attitudes there. He's become rather sanctimonious, and obsessed with niggling adherence to rules. He berated my mother, for instance, for going shopping on Sunday when she just wanted to pick up some rolls and some paper plates so his wife wouldn't have to wash dishes after dinner--"A commandment's a commandment," he said, and the Sabbath must be kept holy. He has three sons, the oldest of which (who's currently six) is clearly extremely bright--and I kind of feel bad that they're going to be brought up in that kind of atmosphere. I don't mean that my brother's a bad father; he's a good person, and I'm sure he's trying his best...but I still wish my nephews weren't going to grow up amid the Utahn intolerance and self-righteousness.

(Actually, when I do come out as an atheist, my brother's the one who's likely to take it the most badly. My mother I expect to be horrified at first, but gradually accept it; from my brother I don't think I'll ever hear the end of it. I worry a little that he'll want to keep me away from his sons, under the rationale that I'd be a bad influence on them...but I don't think that'll happen, honestly. As I said, I think he's basically a good person, and while I'm sure he'll be upset about my atheism I don't really expect him to cut me off completely because of it.)

There's some irony, maybe, though, in the fact that my biggest criticism of typical Utahn Mormons has long been that Mormonism is to them more a culture than a religion--and now I've come to realize that that's really how it has been for me all along. (The observation has occurred to me previously that the criticisms one most frequently levels at others are often criticisms that often apply to oneself; I guess this may be one more example of this principle.) I never really fully believed in the church, but I fooled myself into thinking I did just to fit in with my family and my Mormon friends. Well...no; I'm oversimplifying. There's a lot more to it than that. But anyway, that's the subject of another post.

I had some thoughts on how the problems I see with Mormonism in Utah might be similar to the problems with Christianity in America as a whole, and might come whenever a religion comes to dominate an area too much. But it's getting very late, and I won't expand on that idea right now--maybe I will in a later post, or maybe not. In the meantime, though, I'd said I was going to make a post about my visit to Utah, and so I guess this is it. I don't know that I really have much of a coherent point here, so to summarize: Utah: Not my favorite place.

13 Comments:

At 11/29/2006 6:19 AM, Anonymous tina said...

Slightly/completely off-topic, but if you haven't seen it I recommend you see 'Orgazmo' by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the South Park people). It's about a Mormon guy who goes to California and ends up working in a porn film to get money for his wedding... it's very, very funny.

 
At 11/29/2006 7:47 AM, Anonymous Anuminous said...

I got the Zion Curtain line from Matt as well. It was far too fine a phrase to leave in one place.

When my parents moved from Boston to a smallish town 20 minutes outside of Salt Lake City, I went to visit them. My very Utahn brother in law was also visiting. I enjoy cooking, so one thing I did was make sure I made a nice dinner for everybody while I was there. I made lemon chicken in a butter and wine sauce. The first problem was finding a bottle of wine! I had to drive all over the place to find where the state liquor store was hidden behind a giant walmart. Then when my BiL heard that there was (*gasp*) a cup of wine in the recipe which served 10, he would not eat it. He did not want "to support the alchohol industry" you see. Sigh.

 
At 11/29/2006 7:05 PM, Blogger TexasNacho said...

It seems to me that you are being just as sanctimonious as you claim they are. It’s people like you who give atheists a bad reputation. Were you this prideful as a Mormon or is that new? I have lived in Utah and I agree that there is a strong cultural aspect to their supposed personal beliefs. This is to be understood considering the history of the region. Would you meet the indigenous people of Northern Alaska and berate them for how “cultural” their belief system is…or how sanctimonious they are for believing they hold some special place in the world? You speak of their culture with the same derisive attitude you accuse them of. Do you judge all cultures so harshly? Do you and the commentators to this blog mock the Iraqi people for the difficulty of buying alcohol there?
As to your tirade regarding your brother…it appears that you are preemptively judging him in the same manner in which you fear his judgment. You say you feel for his children, but you deny him the right to the same feelings. Have you ever considered that he may just be trying to raise his family in the manner he feels best based on his culture? Judging people based on cultural differences seems to be the very thing you berate religions for. As atheists it’s important that our culture is not presented as judgmental and elitist. Continue your personal journey, don’t create your own religion of judging others.

 
At 11/29/2006 8:41 PM, Blogger An Anonymous Coward said...

It seems to me that you are being just as sanctimonious as you claim they are. It’s people like you who give atheists a bad reputation. Were you this prideful as a Mormon or is that new?

Um...whoa. What brought all that on?

As I said, "No doubt there are exceptions, and I certainly haven't spent enough time in Utah to really have a broad base for my judgments. But that's the impression I've gotten in the time I have spent there." As in, that's the impression I get from my visits to Utah, and I concede it may be wrong. (Although I don't think I'm entirely alone in that impression--after all, there was a priesthood lesson in the church in Utah about being more open with non-Mormons, so evidently this is something even some Utahns see as a problem worthy of correction.)

I think you're reading something into my words very different from what I intended to be there. I'm not criticizing Utahns for having their own culture. I'm all for cultural diversity. What I'm criticizing is that they seem to be confusing culture with religion--the two are not, and, I think, should not be, the same thing.

The way it seems to me is that many Utahns are turning their religion into something cultural, based more on just doing what everyone else is doing than on any real belief. When I still considered myself a faithful Mormon, this bothered me because it seemed they were devaluing their religion. Now, it still bothers me, but for different reasons. It bothers me now in large part because it effects to trying to put the power of divine law behind their cultural norms, to enforce their own cultural preferences by conflating them with religious commandments.

Would you meet the indigenous people of Northern Alaska and berate them for how “cultural” their belief system is…or how sanctimonious they are for believing they hold some special place in the world?

I haven't berated anyone for having a "cultural" belief system. My problem with Utah isn't that they've let their culture affect their beliefs, but that they've let their beliefs define their culture, and in ways that make them actively close themselves off to other cultures. Again, I'm not saying that this is true of all Utah Mormons, but it is truer of Mormons in Utah than of those elsewhere.

It's not the "belie[f] that they hold some special place in the world" that made me consider some Utah Mormons sanctimonious--it's the niggling adherence to the letter of the rules of the religion while apparently ignoring at least some aspects of the big picture and the reasons behind the rules.

Do you and the commentators to this blog mock the Iraqi people for the difficulty of buying alcohol there?

When did I "mock" anyone? I'm criticizing the effect the dominance of the Mormon church has had on life in Utah; I don't think anything in my post could reasonably be interpreted as "mocking" or "derisive" of the people involved. Personally, I don't drink--obviously I didn't as a Mormon, and I haven't seen any reason to start since--so the difficulty of buying alcohol doesn't bother me. But I'm sure life in Iraq has a lot of problems due to the Muslim dominance there, too. I don't have personal experience with Iraq, so I don't really have anything to say on the matter myself.

As to your tirade regarding your brother…it appears that you are preemptively judging him in the same manner in which you fear his judgment. You say you feel for his children, but you deny him the right to the same feelings. Have you ever considered that he may just be trying to raise his family in the manner he feels best based on his culture?

What in the world are you talking about? How is what I said a "tirade", and how have I denied him the right to any feelings? Of course he cares about his children, and of course he's trying to raise his family in the manner he feels best based on his culture and religion. Why is that incompatible with my wishing they weren't being raised in that culture? If I wish I hadn't been raised in Mormon culture myself, why wouldn't I have the same wish for other people I care about?

I'm really trying to see your post as constructive criticism, and see what I might have said that brought up such vituperation. But honestly, I'm having a hard time with it. Are you sure you didn't already have a chip on your shoulder when you got here, and come having already decided what you expected to see? I'm not sure just how you could have gotten what you apparently got out of what I wrote.

 
At 11/30/2006 10:50 AM, Blogger IAMB said...

As much as I'd like to be able to take credit for the "Zion Curtain" phrase, I actually got it from a former Mormon probably half a dozen years ago. Like you two, I found the phrase too clever to not use and have used it ever since.

 
At 11/30/2006 11:18 AM, Anonymous Berlzebub said...

Unlike texasnacho I would like to commend you for the writing in this post. I never saw anything that seemed to be sanctimonious or a tirade. I did hear some notes of sadness, but that may be my projection.

But, if I had to make an educated guess, I would have to assume texasnacho to be a mormon, or some other xian. Especially, considering you noted throughout that you were only going by what you observed, and did not use any offensive language, or belittling of those you wrote about.

One of the reasons for my assumption:
"Do you and the commentators to this blog mock the Iraqi people for the difficulty of buying alcohol there?"
You weren't in Iraq. You were in Utah, and writing about what you observed there. That would be like me assuming texasnacho is an asshat, by the one post here without observing him over time.

-Berlzebub

 
At 11/30/2006 3:09 PM, Anonymous Anuminous said...

Heh. Well played, Berlzebub, well played.

 
At 11/30/2006 8:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an atheist who lived in Salt Lake City for more than 20 years, I completely agree with your observations.

My wife is Mormon (I almost have to add "of course" since we met in SLC). One time when we were first dating, I had a discussion with her father about "The Church" and its beliefs. I really like my in-laws, including my father-in-law, but one thing he said at the time I found almost insulting. That was, "the Pioneers came to this place, which no one else wanted, and made it a paradise through their own hard work. Now the outsiders want to take advantage of our labors and take it away from us."

As one of the "outsiders", I could only feel that that comment was aimed directly at me. But it is typical of the "One True Church vs. the Worldly Gentiles" mentality that permeates life there. And more than once I was told by various people that "if you disagree with us, then you should leave."

I finally did, and am now living in Gilbert, AZ. I certainly have no intention of ever going back, except to visit.

You are probably familiar with the highway between Kanab and Page, which follows a very scenic route along the foot of red sandstone cliffs just north of the Arizona border. These I always think of as the "Walls of Utah", the first bastion of isolation against the rest of the World.

 
At 1/22/2007 9:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I got the phrase "Behind the Zion Curtain" from www.behindzioncurtain.com

Since then, I've seen it in various places all over the net.

 
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