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.