If you live in the Intermountain West, you know at least a few of them. If you live in Utah, they're everywhere. If you are also a nonmember, or "gentile," as Mormons call the rest of us, you bear a special burden when you leave home. Once people hear I'm from Utah, they invariably ask, "Are you Mormon?" Once I answer, "No," they want to talk trash about the Mormons.
As a teenager in southern Idaho, I thoughtlessly slid into the "them" and "us" view so prevalent in Mormon country. But after living all over the West as an adult, I moved to Utah 10 years ago. I've learned a lot since my teenage years. My own religion has enabled me to see the good things about Mormons.
On dive boats all over the Caribbean, my husband and I have smiled and said, "No, we're not Mormon. But most of our neighbors are. What nice people!" That last part usually stops it.
Sometimes, I can't avoid it. I work for a federal agency that transfers employees from state to state. A co-worker from Oregon wanted a job in my office, but he feared the Mormons would shun his family. I told him I have lots of Mormon friends. He didn't hear it. I told him Utah is wonderful if you're open-minded and enjoy people whose religious and political views differ from yours. He didn't apply for the job.
On a recent flight into Salt Lake, I sat next to a talkative, middle-aged woman. When she found out I lived in Utah, she immediately asked, "Are you Mormon?" She didn't let me get to the part about my normal neighbors. As soon as I said, "No, I'm not," she leaned in to tell me she lived near a temple outside Boston that ran afoul of zoning ordinances. She had gone to an open house at the temple and there she had seen Mormons. I thought the conclusion would be that the Mormons up close allayed her fears. So I foolishly asked, "Aren't they nice people?"
She leaned in a bit closer. "No. They were scary." I almost laughed. "Scary" is the last word I'd use to describe the Mormons I know. But I was intrigued and made the mistake of asking why. From her careful reading of a book by a woman excommunicated in the 1970s, she knew that Mormons are masters of mind control. She regaled me with outlandish theories of downtrodden Mormon women and conspiracies by Mormon men and something unsavory about temple garments.
I countered repeatedly with, "That just hasn't been my experience." I offered tales of kindnesses shown me by Mormon friends, of faith deep enough to carry them through the most difficult times. She was unconvinced. When we arrived in Salt Lake, she was still scared, and I was baffled again by the fear swirling around these ordinary people.
Answers abound as to why people distrust Mormons. Mormon friends tell me it's one more chapter in their story of being driven from place to place until they settled in Utah. A hundred and fifty years ago, the peculiarity of polygamy may have justified some fear and anger from outsiders. But now, Mormons' peculiar customs are forgoing coffee and alcohol and trying to remain chaste until marriage. It is true that some of their potluck food is a bit peculiar (you've got to learn to love Jell-O). Yet, answers are sorely lacking as to why it's acceptable to talk about Mormons this way. I can't imagine a stranger regaling me with insulting stories about Jews, on a flight into Tel Aviv.
In a few weeks, the world will converge on Utah for the Olympics. Temple Square will vie with the Wasatch Mountains as a scenic backdrop for television coverage. Local politicians discuss the perennial Utah worry of how the outside world will perceive us, while the church has promised not to proselytize the visitors. But it's Utah, and Mormons will be everywhere.
Will opinions about the church change? Most visitors will probably leave with an impression of friendly people and confusing liquor laws. Television viewers will hear a lot about sports and next to nothing about religion. Those who already indulge in trash talk about Utah's "peculiar people" may not be swayed by any of it. As for my companion on the plane, I can only hope she noticed the Starbucks franchise in the Salt Lake concourse and was comforted in her fear.
Barbara Schuster is an appeals and litigation coordinator for the Forest Service in Ogden, Utah.
Copyright © 2002 HCN and Barbara Schuster