updated Friday, October 21, 2011 at 2:40 p.m.
ST. GEORGE – Outside of Utah, the membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – the Mormons – is in the minority. Inside of the state that trend is reversed. Newcomers to Utah suddenly find themselves in the minority if they are not a part of the dominant religion and its accompanying culture.
To members of the LDS church, religious and cultural intolerance is nothing new. A quick run-through of the church’s early history in the American East and Midwest is full of tales of persecution and forced expulsion.
However, this is not a story about grievous offenses committed over a century ago. Instead, the magnifying glass examines how one of Utah’s minorities, namely those not of the Mormon faith, perceive the dominant culture and relate how they have been received by it.
The Seasoned Resident
Avis Sasse and her family moved to Utah from Wisconsin in 1976. Work brought her family to the state, as her husband was the superintendent overseeing the construction of what would become the St. George Care and Rehabilitation Center. Once the construction was complete, Sasse said they had planned to move, but didn’t. She and her husband decided to stay so their children were not uprooted from school.
As for dealing with the predominant culture of the area, Sasse said it didn’t bother her much. She and her family got along well with their neighbors and the community. Indeed, Sasse had moved into a culture that was a Mecca for a personal hobby of hers – genealogy.
Sasse never felt alienated or discriminated against by the majority either. If anything, she described feeling “more left out.”
“It seemed that all the social activities went through the [LDS] church,” Sasse said.
Sasse and her family are Lutheran, and there were no Lutheran churches in St. George in 1976. Not being LDS led to the Sasse family being left out of a great many social gatherings early on.
Still, being in the minority really doesn’t bother Sasse.
“I have always had friends that didn’t belong to the same religion,” Sasse said.
Concerning the eccentricities of Utah culture, Sasse laughed and said being asked what ward she was in was never one of the first topics of conversation while living in Wisconsin – only in Utah.
When the question of whether or not she believed the majority culture influenced state and community laws, Sasse’s reply was “Oh yes they are.”
Sasse said the state legislators were guided by the culture they lived in. Yet, while some voices cry out with the clichéd phrase “If you don’t like, move,” Sasse said to live with it.
Sasse and her husband had the chance to move once they retired. Instead, they opted to continue living in St. George.
As more non-LDS individuals and families move into Utah, though, Sasse believes the influx will eventually reshape the dominant cultural landscape.
“Gradually attitudes are beginning to change,” she said.
Growing up Non-Mormon in Utah
Lisa Janssen is a college graduate whose family moved to Utah from California when she was seven years old. In her old neighborhood she didn’t have much opportunity to play with other children her age. She thought that would change when she came to Utah.
“I remember being so excited when I moved to South Jordan,” Janssen said. “My next door neighbors had seven children… Of these children, three were my age; one boy and two girls. I thought I had gone to heaven – so many new friends. However, that feeling was short lived.”
A few days after moving into the new neighborhood, Janssen and her new friends were no longer allowed to play with each other because her family was not Mormon.
The event had a profound impact on Janssen’s young life, but she related that as time wore on, things took a turn for the better. She gained new friends and best friends who were Mormon
“It wasn’t until I started dating that not being Mormon imposed more limitations on me,” she said.
Janssen’s first boyfriend was a Mormon who ended up dumping her because she was not of the same faith.
“I got over it and have even dated other Mormon guys since then,” Janssen added.
Still, Janssen finds dating to be an issue when it comes to dealing with the dominant culture.
“…It amazes me how I sometimes feel like there is something wrong with me since I am 24 and I’m not in a serious relationship,” she said.
For other people her age, Janssen said most of them were married and had at least two children by now.
Despite the cultural setbacks Janssen has experienced, she has found living in Utah to be a generally positive experience.
“I really enjoy Utah,” she said. “I’m not always in love with the culture here, but I feel like I grew up in a safe environment that I would feel confident in raising children in.”
The Recent Arrival
Bethany Ilsley, 36, moved to Ogden from New York City in 2007.
Like other non-Mormon transplants to Utah, she experienced the culture shock and was taken aback by what she described as immediate “surface judgments.” People would notice the multiple piercing in her ears and come to the abrupt conclusion she was not Mormon, and then come out and comment on the matter.
Ilsley added that because she was affiliated with a non-Mormon church, she didn’t get the welcome wagon Mormons were known for when moving into a new neighborhood. No one came by to introduce themselves or bothered to get to know her.
“I got nothing,” Ilsley said.
Despite the lackluster reception she received at the hands of the locals, Ilsley said her experiences with others over the years have been positive.
“In general people have been nice,” she said.
Ilsley has gotten used to Utah’s distinct culture, and added when she notices something new and distinctly Utahan, it makes her laugh. She has found some of the state’s laws particularly amusing.
“The liquor laws are pretty interesting,” she laughed.
In relation to those laws, Ilsley saw them as an example of the dominant faith and culture mixing with public policy.
“It’s really obvious the major religion has influence on politics,” she said.
In general, Ilsley has little problem with the people who embody Utah’s unique culture. Though she did say she felt occasionally isolated and discriminated against because of her non-Mormon background.
Ilsley added that, if she had any advice to give her Mormon counterparts, it would be to stop trying to convert everyone who moves into Utah.
What Does the Church Say?
Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the LDS Church’s Quorum of Twelve Apostles, spoke in the Oct. 1988 LDS General Conference on the matter of how members of the Mormon faith ought to treat non-members.
“I encourage [members of the church] to build personal, meaningful relationships with your nonmember friends and acquaintances…” Ballard said. “If they are not interested in the gospel, we should show unconditional love through acts of service and kindness…”
Ballard then counseled against appearing indifferent towards others.
“I believe Church members want to be good friends and neighbors wherever they live, but some are shy and overly cautious. This can appear to be clannish. We must not reserve our kindness and affection only for our fellow members. We must be sensitive and not oblivious to the feelings of those whose views may differ from ours. Considering the early history of the Church in these latter days, unkindness or indifference toward others should be abhorrent to members of the Church…”
The sermon was then closed by Ballard asking members to follow divine example in the matter.
“I bear my testimony that ‘God is no respecter of persons;’ we should follow his example in all of our associations with our fellowmen. I testify that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Savior of all mankind. He loves all men and looks to each one of us to do the same…”
Copyright 2011 St. George News. This material may not be published or rewritten without written consent.