How deep is religious divide?

Desert Morning News, Utah/January 27, 2007
By Dennis Lythgoe

"The Religious Divide" in Utah — the alleged chasm between Mormons and non-Mormons — was played down in a lecture Tuesday by David Knowlton, a sociocultural anthropologist who teaches at Utah

Valley State College. Knowlton spoke at a diversity and social-justice session sponsored by the University of Utah College of Social Work.

Borrowing a declaration from the best known non-Mormon historian of Mormonism, Indiana-based Jan Shipps, Knowlton called the American West "a donut with something missing — a hole" — and that hole is Utah.

"Utah does not fit classically into the national story of cowboys, mining, Westward expansion — why? It's that demon Brigham Young who haunts us still."

The religious issues in Utah, asserted Knowlton, "are deliciously complex. ... Religion haunts this state. It's overwhelming, it's in the atmosphere, yet it's very difficult to get a handle on it. It's like a ghostly presence."

Like "Dorothy in the magic land of Oz," we have to "pull the curtain on the wizard," said Knowlton. Utah is "distinctive in many ways — a distinctive region in the same sense that New England and the South are distinctive regions."

"No other state in the United States has such a large percentage of its population as members of a single religious institution. That religious institution is organized like no other mainstream religious body in the United States — with its strong hierarchical structure and an idea of prophetic authority. It is not simply a church. It's a civilization, a society. It is the center of an empire."

According to Knowlton, other religious bodies that claim large numbers in Missouri, Massachusetts or New York (Assemblies of God, Christian Scientists or Jehovah's Witnesses) do not dominate the states in which they reside the way Mormons dominate Utah.

"The brethren in Utah have enormous power," said Knowlton.

Knowlton also noted that "when Brigham came, he brought Danes, Yankees, Yorkshiremen and Welsh — why did the Welshmen stop speaking Welsh? The Welshmen who came to Utah were highly committed to their language. That's an odd historical thing. Within a generation, Welsh had gone."

According to Knowlton, Utah has more Danes than any other state. "We are to Denmark what Wisconsin is to Norwegians. In the upper Midwest, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are still spoken by the older generation in many communities. In Iowa, German is spoken. In Utah, the Scandinavian languages were gone in the first generation."

This is "a peculiar process of ethnogenesis," said Knowlton, "the process of creating identity. The ethnic conflicts quickly blended into the broader Mormon population." There was pressure, said Knowlton, for conformity.

There is also no other state, said Knowlton, where "kinship matters as much as it does here."

"We're like a family — that's an important blending point. The odd persons out are those who do not stem from this kin. So it's not just Mormons and non-Mormons. I would argue it must be Mormons, outsiders, and former Mormons, as well as non-Mormons who are part of that former Mormon community. It is less the religious issue that is important than the common family structure."

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