Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Separating Doctrine From Culture

The whole issue I blogged about back in November about being a "Utard" seems to come up every once and awhile.  Basically, the problem boils down to people being unable to separate being a "Utahan" from being a "Utard" and assume that those of us who don't live in Utah have some sort of general dislike for "Utah Mormons".  Is there a prejudice outside of Utah towards church members from Utah?  Absolutely, though it varies greatly by location and the individual and is not always negative.  Some people automatically assume the worst when they find out someone is from Utah; others assume the best.  I like to get to know someone before I come to any conclusions about what kind of person they are, though I do admit, I have the whole "Utard" worry in my head when I first find out and hope I'm wrong.  Why?  I've had far more negative experiences than positive with the whole cultural divide that separates Utah (and in reality many western U.S.) Mormons from the rest of us.  That's not to say I've had all negative experiences.  I still count many friends who are Utah natives and/or still live in Utah, plus my best (and worst) mission companions were all from Utah, plus I have family there.  But to simply stand by and assume that all the negative and testimony-damaging experiences I endured, and the many negative experiences I've heard from others, are simply coincidences or isolated cases would be to ignore the problem and allow it to continue.  What I've come to believe is that it's a widespread enough problem that a negative prejudice has developed outside of Utah, though it is by no means universal to all Utah Latter-day Saints.

As I stated originally and have restated many times, this is nothing personal against the state of Utah.  As a state, Utah really isn't much different to me than any other state.  There are things I love about the state (the mountains, for one!) and there are things I don't like about the state (like the desert climate and the horrible drivers on I-15).  I can say the same about every state in the U.S. I've been to (42 and counting), including Ohio.  No, this is speaking out against certain prevalent cultural elements that exist primarily in Utah, simply because Utah has the unique situation of having the single-largest group and highest concentration of members of the church; cultural elements that I find contradict church doctrine yet are constantly (and improperly) mingled with it as if they are one in the same.  Basically, if the church were most prevalent in, say, Illinois or Wyoming or Florida I'd be saying the same thing about those states.  And yes, parts of Idaho (like Rexburg) also have these same cultural elements.  Because the elements are so much associated with doctrines of the church, they not only give Latter-day Saints a bad name overall in many cases, but even amongst each other it creates problems where the line between cultural traditions and doctrines is blurred.  The elements that have created this culture are mostly those from the 1840s that were common in the United States when the Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley.  Once they got to the valley and began spreading out, they were largely isolated, so while the rest of the country moved on with certain cultural "norms" the previous ones were able to take deep root and eventually creep in the same level as doctrine amongst the Saints.  For instance, the charge that the church is very "clannish" actually comes from the early development of the church in the 1820s-1840s.  Just take one read of Joseph Smith History and his descriptions of the various Protestant sects.  The various sects were very divided against each other and did not intermingle, something that for the most part is not true today.  Of course too, the early church did often have to go it alone because of persecution, which also contributed to that "stick with your own" mentality to the point where visitors tend to be ignored.  This is not something that generally happens in other areas of the church, but has happened to me and I've heard many others talk about experiencing this in Utah.

As for the term Utard, again, people need to understand this isn't a term for anyone from Utah, at least the way I use it.  That is Utahan.  Utard is not a term I came up with, but I thought it was a clever play on words and it seemed to fit what I felt it was describing when I first heard it on my mission.  In doing a Google search for the term, I've discovered it has several meanings; some related to the church, some not.  I guess for die-hard Utah lovers, it's unfortunate that their state name is so easily turned into a derogatory term, but to think that Utah is the only state people make fun of is ridiculous and ignores reality.  It's just that other state names aren't as easily combined with another word!  The only one I could think of off the top of my head was "Floridiot" and honestly, I've never heard it used!

So, we definitely shouldn't just come to a rushed judgment about someone just because they're from Utah, and Utahans shouldn't make quick judgments about people from the "mission field" (a term which I feel is TOTALLY misused out west).  Whether good or bad, that's a form of prejudice and it prevents us from really getting to know someone, not just here but in any instance of prejudice.  We're all on the same team here working for a common good, but we also must not stick our heads in the sand and pretend there's not a major cultural problem where large amounts of members exist because there certainly is a problem.

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