July 2002

Unspoken Divide

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

Last December, The Salt Lake Tribune carried a special feature of several pages with the same title as the present article. It was introduced with the caption, “Intolerance, misinformation, insensitivity exist on both sides of a gap that seems to many to separate Utah Mormons and non-Mormons.” The Tribune has received more requests for extra copies of this feature than for any feature it has ever run. It was a year in the making.

Its articles were written by Tribune reporters and prominent business and community leaders and contain quotes from some ordinary people. Here are some salient thoughts expressed by them:

Alex, 11 years old, lost his best friend, because Alex wasn’t Mormon. When he went to a sleepover at his friend’s house, his friend told him he couldn’t come over because his parents said he was a bad influence. Some years later Alex at the high school graduation ceremony was given special recognition for having been selected to attend Harvard. Alex wondered, were his friends looking and thinking, “Oh the bad influence is going to Harvard?”

Such hard feelings haunt every Utah community. “It is a bad flood that flows both ways, and for some it is bitter,” says the article by Dan Egan.

When Mormons sit down at dinner and never take a drink, they can be very judgmental of those drinking [alcohol], but sometimes Mormons are also judged for not drinking.

Countless friendships, partnerships and marriages have bridged the Mormon/non-Mormon divide. But every day secret scores are kept on both sides. Classifications are so constant as to be almost unconscious. “He is one of us. She is one of them.”

Sometimes non-Mormons use pejorative, ugly words to talk about Mormons, for example “cult,” “self-righteous,” “narrow-minded” and “Mo.” Sometimes that nastiness is unbridled religious bigotry. At times it comes from people rubbed raw from persistent attempts by missionaries and well-meaning Mormon neighbors’ attempts to sell them a religion other than their own. Other times it comes from frustration at a religious institution that is a cultural and political powerhouse. One source of such frustration was the conversion of a block of Salt Lake’s Main Street into a religious park after the Mormon members of the City council voted to sell it to their church. Other irritants are the ubiquity of the LDS presence in Utah; seminaries adjacent to public high schools; the Salt Lake Temple as the unofficial state icon; the exclusivity non-Mormons believe the Temple represents, including the exclusion of family members, even of some who are Mormons but who don’t qualify for a ‘recommend,’ a pass giving a person the right to participate in Temple rites; stereotyping statements like, ” If you don’t like it here, leave;” LDS family members shunned by their Salt Lake City neighbors when they are spotted heading for Sunday services with scriptures in hand; and the agnostic office worker being antagonized with such questions as, “What ward do you belong to?”

The LDS church demands a lot of time from its members, and that fact is hard for non-Mormons to fathom. Sometimes high school students are surprised to find a popular student is a non-Mormon, since it is generally assumed that only Mormons are popular. Some of the instances of non-Mormon children being excluded from play by other children in their neighborhoods are heart-rending. Some parents say Utah is probably the only place where kids are defined by religion, not race or social class. Some complain that Mormons have the perception that only Mormons are nice. Some non-Mormons cope by finding their own circle of friends.

Bruce Smith, publisher of the Herald Journal in Logan is often stunned by the insensitivity of fellow Mormons. He says they chat about mission calls and conference talks at football games and dinner parties, as if everyone around is LDS. At the same time, he says, some non-Mormons “get their noses bent out of joint” for no reason.

The Tribune is seen is seen as at least a secondary player in the cultural-religious divide. Bob Fatheringham, a businessman, cites these examples: 1) Efforts to discredit the church’s offers of support in staging the 2002 Olympic games by labeling them as self-serving and dishonest, 2) The charges of duplicity regarding the church’s role surrounding the legal battle over future ownership of the Tribune, 3) Nominating President Hinckley as a candidate for Man of the Year in 2000 and then listing one of his accomplishments as that of trying to “culturally cleanse” the newspaper, and 4) the Mountain Meadows Massacre series, run just after Hinckley had just offered a historic olive branch to current-generation families of the victims. But Shelley Thomas, former KSL TV news anchor and now a businesswoman, says the Tribunereflects the rift but isn’t the cause. “The cultural divide is real, and it would exist if we relied on tribal drums for morning news.”

LDS leaders acknowledge that there is a problem. “We must not be clannish,” President Gordon B. Hinckley has said. “We must never adopt a holier-than thou attitude.” He described Utah as a state of great diversity. He asked his people to make non-Mormons feel welcome, to befriend them and associate with them.

In some places in the state, particularly in rural areas, people have taken steps to bridge the gap between the two cultures. In one case local Mormons helped non-LDS persons to build a church for their own faith, Catholic, then flocked to the consecration of the church buildings. In one case a quilting group, mostly Mormon, meets in a Catholic Church. It is simply a healthy respect for differences.

It is time, says John Huntsman, Alliance for Unity co-founder, philanthropist, and practicing Mormon, to “start healing the wounds of the state.”

Deriving Joy From An
Understanding of Science

In an effort to explain the pleasure I get from science, I have often told the story about a conversation I once had with a religious individual.

Years ago I used to backpack frequently in the Uintah Mountains, studying and taking pictures of the area. As a student in the University of Utah Geography Department, these trips served my needs in several ways. They were welcome excursions away from civilization and into nature, they were good experiences in self-sufficiency and survival, and they were also a way for me to gather information for undergraduate projects. My interests were those of a student of physical geography: basic geology, recent geomorphologic events (the last glacial period) and the current alpine environment. As might be expected, I gained a fair amount of knowledge of this area. I particularly enjoyed discovering the evidence of the last glaciation and also the factors that influence the upper timberline.

One summer I had planned a trip to a place called Naturalist Basin. I was alone the first day and evening, but a friend was to meet me the next day. He was bringing a troop of Boy Scouts and a few other adults to help supervise the Scouts.

I was fly fishing along the shore of Lake Jordan when one of the scout leaders came up to me and we started to chat. I told him I was a Geography major at the University of Utah. I also remember that I was eager to tell him how I found great joy in my knowledge of the dynamics of the area and felt closer to nature when I was up in the mountains observing their beauty, and, that an understanding of how many of the features were formed by the last glaciation helped to heighten this appreciation.

What I remember best is his response. I was somewhat surprised when he said that he didn’t want to know about all the scientific stuff because it would ruin his appreciation of God’s creation. After that, the conversation kind of trailed off and I was left alone to shake my head in amazement at what had just occurred.

I would still expect this response from a great many religious people in the world. I believe that many stick their heads in the sand and ignore knowledge that might challenge what they believe, especially if that information comes with the proof and facts that science brings to light.

The reason I’m relating this is not to argue about creationism versus science, but rather to point out that dogma and faith are not the only way to garner great joy.

Imagine, if you will, this scene: It is a beautiful late spring day in the High Uintahs. I am taking a hike and listening to some favorite classical music pieces. When the trail reaches the top of a pass and is about to descend down into another drainage system, I break away from the beaten path and start up the slope of one of the mountains that flank the pass. Climbing as far as is possible without having to do any serious climbing, I soon reach an elevation of about twelve thousand feet. Here I sit down, eat my lunch and look out on the vast vista surrounding me.

The slope of the area curves around fairly uniformly from a north-facing to a west-facing slope in line with the pass below and continues around until it is a south-facing slope. This all takes place in about half of a mile. But the really interesting thing about this transition is that, in this short distance, one can observe the change in plant species on the North Slope with succulent plant types covering the rocks and poor soil nearly like a carpet. As you move around to the south-facing slope the flora changes and thins out until there is a mostly sparse, high desert like foliage. But this is only one aspect of the vista. At this elevation, when a wisp of a cloud goes past, you become aware of how fast they are moving. Sometimes you are engulfed in their cold mist for a moment or two.

This beautiful vista is not only close at hand, but also allows you to look out on the distant features and observe many other wonders of nature. The glacially carved features are apparent in the way the ice had smoothed and rounded most of the features of this mountain range. The observant eye will also see that the trees seem to end abruptly at about eleven thousand feet. These are only a few of the things that can be viewed and studied when hiking through this alpine mountain environment.

When I sit on this slope gazing out at all these wonders, and listening to Mozart, the feeling of closeness to nature is enormous, and it is enhanced by the scientific knowledge I have gained that makes me aware of the processes in nature that have made this area what it is.

For me, it is this knowledge that makes the experience so very enjoyable and satisfying.

–Robert Lane

Execution of Mentally Retarded Ruled Cruel

AHA Praises Court Decision

(Washington, DC-June 21, 2002) Leaders of the American Humanist Association give high praise to today’s Supreme Court ruling that execution of the mentally retarded is “unconstitutionally cruel.” AHA executive director Tony Hileman reacts, “It is a triumph that the Supreme Court recognized the severity and injustice of existing capital punishment laws and has taken a bold step in the right direction.”

Since people with intellectual disabilities are at a higher risk of being convicted and sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit, the Court’s ruling will save innocent Americans from irrevocable penalties. This reversal of earlier court opinions reflects society’s changing attitude concerning both the justice of our current capital punishment system and the meaning of “cruel and unusual.”

Hileman continues: “The freedom and dignity of the individual person is a central Humanist value. The United States’ administration of capital punishment lacks rationale and fairness and, until these deficiencies are addressed, we must acknowledge that use of the death penalty is dangerous to individual life and liberty.

“In identifying the unconstitutionality of executing the mentally retarded, the Court is recognizing that there are mistakes in the system and is beginning to take steps to correct them.”

As seen in AHA’s June 2000 coalition statement with the American Ethical Union, AHA continues supporting “moratoriums on carrying out capital verdicts and opposing legislation that would make executions more likely.”