1. What is the Church’s Influence on You?
While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the predominant religion in the state of Utah, individual experiences with and within it are hardly monolithic. At the University of Utah, students pursue an education in an environment that regularly interacts with the church — be it through public policy, culture and the students themselves. To a certain degree, most people in Utah have a relationship with the church that affects their lives and the way they see the world.
The U is home to students from diverse backgrounds that influence their experience in Utah. Some students have had little to no exposure to the church before beginning college, while others are lifelong members. Even within the church, students explore their religious identity and how to make their voice heard. The church has many well-known teachings that interact with student beliefs about individuality, LGBTQ issues, gender roles, family, political ideology or other religious beliefs. For many people, these can be points of education. Others may face conflict.
What one person finds validating can be detrimental to another. A familiar community for some may seem exclusive to others. There may be aspects that are beneficial to all. It is facilitating these conversations — not running away from them — that creates a healthy campus culture. No student has the same perspective and by sharing their experiences, they participate in a larger discussion about who we are and what unites us.
Click through to read the individual views of each member of The Daily Utah Chronicle’s Opinion Desk.
This article is part of the Poynter College Media Project. Click here for more stories and information on the topic “Are U Mormon?”
2. Petersen: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Made Me a Democrat
I was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The experience made me a Democrat.
This observation might sound tongue-in-cheek, but I mean it in the most sincere way possible. For many people, conservative politics and the church go hand-in-hand. For me, the values I learned in church directly inspired me to take progressive positions on almost every issue, from immigration to tax policy.
In the hundreds of hours I spent in church pews, I cannot recall a single instance when anyone explicitly advocated for liberal policies — occasionally, I heard the opposite. Yet, the teachings that I heard every Sunday pointed in one clear direction. The Christian teachings that most resonated with me espoused kindness, generosity and loving others in spite of differences. The Christ I believed in would welcome refugees and show compassion to immigrants. He would criticize economic inequality and corporate greed. He would love LGBTQ people unconditionally. In Matthew, Christ said, “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.” To me, it was obvious which political party cared more about helping “the least of these” in our country.
The church has a complex, often contradictory, relationship with politics. Many current members are traditionally patriotic, despite the pioneers’ choice to settle in the Salt Lake Valley, partly to escape influence from the U.S. government. Some doctrine is conservative, like the hard-line stance against abortion — yet others like the law of consecration read like socialist political policy. At church, I was often taught that the church stayed out of political affairs, but there are some notable exceptions to this claim, including support for Proposition 8, a California ballot proposition opposing gay marriage.
To me, it never made sense to separate religious values and political ones. I wanted to express the same values in all aspects of my life, whether at the pulpit or the polls. Democratic Senator Harry Reid said, “I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it.” For a while, I felt the same way, and my spiritual and political beliefs informed and enriched each other.
Today, I am no longer am a practicing member of the church and would hesitate to even identify as Christian. I remain deeply uncomfortable with many church policies — especially their attitude toward homosexuality — and since leaving, my concerns have only grown. I also felt increasingly at odds with the political culture of the church. I stopped attending meetings almost immediately after President Trump was inaugurated — the timing was coincidental, but in hindsight, it feels prescient. President Trump’s blatant dishonesty and dangerous lack of empathy are completely antithetical to my personal values. According to the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of church members approve of Donald Trump’s job performance.
Still, my religious background informs my outlook on the world, and I am grateful that the church inspired me to evaluate my own political beliefs as a young teenager. I strongly believe in building a more just, humane and understanding world, and that has remained consistent regardless of my faith. I don’t spend much time wondering what Jesus would do, but I often wonder how he would vote.
3. Sonnenberg: Catholic and Not-Mormon
The omnipresence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has changed my relationship with my own religious identity. After living in Salt Lake City for four years, it feels insufficient to positively assert that I’m Catholic — I also now feel the need to negatively assert that I am “not-Mormon.”
Sometimes it is weird being a “non-Mormon” religious person at the University of Utah. As a freshman, I felt lost — I was not questioning nor rejecting my faith as many college students do, but I could not share spiritual experiences from serving a mission or talk about the latest General Conference talks the way that others did. This is overly simplistic, of course, but I felt like I was stuck in the middle between Mormon and secular culture. I ended up negatively defining my identity as not Mormon and not secular, even while I positively deepened my faith.
My keychain is one manifestation of my negatively framed religious identity. Instead of a medal with a picture of the Salt Lake Temple, my house keys jangle alongside a bottle opener and a medal decorated with Pope St. John Paul II and Our Lady of Częstochowa. My devotion to the saints shows that I am Catholic and, more interestingly, my beer bottle opener shows that I am not a Latter-day Saint. I embrace a lot of things that positively identify me as a Catholic and negatively identify me as a Mormon. I love tattoos and got one of the Jerusalem Cross while on a pilgrimage. I chant old Latin music that would be out of place at a Tabernacle Choir concert. I pray the rosary while walking on campus and carry a miniature icon in my wallet. I drink a lot of alcohol, especially at church events. I venerate saints and not those of the Latter-day variety.
I delight in embracing all these things that, either publicly or privately, mark me as something other than Mormon. It may seem petty for me to insist on defining myself as not belonging to the dominant religious group and I understand how childish it may seem for me to embrace traditions just because they are different. Yet, my constant acts of personal definition via negation are the fruits of my experience in a place that is so completely defined by the influence of the Church of Jesus Christ.
My rationale for defining my faith in contrast to the Church of Jesus Christ is not rooted in some deep-seated dislike of the church or in some erroneous sense of Catholic superiority. It was the assumption that all religious people in Utah are Mormons that challenged me to identify what sets my faith apart and to then embrace those unique aspects. When everyone around me identifies one way, I feel like I need to be able to explain or justify why I have chosen another path. It is this need to define myself, to explain who I am, that has driven me to so completely embrace my own Catholic subculture as an alternative to the mainstream Mormon culture.
4. Scott: Faith in Family
Most religions have a roadmap for a post-mortal existence. I, like many people in Utah, was raised with the version taught by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which places an emphasis on the eternal family. During the formative years preceding my adulthood, my family’s religious identity metamorphosed into something far more mystic and fundamentalist. In both practices, family is the purpose of existence, the priority and the final reward after a life well-lived. While no longer a practicing believer, my perspective on family, death and legacy is healthier because of “Mormon” cultural values.
I find there to be little utility in straining over the specific details of the hereafter. An unhealthy fixation on the unprovable detracts from important relationships, personal direction and intellectual clarity. The effort to preserve one’s family through the afterlife has prevented many people from appreciating their loved ones as they are, here and now. Yet by addressing death, religion opens its own discussion on the value and beauty of life. For me, the church did not always provide sufficient answers, but it offered coping mechanisms for life’s struggles that have sustained me through both my spiritual and secular life.
The church offers a reconciliation of past and present through its emphasis on genealogy. My appreciation for family stories did not reach fruition until I grew to the age when one grapples with identity, adulthood and the desire for guidance. At times when I doubted my interests and decisions, it bolstered me to hear stories about female relatives from very different worlds as they made it work in the 70s, during World War ll and at the turn of the century. It is profoundly comforting to see snapshots of my personality in their actions, to feel something for someone long dead. Because of the church’s focus on the family and its eternal potential, I have a larger network to draw strength from. In times where I feel alienated from living family members, I can call upon others from the past. By remembering them, my ancestors live again through me — in a different sort of afterlife than the one I was raised to rely on.
Learning family trees is an exercise in broadening our perspective. It is important to acknowledge the actions of our ancestors because our lives are the eventual results. I have ancestors who sacrificed everything to serve their country or practice their religion. I also have ancestors who violently displaced indigenous peoples and others who likely supported the Confederacy. It is my responsibility to honor the work of some ancestors and to account for the damaging actions of others. There are many valid critiques of the church, but it would be dishonest to say that families are not at its heart. Appreciating the nuance allows us to live connected lives and honor those who have gone before us.
5. Brown: Emotional Damage Stays with Post-Mormon People
Anyone who has left The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will remember the exact moment that they decided to do so. Tired of intellectual contortions, the mental gymnast in their head shrugged off the weight and packed their bags. In the wake of a sudden “fall from grace,” the psychological snares released and they were left wading in the existential mud. For many ex-members, psychological harm is a final, lasting connection to the church.
In a Darwinian view of religion, the evolution of advanced retention mechanisms — also known as indoctrination — is critical for a church’s survival. Children are temporarily separated from their parents during weekly services and taught to sing hymns embedded with mnemonic phrases to solidify basic beliefs of the faith in their memory. From there, morality is regulated and defined in favor of the church. Eternal reward is promised in return for conformity. The church employs a rigid moral code, which causes many active members to suffer. People are asked to regulate or deny their sexuality, emotions and thoughts to an unhealthy extreme. There is little room for nuance when the facing eternal punishment for failing.
Those who might have thoughts about leaving the church are often subject to pity and deprecation. There is a swift, strong cultural response to designate those who leave as weak, morally suspect and unsalvageable “bad apples.” To leave the church is to turn your back on your cultural roots, your society and your home.
While this is the exception and not the rule, the pain of leaving such a demanding religion takes a dark turn. For some, in an effort to cope with the pain, ex-members may fulfill the negative stereotypes that active members use to dissuade others from leaving.
I made the decision to leave the church, and some members always seemed uneasy around me since I had done so. This sudden distance causes many post-Mormon people enter a mental space of guilt, shame and blasphemy. Though there are members who are willing to adjust to a person’s decision to leave, it is possible that many relationships will be cut off or slowly fade from the strain.
The psychological effects of indoctrination are documented. Many experience difficulty shaking the shame surrounding sexuality, “contraband” — alcohol, pornography — and any alternative ways of living. I personally remain partially regulated by the morality system I was taught as a child. Though it is hard to quantify the damage, it likely factors into some cases within Utah’s statistically high suicide rate, including the rise in teen suicides. Though there is much to be had, I do believe the damage from leaving the church can be overcome. It is my hope that healing will continue as the psychologically damaging policies and methods of the church are discussed honestly in the mainstream discourse surrounding Utah and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
6. Barron: Latter-day Saints Must Live Up to Their Name
It is difficult to quantify the profound impact that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has had on my life. As a lifelong member, it is unsurprising that it has seeped into my everyday life — to the point where I am often caught humming the gospel songs that I learned as a child or muttering “by grace we are saved after all we can do” prior to an exam. Regrettably, the doctrine of acceptance and love found in Primary songs and Scripture Mastery is often undercut by the cultural practices of the Church of Jesus Christ in Utah. The negative impact that the church has on the lives of non-members diminishes some aspects of my positive religious experience. Raised in a heavily member-saturated region of Utah, I witnessed Latter-day Saint students in my middle school — easily the religious majority — ostracize a young woman after she accidentally outed herself during a seminary class. In their fervor to condemn her sexual orientation, these so-called disciples of Christ ignored Jesus’s last command to his apostles — to love one another as he had loved them. Those who love the church had better remember to love others.
Sadly, this kind of religious exclusion was not unique to my middle school. There are many articles on the pain caused by Utah church members that have been published in the LA Times, and there are Reddit message boards dedicated to this topic. This exclusion might come in the form of parents forbidding their children to play with non-member kids or a community shaming individuals’ lifestyles. This exclusion is not often intentionally malicious, but it has consequences — whether it leaves a bad taste in a family’s mouth or contributes to an isolated individual’s decision to take their own life. Members in Utah form a religious echo chamber that reinforces their beliefs. The importance of our worldview is exaggerated and we are unable to recognize the merits of different perspectives.
On National Coming Out Day, Roni Jo Draper, a Brigham Young University professor, posted on Facebook, “If you are straight and cisgender (like me), you may not completely understand the complexity of coming to understand that your gender and/or sexuality is very different from the people around you … let’s do the work of compassion and charity.” Dr. Draper’s example of inclusion has been echoed by other church members such as Encircle founder Stephanie Larsen and even some leaders of the church.
Latter-day Saints believe that “the worth of souls is great in the sight of God” and that our shepherd would leave his flock to care for needs of a single sheep. Because of that, we must increase our awareness on how our culture may negatively impact our communities. If members change — choosing to practice Christ-like charity and welcoming differences — they will minister and provide more for the marginalized families and individuals in our communities. Latter-day Saints will have an easier time shedding the “Mormon” label for Christ’s disciples if they are willing to follow his teachings.
7. Alvarado: The Church Creates a Learning Curve for New Utah Residents
Before moving to Utah, I had minimal knowledge of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Never predicting the influence of the church, my only expectation was to live in a city with more temples than I was accustomed to. I hoped that my lack of affiliation with the church would exempt me from its influence, but a few months of living in Utah rivaled the subdued feeling of my childhood Catholic school attendance.
I rationalized many of the small differences between the people from my state and Utahns, considering them purely regional rather than religious. As time went on, others would explain the religious significance around certain practices. A culture of modest clothing was the result of the church’s standards, not exclusively a tool to combat cold weather as I first believed it to be. I had also assumed that in Utah it was popular for young people to sport purity rings — and was shocked when a friend informed me that they actually wore wedding bands. Discovering that the toddlers following people around were often their children and not their younger siblings was even more shocking.
As I became aware of the church and its members, I became increasingly reluctant to express any sort of criticism against the leaders of the church or their beliefs. It is difficult to be a new resident in a state with a strong culture. Without any ties to organized religion of my own, the influence of the Church of Jesus Christ felt powerful and overwhelming. The constant invitations from virtual strangers to attend church became claustrophobic. It gives the impression that everyone around you wants to convert you and that they are very aware that you do not fit in.
It is difficult to know so little about such an important organization. The church has influence in areas other than culture, and its relationship with the Utah State Legislature is concerning for someone who does not share the same faith. I may not be a member, but the presence of the church is prominent enough that it often discourages me from deviating from the cultural expectations of behavior. There are many times when it feels as if the church has the power to silence dissenting opinions, wherever they may come from, yet there is risk to building an opinion from secondhand stories.
It is important to strike the balance between respect and critique, especially when discussing organizations that carry such profound cultural weight.