Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Under the Banner of Heaven

Last night I posted a review of the book Under the Banner of Heaven - a Story of Violent Faith on my book review blog. I'd be interested in hearing what everyone else thinks about this particular book (if you've read it) or your general impressions.

One of my favorite quotes from the book helps describe why those of us that didn't grow up in Utah county (or have never lived there, member and non-member alike) always feel a little awkward down there:

"(p. 77) For a person accustomed to the multiethnic commotion of Los Angeles, Vancouver, New York, or even Denver, walking across the BYU campus can be a jarring experience. One sees no graffiti, not a speck of litter. More than 99 percent of the thirty thousand students are white. Each of the young Mormons one encounters is astonishingly well groomed and neatly dressed. Beards, tattoos, and pierced ears (or other body parts) are strictly forbidden for men. Immodest attire and more than a single piercing per ear are forbidden among women. Smoking, using profane language, and drinking alcohol or even coffee are likewise banned. Heeding the dictum "Cougars don't cut corners," students keep to the sidewalks as they hurry to make it to class on time; nobody would think of attempting to shave a few precious seconds by treading on the manicured grass. Everyone is cheerful, friendly, and unfailingly polite.

Most non-Mormons think of Salt Lake City as the geographic heart of Mormonism, but in fact half the population of Salt Lake is Gentile, and many Mormons regard the city as a sinful, iniquitous place that's been corrupted by outsiders. To the Saints themselves, the true Mormon heartland is here in Provo and surrounding Utah County--the site of chaste little towns like Highland, American Fork, Orem, Payson and Salem--where the population is nearly 90 percent LDS. The Sabbath is taken seriously in these parts. Almost all businesses close on Sundays, as do public swimming pools, even on the hottest days of the summer months.

This part of the state is demographically notable in other aspects, as well. The LDS Church forbids abortions, frowns on contraception, and teaches that Mormon couples have a sacred duty to give birth to as many children as they can support--which goes a long way toward explaining why Utah County has the highest birth rate in the United States; it is higher, in fact, than the birth rate in Bangladesh. This also happens to be the most Republican county in the most Republican state in the nation. Not coincidentally, Utah County is a stronghold not only of Mormonism but also Mormon Fundamentalism."


B-Rett said...

This quote is a bit exaggerated, but is relatively accurate in terms of describing life here in Utah County. Having lived here for 6 of the past 8 years, many stores aren't open on Sunday, most people are incredibly nice (unless they're driving), and people are fairly homogeneous. With low crime and being very family oriented, many people consider it a great place to live. That being said, I want out, not just out of Utah County, but out of Utah.

I have always found it amusing that so many people from outside of Utah County (but within Utah) hold the people from Utah County with such disdain. I've heard the sentiment that even visiting friends in Utah County is such a burden because it's so weird down here. We should just go up to Salt Lake where it's better (not so weird). I have to confess, it's not.

Sure, there are plenty of differences. And I will admit that Utah County is an exaggerated instance of many of the things that make Utah peculiar. But that's just it, Utah is peculiar. People here are very conservative. They are very homogeneous. They are quite polite (so long as they aren't driving). And while I respect Tyler's assessment (definitely quite a valid one), the culture that makes Utah County unique is quite pervasive across all of Utah, not just here in Provo.

alisquire said...

I don't know many people who think Salt Lake City is sinful...

Clark said...

This is, in my opinion, another example of someone who has never lived in Utah County thinking they know what it is like to live in Utah County.

To be sure, the UC (Shannon started me on calling it that) is more LDS, more Republican, cleaner, etc., than many or most places in the US or even Utah. However, people describing the UC generally use unwarranted superlatives.

I'm guessing that Mr. Krakauer hasn't lived in Provo for 5 years, so I'll suggest that I'm a better expert than he is.

Specifically . . .

BYU is not 99% white. In 2007, BYU reports that minorities make up 12.4% of the student body, which is fairly evenly split between Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic and Other (with Native American and African American being small minorities.)

"Not a speck of litter" is an exaggeration.

"Each . . . is astonishingly well groomed and neatly dressed." One of my physics professors once wrote a letter to the editor complaining how students all wore pajamas, old clothes and flip flops to class.

"students keep to the sidewalks." I admit it, I am firm believer in not cutting corners. Many BYU students are not. The campus is generally well set up such that sidewalks are placed such that cutting corners isn't necessary. But on my walk to and from school each day for two years I passed multiple "game trails" as I called them. Spend time on campus and you'll see people constantly walking across the grass.

"Everyone is cheerful, friendly, and unfailingly polite." Does anyone actually believe this is true? Each year the UofU paper runs an article where someone reports that they were on BYU campus and someone was rude to them for wearing a UofU hat.

"Many Mormons regard [SLC] as a sinful, iniquitous place." I've never heard anyone say this. (Now, maybe we've said it about the U . . .)

My issue with statements like this about Provo/UC isn't so much that they say things that are blatantly wrong, but that they push all the facts they can towards painting Provo in the most "Pleasantville-ish" way possible. BYU is certainly predominantly white, but imagining a crowd that is 1% minority is a lot different than one that is 15%. And ideas that there is absolutely no litter, or that people are unfailingly polite are rather sensationalist in my mind, phrased that way to make the place seem as weird as possible. Think of how different it sounds to describe Provo as a place that is "much cleaner than other cities of its size" with people who are "generally very polite".

tysqui said...

I made no claim as to the validity of Krakauer's claims, I just thought they were funny (in fact, there were small errors throughout the book). I posted them here because people who have never lived in the beloved "UC" are always ragging on the UC. I fall firmly into this camp. If BYU was in Juab County I would probably rag on the JC...

Sabrina said...

Interesting post. I have thought about reading this book, but have heard it's a bit sensationalist. The quotes probably prove that's probably true. However, I also wish the church would be more open about some its not so clean history rather than sweeping it under the rug. I don't expect to have Sunday School lessons about it or anything, but maybe more acknowledgment of some of the nastier facts from the past. As a church, I think the general population is fairly ignorant about church history and from an outsider's perspective we may look a little more brainwashed than we really are. I have heard quite a few not so nice things about the church which still doesn't shake my faith, but it always reminds that everyone is human and prone to mistakes, even very big mistakes.

Shanny said...

Sabrina has a good point. Maybe the church should get some people to do a whole bunch of research and write a book about some of the less than rosy parts of their past, like the Mountain Meadows Massacre. In fact, there could be an Ensign article in conjunction with this, and maybe some stuff in the Deseret News. Oh wait! That's been done! ;)

I hope that wasn't too snarky, it really is a good point. We shouldn't sweep stuff under the rug. However, I think headway is being made.

Clark said...

Wow, that Shanny person sure has a keen intellect! ;)

Tyler: I didn't mean to imply that you made those statements I disagreed with. I realize that those are Mr. Krakauer's words. I'll wait until you make your own silly claims before disagreeing with you personally. :)

Richard Bushman (historian, Bishop, Stake patriarch, Harvard PhD, etc.) wrote a book wrote a book about Joseph Smith in 2006 titled "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling" which is 784 pages long and I believe covers every possible aspect of Josephs life, good and bad. lists dozens of books about Mountain Meadows and has over 15,000 results for "Joseph Smith". I'm sure these works cover every possible side of each topic, good and bad.

I don't mean to seem disagreeable in commenting here, but sometimes I fear that I do. I think I'll increase my use of :)'s to lighten the mood. :)

Finally, for Sabrina (and others):
You said: "I also wish the church would be more open about some its not so clean history rather than sweeping it under the rug." I am wondering what specifically the church ought to do. Clearly Sunday services are not the right time or place, nor is General Conference. What would be a good way for the church to be more open? Also, what does the church do that "sweeps under the rug" unpleasant things from the past? To what extent is the Church (or any group or individual) obligated to pro-actively inform people about questionable activities from the past?

Taylor said...

Amen to the "stronghold for Mormon Fundamentalism" part. Mormon Fundamentalists are crawling all over the place in their antiquated garb.

Remember Warren Jeffs? He lives in Provo. I think he was quoted in one of his trials as saying,"Yeah, Provo is the coolest. The cleanliness of BYU's campus makes us Mormon fundamentalists feel so happy and warm. It's like flies to honey, man!"

And it's a well established fact that Mormon Fundamentalists always vote Republican. Jeffs also said,"Yeah... Johnny Mc and I are tight, brutha! Oh, and say 'Hi' to Huck for me!"

West Philly makes me silly...

Hyrum said...

I think his one paragraph summary of the BYU campus experience is pretty spot on. I thought his description of the UC was fairly accurate too.

I would also add that Davis county is 74% LDS and that number is lower because of HAFB. I'll bet the percentage of LDS from Kaysville to NSL rivals any part of Utah county. So if we don't count corrupt Salt Lake City, you live in Northern UC Tyler.

T.Irwin said...

I haven't read the book yet, although it's on my "to read" list. I'm much more intrigued to read it now.

The quote, however, is pretty well put. I have always felt a bit out of place in Orem or Provo. I get the same question and comments every time I make a visit to friends (which is rare) or the University Clinic in Orem:
1. "Where are you from?"
Well, I'm from Utah.
and the response is ALWAYS the same: "No, but what's your heritage"

It's just a bit odd to constantly have that question of heritage. Being a member of the church, I understand why there's such an interest, I just think it's odd.

In addition to that personal oddness, there's just an oddness to the place. My friends who live there love it, but I like what I have here in Salt Lake - even if it is a bit more heathenistic.

In response to Shanny:
How many times would you like the church to apologize for the massacre? I don't want to minimize the issue, but shall they get on their knees and beg YOUR personal forgiveness? Evidently the multiple public apologies aren't sufficient.
Isn't it little bit like going after white southerners who had slaves in their family history and asking them to pay up?
No one says the LDS church hasn't made mistakes - nor that it's perfect today.
It's history - that's it. Let's move into the future, shall we?

Anyway, thanks, Tyler, for sharing!

Neal Peterson said...

Seabass. I've read the book. It had some sensational stories -- most of which have nothing to do with the Mormon church. It has just enough misinformation though to make you cringe. Personally I think Jon (we are on a first name basis) should have stuck with mountain climbing instead of Mountain Meadows.

That said, for all of us well groomed white boys who don't walk on grass (mostly water) and can't stand the sight of sin (ie Salt Lake, anything red, books by Jon Crack-something) it was interesting.

Shanny said...


I am not sure that you actually read my comment. . . I never said anything about the church apologizing. I thought it was clear that the first paragraph was meant to be in a "snarky" tone, but I guess not. Because, as it turns out, the church DID write a book about Mountain Meadows, and in fact they DID do a lot of research on it. I know this because my dad works for the church, and helped with the book. I've also noticed that there was an Ensign article, and a Deseret News article in conjunction with the book. So the whole point of my comment was that the church isn't sweeping things under the rug, they are putting it all out on the table.

Jessica said...

So in reading your blog recently I deeply regret that we didn't hang out more while we lived a mere two miles apart. I think you and Matt might be kindred spirits. Your Monday picture inspired Matt's Fay post on our blog. Thanks for all the laughs. I'll have to read this book, although the library here doesn't have a copy, imagine that.

Cory said...

Frankly, I have no desire to ever live in Utah County partly because of my bias against it. I guess it stems from quite a few of my friends and family telling me how awesome BYU is (and also Utah County). I have heard BYU campus described as "the bubble" by several LDS General Authorities. From my visits there, I am in total agreement. That's not to say that it's bad (but I do think the author's facts are a bit exaggerated).

Re: the Church's "sweeping under the rug" of mirky historical facts. I am of the opinion that the Church has nothing to hide in their history. What happened, happened and they know that. Furthermore, they have invited countless historical researchers and writers to study the Church's historical records (as evidenced by the countless number of books on the different subjects), so it seems very unlikely that they are "hiding" anything. I think what the Church Leaders are doing is that they have no reason to discuss those issues with the majority of the people in the world because they are engaged in more important works. Their job is not to try to uncover what really happened at Mountain Meadows or to clearly dilineate the theology of polygamy to the saints or to the world. As I recall, the mission of the Church is one of spreading Christianity not delving into the past to "hide" certain events. Leave that to the historians and the writers of the world. Maybe if you wrote a letter to Marlin Jensen (Church Historian) he would be more than happy to direct you to several well-published works about the different perspectives on Church History. he may even give you his perspective, which would be incredible indeed.

tysqui said...

I appreciate everybody's comments here. I think I've realized that even I have been living in a bit of a bubble. I knew nothing about what transpired at the Mountain Meadows Massacre or a few other events in Church history. From the comments, it seems that the information is out there, but I personally haven't taken the time to look into it. I guess until I've tried to see what's out there, I can't criticize the Church for not being "open" enough. I was just surprised by how little I knew about some of these histories (which would be my fault and nobody else's).

At least my bubble's not all gross like those in the UC...