Hardly anybody calls themselves a Utah Mormon, but pretty much everybody knows one when they see them.
It isn’t exactly geographic – plenty of Mormons who have lived in Utah all their lives will insist that they aren’t “Utah Mormons.” And no matter where you live, someone in your ward can point out the “Utah Mormons” for you. (Though never, of course, to their faces.)
In general, it’s the repository for everything that the right sort of Mormons consider square, inhibited, regressive, provincial, prejudiced, passive-aggressive, gullible, insular, and ignorant.
More specifically, Utah Mormons:
- Give their kids dumb names (Braden, Braxton, Brynlee, Jaden, Jaylyn, Raylee, Kaden, McKayla, McKendra)
- Have never lived outside Utah and/or don’t ever want to live outside Utah
- Constantly get suckered by multi-level marketing schemes
- Assume everybody knows their tiny Utah town (and refers to everything outside Utah as “the mission field”)
- Display cluelessness about other races/cultures/religions
- Have rigid social/cultural expectations that are not cleanly distinct from their religious beliefs
- Hold “outdated” views on any number of culture-war shibboleths
- Enjoy tacky, kitschy, low-brow entertainment
- Get into trouble with prescription opioids
- Vote Republican, fall asleep watching Fox News
But if you scrubbed out the names and places, this could describe working-class Americans pretty much anywhere (and if you scrubbed a bit harder, working-class/rural people all over the world). Many an Appalachian kid comes home from their first semester at NYU ready to ruin their family’s Christmas with the above complaints.
So if what we really hate is people who haven’t traveled as much or had as much education as we have, why make it about Utah?
Partly because we’re rightly ashamed of that impulse, and pretending it’s regional makes us feel better. But also: like most other diaspora cultures, the Mormon diaspora really is wealthier, better-educated, and more cosmopolitan than the home culture. So while it’s crude (and pretty unfair to a lot of people in Utah), there’s at least some truth to the stereotype, at least on the margins.
The mechanism is pretty simple: people with social, intellectual, and financial resources have the freedom (and strong incentives) to chase opportunities far from home, while people without those resources tend to stay put. (This is obvious if you think about it – an Indian who lives in Utah is probably wealthier and better-educated than the average Indian or the average Utahn, just by virtue of having made it that far – and the same is true of a Utahn living in India.)
And again, it’s not like those traits are exclusive to Mormons (or even to the American working class) – you can go down each “problem” on the list, from pill-popping to MLMs to reposting viral conspiracy theories on Facebook, and find analogues among rural people anywhere in the world.
But you don’t often hear Chinese or Indian kids fulminating against the conservative, insular communities their parents came from. Second-generation kids joke about the differences, sure – but mostly among themselves, and never with the undercurrent of personal contempt that you hear from “definitely-not-Utah-Mormon-Mormons”.
So what’s our deal? What keeps us from viewing the ways we differ from “the folks back home” with some nuance and class?
First: despite their best efforts, all these progressive, sophisticated Mormons haven’t really escaped the Protestant work ethic. They keep score differently, of course – wouldn’t dare imply that the poor deserve their lot – but the gullible, the ignorant, the unfashionable, the out-of-touch? Yeah, kinda.
In other words, there’s a strong sense that the difference between “us” and “them” is essentially moral. They have access to the same facts, the same advantages, the same opportunities, but they choose to be boorish and small-minded. And when one is so unused to thinking of anything as really sinful, it becomes easy to forget one’s duty to forgive.
Second, there’s a certain amount of social cachet in being a defector from an enemy tribe. Soviet defectors were celebrated in the US and given speaking gigs, because their stories powerfully demonstrated the moral superiority of the West. (The same is also true of American defectors to Communist countries, though they couldn’t afford such lavish perks.)
Likewise, if you want to establish bona fides among cosmopolitan progressives, one shortcut is to chuck your townie cousins under the bus. And if you frame it in terms of “things we Mormons need to do better”, you get the added advantage of looking honest and humble and self-critical. But of course you’re not really talking about yourself at all – the point of all that posturing is to show that there is no “we”. I’m not like them (gross), I’m like you – and all your prejudices about them are 100% justified, as we few honest insiders will admit.
For other diaspora communities, the “home culture” benefits from its remoteness.
I suspect that the reason we don’t see many Chinese and Indian kids loudly renouncing their home cultures in order to join “polite society” is that they don’t feel like they have to. Their conservative, insular relatives are on the other side of the world and they don’t get to vote in American elections, so they aren’t the enemies of Progress and Culture the way your apocalypse-prepping, Bambi-murdering, wildlife-refuge-occupying Mormon cousins are.
So they get to go back home and appreciate their culture for what it is, from the sublime to the ridiculous. They get to genuinely love and respect their racist uncle (who is probably more racist than yours), because they’re allowed to notice that he has other virtues. They get to take what is rich and beautiful about their home culture, and make it part of themselves, because they’re allowed to acknowledge that secular Western liberal philosophy doesn’t have their great-grandparents beat on every conceivable axis.
So maybe it would be good to start thinking of ourselves as strangers in a strange land. If we could view our own heritage with the same humility and curiosity that we reserve for “exotic” cultures, we’d probably be less anxious, less lonely at church, less constantly mortified on behalf of strangers. Or at least less insufferable at Thanksgiving.