Non-Utah Mormons like to complain about the supposed failing of Utah Mormons. Forgotten in this inevitable and highly stylized discussion, however, are the odd tics of Utah non-Mormons. I recently had a deja vu experience that reminded me of this strange breed. A couple of months ago, I had the good fortune to attend a conference where I had a series of conversations with several academics about law and religion generally and law and Mormonism in particular. Almost without exception, these conversations were extremely cordial and very interesting. The academics with whom I spoke were smart, respectful, and took it as a matter of course that one could talk productively about Mormon legal experience and relate it to broader issues in jurisprudence, law and religion, etc.
The one exception was a conversation with a group of academics from one Rocky Mountain (but non-Utah) law school. The only way that I can describe my conversation with these professors is weird. In contrast to my conversations with everyone else, there was a definite political subtext to the discussion. For them Mormonism was not simply an interesting historical or comparative case, useful for talking and thinking about the nature of the law. Rather, they seemed to think of religion in general and Mormonism in particular as a threat. I found myself being cross-examined about contemporary Utah politics by a group of increasingly defensive professors, who felt that it was necessary to deliver to me a short homily on the dangers of a “dominant religion.” The entire conversation was bizarrely strained, as though the academics were frightened that at any moment I might explode into a thunderous denunciation of Gentile wickedness and a prolonged defense of polygamy and blood atonement.
Of course, on one level the anxiety of these western profs was entirely understandable. In Utah and its environs, as opposed to just about every other place on the planet, Mormons are politically and socially powerful. It is natural that in such a context outsiders would feel defensive and threatened. Growing up in Utah, this threatened defensiveness was a fact of life with my non-Mormon friends and acquaintances. Indeed, I took it as a matter of course that all conversations about religion or Mormonism were tainted by the siege mentality of the Utah non-Mormons and Mormon defensiveness at the implicit accusation of oppression.
With a few brief interludes, I have not lived in Utah since 1998. Hence, I had forgotten about the odd dynamics among Utah non-Mormons and their close cousins in other western states. To be sure, when Mormonism comes up, I am used to being thought curious, odd, and perhaps even dangerously regressive in my social or political attitudes. I had forgotten, however, what it was like to be treated as a member of a powerful and threatening native tribe.