Sunday, August 24, 2014

Life Elevated

My biggest impression of Utah is the Wasatch Range, which loom like a snow-capped wall over Salt Lake City.  It is the sudden rise from the plain of the long valley that creates this indelible impression.  I had never seen anything like it and could only imagine the impact this made on the early Mormon settlers, who felt they had found their divinely ordained home.

Utah probably would have become a state much sooner had the church renounced polygamy, but the insistence on this practice by Mormon elders and the authority invested in these religious leaders, held up statehood for decades.  This article also points to a pervasive anti-Mormon bias in the United States that led to clashes in the territory, a.k.a. The Mormon Rebellion, especially with the advent of gold rushers and the railroad that threatened Mormon hegemony in the region.  It was 46 years between territorial status (1850) and statehood (1896), much longer than Nevada and Colorado, more sparsely populated states, which had been part of the criteria used against Utah.

The state had evolved from the theocracy first instituted by Joseph Smith to a Republican form of government with a separation between church and state.  Mormons remained the dominant religious group in the territory, and many still kept to their roots, including the practice of polygamy, but the territorial constitution in 1887 finally outlawed the practice, paving the way for statehood.  Still, the Congressional vote on statehood was held up, mostly on political grounds, as Mormons didn't subscribe to either of the two major political parties.  In 1891, the Mormon People's Party disbanded.  Most Mormons joined the Republican Party because they felt their chances of statehood were better served in the GOP.  The state has remained staunchly Republican ever since.

To be honest, I never could understand Mormonism.  I had friends who were Mormons, and had leafed through the book of Joseph Smith, but it was just hokum as far as I was concerned, but his The Book of Mormon had attracted wealthy and influential converts, which allowed him to establish Nauvoo in Illinois in 1839.  However, it wasn't long before Smith's vision of a Utopian city came in violent confrontation with the state.  He was arrested for treason in June, 1944, and shot by an angry lynch mob within days.  A Mormon exodus followed suit, led by Brigham Young, who settled the Mormon enclave in the Western territories.

He was the "American Moses," founding Salt Lake City on the same principles as Nauvoo, and was the first Utah Territorial Governor and superintendent of American Indian affairs, which gave him great latitude in the region.  No man better personified the motto of Utah, Industry, than Young, who was responsible for spreading Mormon influence all the way to northern Mexico.

Today, you find Mormons everywhere, even in Lithuania, marching around in their trademark black pants and white shirt offering their faith to anyone willing to listen.  Matt Stone and Trey Parker had great fun with this evangelical streak of the church in their Broadway hit musical, which I have to imagine will be made into a movie before long.  The Church of Latter Day Saints didn't seem particularly put off by the raucous blend of humor and music, cleverly using the play as a springboard to appeal to young audiences.

In fact, Salt Lake City could almost be considered liberal these days with its Annual Undie Run aimed at uptight Utah laws.  Amazingly, Barack Obama won Salt Lake County in 2008, although he lost Utah to McCain in the general election.  It is clear that the state capitol has moved well beyond the original vision of its founding fathers and become a very diverse and fun city to live in.

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