Living in the Heart of Mormondom: The Great Divide

From the Atlantic to the Pacific it’s easy to see how far diversity divides America. Obama vs. McCain, Democrat, Republican, abortion, guns, marriage, immigration, vouchers, climate change, dark beer vs. light, the Yankees, and so on. But often these differences reside on specific issues. In Salt Lake City, “The Great Divide” is determined by membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints —Mormon vs. Gentile, as is often said here, jokingly.

On July 24, 1847, Brigham Young, the prophet successor to Joseph Smith and leader of the Mormon Church, made his famous “This is the place” deceleration as he entered what is now the Salt Lake valley. At that time, the land was a disputed part of Mexico and outside the reach of US control. Shortly there after, non-Mormons, including traders, businessmen, and the soldiers sent to keep a watchful eye on the situation entered the valley. And The Great Divide began splitting one community further away from the other.

There’s no shortage of stories about The Great Divide; many fascinating historical examples have found their way into books, both for and against the respective sides. Present day examples include the constant struggle over liquor laws, zoning of LDS owned city developments, the Utah vs. BYU rivalry (which unlike most rivalries, feeds on the difference of religion rather than physical location), two news papers— the Mormon owned and the other, adoption policies, businesses open on the Sabbath, Mitt Romney’s bid for the Presidency, and the street preachers who stand on Temple Square and scream vulgarities at the Mormons in the name of God.

How we handle these issues either work toward bridging The Great Divide or widening it; and I believe followers of Christ have a greater responsibility to bridge the chasm to our neighbors.

It would seem that this holds true for almost every community with a difference of religion.

So, when the missionaries knock on my door, I don’t prepare for battle and I don’t start working out my plan to convert them with word traps and mind games. I simply set myself to be the most hospitable home they visit that day. Wouldn’t that be the expectation when visiting a Christian? While I stand on what I believe, I don’t try to trample their beliefs. I seek the common ground and save the rest for another time, maybe once we've gotten to know one another better.

When topics of religion come up with Mormon co-workers or neighbors, I first try to understand the definitions of the conversation. As it turns out, sometimes we don’t have the same meaning for commonly assumed ideas; and better understanding what a person is saying shows a greater respect for that person, even if you don’t agree with her statements.

Engaging in the community, even if it’s different, is a good way to first understand and than change or influence from within. Often in Salt Lake, The Great Divide is the strongest between the Mormons and other faith-based communities. There are people who won’t let their kids trick-or-treat certain houses, clicks at work are often Mormon or Non-Mormon, community events tend to lean extremely one way or the other with no consideration for the community as a whole, and on and on. It’s a ridiculous way for a community to grow when one group sees that other group as a cancer.

I wonder how many other cities have issues similar to Salt Lake? I’m guessing most. So why then haven’t the followers of Christ figured out how to be better neighbors? Maybe we'll get it someday, hopefully more sooner than later.


  1. I am really looking forward to reading your future postings on this topic. The LDS Church, particularly Mormonism, has fascinated me since I was in fifth grade. Growing up I got myself in a bit of trouble for asking my LDS friends tons of questions. Sometimes I think that I should have studied religion and sociology as an undergraduate and gone on to research and teach on the subject.

    From everything that I have read, I think that Salt Lake City is a very unique American city. I would assume that cities of similar sizes are much more religiously diverse and therefore there isn’t just a two-sided divide. I have observed that there are unique ways that the LDS faith influences Mormon culture and friends have even shared that Mormon culture in Utah will often look different than Mormon culture elsewhere. Like studying another language, I think that is there is much that we can learn about traditional Christianity and how we live out our faith by the study of Mormonism and the observation of our Mormon friends and neighbors.

  2. Trina,

    Indeed, Salt Lake City is unique and it's even different among most of Utah. Many of the other Utah cities and towns are nearly 100% LDS, as are some of the suburbs of Salt Lake City. In the City however, there's about a 50/50 split (although many of the non-LDS are also not Christian).

    You are also correct about Utah Mormons and non-Utah Mormons. Mormons in other cities, where there's not nearly as large of concentration of LDS members, are somewhat different than those in Utah. In fact, much of that culture has spilled in to non-Mormon communities in Salt Lake City, including into many non-LDS churches here.

    And most importantly, you realize that we can learn so much about ourselves by looking into another community. While the chasm between theological issues is wide, there are many, many good things the larger community of Christians could stand to learn from the Mormon faithful.

    Thanks for taking an interest Trina! While I'm not LDS, I'd love to try to answer any questions you might have or get you in touch with a member of the LDS church that's willing to chat.

  3. I imagine that what you are describing in Salt Lake City is probably relatively unique as far as American cities go. Most places I've lived in are either overwhelming the same or so diverse that a diving line is hard to find.

    I've spent the past 2+ years living in Bethlehem, Palestine and we have a similar dividing line between Muslims and Christians. The line is dark and clear, and impacts every part of life.

    There are no laws that mandate non-discrimination, therefore Muslims and Christians typically work at different businesses, play on different sports teams, are involved in different community organizations and events, and live in different neighborhoods.

    Everybody is considered a member of one group or the other, there is no third option. Being Muslim or Christian is more a matter of your birth and your family than your beliefs. If you are a product of a mixed-marriage (which are rare) you are the same religion as your father. Even converts are sometimes (often?) thought of in terms of their religion of birth, rather than choice.

    Because of all this, I read this post with great interest. I identify with Christianity, and I have been placed in one group against my will. Therefore, I am expected to act in certain ways, maintain certain friendships and avoid certain activities. I'm sure there are differences between the communities. But I bet I can learn from someone who is trying to span a similar divide.