Utah is a Mormon state. Not officially, of course -- strict state and federal laws are meant to keep church doctrine out of government -- and not as much as in the past, when practically all Utahns (and definitely all the decision makers) were LDS church members. But because about three-quarters of the state's population belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and most of them take their religion very seriously, it's hardly surprising that the teachings and values of the church have a strong influence in the voting booth and echo throughout the halls of government.
Although some conflict is inevitable as government and community leaders try to adapt to Utah's growing cultural diversity, this discord means little to most visitors, who come to Utah to experience its scenery, recreation, and history. What you'll discover is that Utah is much like the rest of the United States, although generally not as hip as California or as multicultural as New York or New Mexico. The state is inhabited in large part by actively religious people who believe it's detrimental to one's health to use tobacco or addictive drugs, or to drink alcoholic or caffeinated beverages. In accordance with church teachings, Mormons generally strive to be hardworking and honest, with high moral standards.
What Mormons Believe
Mormons are Christians, believing in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Bible as the Word of God, as do all the many offshoots of Christianity. But a significant difference is the role played by the Book of Mormon, which they believe to be God's Word as revealed to and translated by church founder Joseph Smith.
This book tells of two tribes of people who left Israel in biblical times and made their way to the Western Hemisphere. Mormons believe that these people were the ancestors of today's American Indians. The Book of Mormon teaches that after his resurrection, Christ spent about 40 days among these people, preaching, healing, and establishing his church. The Mormons believe that Joseph Smith was commanded to restore the church as organized by Christ during his ministry on earth.
The first four principles of the faith are belief in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism by immersion, and the laying on of hands to receive "the Gift of the Holy Ghost" (in which a priest places his hands on a church member for the transference of spirituality). Another important tenet of the church is respect for the supreme authority of church leaders and the belief in the revelations from God to these leaders.
The family unit is of paramount importance to Mormons, and they believe that marriage lasts literally forever, transcending death. They believe that sex outside of marriage, including homosexual behavior, is a sin. The church encourages the family to work, play, and study together, and young adults -- most men and some women -- generally spend 1 or 2 years as missionaries. Mormons also believe in the baptism and redemption of those already dead -- hence their strong interest in genealogy.
It's practically impossible to discuss the church without discussing polygamy, which caused so much antagonism toward church members in the 19th century. But polygamy -- or plural marriage, as the church dubbed it -- has little to do with what the LDS church was and is. Polygamy came about as a "revelation" to church founder Joseph Smith in the 1840s, was practiced by a relatively small percentage of church members, and was outlawed by church officials in 1890. Today, polygamy is prohibited both by church doctrine and state law, although it does continue among an estimated 30,000 rebels, who have left the church to practice their own brand of Mormonism.
These polygamists, however, have brought unwanted media attention to Utah in recent years. A kidnapping and separate failed kidnap attempt occurred in 2003 in Salt Lake City in what authorities said may have had a connection with polygamy. The kidnap victim was eventually found unharmed, and police arrested a man described as a self-proclaimed prophet and polygamist who had been thrown out of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for "activity promoting bizarre teachings and lifestyle far afield from the principles and doctrines of the church." And in 2006, Warren Jeffs, then leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (based just across the Utah border in Colorado City, Ariz.) and self-proclaimed prophet, was placed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List when he went on the lam to avoid prosecution for arranging illegal marriages between his adult male followers and underage girls, sexual conduct with minors, and incest. His arrest near Las Vegas in August 2006 and subsequent trial made national headlines.
What Mormonism Means for Visitors to Utah
This strong religious influence has brought about some strange laws regarding alcoholic beverages, although it's definitely not true that you can't get a drink here. Cigarettes and other tobacco products are also readily available, but smoking is prohibited by state law in all restaurants -- legislation that is becoming more and more common across the United States. Although cola drinks contain caffeine, the church doesn't specifically prohibit their consumption. Some Mormons drink Coke or Pepsi; others refrain. You'll generally have no trouble at all purchasing whatever type of soft drink you want, with or without caffeine. Interestingly, there are exceptions: Although there are plenty of soda machines on the campus of church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo, they stock only noncaffeinated products, and this is also true of church offices.
You might find it pleasantly surprising that although the Mormons of Utah can be pretty tough on themselves regarding the above-mentioned "sins," virtually every Utahn encountered in researching this guide -- and a great many were Mormons -- was tolerant of others' beliefs and lifestyles. Of course, there is no guarantee that you won't run across some holier-than-thou busybody who insists on lecturing you on the evils of Demon Rum, tobacco, promiscuity, or homosexuality, but experience has shown that they generally respect each individual's right to make his or her own moral choices.
Be forewarned, though: Mormons are practically missionaries by definition, and will, with only the slightest encouragement, want to enthusiastically help you see the wisdom of their ways.
Because the church emphasizes the importance of family, you'll see lots of kids -- Utah is noted for having the highest fertility rate in the nation, year after year. This makes Utah a very kid-friendly state, with lots of family-oriented activities and attractions. Overall, prices for kids and families are often very reasonable. And because many Mormon families observe Monday evening as a time to spend together, sports facilities, amusement parks, and similar venues often offer family discounts on Mondays; if you're traveling with your family, watch for them.
Although about 60% of Utah's population are LDS church members, church membership varies greatly from community to community, so the number of Mormons you'll encounter will vary considerably. Although it's the world headquarters of the church, Salt Lake City is just under half Mormon; some of the smaller towns approach 100%. Of major cities, Provo has the strongest church influence. Although St. George was historically a major stronghold for church members, recent migration from other parts of the United States (namely Southern California) is gradually diluting that influence. You'll probably find the least church influence in Ogden, Park City, and Moab, which in recent years have attracted large numbers of outsiders.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.