Utah: Extremes and Extreme Contradictions

IMAGE: Utah the land of extremes.ABC News Photo Illustration
Utah the land of extremes.

Utah. Take it or leave it.

In an unscientific study of scientific studies, Utah always comes out on top -- or all the way on the bottom. And sometimes it comes out on top and on the bottom in studies about the same thing.

In short, it is a land of extremes and extreme contradictions.

In surveys conducted one year apart, by institutions no less illustrious than Gallup and Mental Health America, Utah was named, respectively, the happiest state in the country and the most depressed state in the union.

It is a place of extreme landscapes -- salt flats, deserts, mountains, the Great Salt Lake -- and, some say, extreme people strident in the protection of their values and fiercely proud of their history.

It is a state so dedicated to protecting the moral interests of its residents that the NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City won't air "Saturday Night Live" because it deems it too risque. Yet, despite its values-based rhetoric, the state is also the country's No. 1 consumer of online pornography, according to a recent study conducted by Harvard University.

Last week, the state legislature overturned a decades-old law that forced people to complete a membership application when they visited a "private club" -- what the rest of America calls a bar. The law was repealed after a compromise with conservative lawmakers.

Now, instead of membership, anyone who enters a bar and appears to be less than 35 years old will have their identification card scanned and information stored in a digital database for a week.

Republican Gov. John Huntsman, who opposed the database because he said "that [it] would enhance the oddness of our laws," is now working to change another oddity about the state's alcohol laws -- a rule that forces bartenders to mix drinks out of the sight of customers.

"The liquor thing is weird," said Heather Armstrong, a Utah transplant who writes the popular blog dooce.com.

"There is this sense that the church and the government have to take care of us," said Armstrong, a former Mormon. "There is a paradox in that Mormonism gives people free will and then the legislature takes all your choices away."

Utah's Extreme Contradictions: Mormons, Birthrate, Stereotypes

The state is overwhelmingly white and nearly two-thirds of Utah's 2.2 million residents -- and all the statewide politicians -- are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

USA Today and the Pew Center on the States ranked Utah the "best managed state" in the country for its fiscal conservatism -- a fact that may explain why the Urban Institute ranked it dead last for per-capita spending on programs like Medicaid.

Utah is the fastest growing state in the nation, with the highest birthrate and the youngest population, but it ranks 50th among the 50 states in per pupil spending, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Outsiders have long tried to decipher the state and its people, but have instead succumbed to outsized stereotypes. For non-Utahans, the state's residents are all sexually deviant polygamists or ultra-conservative paragons of wholesome family values.

"There is no such thing as monolithic Utah culture," said Theresa Martinez, a sociology professor at the University of Utah, of a place that is predominately white and Mormon.

"Americans are always looking for an easy way to sum up a people. The culture doesn't take into account the enormous complexity of Mormons. No population is uniformly the same. The way the state is portrayed in the mass media is unfair and doesn't capture who we are," she said.

Utahans Defend Themselves

It is impossible to talk about Utah or its people without mentioning the Mormon Church.

The Mormons have historically described themselves as a "peculiar people," exceptional in the eyes of God. As recently as the presidential primaries, they worked to remind people that they were Christians too just like most of the rest of the country.

More than a century ago, Mark Twain described Utah as a "fairyland to us -- a land of enchantment and awful mystery.''

That fascination -- and continued misunderstanding of Utah -- might explain the popularity of shows like HBO's "Big Love," which is about fundamentalist Mormons who practice polygamy.

Given that the fascination by outsiders typically focuses on negative stereotypes and myths, Utah's religious and political leaders have worked to demystify the place.

In January, two church elders gave ABC News' Dan Harris a rare interview inside a new Mormon temple. Once dedicated, the building would be closed to nonmembers of the church.

"We want to be understood, not misunderstood," said Elder Russell Ballard, "and people are defining us in the wrong way. They're defining us without having the facts."