Charles McCollum: Utahns are highly skilled at detecting one another’s religious leanings

The LDS question seems to be very accepted in Utah.

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) The angel Moroni statue atop the Salt Lake Temple is silhouetted against a cloud-covered sky, at Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Feb. 6, 2013.

You might call it Utah radar.

There’s a private little guessing game people in our state play when they meet each other. We’re all so used to the routine we don’t even know we’re doing it, but it’s a big part of the unique experience that is life in the Beehive State.

Have you already figured out what I’m talking about?

Here it is: When Utah residents make a new acquaintance – especially with co-workers, neighbors or people we expect to encounter a lot – one of the first things we want to know is whether or not the other person is a member of the dominant faith. So we start looking and listening for clues and, as most of us are experts at this game, the giveaway usually comes quickly.

Clothing, language, choice of beverage, likes and dislikes, family size. Things like this can signal where someone might fit in the Utah religious equation, or sometimes we just know the answer without any distinct clues. That’s how finely tuned this radar can get, and residents on both sides of the equal sign have it and use it.

Of course, many don’t clearly fit in one category or the other. For instance, someone might be a born Latter-day Saint but no longer active or particularly religious. Someone else might border on fundamentalism. Whatever the case, it is all duly recorded in this sizing-up process.

Barring a definitive reading from the behavior or vibe of the new acquaintance, some Utahns just outright ask, “Are you LDS?”

Since moving to Utah almost 30 years ago, I’ve been asked that question many times and have posed it to others as well, though certainly not in any official setting where such prying could be interpreted as legally discriminatory. On a private level, however, the LDS question seems to be very accepted in Utah.

Of course it’s wrong to stereotype, but in most cases the motive for pigeonholing each other is pure. Once you have your answer, if you’re at all sensitive to those around you, you’ll modify your behavior to keep from making the other person uncomfortable.

Most of us simply want to get along, and this piece of personal information aids navigation of the relationship tension free. If you’re a non-Mormon and tend to drop an occasional F-bomb, you’ll likely temper your talk in the presence of a devotee. If you are a member of the faith and tend toward church ward lingo, this might be tempered, too.

Or not. Some people have no filters.

Either way, getting an accurate reading on each other’s religious leanings seems to be a Utah imperative. This was true in the earliest days of Zion, from what I’ve read, and it remains true today, although in more subtle ways than existed in the Utah territory Mark Twain encountered on his notable passage through Salt Lake City in the 1860s.

The Utah identification game isn’t played solely between individuals. Sometimes it manifests on the public stage.

Knowing that church affiliation can translate into votes, Utah’s state and local politicians will often make a point of letting their LDS colors fly, though they avoid being so blatant as to outright state their religion. Using certain words and phrases or quoting LDS prophets usually gets the job done.

Conversely, non-Mormons running for local office often make it a point not to tip their hand and risk alienation of the dominant voting bloc.

As a long-time editor for the daily newspaper in Logan, I saw the are-they-or-aren’t-they dynamic play out in many interesting ways. One of the most dramatic examples occurred some years back at Utah State University, where the school newspaper devised an ingenious way to verify that the then-president of the school had quit the church. When the paper reported this, the college administration and many readers came down hard on the student journalists, saying it was a violation of the president’s privacy.

Those of us at the town newspaper weren’t going to touch that story. Too hot to handle. But the situation did demonstrate how much religious affiliation, or lack thereof, factors into Utah perceptions and public life.

The good news is, ultimately people are just people. As large as religion looms in Utah culture, it certainly isn’t the main factor for whether two people can get along, share workspaces, conduct honest transactions or become great friends. And it starts with knowing where others fit in the faithscape, then giving them space.

To any readers of this column who’ve been wondering whether the author is a member of the church, I’ll say use your Utah radar.

Charles McCollum

Charles McCollum is the former managing editor of The Herald Journal in Logan, Utah. He teaches newswriting as an adjunct professor at Utah State University and can be reached at charles.mccollum@usu.edu