updated 7/15/2008 7:08:48 PM ET 2008-07-15T23:08:48

Utah is a triumph of man over nature, the creation of a productive and orderly civilization in a remote expanse of desert and mountain, arrayed around a desolate salt sea. Today’s Utah and Mormonism have their roots in a very different landscape of more than 150 years ago, when a wave of religious enthusiasm, prophecy and utopianism swept across the ‘‘burnt-over district’’ of Upstate New York in the 1820s and 1830s. There Joseph Smith, a 14-year-old farmer, experienced a vision in which the angel Moroni appeared and told him where to unearth several golden tablets inscribed with hieroglyphic writings. With the aid of special spectacles, Smith translated the tablets and published them as the Book of Mormon in 1831. He later declared himself a prophet and founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormons, as they were called, attracted thousands of converts and created their own communities; persecuted for their beliefs, they moved west to Ohio, Missouri and then Illinois. In 1844, the Mormon colony at Nauvoo, Illinois, had some 15,000 members living under the theocratic rule of Smith. It was here that Smith received a revelation sanctioning the practice of polygamy, which led to his death at the hands of a mob in 1844. After the murder, the new church president, Brigham Young, decided to move the faithful, ‘‘the saints,’’ farther west into territory that was still part of Mexico and far beyond white settlement. Young led a well-organized march across the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains on a path where Mormons reenacted the march 150 years later in 1997. In 1847, they stopped on the western slope of the Wasatch Range and, as Young gazed over the valley of the Great Salt Lake spread out below, he said, ‘‘This is the place.’’

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The place was Utah. Young was governor of the territory for many years, and it is the only state that largely continues to live by the teachings of a church. The early pioneers laid out towns foursquare to the points of the compass with huge city blocks, built sturdy houses and planted dozens of trees. Young’s home still stands a block away from Temple Square, where the Temple, closed to non-Mormons, stands in gleaming marble, topped by the golden angel Moroni, across from the oval Mormon Tabernacle where its great choir sings. For 150 years this ‘‘Zion’’ has attracted thousands of converts from the Midwest, the north of England and Scandinavia. The object of religious fear and prejudice, Utah was not granted statehood until 1896, after the church renounced polygamy. Utah has grown steadily since then, and remains heavily Mormon, its basic character stamped on the mountain-shadowed, desert landscape that without the Mormons would probably have remained as unpopulated as Nevada would have been without gambling.

The LDS church remains distinctive in many ways. It cares deeply about its past: In caves in the mountains of Utah, the church preserves America’s most complete genealogical records in its Family History Library, which is also on the Internet. It tries to spread the faith: Young Mormons, 65,000 every year, spend missionary years in the United States and abroad, and their experiences in turn give Utah the biggest inventory of people with knowledge of obscure foreign languages of any state in the union, a nice commercial advantage. That prompted the NSA to set up language analyst offices in Utah in 2006. The church prohibits the consumption of tobacco, alcohol and caffeine; it encourages hard work and large families. Mormons are healthier than the average American; better educated, they work longer hours and earn more money. In an individualist country, the church fosters communitarian attitudes: The LDS Church has no clergy, but members serve in positions for which they are chosen, conducting religious services but also keeping in touch with members and counseling them when they need help. The church also maintains its own social service organizations. It evidently works: While American mainline denominations are losing members, the Mormon Church is growing. There were 2.9 million Mormons in 1970 and nearly 11 million in 2000, with more than half outside the United States and just 15% in Utah; this has been the fastest-growing church in the United States in recent decades and the nation’s fifth largest denomination in 2003.

Mormons and Utahns are heavily Republican today, but this was not always so. In the 19th century Republicans led the fight to keep Utah out of the union and a Democrat, Grover Cleveland, signed the statehood act. Before World War II, Utah saw itself as a colonial victim of East Coast bankers and financiers and Mormons saw themselves as suffering religious discrimination and bigotry—all with some cause. Utah’s income levels were well below the national average, its cost of living higher, the prices paid for the things it produced seemed to be controlled elsewhere. In political terms, this perspective translated into a Democratic allegiance: In 1940 Utah was represented by staunch New Dealers in Congress and cast 62% of its votes for Franklin D. Roosevelt. Today, Utah sees itself as a busy generator of wealth, with a raft of successful businesses and a knack for high-tech innovation—and longer work weeks than the rest of the nation.

Utah achieves all this with cultural attitudes and demographic patterns that resemble the America of the 1950s. Utah has the highest percentage of households headed by married couples, the highest fertility rate for non-Hispanic whites, the youngest median age of first marriage, and the lowest rate of birth to unmarried mothers. It has many more children per capita than any other state, and this can make its economic statistics misleading: Utah has a relatively low per capita income (because all those kids aren’t earning salaries) but ranks much higher on median household incomes. It is the youngest state, with the largest families and one of the longest life expectancies, and the highest rate of volunteering. Some 62% of Utahns are Mormons, a percentage that has been declining but is still a solid majority, and pervading the cultural atmosphere of the state is the LDS Church. Its opposition to abortion is widely shared and it has always discouraged gambling: Utah has a law penalizing abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned and is one of two states (Hawaii is the other) with no form of gambling. (Of course many Mormons are employed in the gaming industry across the line in Las Vegas.) Utah has some of the more restrictive laws on alcohol and has been way ahead of the rest of the nation in discouraging the use of tobacco. A large majority in 2004 voted for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Polls show about 80% of Mormons vote Republican, but church leaders made a point of stating that “principles compatible with the gospel may be found in the platforms of all political parties.”

Between 2000 and 2006 Utah’s population growth was the third-fastest among states, behind only Nevada and Arizona. Most of the growth comes from natural increase—all those kids—but there has also been substantial domestic inflow, especially from California, including Hispanics and high-income professionals. This has helped to reduce the Mormon percentage in Utah, even as the church continues making new converts in other states and around the world. Interestingly, the Salt Lake City neighborhoods close to the church headquarters, with gracious old houses and a smaller street grid that attract academic and professional newcomers, have become the most heavily ‘‘gentile’’ and politically liberal part of the state. Just as the Yankee hub of Boston filled up with Irish Catholic Democrats in the 1890s, so Salt Lake City has been getting secular liberal Democrats. Salt Lake City now is out of step with the rest of the state: It voted 58% for John Kerry in 2004 and its mayor since 2000, Rocky Anderson, has called George W. Bush a war criminal who should be impeached. But Salt Lake County grew just 8% in 2000–06, while Utah County, home of Provo and Brigham Young University, grew 20%. And Washington County, in the far southwest corner of the state just northeast of Las Vegas, is the fastest-growing region, with its own exploding private sector economy around the town of St. George, Inc. magazine’s number one boomtown in 2007.

Politically, Utah has been indisputably the most Republican state since the 1980s. It does elect one Democratic congressman these days, Jim Matheson, who started off with the advantage of having a father who was a well-remembered Democratic governor. But it has not elected a Democratic governor since Matheson's father Scott in 1980, a Democratic senator since 1970 or a Democrat for president since 1964.


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