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Why is Utah so weird?

Utah city.

By Violet MuthoniPublished 2 months ago 4 min read
Why is Utah so weird?
Photo by Taylor Brandon on Unsplash


Answer: Mormons made Utah odd. A century and a half of Mormon voting majority in an isolated, insular state made Utah unique in the nation. The red-rock deserts of Nevada and Arizona, the deep-red politics of Idaho and Wyoming, the glitzy ski towns of Colorado and Wyoming, and the ruggedly independent, outdoors-loving culture of the mountain west region make Utah seem like the intuitive average of its neighbors. But it has certain things its neighbors don't. The area has drive-thru soda businesses.

Utah pioneered “dirty-soda” shops, which serve carbonated drinks blended with syrups, creams, or juices to form cocktails. In Salt Lake City, dirty-soda leader Swig has nearly as many shops as Starbucks. Mormons, who make up half the state, follow the Word of Wisdom, which Joseph Smith claims was given to him by God. Along with alcohol and tobacco, the scripture condemns “hot drinks”—commonly defined by the church as coffee and tea, regardless of their heat. Utah entrepreneurs began selling dirty soda to replace coffee shops, and it was so successful that Swig has spread to Idaho, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. The same text causes other abnormalities.

Before the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, public bars were banned. Any bar had to be a private club with $5 “temporary memberships” to admit customers. Restaurants could have physical structures that looked and operated like bars if they had “Zion curtains.” State alcohol laws prohibited establishments with restaurant alcohol licenses from preparing alcoholic drinks in view of customers to prevent excessive drinking and normalizing alcohol for under-21s. Waiters couldn't present wine lists unless asked. Utah has some of the strictest alcohol laws in the country: it's the only state with a 0.05% drunk-driving blood-alcohol limit, instead of the standard 0.08%; and all but low-alcohol beers and beverages are sold exclusively through state-run stores with limited hours.

All these stores close July 24th. Pioneer Day is celebrated on July 24 in Utah to honor the first Mormon settlers to the Salt Lake basin. Main-street parades, backyard parties, and fireworks take place across the state, almost like a second Independence Day. As a way to accommodate this extra holiday, Utah does not celebrate Columbus Day in October. They honor Mormon immigration in Utah, not European arrival.

Utah's church-state line is sometimes blurred. Public high schools in Utah can provide parents up to an hour of “released time” for children to study off-campus. This means religious education time. Utah law has many restrictions to clarify that off-campus religious seminars are not public education because that would violate the first amendment. Latter Day Saints seminary classes blend into Utah high school life daily. At Bonneville High School near Ogden, the seminary is across the street and arranges its classes to match the high school schedule, so for fourth period, one crosses over the street to learn about Joseph Smith. Utah high schools without seminaries are rare. The seminary at Dixie High School in St. George is technically on its own property and fenced off, but its main entrance faces the high school's parking lot and is on the direct path between the high school and its baseball fields. It is inevitable. Many new high schools in the state include a seminary location in their architectural designs and expect to sell the land to the church without hesitation.

A large majority of Utah voters don't think this church-state connection controversial—it's just handy. The Republican party consistently supports a softer interpretation of the first amendment as it relates to the separation of religion and government. For example, most Republicans believe city governments should be allowed to put religious symbols on public property, while 27% believe the Federal Government should stop enforcing the separation of church and state. Utah is a Republican stronghold due to its large, intensely religious voting majority. Utah has become a red state.

It fits in with its conservative neighbors in Idaho, Montana, and the Dakotas, but how they compare may surprise. Utah has the most Republican self-reported party affiliation. Utah has the second-highest Republican population and the second-lowest Democratic population. This figure may surprise you because Utah does not look, feel, or act like the second-most conservative state.

Urbanization rate and party affiliation are correlated across the US: urban regions are Democrat strongholds with 62% of voters, while rural areas lean Republican with 54%. Thus, states with low urbanization rates have high Republican voter turnouts and vice versa. Utah, the fifth most urbanized state, defies this trend by having over 4/5ths of its population in the Salt Lake City metro region.

Utah has another LGBTQ rights disconnect. In its large, annual survey, the Public Religion Research Institute asks whether LGBTQ people should have legal protections against landlords who deny leases based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Amazingly, 86% of Utahans supported such laws. Only Hawaii supported banning queer discrimination, therefore Utah—the second most Republican state in the nation—supported it more than California, New York, Massachusetts, or any other liberal state. This seems normal statistically.


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