Beliefnet
Alex Sepulveda lost his best buddy when he was 11 years old. The boy didn't die, but the friendship did, for one simple reason: Alex was not Mormon. The breakup hit Sepulveda, now 25, like a sucker punch in the gut.

"I was going to sleep over at his house on a Friday night, but then he came up to me and said I couldn't come over because his parents said I was a bad influence.

"That was it. We never hung out after that," says Sepulveda, reared without religion. "We'd see each other in the school hallway and wouldn't even say hi."

The hurt persisted until the day both boys slipped out of childhood and into their black caps and gowns. At the end of the high school graduation ceremony, Sepulveda was asked to stand and be recognized.

"I remember . . . hoping his parents were looking at me and thinking: 'Oh? The bad influence is going to Harvard?'"

Such hard feelings haunt every Utah community. It is a bad blood that flows both ways, and for some it is bitter. For others, it is so faint it scarcely registers.

For Mormon Joan Schneiter, a drama teacher, it can be just plain annoying. She points to parties where she and her husband almost feel they have to defend themselves for picking Sprite over something stronger. "When Mormons sit down at dinner and never take a drink, they can be very judgmental of those drinking [alcohol]," she says. "But sometimes the Mormons are being judged for not drinking."

Countless friendships, partnerships and marriages have bridged the Mormon/non-Mormon divide. But every day secret scores are kept on both sides. Classifications are so constant they are almost unconscious: Is that a garment line? Is she drinking coffee? Are you from pioneer stock?

He is one of us. She is one of them. A poll conducted for The Salt Lake Tribune shows fully two-thirds of Utahns recognize a Mormon/non-Mormon fault line within the state. Salt Lake City's 2002 Winter Games are just weeks away. For many Mormons, it is more than just a sporting event. It is a chance to showcase how one of the most forbidding regions in the country was made to "blossom as a rose." It is an opportunity to shine a light on America's fastest-growing religion, and the family-centered culture that makes it work.

For three weeks in February, the red carpet will be rolled out to welcome the world--and to cover up our cultural fractures. But the big show will be over by March. The carpet will be rolled up, and the divide will remain.

Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints acknowledge there is a problem. "We must not be clannish," LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley urged members on the eve of last summer's Pioneer Day celebrations. "We must never adopt a holier-than-thou attitude."

Hinckley went on to say that Utah has evolved over 150 years into a state of "great diversity." And that is not a bad thing. "I plead with our people to welcome them, to befriend them, to mingle with them, to associate with them in the promulgation of good causes," he said. "We are all sons and daughters of God."

Elder M. Russell Ballard of the LDS Quorum of Twelve Apostles fortified that sentiment with stronger words on the state Capitol steps earlier this fall. "Too narrow" is how Ballard described some church members at a news conference of the newly formed Alliance for Unity, a group of community leaders worried about the cultural, religious and racial intolerance that plagues the state. "They don't know how to accept people of other cultures."

Catholic Bishop George Niederauer was more specific on that September morning, saying he wants to change the way "Mormons talk about Catholics when only Mormons are in the room, and the way Catholics talk about Mormons when only Catholics are in the room."

On the non-Mormon side, such talk is sometimes peppered with pejorative and ugly words like "cult," "self-righteous," "narrow minded" and "Mo." Sometimes that nastiness is simply unbridled religious bigotry. Sometimes it comes from people rubbed raw from persistent attempts by missionaries and well-meaning Mormon neighbors to sell them a religion other than their own.

Other times it is linked to frustration with a religious institution that also happens to be a cultural and political powerhouse. There is a perception by those outside the church that LDS members poke their noses into everything from the classroom to the barroom to the bedroom.

Some people were bugged--to cite one example of the church flexing influence outside its chapel doors--by the way a block of Main Street in downtown Salt Lake City was converted into a religious park after the Mormon members of the City Council voted to sell it to their church.

The sheer ubiquity of the LDS presence in Utah, with chapels in every neighborhood and seminaries adjacent to public high schools, can be a stinging irritant for the minority outside the Mormon beehive. Some even resent the unofficial state icon--the Salt Lake Temple--for the exclusivity they believe it represents.

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