Of course, I believe The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true everywhere, but there are places where it is doing a better job of perfecting the Saints than others.
Back in 1981, my wife, Kristine, and I chose to live east of the Mississippi, for a while at least, specifically because we wanted to give our kids the best possible upbringing as Latter-day Saints. We knew this was the opposite of what our parents did in order to accomplish the same purpose.
But we've seen more and more over the years to make us feel that the decision we made was the right one, for us at least. We've watched many of our finest teenagers go off to college at BYU, only to be disillusioned when their Mormon roommates mocked them for dressing modestly and going to every church gathering, including social ones. At the same time, we've seen our own kids, and the children of our friends, confronting every day at school the differences between them and people who don't believe in and live the principles of Mormonism. They know what it means to be LDS.
Why do these differences arise? It isn't that there's less inspiration or faith in one place and more in another. We have the same Gospel. We meet in cookie-cutter meetinghouses following the same schedules and working within the same organizations. We teach from the same manuals. We keep (or try to keep) the same commandments.
The plainest difference is this: Mountain Saints are in the majority or are the dominant minority, while the rest of us are keenly aware every day that we are but a tiny sliver of the communities where we live.
The biggest single advantage for Minority Saints, I think, is the very fact that they're in the minority in their community. It's easier to see what it means to be a Mormon. You can draw a line and say, Mormons are on this side of the line, and non-Mormons are on the other. In the mountains, this is nearly impossible. The kids taunting a good Mormon boy for refusing to listen to dirty jokes are going to be passing the sacrament beside him on Sunday. The businessman who cheats his customers or yells at his employees might well be in the elders quorum presidency. The politician caught with his hand in the till or making racist remarks is probably a Mormon, too.
It's not an accident that things are this way, either. Where the Saints are in the majority, it's good business to be an active member; in minority wards, there's no financial incentive to be "active" when you aren't actually trying to live a Christ-like life. So in minority areas, the businessman inclined to cheat or bully probably doesn't come to church, either.
In mountain wards, young people who want to be rebellious and different often feel they have to rebel against the church, while in minority wards they can often get that same sense of being radical or unique by rebelling against the standards and values of their teachers and fellow students at school.
How often does a mountain ward kid have a chance in school to correct a teacher or student making false statements about the church as if they were matters of fact? My two older children have both had this chance several times since their earliest years in school. Even their younger brother, Charlie, who attends a special school for children with severe cerebral palsy, is often visited by church members who, when coming to Gateway School for other reasons, always make it a point to stop and see him. The result is that Charlie, too, has a chance to show what it means to be a Latter-day Saint.
Thus, Mormon kids raised in minority wards get a much healthier view of the world around them. While mountain Mormons almost never get to even see an African-American, for instance, my children have had many chances to make friends with people from many widely divergent cultures.
The advantages don't run all one way here. My kids are sometimes terribly lonely at school; though they do have good non-member friends, there is still a gulf separating them from true intimacy with most of them. And my years in junior high and high school in Mesa, Ariz., where fellow Mormons were plentiful, were some of the happiest in my life-in large part because I had so many good Mormon friends and didn't have to look to one ward to supply all my Mormon friendships.
At the same time, though, my closest friend in Mesa was Sam Cristler, a Southern Baptist. I learned so many good and important things from his friendship that I can't begin to count them; perhaps the most important thing I learned, though, was that this good, honest, smart, hard-working, funny, talented guy who, oddly enough, liked me, too, did not believe in the LDS worldview, and yet his standards were every bit as high as mine, and in some cases a good deal higher.
The kids who are growing up in areas that are more than 90% Mormon-where will they find someone to be the Sam Cristler in their lives? Some do. Most can't.
When wards comprise only a few blocks, most won't have a very broad range of social classes within them. Many a mountain ward consists of families making pretty much the same amount of money, doing pretty much the same kind of job, and passing through pretty much the same stages of life.
By contrast, the wide geographical area covered by minority wards means that these wards are more likely to include people of every economic and social level. It is almost unheard of outside the mountains to have wards consisting entirely of wealthy Saints. Our children have grown up with friends from every economic level. More important, they have seen adults with blue-collar jobs holding leadership callings and being treated at church with as much respect as people who do desk jobs.
Does this really matter all that much? If you've read the Book of Mormon, you'll know that it does.I don't recall a single case where the Nephites fell into wickedness because their church programs were not fully staffed. But there are sure a lot of cases-specifically, all of them-where they slipped into apostasy because the wealthy were lifted up in the pride of their hearts and began to despise the poor.
We made our choice of where to live years ago, and believe me, we are keenly aware of the disadvantages of living where Mormons are in the minority. (Even before our kids turned 16, they were already aware of the woes of a "limited dating pool.") But we are also aware of the advantages, and as long as we have children living at home, we have no desire to take them away from here, where being Mormon means you stand for something, where you can see what the rest of the world actually looks like, and where the bonds of fellowship are not interrupted by barriers of income, race, or education.