This little reflection was originally posted on the blog Law, Religion, and Ethics — most of whose readers, if any, are presumably not LDS or residents of Utah.
Pioneer Day, in case you didn’t know, is today, July 24; it commemorates the day in 1847 (give or take a day or two) when Brigham Young declared “This is the place,” and the Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley. I imagine Pioneer Day is still celebrated in Utah, and it was a festive occasion in Idaho Falls, Idaho, when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s. My mother, though she lacked training or college experience, had an artistic bent, and she used to spend untold hours preparing the ward float for the annual Pioneer Day parade, to march along with floats sponsored by other wards (a ward is the Mormon equivalent of a parish) and other churches, as well as countless horse posses, 4-H groups, Shriners, and nicely waxed cars carrying local dignitaries. One year my sister and I were enlisted to stand on the ward float dressed as Betsy Ross and Uncle Sam.
As you can see, Pioneer Day had a mixed religious and American character– Mormon pioneers got sort of squished together with pioneers generally, and Pilgrims, and American Patriots– and in that respect it reflected the town. Idaho Falls in those days boasted over 30,000 inhabitants—it was the third largest city in the state—and it was unusual because the largest local employer, an atomic energy facility, brought in an influx of scientist types from “back East.” So the population was about half Mormon and half non-Mormon, but everyone was American.
We Mormons knew, of course, that our religion was the true one, and the non-Mormons knew we believed this, and this knowledge created some psychological and cultural boundaries. But for the most part relations were cordial. In business and commercial matters, there weren’t religious divisions of the kind that seem to have existed in, say, Lake Wobegone. City government wasn’t religiously polarized. There was only one private school in town—Holy Rosary—and it only went through eighth grade, so the kids all mingled without religious distinction in the schools. And, of course, in Little Leagues, and Rec Center basketball leagues, and many other activities.
In the 50s and 60s we heard a lot about racial conflict. But racism wasn’t a local problem because although Idaho Falls had its share of Catholics, Protestants, Jews (and of course Mormons), the town was pretty much racially homogeneous. Maybe we would have been racist if given the opportunity, but I like to think not. Mormon doctrine officially had a racial component at the time, but the doctrine had no live local application and hardly anyone gave it a thought; if we did, it was one of puzzlement, and regret. In high school I went to a couple of dances with a girl who had grown up in St. Louis, and once, for some reason, we started talking about race. I expounded on how wicked and irrational racial prejudice is, and she said I only thought this way because I had never lived around “them.” Who can say?
As it happens, I’m in Idaho Falls this week, visiting family. This morning, on Pioneer Day, I went for a long walk through some of the old neighborhoods. I was struck by how tiny the houses are, though they didn’t seem especially small when I was growing up. (Houses in the newer subdivisions are much larger.) The lawns are still well-kept, though—lots of hose-operated sprinklers were pouring out their soothing rhythmic whisper—and people still cultivate small patches of assorted flowers around the driveways and porches, with functional or decorative bird feeders and other little adornments. Most houses still have gardens, profuse now with tomatoes, carrots, and raspberries. Lots of houses are flying American flags, maybe still lingering from the Fourth of July.
I walked past Hawthorne School, where I went to kindergarten, and past Longfellow School, where I went to sixth grade, but my route didn’t take me past the other American poet schools—Whittier and Emerson. I went past the yellow brick church where I spent so many hours on Sundays, and Tuesday evenings (youth activities), and Thursday evenings (basketball), and Saturdays (basketball again), and where I hated hauling out the clinkers from the old furnace. I walked down Twenty-third Street, past the house where Linda McConnell used to live. In Mr. Esplin’s class (and before a school friend explained the “facts of life” to me), Linda sat in a desk where she wouldn’t notice as I gazed at her long brown hair and smooth brownish skin. I used to go out of my way to walk past her house, but I don’t recall if I ever actually talked to her. She wasn’t Mormon, so I knew I couldn’t marry her anyway.
There was no parade in Idaho Falls on this Pioneer Day (although people have been pretty excited over a dazzling aerial show by the Blue Angels). The cultural divisions that have affected the country have come to Idaho Falls as well, and for obvious reasons the town has long since ceased to honor the holiday. Even so, there is still a sense of a way of life—a way of life with continuity and shape and a sort of deep spiritual integrity, and with its quiet joys and tragedies. The large irrigation canal where we used to swim almost every day in the summer (and where every few years somebody drowned) flows along as it always did.
A day or two ago, the local newspaper (the Post Register) reported that the Tea Party movement is strong in Idaho, and that the state Republican Party has adopted a states’ rights platform. (I don’t know the details.) The newspaper, which although endearingly thin is like other respectable media progressive, deplored this development, but the editorial I read didn’t go so far as to say that the Parties (Tea and Republican) are actually racist. I doubt that such a charge would be credible to people who know. And you don’t need to hypothesize racism to explain Tea Party sentiment in Idaho.
Having grown up here, and having spent much of my time since then among academics, I don’t find Tea Party leanings surprising. The academics tend to be intelligent, cultured, secular people (I’m generalizing, obviously) who have the advantage, as they suppose, of superior education—and hence of familiarity with refined theories of equality and justice, and of efficient use of resources, and of the cognitive deficits and cultural distortions that prevent the sort of people I grew up with from being either just or efficient. If these academic types have the good fortune to become, say, a “regulations czar” or a Supreme Court Justice or even, say, a President, they naturally want to use this power in accordance with their superior sophistication to make life more fair and rational and regular.
Conversely, the people I grew up with have the sense that the now empowered academic types don’t understand or appreciate—don’t have a clue, frankly—what life in Idaho Falls, with its mixture of religion and American pride, and its pioneers, and its continuities and quiet joys and tragedies, really is. And so they wish that the powerful, sophisticated people would leave them alone and let them live their lives. Actually, I wish the same thing.