Story heightens perceptions of fanaticism in Utah

Deseret News, Mar. 16, 2003
By Bob Bernick Jr. and Jerry D. Spangler, Deseret News staff writers

      Once again, Utah has been thrown into the national spotlight by a religious fanatic, this one an ex-Mormon-turned-itinerant-street-preacher who now stands accused of kidnapping teenager Elizabeth Smart.

      And although the Elizabeth Smart case ended happily, Brian David Mitchell’s name will now join an infamous list of extremists that includes Ervil LeBaron, Dan and Ron Lafferty, John Singer, Addam Swapp, Mark Hofmann and Immanuel David.

      “I can’t help but think this just enhances the notion out there that this is kind of a weird place,” said Doug Goldsmith, a child therapist and director of The Children’s Center. “I can’t help but think this will ultimately be 10 steps back in how the rest of the country looks at us.”

      Every few years, it seems, the state and its leaders have to answer the same questions. What is it about Utah that breeds religious fanaticism? And how can the state fight the stereotypes that image engenders?

      From Gov. Mike Leavitt on down, Utah leaders were praised for putting on a great 2002 Winter Olympics a year ago. It was a showcase for the state’s culture, its people and the LDS faith.

      “The Olympics helped a great deal in our worldwide image,” said Dale Zabriskie, a longtime Utahn, political activist and public relations expert who has clients across the nation.

      “And I think that more and more people have contact with missionaries with (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), and that is becoming more and more the perception of Utah and of the church,” he said.

      But long-held stereotypes are not easily dispelled, nor can the goodwill of positive events like the Olympics completely erase a history of what many would consider religious zealotry that goes back to the earliest days of the Utah pioneers.

      Leavitt, reached at a staff retreat out of state, said: “Religious extremism often produces unhappy and unfathomable results. Utah doesn’t have a corner on it, but we have our share.”

      Leavitt said state and county economic development officials, elected officials, church and community leaders will just continue emphasizing the positive things about the state. “We’ll do things like the Olympics, the Sundance Film Festival, international trade missions.

      “We do our best to tell the story of Utah as a growing work force that is education minded and tech-savvy, it’s affordable and livable and safe. All of which are true.”

      Still, the state has had an uninterrupted history of these sensational events. “Any culture where there is a really dominant single religion or culture breeds malcontents who react strongly in the other direction,” said Ken Sanders, owner of Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City and a dealer in the history of Utah’s past.

      Sanders points to Joseph Morris and his 1862 battle with the territorial militia as quite possibly the first time religious zealotry in Utah ended in bloodshed. Morris, three wives and a child were killed by the militia; two posse members were also killed in what became known as the Morrisite War.

      And there were others through the years, often sparked by religious rivalries or delusions.

      Zabriskie says the religious-fanatic-in-Utah element is clearly present in the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case, and it will likely draw a lot of media attention to things state leaders would just as soon not see dredged up.

      (Mitchell was excommunicated from the LDS Church “for activity promoting bizarre teachings and lifestyle far afield from the principles and doctrines of the church,” according to a church statement released this past week.)

      Zabriskie notes Smart was the lead story in Thursday’s USA Today. “And in the third paragraph it talks about this happening in a (Utah) city dominated by the Mormon Church. Yet because of this exposure of the Olympics, the church, the good nature (of those reports), people realize that this is an aberration — an extreme religious position” of Smart’s alleged kidnapper.

      “People realize that. It is a setback to Utah’s image. But with the Olympics and the missionaries, it’s like two steps forward and half-a-step back.”

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