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Written by Michael Flynn
“It is oppressive to live in the city of St. George as a non-Mormon,” St. George City Council applicant Tara Dunn announced to a crowd comprised of some of Southern Utah’s most influential people, many of whom are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Her words seemed to hang in the air on Jan. 23 during the brief but tense pause that followed her speech in the St. George City Council chambers. Many were shocked to hear such strongly worded criticism of Latter-day Saint culture. Some were offended at what they felt was an attack on the LDS faith itself.
“I thought it was repulsive,” said St. George City Councilman Gil Almquist, who also serves as the president of a local LDS stake. “I felt very misunderstood that night,” he added.
Others have said they felt inspired by Dunn’s words.
“Her speech made people uncomfortable,” said Dorothy Engelman, chair of the Washington County Democratic party. “Oftentimes we are uncomfortable hearing things that we know are true but are unwilling or afraid to say ourselves.”
“Yes, I do think non-Mormons sometimes face discrimination,” she added. “I think that there are several groups that face discrimination in Southern Utah, non-Mormons being one of them.”
Some members of the LDS church have said they actually agreed with much of what Dunn said in her speech.
“I think there’s truth to what she’s saying,” said Bryan Hyde, host of the popular political talk show “Perspectives” on FOX 1450 AM. “Particularly this sense of people feeling disenfranchised and not fitting in because they are not LDS. I think that’s a legitimate concern.”
However, Hyde said he thinks Dunn’s confrontational tone may have detracted from her message.
“I think it was a missed opportunity for her,” he said, “She has done some remarkable things and I think she has made some tremendous gains in gaining the trust of voters. The tone she took actually harmed the message she was trying to get out.”
“We (non-Mormons) have never had any form of meaningful representation,” Dunn said in her speech, “and, worse, it has become somewhat of an unspoken culture that we accept that we are second-class citizens in silence. Today and right now, I break that silence.”
Tara Dunn speaks before the St. George City Council, Mayor Jon Pike, and onlookers on Jan. 23. Photo by Josh Warburton
Dunn said she expected to be condemned by some for her words, but she felt someone needed to say it.
“When you make people operate in these confines, you know who you hurt? You hurt the victims of domestic violence, you hurt the rape victims, you hurt the children, you hurt the disabled, you hurt the elderly, you hurt the little guys,” she said in an interview after delivering the speech. “That’s who you hurt when you don’t call people out on this culture of ‘no one say anything.’ That kind of culture is enabling of all kinds of horrible things.”
“You don’t hurt me,” she added. “I’m strong. I can take it, I’m strong.”
Dunn has been a controversial figure in St. George city politics since 2011, when she first ran for a position on the St. George City Council. In both the 2011 and 2013 races, Dunn waged campaigns that were overtly critical of the current city government, which she says is rife with self-dealing and cronyism. While some have criticized her campaign style for being too negative for Southern Utah, Dunn came very close to winning in both races.
Dunn delivered the speech in question on Thursday evening last week at the city council chambers. She was one of 24 applicants for Mayor Jon Pike’s recently vacated council seat. Each of the applicants was permitted to address the council, mayor and audience members before a vote was taken by the council to fill Pike’s seat. Dunn’s three-minute address has been seen by some as a death knell for her political aspirations in Southern Utah. David DeMille, a local journalist for the St. George Spectrum, described the speech in a tweet from city hall as Dunn, “going out, guns a-blazin,” like an outlaw gunfighter.
Now that the dust has had a chance to settle on Facebook and in the comment threads regarding Dunn’s controversial remarks, the question remains: Is there any truth to what she said on Thursday? Is there a penalty to pay for not being a member of the LDS Church in Southern Utah? If there is, why is it so and to what degree? Can the atmosphere in St. George really be described as oppressive for non-Mormons?
“Ms. Dunn is correct that non-Mormons in Southern Utah are treated as second-class citizens,” said Lori McArthur Cottam, who says her pioneer heritage goes back to Daniel D. McArthur, one of the early Mormon settlers of the Salt Lake Valley in 1848 and one of the original pioneers who founded St. George in 1861. As an ex-Mormon whose husband and children are practicing members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Cottam said she believes she has a unique perspective on the cultural tension between members and non-members – and she said she doesn’t believe Mormons intend to discriminate against or alienate anybody.
“They just don’t think about it,” she said. “It’s part of their culture – it’s the way they were raised.” Cottam added that many of the things about LDS culture that non-members find offensive or off-putting are done in a spirit of kindness and compassion.
“In fact,” she said, “their religion teaches that the only way to be a true friend is to help everyone find a happiness that only the true church can bring. They feel that if they don’t convert us, they will have failed us. That surely breeds an us-versus-them mentality.”
In yet another dimension of this debate, many Mormons and non-Mormons who heard Dunn’s speech have said they can’t relate to what she described. One commenter on The Independent’s website, self-identified as a non-Mormon, said they cannot relate to Dunn’s portrayal. “Folks know I’m not Mormon and they’re always there to help and offer a kind word,” the commenter said.
Spectators, some wearing pins in support of Tara Dunn, listen to speeches made by city council applicants in the St. George City Council chambers on Jan. 23. Photo by Josh Warburton
Gil Almquist said he’s never heard of non-Mormons being discriminated against. “I can only speak for myself and everyone that I know and emphatically state that, no, that does not exist,” he said.
Almquist said he, too, has a unique perspective on this issue. “I haven’t always been LDS,” he said. “I see people in a different light, maybe, than some who have been in the church their entire life.”
“I have never made a decision, public or private, based on someone’s race, creed, color, gender, status in the community, or their religion,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to think that there is a question on a form that says, ‘What religion are you?’ Give me a break. It’s against the law.”
However, Bryan Hyde, who is a Mormon, said he is aware of instances of intolerance towards non-Mormons by members of his faith.
“You know, there are individuals who, for whatever reason, say ‘your kid can’t play with my kid,’” said Hyde. “Why not? ‘Well, because you’re not a member of our church.’ Those are pretty rare instances, but they do happen.”
“That probably does exist somewhere,” Almquist admitted, “but if somebody from the LDS church has offended somebody wrongfully, well, they’re not in good standing. They need to repent.”
However, Cottam said much of the discriminating behavior that occurs happens unconsciously.
“It’s important to realize that Mormons don’t do any of this on purpose,” she said. She offered an example of how she believes the church can sometimes unintentionally foster negative attitudes about non-members.
“At my daughter’s ward last month,” she said, “a speaker told 11- to 17-year-old girls that if they didn’t do it God’s way, they would end up so sad that they would commit suicide like the star of TV’s ‘Glee.’ These kinds of stories are not only wrong, but they teach these children to be deathly afraid of all things non-Mormon.”
Dorothy Engelman and Tara Dunn both spoke about small-business owners they know who have lost business when customers discovered they are not LDS. Dunn mentioned a realtor she knows who said many LDS people will not list their homes with non-LDS realtors.
“If your livelihood is dependent upon being accepted by folks of the LDS faith, and they are paying you for your services, then you have to be very careful where you step,” said Engelman.
Kevin Hansen, a local contractor who is a Mormon, said he believes Mormon people are, on average, more trustworthy than non-Mormons. He said he doesn’t see a big problem with favoring LDS people in business dealings.
“People who practice this faith and believe this religion are different,” he said. “We start from youth to believe in the Ten Commandments.” He went on to discuss the discipline and work ethics Latter-day Saint men and women learn on their missions.
“We freely put ourselves through that kind of scrutiny to be members in good standing,” he said. “If there’s a confessional in some other church – well, that’s totally voluntary. We confess once every two years as adults that are temple worthy.”
Hansen paused, however, when asked how overlooking non-Mormon businesses or job applicants was any different than shunning, for instance, Jewish businesses and employees because they do not recognize the divinity of Jesus.
“Well, I can see how other people could look at it that way,” he said.
Cottam repeatedly stressed that the vast majority of LDS people have the best of intentions, even when they are doing things that non-members find alienating.
Bryan Hyde said that in order for the gap to close between the cultural experiences of LDS and non-LDS folks, people need to try and be more open and accepting of those who make different choices and have different values than they do.
“The only thing that I can think of to make a difference is for both sides to move in the direction of those who they perceive as their cultural opponent,” he said. “Instead of teaching our kids that, ‘Oh, that person has tattoos, they must be bad,’ maybe it’s OK if your kid says, ‘That’s a really cool tattoo.’ You can appreciate it and you still haven’t abandoned your values; instead, what you’ve done is shown some appreciation for somebody.”
Constructive communication can’t take place, he said, until people begin to understand where others are coming from – even if they don’t agree.
“Rather than fearing or resenting our neighbors for being different, maybe we ought to embrace them for it,” Hyde said. “This really is an amazing place and there is room enough to share it. I want the people who come here to feel welcome, and anything we can do to facilitate a dialogue, well, I’m all for that."