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Investigation at USU shows Utah’s ‘gentile culture’ needs to retire

Allegations of discrimination involving the Utah State football coaching staff are a reminder that cultural divides have no place.

Utah State University President Noelle Cockett leaves Old Main in Logan on Nov 8, 2017.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When news first surfaced that Dr. Noelle Cockett, president of Utah State University, allegedly questioned the religion of a football coach when discussing with players who should lead the team, it seemed off.

Here’s a university administrator in Utah, not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, allegedly holding that association against someone who is?

I use the word “allegedly” here purposefully, respecting an ongoing investigation into the topic under the watch of the state’s Board of Education.

Nonetheless, the Deseret News obtained the anonymous survey that players created and distributed among themselves after the comments were made, and there seems to be consensus. When asked to “describe what concerned you” about Cockett’s comments, more than 40 players mentioned religion — or, as a USU football player told me specifically Wednesday night, “Her concerns were his religion and (that) he was from Utah.”

That much should make most readers pause, and for obvious reasons. Hearing that one’s membership in the state’s predominant religion might make them a less desirable job candidate is, understandably, uncomfortable. For some, it will raise questions of whether such behavior contravenes Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the federal law aimed at preventing employment discrimination.

But before hoisting the pitchforks and allowing the persecution complex to take over, let’s consider how we can avoid these situations. Latter-day Saints, like myself, would do well to look inward before pointing fingers outward. Our introspection might begin by addressing Utah’s longstanding “gentile” dynamic that ought to be relegated to the past.

Early Latter-day Saint arrivals in the Utah territory, having been mistreated at each stop along the way, were wary of outsiders — often viewing visitors to the territory as so-called “gentile outsiders.”

Early in the 20th century, the state’s first Jewish governor was elected — but not without some grief. Historian Leon Watters recounted that Gov. Simon Bamberger, while campaigning, visited a small community in southern Utah, and upon meeting the community’s leader — a towering Norwegian immigrant — was told, “You might yust as vell go right back vere you come from. If you tink ve let any damn Yentile speak in our meeting house, yure mistaken.”

Bamberger, not one to take offense easily, retorted, “As a Jew, I have been called many a bad name, but this is first time in my life I have been called a damned gentile!” As the story goes, the response won over the skeptics.

Other fictional accounts — like Fitzgerald’s “Papa Married a Mormon” — play off of the same tensions, with a hint of sincerity — that outsiders in a religious community can feel awfully marginalized at times.

Group identity is important — it often gives us strength. Community is important. But how we define the “others” — and even if we choose to define them, and the role those definitions assume — can be damaging. We’re stronger when we don’t have these artificial divides.

The USU incident, though disappointing, might be read as an imperfect inverse of tensions in Utah that have existed for the better part of a century-and-a-half. The disconnect between university and the community probably factored in, too — the so-called “town-grown” gulf that sometimes sprouts between the homegrown community and the more secular, progressive, “outsiders” within universities.

Such issues are not unique to Utah. But religion and culture add another complicated layer.

This need not be. In a state that prides itself on its volunteerism and community-oriented culture, giving a little more of ourselves — and shelving a bit more of our tribalism — could go far. State leaders recently committed to rooting out disparities along racial and ethnic lines, and all of us could commit to do the same.

When it comes to tribes of all kinds, the annals are unfortunately full of incidents of us and them — and now that Latter-day Saints may be on the flipside, it’s not comfortable. In no way does that justify any comment Cockett may have made — but that tension-filled tug-of-war between “saints” and “sinners” might be best replaced by a unified effort for all of us to become better neighbors.

Utah’s “gentile culture” — the us-versus-them dialogue, the useless divides — is a relic of the past. It deserves to stay there.