Utah is a triumph of man over nature, the creation of a productive and orderly civilization in a remote expanse of desert and mountain, arrayed around a desolate salt sea. Today's Utah and Mormonism have their roots in a very different landscape of more than 150 years ago, when a wave of religious enthusiasm, prophecy and utopianism swept across the ''burnt-over district'' of Upstate New York in the 1820s and 1830s. There Joseph Smith, a 14-year-old farmer, experienced a vision in which the angel Moroni appeared and told him where to unearth several golden tablets inscribed with hieroglyphic writings. With the aid of special spectacles, Smith translated the tablets and published them as the Book of Mormon in 1831. He later declared himself a prophet and founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Mormons, as they were called, attracted thousands of converts and created their own communities; persecuted for their beliefs, they moved west to Ohio, Missouri and then Illinois. In 1844, the Mormon colony at Nauvoo, Illinois, had some 15,000 members living under the theocratic rule of Smith. It was here that Smith received a revelation sanctioning the practice of polygamy, which led to his death at the hands of a mob in 1844. After the murder, the new church president, Brigham Young, decided to move the faithful, ''the saints,'' farther west into territory that was still part of Mexico and far beyond white settlement. In 1847 Young led a well-organized march across the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains on a path where Mormons reenacted the march 150 years later in 1997. In 1847, they stopped on the western slope of the Wasatch Range and, as Young gazed over the valley of the Great Salt Lake spread out below, he uttered the now famous words, ''This is the place.''
The place was Utah. Young was governor of the territory for many years, and it is the only state that largely continues to live by the teachings of a church. The early pioneers laid out towns foursquare to the points of the compass with huge city blocks, built sturdy houses and planted dozens of trees. Young's home still stands a block away from Temple Square, where the Temple, closed to non-Mormons, stands in gleaming marble, topped by the golden angel Moroni, across from the oval Mormon Tabernacle where its great choir sings. For 150 years this ''Zion'' has attracted thousands of converts from the Midwest, the north of England and Scandinavia. The object of religious fear and prejudice, Utah was not granted statehood until 1896, after the church renounced polygamy. Utah has grown steadily since then, and remains heavily Mormon, its basic character is stamped on the desert, mountain-shadowed, often surrealistic landscape that without the Mormons would probably have remained as unpopulated as Nevada without gambling.
The LDS church remains distinctive in many ways. It cares deeply about its past: In caves in the mountains of Utah, the Church preserves America's most complete genealogical records in its Family History Library, which is also on the Internet. It tries to spread the faith: Young Mormons, 65,000 every year, spend missionary years in the United States and abroad, and their experiences in turn give Utah the biggest inventory of people with knowledge of obscure foreign languages of any state in the union, a nice commercial advantage. The church prohibits the consumption of tobacco, alcohol and caffeine; it encourages hard work and large families. Mormons are healthier than the average American; better educated, they work longer hours and earn more money. Utah is the youngest state (median age 27 versus the national 35), with the largest families (3.57 people versus 3.14) and the third greatest life expectancy (78.6 years). In an individualist country, the church fosters communitarian attitudes: The LDS Church has no clergy, but members serve in positions for which they are chosen, conducting religious services but also keeping in touch with members and counseling them when they need help. The church also maintains its own social service organizations. It evidently works: While American mainline denominations are losing members, the Mormon Church is growing. There were 2.9 million Mormons in 1970 and nearly 11 million in 2000, with more than half outside the United States and just 15% in Utah; this was the fastest-growing church in the United States in the 1990s and the nation's fifth largest denomination in 2003.
The church's influence in Utah has long been great and has sometimes been resented. It owns one of the two leading Salt Lake City newspapers and a TV station. It has holdings in an insurance company, several banks, real estate, and is the state's largest employer. Church President Gordon Hinckley barred church general authorities from serving on business boards; though about 70% of Mormons vote Republican, church leaders have insisted that there is no "church party" and that one can be a good Mormon and a Democrat. Power is diffuse in this rapidly growing state and the days are gone when the church president could sit down with four or five business leaders and make civic decisions. In politics the church weighs in only on what it considers moral issues--abortion (Utah has the strictest anti-abortion law in the nation), gambling (leave that to Nevada), tobacco (this was the first state to ban cigarette vending machines), alcohol (the state's restrictive liquor laws are slowly being liberalized). In 2004 the church took a position against same-sex marriage but carefully refrained from any opinion on the amendment on the ballot banning it. But on these issues the church is probably in line with public opinion; the 2004 amendment passed by a wide margin. Polls show Utahns more conservative than Americans generally on every cultural issue except school prayer; Mormons, originally a discriminated-against minority, are wary of imposing their religion on others.
If the moral underpinnings of life in Utah have not changed in 50 years, Utah's view of its place in the nation has. Before World War II, Utah saw itself as a colonial victim of East Coast bankers and financiers and Mormons saw themselves as suffering religious discrimination and bigotry--all with some cause. Utah's income levels were well below the national average, its cost of living higher, the prices paid for the things it produced seemed to be controlled elsewhere. In political terms, this perspective translated into a Democratic allegiance: In 1940 Utah was represented by staunch New Dealers in Congress and cast 62% of its votes for Franklin D. Roosevelt. Today, Utah sees itself as a busy generator of wealth, with a raft of successful businesses and a knack for high-tech innovation. It has the youngest and most productive workforce of any state in the nation. Its population grew 39% between 1990 and 2004, the fourth highest rate in the nation (after Nevada, Arizona and Colorado), and two-thirds of growth here comes from natural population increase rather than in-migration. Work weeks average 48 hours here, more than Japan and far more than anywhere else in America. It has had fast-rising incomes but not per capita incomes: all those children weigh those numbers down. Utah has the largest proportion of children of any state, by far, and low rates of divorce. Church doctrine discriminated against blacks until 1978, and Utah's population was only 1% black in 2000, but it was also 9% Hispanic, 2% Asian and 1% Pacific Islander. In many ways, Utah looks like the America of the 1950s, but with 21st century high-tech: in 2000 it was the number one state in households with computers.
The fast-growing student population puts on pressure for high taxes to build new schools, and Utah politicians have bridled at George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, arguing that Utah's testing process is better and that it makes no sense to test children by ethnic group. But politically, Utah's special characteristics have made it a heavily Republican state since the middle 1960s. The arithmetic is pretty simple: about 75% of voters are Mormon and about 70% of them usually vote Republican; that puts the Republicans over 50% without a single non-Mormon vote. This was not always so, just in the last 30 years, as traditional values thriving in Utah have come under attack elsewhere. Utahns, Mormons and gentiles alike, have made it arguably the most Republican of states--standing out in national statistics politically just as it does demographically. Interestingly, the Salt Lake City neighborhoods close to the church headquarters, with gracious old houses and a smaller street grid that attract academic and professional newcomers, have become the most heavily ''gentile'' and politically liberal parts of the state. As the Yankee hub of Boston filled up with Irish Catholic Democrats in the 1890s, so Salt Lake City is getting more than its share of secular liberal Democrats in the 1990s, people who cheer on the non-Church-owned Salt Lake Tribune when it runs stories attacking the church for converting a block of Main Street into a plaza with restrictions on speech, dress, and conduct. But for the most part, Democrats are competitive only if they seem consistent with Utah values and attitudes, and even then are in jeopardy.