If you’ve ever driven across the country, you’ve probably stopped for gas or lunch in some town you’ve never heard of and observed in astonishment that people not only live there, but appear to lead lives as happy and meaningful as any other American. Those lives may include more baseball or rodeo than you would choose for yourself, but the people there seem content enough. You see parks and schools and streets with decent-looking houses and a reasonable number of stores, and you wonder what it would be like if you lived there.
Moving to Rexburg is like stopping for gas in a place like that and failing to get back on the highway to wherever it was you thought you were going.
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After growing up outside the Intermountain West and roaming the world outside the Mormon Corridor, what is it like to live in Rexburg, the LDS answer to Hogsmeade, the most Mormon place on earth? I can’t give a definitive answer, as I (a Mormon who likes being a Mormon and generally likes other Mormons) only lived for three years in one (98% LDS) neighborhood of Rexburg. But my experience was that life in Rexburg is, overall, pretty fantastic.
Since the attractions of a smallish town with harsh winters in the reddest county of a deep red state may not be obvious, let me offer some examples.
- After we arrived entirely unannounced one August afternoon, we met more neighbors in the next two hours than we had met in the two years where we had lived previously, or anywhere else we have lived, for that matter.
- Although I’m suspicious of school buses and the Lord of the Flies environment they enable, it was very easy to send our children to line up for the bus with their primary class or deacons quorum. My children, who have attended schools in four states and one foreign country, report seeing less bullying – nearly none, actually – in Rexburg than anywhere else.
- My oldest son loves Scouts, math, and music. Rexburg offered him a terrific Scout troop, advanced math classes with dozens of students in them, and the best school music program we’ve seen, easily as good as what we saw in Europe. He’s turned into a pretty decent violin player. In the last budget crunch, the schools kept music and cut sports. For a junior high schooler with my son’s interests, Rexburg is paradise.
The church, on the other hand, worked more or less like it does in other places we’ve lived. After three years, I cannot confirm the existence of the specter known as “Utah Mormonism” or “Mormon Corridor Mormonism,” as opposed to just plain Mormonism. People were no more or less likely to be knowledgeable about their religion, attend meetings reliably, feel comfortable at church, or struggle with their faith.
I have no insight into the wisdom or efficiency of Rexburg’s citywide administration. The ward and neighborhood were fantastic, the stake efficient, and the city merely competent. What made life in Rexburg pleasant operated on geographic scales that were either larger or more localized.
If you tried to distill some general principles that account for Rexburg, you might come up with three things.
- Broadly shared basic values means that less space and time are devoted to things you don’t care about, and there is easier access and options to choose from for things that are important to you. To give one trivial example, no coffee shops or bars intrude if you’re looking for one of the dozen milkshake joints or frozen custard shops. A minimal alcohol section in the grocery store means more variety on other aisles. People are more likely to build housing configured for families like yours, so it’s easier to find a suitable place to live. Events you care about are less likely to be scheduled at personally inconvenient times, and are more likely to be well organized thanks to a broader base of support in the community.
- Personal relationships can be more holistic and less atomized. In most other places, your relationships are likely to be either economic (with a merchant, a customer, an employer, a colleague) or geographic (a neighbor, a fellow school parent) or social (a friend, a fellow ward member) or familial (a cousin, a distant relative). But Rexburg is a small town in the small world of Mormonism. Both bishops we had were near neighbors who, like me, worked on campus in some capacity. A woman who baby-sat me forty years ago in a town a thousand miles from Rexburg worked in the next building over from mine. My first haircut in Rexburg was from a barber who remembered cutting the hair of my grandfather, who died over 25 years ago. One of my students was the great-grandson of my father’s second-grade teacher. Rexburg made it much easier to know people not as one cog in one of the subsystems of society, but as more complete people.
The larger fraction of multifaceted relationships changed the experience of walking outside your house. Compared to other places, you spent more time recognizing and greeting the people on the street, and less time evaluating them as possible threats. You didn’t have to devote as many cognitive resources to worrying about image and representation. Not none, of course, but fewer. We have lived in places where our family size was quadruple the norm, and where marching off to church each Sunday morning in our Sunday best marked us as extremely unusual people. We were happy to put who we were on display, and would happily do so again – but it also imposed psychic costs much higher than when the rest of the neighborhood was headed to the same place we were on Sunday mornings.
- Most people in town spend at least three hours a week in church, and the majority of what the church teaches is not so much Mormon particularism but general virtue: work hard, be honest, treat others kindly. All that teaching eventually makes a difference in how people act. Neighbors brought cookies and teenagers performed spontaneous acts of service with a frequency otherwise known only in bad Norman Rockwell imitators and treacly fiction. While the locals insist that there really is crime in Rexburg, the crime rate is about a quarter of the national average, which is not too shabby for a place with a large student-age population. A lack of bars and a low level of alcohol consumption lets Rexburg avoid a lot of alcohol-related crime. Living in Rexburg won’t reform the miscreant, but it can be a fantastic environment for a person or family who needs extra attention or round-the-clock, full-court press from ward members.
What I’ve written so far may sound like a paean to religious homogeneity. Perhaps it is one; Rexburg wouldn’t be what it is without its predominately Mormon population. Should it be shameful to enjoy living in Rexburg as one of the majority? No, I don’t think so. The distinctiveness of Rexburg and the Mormon Corridor more broadly is part of the regional diversity that makes the United States interesting. I’ve enjoyed living in Urbana and Lansing and Fayetteville, but you would hardly notice if you swapped one of those cities with any other. Rexburg, on the other hand, is as culturally distinctive in its own way as Charleston or New Orleans. The country would be a culturally poorer place without a bunch of Mormons living together in the West.
I wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone else, but I don’t think that enjoying life in Rexburg is predicated on being white, middle class, male, married, or having children. My immediate acquaintances who also seemed to find Rexburg attractive included those who were non-white or interracially married, in blue-caller jobs or living in economically precarious circumstances, female, single, and childless. Enjoying Rexburg is not even predicated on being Mormon; we knew of some non-Mormons who had moved to Rexburg because they liked the community. (On the other hand, not everyone will enjoy living in an irony-free zone, and the city is not a good match at all for people – usually Mormons, in most cases I knew about – who are resentful of the church and wish to avoid all contact with it.)
Sometimes one reads comments on Mormon blogs to the effect that one couldn’t possibly live in Utah, as one is so much different than those other, Utah Mormons. But the truth is that if you have any commitment at all to the religion of your co-religionists, then you share a lot of fundamental values that go much deeper than matters of politics or taste. You don’t realize how much you really are like the Mormons of the Intermountain West until you spend some time living among them.
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After living in areas where Mormons are the rare exception rather than the rule, in wards or branches where auxiliaries may not be complete and standard procedures may not be followed with exactness, it’s easy to get the feeling that you’re plugging holes in the dike, holding back the water in as many gaps as you have fingers. But sometimes you recognize that you’re the one who’s leaking from a hundred places, and that dozens of people are helping to plug the gaps in you. That was what Rexburg was for me.
Those who are interested in intentional communities or localism should come take a look at Rexburg and its neighborhoods: this is what Mormons built, when they were asked to build Zion. I don’t know if they succeeded, but they at least built something like Mt. Nebo, where you can catch a glimpse of the promised land that you yourself will not enter.
What is it like to leave Rexburg, to get back on the interstate and keep driving after staying much longer than you had planned, perhaps not heading towards the same destination as before? Even for an imperfect Zion, the exit protocol is much the same: You sit. You weep.