I am a proud Utah Latter-day Saint. Despite the fact that “Utah Mormon” is sometimes used as an epithet, often by people who would never be caught dead referring to, say, New York Jews, the fact is that growing up on the suburban Wasatch Front in the 1990s was a precious experience. Before fertility rates tanked and childhood became largely defined by antiseptic, carefully curated play groups designed to maximize peer group influence, and college admissions options, neighborhoods were spilling over with scraped-elbowed children whose vortex of energy would spontaneously generate chivalrous playground fights of legend, “night games,” and brave expeditions into dark, unexplored orchards.

The folkloric tradition of the prepubescents of the Orem east bench rivalled Grimm’s fairy tales. The most incidental detail in the neighborhood that we unenchanted adults would now drive by without a half thought became the equivalent of the resting place of the Excalibur. Because the world was one square mile, walking to the next stake was an Antarctic expedition, and adults driving us somewhere was transportation to a parallel universe.

As I aged, the world very gradually became smaller and less enchanting. The Hansel and Gretel forest (an orchard of about a dozen acres) was clear cut, and I gradually started to suspect that—half of my classmate’s oaths to the contrary notwithstanding—Bloody Mary didn’t really show up when you chanted her name in front of a mirror at night (nor, in an interesting syncretism, did their father’s priesthood blessing drive her away). A driver’s license shrunk the world even smaller, and now with the internet, it fits into a pocket.

Sure, it wasn’t perfect. Part of getting older and maturing is realizing how dysfunctional our species is, and that Jesus was serious when he warned us against trusting in the arm of flesh. The former Stake President whose portrait is missing from the church’s hall of icons was a sexual abuser, the picture perfect couple with eight picture perfect children abruptly divorced, and Brother so and so who doesn’t show up to Church to avoid awkward conversations about why a squad of patrol cars showed up at his house the day before.

People of a certain ideological disposition love to traffic these stories and jeer at the white picket fence family, pretending that we don’t know about their issues too. For all the stereotypes about suburban dysfunction, the alternatives, such as the big-city single life that encourages the sacrifice of children to the Moloch of occupational ambition, aren’t mental health peaches either. Occasionally, a bright, cherubic family behind a white picket fence is actually a bright, cherubic family behind a white picket fence, and there’s nothing wrong with striving for that.

A key component of this small world childhood was the “Sacred Canopy” that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provided. The “Sacred Canopy” is a term coined by the sociologist Peter Berger that refers to the common metaphysical framing and worldview provided by a dominant religious perspective. God and its interactions with the community are a vital, real air that everybody breathes. The metaphysical worldview frames and structures meaning for the individual—and by extension, the community—in ways that modernity just hasn’t been able to replicate. I’ve always had some fondness for the idea of sacred canopies, regardless of religious tradition, whether it’s Smith-era Nauvoo, United Order-era Logan, the Shtetl of Fiddler of the Roof, or the dusty Catholic Pueblos of Death Comes for the Archbishop. I even enjoy early Soviet art depicting the glorious communal future that romanticizes a secularized version of this.

And yes, once again there were problems (to put it very gently). The pioneer communities went through almost starvation-level poverty, the Eastern European Jewish sense of community was forged in the fire of brutal antisemitism (and, I conjecture, its current manifestation as anti-Zionism gives secular Israelis a sense of community that contributes to their higher-than-average birth rates), and the Soviet case certainly needs no comment. But all the same, they still had something that we don’t. We now have multiple, variegated routes to meaning, usually attached to status. The lawyer tries to find meaning in making partner, the professor in publishing a paper, the businessman in money, the artist in their art and, well, it doesn’t take a lot of the “spirit of discernment” to realize what kind of hole in their soul the people who spend days shouting into the Twitter void are trying to fill. (However, it is worth saying that any of these routes to meaning, while shallow, are far superior to the ultimate heresy of finding meaning through status within the Church, which lies uncomfortably side by side with the true source of meaning.)

With the diffusion of power and the advent of mass communications, sacred canopies are inherently unstable. Whether it’s the Japanese Emperor renouncing his divinity or the Puritans’ “Cities on a Hill” gradually giving way to Bostonian suburbs of lukewarm congregationalists, the story of modernity can in large part be seen as the deflations of a series of sacred canopies. In that sense it was quite a unique experience for me to grow up in the time and space that I did, as—with the exception of a few other communities such as Hutterites, Amish, and Ultra-Orthodox Jews—1990s Orem was one of the last sacred canopies in the United States.

I’ve gradually come to realize that the Utah canopy of my childhood simply does not exist anymore. While I will always look with fondness on the enchantments of my childhood and the communal religion that undergirded it, and will be the first to recognize its charms, ultimately its disappearance is a good thing. The ultimate sacred canopy was the Garden of Eden. There was no doubt, no worldly tradeoffs to manage. However, it was not long before God introduced nuance and conflict so that humanity could become “as the Gods,” and there was a reason for this. Some of my leaving of my Edenic childhood was a natural consequence of growing up, but some of it was a change in the environment around us.

More and more, people who are dispositionally not inclined to choose the standard gospel life just aren’t doing so, and that’s understandable. The gospel is meant to be freely chosen, and a hermetically sealed sacred canopy can retard authentic exercise of that agency. While some may see this disruption of CoJC norms in Utah as a bad thing for the Church, I’m noticing that those who stay aren’t doing so out of inertia; they have some clear spiritual reason to hold onto the gospel, perhaps as a fulfillment of President Nelson’s prophecy that “in coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost.” A Church of people who have tasted of the fruit is going to be more holy and pure than a Church of sociocultural inertia. Now, some metaphysical structure is necessary, even if it ends up serving as a foil for decisions later in life. While I teach my children about different worldviews, I am unapologetic about presenting the gospel as true. As a parent connected to my children, that is my right, and God has commanded us to do so as to facilitate our children partaking of the fruit. However, at some point they will have to feel and taste of the fruit themselves, or else they too will wander off. I can’t just move to a nice small town in Utah, try to replicate my childhood, and hope that the inertia carries them into a stable temple marriage with children.

One of the common motifs in ex-Mormon narratives is the disruptive nature of not following the prescribed path of seminary, mission, marriage, and children, but I really don’t believe that path is that norm anymore. When people talk about the pressures of deviating from the conventional Utah Mormon path, I suspect they’re still referring to the collective cultural memory of my childhood environment, because on a this-worldly, geographic level, the community expectations are gone, and that’s the way it should be.

However, I look forward to the day (probably after the Second Coming) when, as Brigham Young stated, “there [shall] be upon the bells of the horses, HOLINESS UNTO THE LORD.” When Zion is not just a community of Saints but a geographic location. The United Order that actually works (and with more ethnic diversity). In the temple, our liturgical journey comes full circle as we are ejected from the Garden of Eden into the lone and dreary wilderness, then by degrees make our way back into the presence of the God, but now with the tools and experience necessary to become “as the Gods.” While doubt might be necessary for developing those tools, it is not the end goal (people in certain circles who argue that it is are clearly on strange paths), and the final end to Zion is a community without doubt, where “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” The Sacred Canopy of Eden will be restored to its paradisiacal status as an ultimate Sacred Canopy of the Celestial world.

Full Citation for this Article: Cranney, Stephen (2021) "Puncturing Utah’s Sacred Canopy," SquareTwo, Vol. 14 No. 2 (Summer 2021),, accessed <give access date>.

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 100 words are welcome.