The Gods of Utah

Libbie Grant
7 min readJun 15, 2022

A culture of perfection is killing the very people it seeks to exalt.

In 2009, I took a temporary assignment in Salt Lake City and moved there from Seattle, eager to live and work for a while in the heart of Latter-day Saint culture. Although I was no longer an active member of the church, I’d grown up in an LDS family whose roots went all the way back to the founding of the religion in the mid-19th century. I was no longer a Saint, but I was a history enthusiast, and I looked forward to exploring the valley my ancestors had called home after years of persecution and displacement.

As I headed south down the 15, my enthusiasm for a sojourn in Utah slowly turned to vague apprehension. Something about the suburbs around Salt Lake unsettled me, and it wasn’t the countless white steeples that slashed the landscape — evidence of LDS churches so numerous it seemed there must be at least one church every square mile.

Before I reached the city proper, I realized what I found so unnerving about the drive through Utahan suburbia. The freeway was lined with billboards that displayed, every half mile, the same three services, over and over. Plastic surgery. Help for porn addiction. Help for pill addiction.

in the span of just 15 years, Utah experienced a 400% increase in deaths from prescription drug misuse.

The pattern was so unvaried that it almost became comical: plastic surgery, porn addiction, pill addiction, repeating every half mile down the freeway. I couldn’t bring myself to laugh, though. The prevalence of those advertisements said something grim about the population that lived in the shadow of the billboards. I hadn’t even moved into my apartment yet, and I could already sense that Utah was a very different place from Washington.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, however. After all, I’d grown up in the LDS church, and perfection is a central tenet of the faith — indeed, it’s a virtual requirement.

Illustration: spuvector

People who have no direct experience with the LDS church might be surprised to learn that Latter-day Saints think of life on Earth as something akin to a student’s years spent at a university. Earthly life is all about education and preparation for the life yet to come. If a church member adheres to all the principles of the faith and lives their life as they should, they’ll ascend to the highest level of the afterlife, where they’ll become gods or goddesses themselves, creating planets with unique inhabitants and ministering to their Creation as they see fit.

This doctrine might offend or shock people outside of LDS culture. I realize I might be biased, having been raised in the faith, but the doctrine of future godhood doesn’t strike me as stranger or less probable than any other religion’s ideas about life’s purpose, the nature and origin of divinity, or what happens after we die. Every religion’s ideas are pretty weird, when you really examine them honestly — and it’s all unknowable, anyhow, so who’s to say the Latter-day Saints have it right or wrong? The only truth we can know about divinity is that nobody knows what’s true.

What a weight to carry, though: thinking of oneself as a potential god-in-training. And when your future divinity depends on your perfection in the here-and-now — when the very existence of entire worlds depends on your transcendent virtue — the burden can be too much to bear.

In a culture that expects perfection, normal human emotions and experiences are reduced to pathologies. And despite protestations about Christ forgiving sins, there’s no doubt that the LDS church literally demands perfection of its adherents. It’s a question that’s been raised often enough that the church keeps an information page on the subject on its official website. This page states: Do we have to be perfected to be exalted? Here the scriptural answer is a resounding yes … and: While these statements make it clear that full perfection is not achievable in mortality, each also suggests that we should always strive for perfection in our lives. Perfection is our eternal goal; it is what we must eventually achieve if we are to become like our Father. A purpose of mortality is to come as close to perfection as possible before we die.

My family’s story isn’t unusual among the Latter-day Saints. Sadly, it isn’t even rare.

Members of the church are typically encouraged to look for religious solutions to their problems rather than secular ones. This means that a person who’s struggling with feelings of anger, dissatisfaction, unacknowledged trauma, or doubt might be told to consult with their bishop or their visiting home teacher — a kind of spiritual accountability partner — before they’ll be encouraged toward therapy. But home teachers and religious leadership are likely to frame these feelings in the context of church doctrine, urging the one who’s struggling to keep their eye on the goal of attaining perfection in this life so they might be exalted in the afterlife.

It’s a cycle I’m all too familiar with. I had a front-row seat to the spectacle when I was a child, watching my father struggle with mental illness, his quest for religious perfection, and ultimately, a devastating addiction that destroyed his promising art career, ended my parents’ marriage, and plunged my family into poverty.

Illustration: spuvector

Addiction among Mormons? you might be asking. How can that be?

Most Americans know that members of the LDS faith abide by a strict set of behavioral guidelines known as the Word of Wisdom. Among other restrictions, the Word of Wisdom prohibits use of alcohol and caffeine.

Modern Saints have extrapolated that the Word of Wisdom also applies to illicit drugs… but if a doctor prescribes a medication, it’s considered fair game.

That’s how my dad started down the path of opiate addiction. It started with a prescription from his doctor, meant to calm the savage migraines that were interrupting his work — and later, meant to soothe the dark feelings of shame, guilt, and inadequacy that were consuming his soul.

Eventually, prescription opiates led him to heroin, which certainly was a violation of the Word of Wisdom, but by that time no religious doctrines mattered to him. He had failed at attaining perfection in this life, yet ironically, it was his dedication to the LDS ideal that brought him in desperation to his doctor, seeking a distraction from his own very human emotions.

My family’s story isn’t unusual among the Latter-day Saints. Sadly, it isn’t even rare. As those billboards along the freeway proved, prescription drug abuse is a grave problem in LDS-majority communities — and it’s getting worse every year.

According to the DEA, in the span of just 15 years, Utah experienced a 400% increase in deaths from prescription drug misuse. In 2016, deaths from prescription opiates decreased, but no one was celebrating, as deaths from heroin increased that same year.

According to the United Health Foundation, in 2020 the percentage of adults who reported using prescription drugs non-medically (i.e., without a prescription) was 7.6%, higher than the national average and lower than only eight other states — and not lower by much. This figure only includes adults who will admit to off-label use, not the countless people who’ve been prescribed opiates and other drugs as a means of coping with the daily stress of maintaining perfection. Nor does the figure include adolescents. In 2007 — the last time the matter was studied — Utah was #1 in adolescents’ use of prescription drugs in a non-medical context.

In a 2011 report facilitated by Obama’s administration, the rate of drug-induced death was “significantly higher than the national average” in Utah. That year, drug-related deaths in Utah were roughly twice as common as traffic- or gun-related deaths. And while use of cocaine, marijuana, and stimulants have fluctuated in Utah since 1992, use of heroin and “other opiates” — prescription drugs — has risen steadily since 2000.

According to a 2021 report from the Utah Department of Health, eight adult Utahns die each week from opioids, and half of those deaths are a result of opioids that were prescribed for the patient. Annually, prescription opioids are responsible for 41% of unintentional deaths in the state. That’s almost twice as frequent as the national figure of about 22%.

It’s clear that the Rocky Mountain region is in serious trouble. These facts and figures don’t indicate failings of personality or lack of sufficient faith. They indicate a social system that can neither accept nor aid people who are suffering. With its emphasis on attaining perfection and an afterlife of exaltation, the LDS church has fostered a culture that prefers to sweep individualism, free thought, trauma, anger, sadness, disaffection and doubt under the rug, rather than acknowledging that these emotions and misfortunes are part of the human experience, and nothing to be ashamed of.

A culture of perfection is killing the very people it seeks to exalt.

As I drove down the 15 and into Salt Lake City, I found myself wondering what kind of gods would reign over these future worlds. What cold and distant god never to cries, never questions, never admits any failing?

And would I want to be the creation of such a deity — subject to a being who’s been taught to swallow a pill that will dull its mind and sever its heart from present and past, all for the sake of a perfected eternity?

Libbie Grant is a bestselling author of literary fiction. Her work has shortlisted for the Washington State Book Award and the Willa Literary Award. Her latest novel, The Prophet’s Wife, tells the story of the origins of the LDS church through the eyes of Emma Hale Smith, the first wife of founder Joseph Smith. Find her work at



Libbie Grant

Libbie Grant is a writer from the PNW. Her most recent novel is The Prophet’s Wife, a literary exploration of the founding of the Mormon faith.