LDS Church Muscles Its Way to Development Nirvana

The controversial 9-story MTC building in north Provo looks like it will move forward after the LDS Church basically muscled its members in the surrounding neighborhood into submission. (For more background, read this past Daily Herald article.)

A new story written by my colleague Genelle Pugmire explains that the neighbors opposing the building — including a community leader who works for BYU — were recently “invited” to sustain church leaders and drop the issue. Because many of the neighbors opposing the building happen to be LDS, the “invitation” is something close to an order or, if you’re cynical, an ecclesiastical threat.

Most saliently, however, this tactic represents a fairly significant change for the church:

That represents a shift in what church leaders had maintained was a purely secular matter.

The shift to an ecclesiastical appeal in a formal church meeting — including the invitation — is in sharp contrast to Randall’s earlier statements to numerous residents. Earlier, he said repeatedly that building height on the MTC campus was purely a secular matter and that people were free to act according to individual conscience without fear of repercussions on their church standing.

Even worse, residents of the area now wonder if they’ll ever be able to have a say in what goes on in their neighborhood:

Johnson said while it is extremely emotional for individuals on both sides she is willing to continue to ask to be heard by church decision makers in Salt Lake City.

“That’s all we’ve ever wanted, is to have a say in what happens around us,” Johnson said.

She asked whether the neighborhood could now ever oppose anything proposed by BYU or the church.

“It is critical for the Pleasant View neighborhood. We are surrounded on three sides by BYU,” she said.

In other words, this incident suggests that Mormons will no longer be able to formulate their own opinions about land use and planning issues. At least in Provo, it’ll be an unhindered, development nirvana for the church.

For the record, I’m not personally opposed to 9-story buildings, but I think the LDS Church — my church, by the way — was being a bad neighbor by refusing to work with the community. I also feel that if the church can come into one neighborhood and do whatever it wants, it could come into another neighborhood with equally disruptive plans in the future. If the church tried to build, say, a parking lot in my neighborhood, I would fight tooth and nail to oppose it.

And yes, developers do this all the time, but a church that professes to believe in Christian values gets held to a higher standard than the average mega corporation.

For those reasons, I’m supportive of the residents efforts to create civil discourse and potentially stop the building.

This new turn of events, however, shows that instead of rising to a higher standard the church actually sank to a lower one. They basically forced the residents to choose between their “faith” — which encompasses generations of tradition and, in Provo, most of their social and cultural environment — and opposition to the building. Faced with losing my heritage and becoming a pariah in the community — a reasonably likely outcome of rejecting an “invitation” to sustain church leaders — I might have caved too. And that’s not to mention that the man leading the charge is employed by the church and consequently could have lost his career for failing to “sustain” church leaders.

Ultimately, this issue perhaps is settled by each person’s attitude about the LDS Church’s leadership. If they’re inspired, falling into line must be a good thing; if they’re not, it’s not.

The LDS Church plans to erect this structure on the campus of its Missionary Training Center. Many residents in the surrounding neighborhood oppose it.

But that explanation actually falls apart because the ecclesiastical angle didn’t become a part of the discussion until the residents began showing signs of success. If this building was “inspired” from the get go, why did that fact only come up when the church started to lose the debate?

In reality, this is a land use issue and what alarms me is the prospect of a single interest group having free reign to do whatever it wants, where ever it wants. Any other private interest group would have to address this issue via public discourse, but the church has chosen to lean on its members faith to accomplish a secular developmental goal. That’s not the way a democratic society is supposed to work. At best, it’s a theocracy. At worst, it’s a mafia.

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15 Comments

Filed under building, BYU, community, Development, neighborhood

15 responses to “LDS Church Muscles Its Way to Development Nirvana

  1. Great article and a disturbing precedent being set by LDS church.

  2. Genelle Pugmire

    So well put Jim. . . .your writing talents are amazing!

  3. Joey Hewitt

    Great article! I also don’t have any particular interest in this specific building, but am disappointed the Church is choosing to steamroll opposition.

    This only reinforces the cynical reaction I had while reading your earlier article on the Copenhagen temple and your thoughts on the new Provo temple. I think the Copenhagen temple is so integrated with the surroundings, open, and multi-purpose, because cultural and legal forces were such that the Church probably couldn’t get away with typical American “suburban temple” grounds. Here in Provo, where so many city officials and active citizens are members, they will be inclined and/or pressured into doing the Church favors like vacating streets, so the new temple will end up as sterile, inaccessible, and closed-off as all the other “suburban temples.”

  4. Jim, I love reading this blog. Thanks for being willing to tackle real and tough issues. Dalrymple’s for mayor!

  5. Pancho Villa

    Two things first in what could be a long comment, but which I will keep brief. First, I’m no longer a Mormon for so many obvious reasons that any critically minded, independent person knows. Second, I’ve never read your blog before, but your post frustrated me so much that I had to comment.

    Let’s get real (usually the last thing that happens in Mormon conversation). Joseph Smith instilled, engendered, entrenched, etc a top-down culture of entitlement within church leadership long before sociologists were bemoaning the myopic selfishness of Generation Y. When Joseph wanted to marry another woman, he did it. When Joseph wanted to marry another woman who already happened to be married, he did it. When Joseph needed money, he wrote revelations that required members to give him money. When Joseph wanted to illegally shut down a printing press because it was publishing the truth about him, he did it. When Joseph wanted to marry a woman but her father didn’t approve, he eloped with her. When Joseph wanted his family to enjoy the same religion but they couldn’t agree on one, he created one.

    Ask the average member how Joseph Smith died and they’ll launch into the whole story of his unfair arrest and mistreatment at the hands of a nonsensical, crazed mob. Press them as to why exactly this mob wanted Joseph dead. They’ll come up with any answer but the real one, simply because they don’t know the real one. The overwhelming majority of members have no clue as to the practical reason behind their founder’s death. He was breaking the law on multiple levels time and time again and severely angering people in the process — not to mention marrying other men’s wives without their permission. Joseph got his way. Always.

    And he did it the same way the church does today: You’re either supporting God’s servants or you’re not. You’re either making God happy or you’re not.

    The church today is no different, and if I had more time I could enumerate several examples through the years. It’s never changed. The church does what it wants and it doesn’t give a damn, on that you can bet your last dollar.

    There are countless other factors that play into this, but let me cut to the chase. If you want to provoke someone, please provoke yourself. I grew so tired at BYU of falling into circles where intelligent people speak critically of the church in all the ways that are blindingly obvious. These people see the hypocrisy, the strong arming, the covering up, the complete altering of reality and history. They come to understand that the bullcrap line about a “perfect church being run by imperfect people” is not just bullcrap, but Big Brother, propaganda, tell them what to think Grade A bullcrap. They know all this, yet there they are every Sunday, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, swallowing the same crap while suppressing every beautiful element of solid critical thinking they were blessed with. They, along with everyone else, place a harsh reign on individuality. They see the caution tape so meticulously strung by church leaders from primary onward and they know what to do: Turn around, go back, nothing to see here, stop thinking, questioning, subverting.

    In short, they know the emperor has no clothes, but they just won’t admit it to themselves.

    What’s more is they go and talk about it with other like-minded members. They venture a letter or two in the newspaper. They stay up late in the library unloading all their thoughts with a close friend who feels the same way. They even start a blog based in the heart of blase Mormondom and have the chutzpah to openly criticize all of the obvious, ridiculous, sticky, problematic aspects that don’t allow Mormonism to ever really work. They’re happy to stand around discussing the fact the emperor has no clothes, but they never admit it to themselves.

    This is what’s frustrating. Your post is great. Your blog is great. God knows the sheltered denizens of Utah Valley need solid critical thinking every chance they get. But the lack of trust in your own thoughts and feelings is frustrating. This is not an isolated event. The church at this point is nothing more than what it can be: a giant self-help social club with a PR/advertising/marketing firm attached, telling everyone exactly what they want to hear.

    So provoke away. Go against the grain. Just don’t forget about the sort of self honesty required for a deliberate life to work.

    How does a church founded on Christian principles construct a multi-billion dollar bastion of consumerism, capitalism, and all things worldly directly across from its most striking spiritual sanctuary and symbol?

    They get what they want and members are oh so forgiving, rationalizing everything away without even a second thought.

    That’s what I mean by mental gymnastics. What’s it worth to provoke if come Sunday you simply suppress it all, forget it, and fall back into the shuffling rank and file?

    Not trying to be a jerk or anything. But if we’re going to provoke, then let’s provoke. Don’t be afraid to get dirty. Too many people just turn away.

    • I appreciate the ideas expressed here, but I think an important distinction here is that this blog is about urbanism — so things like city planning, land use, zoning regulations, environmental policy. As far as I can remember, this is the first time I’ve ever thought it relevant to bring up my religious affiliation, and the information I provide here is pretty minimal (less than one sentence.)

      In other words, I think most of the issues you bring up here, if interesting, are far beyond the scope of this blog. In this particular instance Mormonism and land use collided, but that actually isn’t usually the case. More importantly, this blog does not aim to provoke thought with regard to Mormonism. I may or may not read a blog that did try to do that, but this is not that blog.

    • Patty

      I also appreciate this comment but find that it doesn’t resonate. I am a questioning member myself and get frustrated with how black and white the world is painting within Christianity. Things are either good or they’re not. And I have to disagree with that sentiment. I don’t think people who question the church yet still attend meetings are weak or blinded. I think they’re willing to be vulnerable, willing to live in the grey, which I think is healthy. I think vulnerability is healthy. I think it’s healthy to see that everything is not absolutely good or absolutely bad, both within ourselves and institutions. I think we can provoke and question what the church is doing, but that doesn’t mean we need to paint it black. The church is certainly neither black nor white and I think in order to do the most good in responding to things like this, we respond in a way that recognizes the grey. If we paint it black, we polarize and shut ourselves off to a relevant audience. Maybe some would name the scripture of the hot and cold water and tell me to pick a side. But I think we can’t get an accurate picture of things unless we’re willing to look at both sides.

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