Earlier this month, high-level authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offered an “invitation” to a Provo neighborhood to get them to fall in line and drop their opposition to the construction of a nine-story building in their neighborhood. According to Mormon scholar Russell Arban Fox, it's likely the church’s most explicit meddling in secular affairs since the 1930s.
The Provo Municipal Council met Tuesday to discuss a change in the process for approving the height of buildings in certain zones, such as where the LDS Church’s Missionary Training Center is located. This meeting was precipitated by a months-long campaign by area residents concerned with the building marring the look of the neighborhood and breaking an agreement the church made with the community in the 1970s.
Earlier this month, however, The Daily Herald reported that a Provo community chair who had been leading the opposition against the church’s efforts to build the nine-story, view-blocking building on MTC grounds changed his mind after receiving a letter from church leadership offering him an “invitation” to back off the zoning battle. The Daily Herald received a letter chairman Paul Evans sent to the city discussing the “invitation,” where he wrote:
“The invitation was to support the decision of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to build a nine-story building at the Provo Missionary Training Center," Evans wrote. "I accept the invitation.”
It was a similar message read over the pulpit by the stake president of the Pleasant View First Ward, where many of the residents also opposed the church’s construction plans.
While receiving the word from on high that Provo faithful need to take the shoulder off the wheel of their community activism may seem like pretty explicit meddling in secular affairs—Mormon scholar and professor of political science at Friends University in Wichita, Kan., Russell Arban Fox says church leadership has been more blunt in matters of state back in the 1930s.
“The first Presidency of the church under President Heber J. Grant made no bones about the fact that they supported prohibition and that they were very disappointed when Utah voters supported [Franklin Delano Roosevelt], the New Deal and the overturn of prohibition,” Fox says.
Church President Grant was so upset with FDR he even endorsed Roosevelt’s Republican opponent in the 1936 election. Utahns, however, were happy enough with FDR that the Democrat carried the state in all four of his elections. Fox says Grant’s express displeasure with FDR was as explicit as the church’s political involvement got until the 1970s, when the Equal Rights Movement was a contentious issue across the country and the church spoke out against the move to create a Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing women equal rights under the law.
That movement, Fox says, may very well have resulted in express proclamations from church leaders but that it never rose to that level, as the movement failed to gain steam. Obviously, the church’s heavy lobbying and organizing of support to defeat same-sex marriage in California with 2008’s Proposition 8 was the latest and most explicit example of the church stumping from the pulpit, but Fox says here, too, the issue never became so blatant as church leaders coming out with specific admonishments or instructions to church members at large.
“You could find language out there that the church was leaving it up to individual members, but nobody who lived through it had any doubt in their minds that, as far as the church was concerned, you were either going to vocally support Prop 8 or you were going to be quiet,” Fox says.
While the recent controversy over messages appearing from the LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that “invited” Provo residents to back off fighting the church on the construction of a nine-story eyesore has grabbed headlines in the media, Fox says its also possible that we may never really know if that message really came down directly from the top of the church.
In a church that does not exactly have leaders attach names specifically to who comes down on what decision, Fox says it's possible that intermediary leaders in the church could simply have expressed to local residents that high-ranking leadership supported the construction and therefore they should, too.
“It could have been invented entirely by local leaders,” Fox says. “We’re not a church that has a lot of transparency, so it could be a long time before we ever know who said what. Once things get said, the church simply issues a statement to the Salt Lake Tribune and waits for it to blow over.”