Culture Clubbed 

Jay Shelledy, longtime editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, did more than anyone I know to bridge the so-called “great divide”'cultural, political, theological'between Utah’s Mormons and “nons.” Nearly a decade ago, Shelledy devoted a whole section of the paper to examining why this wedge between the two factions exists and persists.

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That led to a formal group of community bigwigs, politicians and clergy leaders who met regularly to search out the answers to an ancient Utah question: Uh, why can’t we all get along?

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I’m not sure they ever arrived at an answer. I watch repeated efforts at the state Legislature to ban gay student clubs in high schools or to deny a minuscule number of children of illegal immigrants in-state college tuition, and I wonder. The sponsors of those particular bills profess to be practicing and devoted members of the LDS faith. Were they dozing in the pews when the lesson on tolerance and reaching out to others came down?

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Shelledy left the Tribune in 2003, but remains a professional mentor and friend. Long before he resigned, however, I remember a conversation we had about religion, culture and tolerance in this unique state.

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What we were addressing, exactly, I can’t recall. As a lapsed Mormon at peace with that designation, I do admit to a rant now and then when I perceive my religion to be at the root of some great wrong. And that day, I must have been on quite a rant.

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From his desk in the old Tribune building, Shelledy peered over his reading glasses and smiled. “Mormons are good people,” he said. “It isn’t that they purposely exclude others. They’re just busy.nn

I laughed. I hadn’t thought of that remark in years, until I finished watching The Mormons, the two-part PBS documentary that aired nationwide April 30-May 1.

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Filmmaker Helen Whitney spent three and a half years researching the early 19th-century origins of Mormonism, including the ugly warts of polygamy and the Mountain Meadows massacre. With the help of historians, writers, Mormons and non-Mormons alike, she took viewers straight to modern America and peered into how the once-struggling church has left its dominant footprint on the pressing cultural and moral issues of our time: feminism, race relations, sexual orientation.

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Whitney was interviewed incessantly in the promotional saturation leading to the broadcast. She emphasized her curiosity about the 24/7 nature of Mormonism and the theology’s thrust to teach an integrated wholeness among its believers. At its core, the church expects members to live the same way on Saturday night as they would on Sunday morning: help those in distress, refrain from overindulgence, deal honestly in business, connect with and protect your family, be an active citizen.

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Which, as Jay Shelledy pointed out, requires work and meetings, and more meetings. It makes for a very busy people.

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Which brings me back to thoughts on how the culture can fall so short of the faith. It’s the major disconnect with Mormonism’s admirable goal to integrate daily life with spirituality.

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A recent and poignant example: How can a man who owns a professional soccer team and professes to be a faithful Mormon shade the truth, fudge on his recorded quotes and all but renege on a $7.5 million commitment to a youth sports facility on Salt Lake City’s west side in exchange for $50 million in taxpayer subsidies?

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It’s the piece of the Real Salt Lake deal no one wants to talk about in polite company, of course: that successful sports exec Dave Checketts rode back into town from New York three years ago, and got a stadium deal by backslapping his way through private meetings with politicians and fellow business types who somehow mesh their LDS beliefs with cutting corners and working the system. It’s so subtle as to be almost invisible. And it’s the way things get done.

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It’s wrong. They know it’s wrong. The behavior is hardly in keeping with a religion that encourages 24/7 integration of life with spirituality. But it happens again and again in this state. The disconnect between the actual faith and its culture too often becomes the grease that moves the wheels of government, business and power. It’s the “wink, nod and firm hand to the shoulder” that drives policymaking behind closed doors. It’s a practice that excludes newcomers and the “nons” who might have more to offer than a nose pressed up against the glass, wondering what just happened inside.

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It’s the biggest challenge to a church that, as Whitney so adeptly pointed out in her film, has adapted screamingly fast to modern American life. It’s a beautiful religion. It’s just that the culture can be so … so … disconnected.

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Correction: Last week I wrote that Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson had maintained a boycott against the Deseret Morning News and refused to talk to reporters there. The mayor’s spokesman and the News tell me that Anderson lifted the boycott late last year.

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More Mullen: Mullentown.com

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