Some residents of Provo's Pleasant View neighborhood adjacent to the LDS Church's Missionary Training Center were dismayed this week to see the church in an unfamiliar mode, applying ecclesiastical, or religious, pressure to silence opponents of a proposed nine-story building on the MTC campus.
The pressure came in the form of what church leaders called an "invitation" to show religious loyalty. Regardless what objections an individual Mormon resident might have about the MTC development and its impact on an established local neighborhood, church members were rather unceremoniously cracked into line to support the project through language that Mormons understand to be more than mere suggestion. They were asked to "sustain" their leaders.
What makes this particularly remarkable is that neighbors had been expressly told by church leaders that they were free to treat the MTC building height controversy as a secular, non-religious, issue. They were told by their stake president that they were free to engage in the civic process without fear of affecting their church standing.
And that is, in fact, what they were doing: responding to encouragement to be actively engaged in civic affairs.
The sharp reversal by the church last week -- its turning a civic matter into a test of religious faith -- sends a clear message: Be engaged, but only so long as you don't contradict us.
The first invitation to sustain LDS Church leaders on the MTC project came to Paul Evans, Pleasant View neighborhood chairman, who has been a vocal opponent of the building plan and who spearheaded the opposition. Most recently, Evans requested a reasonable amendment to city code that would make the Public Facility zone (such as the MTC) consistent with all other zones. Citywide, any proposed building higher than two stories requires a public hearing and a conditional use permit -- except in the PF zone, which includes BYU campus. BYU obtained a change for itself in 1988 to avoid those procedures.
Evans is an employee at BYU, which is the owner of record of the MTC property. With frowning authority held to his head, he backed out, writing an explanation to Provo city: "I received an invitation from a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints ecclesiastical leader relayed from a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles ... The invitation was to support the decision of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to build a 9-story building at the Provo Missionary Training Center. I accept the invitation."
Of course he did not accept the invitation -- not really. He responded to a message whose soft-spoken delivery did not obscure its underlying warning.
But Evans was not the sole recipient. A second invitation to sustain church leaders was read by Sharon East Stake President Chris Randall from the pulpit last Sunday to the entire congregation of the Pleasant View First Ward. He then reportedly delivered a class lesson to the ward's highest ranking priesthood group. His subject: sustaining church leaders.
"To refuse an invitation to sustain the brethren would be difficult," one ward member said afterward.
All this brings up many questions about the mixing of religion into what has been repeatedly identified for months as a secular, non-religious matter. One might wonder if the church's legal position on its application with the city is weaker than it professes and that its call for loyalty is a sort of pre-emptive strike to reduce opposition. Neighborhood opponents of the building say the church has not met all the criteria prescribed in Provo city code. That will play out later this month.
Ironically, numerous examples can be cited in which the highest LDS leaders have encouraged civic engagement and denied a heavy church hand in secular matters. Church president Heber J. Grant, for instance, once said: "We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government." He said that in the context of hindering the worship of others, but it is germane here. Grant also said, "I deny emphatically that there is any mingling in the sense in which the world puts it of church and state among the Latter-day Saints." He obviously didn't live in Provo in 2012.
It should be noted, of course, that religion in general doesn't recognize the separation between church and state; only the state recognizes that. What we're seeing in the MTC controversy is a clear crossover of faith into politics, and that seems OK from a church perspective.
Certainly, good people are free to respond to the invitations of their church leaders in any manner they choose. And in Provo -- the right ventricle of Zion -- that is going to have a measurable (if distressing for some) political effect. While one might wonder whether residents of Pleasant View should stiffen their spines and decline certain invitations, it's no surprise in a place heavily populated by adherents to a single faith that obedience to authority will trump personal opinion and that group cohesion will nullify individual judgment.
Against that background, the LDS Church's words about civic engagement and freedom of individual political action ring hollow. They don't apply equally to all civic matters -- not even to building construction and zoning in one's own community when the church has a vested interest in the outcome.
Does all this have any broader implication? Perhaps. Concerns have been raised, for example, about former stake president Mitt Romney's susceptibility to religious influence. What sort of invitation might cause an LDS president of the United States to reverse his independent judgment on some issue of importance to the brethren? Once that possibility enters the picture, as it now has at the MTC, the questions could reverberate far beyond Provo.