The glitzy new City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City, which opened before Easter, is provoking an intra-Mormon discussion about wealth, capitalism, communal solidarity, and traditional Mormon values that I find fascinating. City Creek, with its mix of high-end stores, restaurants, and luxury condos, is across the street from the LDS temple, and is owned by the LDS church. It frankly and unabashedly celebrates American capitalism and the cozy fit of many Mormons with the American capitalist economic system.
But as Joanna Brooks and Troy Williams point out in recent essays in Religion Dispatches and Salon, this is a fit that makes some Mormons increasingly uneasy. As Williams points out, there is a strong anti-capitalist tradition in Mormonism, a strong emphasis on communal solidarity and a strong critique of open display of lavish wealth. And that tradition is rooted in the teaching of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.
As Brooks notes, the high profile Mitt Romney is giving to the LDS church right now draws attention to some of the dark corners of Mormon culture and history, including "historical racism, gay Mormon suicides, and unwelcome posthumous baptisms." And as the new downtown development places the church and Mormon culture even further in the spotlight, the media will become even more intent on looking into those dark corners.
This will be an interesting conversation to follow as the presidential campaigns unfold, I think. My own inkling: it's well-nigh impossible for any religious group in the U.S. to protect its core teachings and traditions from the acids of capitalistic presuppositions. Those acids have long nice eaten into the souls of all faith communities in the U.S., and it's rather late for most faith communities to begin doing self-analysis about the extent to which they've bought into capitalist values as their dominant set of values.
In fact, part of what binds the U.S. Catholic bishops and LDS church leaders together so tightly today is that both are, to a considerable extent, bought-and-sold creatures of the corporate elite, of the super-rich. To the extent that either of these faith communities is going to recover anything of its sense of social solidarity and concern for those on the margins, that sense is going to have to be recovered by Catholic layfolks and LDS church members.
And, in particular, by Catholic laity and Mormons living on the cultural and socioeconomic margins: as Brooks notes, when the shining new City Creek Center development recently opened, a gay Mormon friend of hers observed, "I read The Book of Mormon, and it does not say that gay sex brings the downfall of a civilization. The consumption of fine linens and costly apparel—pride—does."
It's perhaps no accident that this critique comes from a shamed and despised sector of the LDS community. Not in the least.