Faith and religion have been part of the Strong Towns conversation from the beginning. We've contemplated the big questions: What does our faith and Strong Towns tell us about how to live our lives? What does a strong faith community look like? How can a house of worship make its neighborhood better?
To that end, we're starting a regular column where we'll feature stories about the intersections between religion and Strong Towns. If you're a person of faith and a Strong Towns member, we'd like to hear your story. Please get in touch with Communications Specialist, Rachel Quednau, if you're interested.
Today we've invited Strong Towns member, Spencer Gardner, to talk about the intersections between Mormonism and Strong Towns.
I don't have difficulty talking about my religion. (Mormons are famously good at that.) But I have a hard time unraveling my Mormon faith from the rest of my lived experience. Mormons believe that all truth has a spiritual element. Thus, whatever truth I find in Strong Towns thinking isn’t so much another domain as it is an extension of my faith.
Today I want to discuss some thematic ideas as well as practical applications where I see connections between my faith and Strong Towns:
Mormons have a complicated history with wealth. Adherents were driven from place to place throughout the early history of the church, until the “saints” (as they called themselves) gathered in Nauvoo, Illinois. They built a city there that rivaled Chicago for population during its heyday. Continued persecution and the mob killing of the movement’s founder led most of the saints to pack up what they could and trek across the continent, ultimately settling in the Salt Lake Valley.
This migratory history lives on today in an attitude of thrift and a recognition of the fleeting nature of material goods that features regularly in the teachings of current church leaders, even if the rank and file aren’t quite so rigorous. Perhaps my favorite quote from Brigham Young, the second president of the church and the man who led the saints to Utah, reads:
The worst fear that I have about this people is that they will get rich in this country, forget God and His people, wax fat, and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell. This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty, and all manner of persecution, and be true. But my greater fear for them is that they cannot stand wealth; and yet they have to be tried with riches, for they will become the richest people on this earth.
Mormon scripture, particularly The Book of Mormon, is also a major influence. Indeed, a story about a nation which builds peace and wealth through thrift and hard work, only to squander it in pursuit of insatiable material desires would sound very familiar to Mormon ears - this is a recurring theme throughout the book, which in literary terms can only rightly be considered a tragedy.
Mormons also view wealth in a distinctly spiritual light. This is different from the so called “prosperity gospel"; It’s not about riches being an indicator of righteousness. It’s a sense that all things, including an individual’s financial decisions, have spiritual implications. One of the revelations dictated by Joseph Smith, the church’s founder, states:
Wherefore, verily I say unto you that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal.
Mormons see themselves as stewards of wealth - not owners - and therefore profligacy or even careless management of resources can indicate disrespect for God’s work.
When Mormons arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, they were greeted by land and a climate that was wild and hostile to settlement. That remoteness effectively allowed the fledgling religion to create a society from scratch. While this presented unique opportunities and safety from the mobs of their past, the saints had no cushion to protect them from feedback loops. The only way to survive was to cooperate. The result was a healthy recognition of constraints, and also the emergence of a very strong cultural identity and a sense of shared mission.
Having lived in several places across the United States, I can attest that Mormon communities today are still very tightly knit, even (and sometimes especially) outside of Utah. There’s a running joke about Mormon congregations as moving companies; I’ve personally participated in moving several dozens of people - many of whom I had never met previously - in and out of houses. Our strong sense of community can be a fault when we allow ourselves to become insular or exclusive, but I have found it to be a source of strength, inspiration, and - more than a few times - help in my moments of desperation.
Every six months, Mormons gather for a church-wide “General Conference.” This is an occasion for church leaders to speak to the entire church. Even as a young boy, I remember hearing about the dangers of debt during these conferences, one of the few recurring themes without an overt theological connection. It’s not just General Conference addresses either. Debt features as a regular topic in Sunday School lessons, church manuals, and other publications as well.
And the church as an organization practices what it preaches. The church carries no debt, even for large capital expenses such as new buildings.
Mormons are also known for their emergency preparedness. I think this comes from a blend of millenialist fervor and frontier practicality. It used to be that everyone was focused on having a one year supply of food tucked away in the basement and a teeming garden in the yard. As the church has internationalized, church leaders have to speak to rural American farmers and apartment dwellers in Hong Kong alike so guidance is usually given in more general terms now.
In practical terms, the vision is that each Mormon family lives out its own “Joseph in Egypt” scenario. We build up a supply from our surplus in order to sustain us during the famine. This is certainly a benefit during a disaster but is also often referenced as a fallback for other unforeseen economic events such as a job loss.
Lay Clergy - the “Phone Book Effect”
For having a worldwide presence, the church is surprisingly decentralized. There is relatively little direction given from Salt Lake on administrative issues, and what there is is usually very simple and direct. What’s more, the vast majority of church administration is carried out by ordinary, unpaid church members like me. I’ve served in everything from leadership capacities to glorified babysitter in the Sunday children’s nursery.
The connection with Strong Towns here is perhaps subtle but present nonetheless and recalls to mind a comment made by William F Buckley: “I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”
There is constant leadership churn in Mormon congregations. Most bishops (akin to a pastor or rabbi) serve six years or less. Other local positions are typically even shorter than that. And “callings” (as they’re called) are not given by application or even by asking for volunteers. They’re typically made by assignment. This has the effect of randomizing leadership at the level with the most control over church governance.
It’s amazing to see how smoothly this functions, but equally inspiring is the way that this fosters innovation and adaptation at the local level. The regular infusion of new voices in important positions, coupled with a high degree of local empowerment creates a lot of opportunities for antifragile growth. It’s a classic chaotic but smart approach.
I feel like I’ve had to leave out many aspects of my faith that encourage Strong Citizenship. As with any religion, we are not a perfect people; We don’t always live up to the ideals I’ve described here. And any trip to the suburbs of Salt Lake City will make it clear that Mormons too have a lot of work to do on urban policy to move communities toward being Strong Towns. Despite the challenges our society will face from poor decisions of the past, I am heartened by how well the church prepares members to weather a storm, care for each other, and participate in a community in meaningful and empowering ways.
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About the Author
Spencer Gardner is a transportation planner based in Madison, WI. He spends his spare time chasing his children, riding bikes, doing hobbyist computer programming, and very occasionally writing about urban issues. You can read his thoughts about transportation at http://roadsarelike.tumblr.com/