Post-American Mormonism

Post-American Mormonism
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One of the more interesting aspects of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is its rate of growth, especially outside the United States. However, the LDS church remains stuck in its American heritage which can now be seen as an obstacle to the mission of the church. A process of de-centralization should take place to create a truly global Church. Part of this plan could include moving its headquarters away from Salt Lake City.

The LDS church now has over 15 million members. Almost 90% of those members live outside of Utah and almost 60% live outside the United States. Despite the rapid internationalization of its membership, the LDS church remains very much American. LDS Church leadership and missionaries mostly come from the Mormon Corridor (Idaho, Utah, Arizona, and surrounding states). Of the top 21 leaders 19 are American (the first presidency, quorum of the 12 apostles, and presidency of the seventy). Similar patterns exist throughout the general leadership of the church.

This is problematic for several reasons. First, it creates the potential for disconnect between members outside the United States and church leadership based in Salt Lake. Second, it can prevent growth in areas that are less compatible with American culture. Lastly, an overly American focus can distract the church from its more important global mission.

In fact, the growth itself has most likely caused the LDS church to remain so American. The LDS church has received an unprecedented amount of media attention in the United States over the last decade. In ditching its long held identity of a "peculiar people," the LDS church has been happy to try and fit in with other Christian churches. Church leaders have chosen to do this through politics in the United States. For example, since 2008 the church has heavily focused on topics of gay marriage and religious freedom. These topics stem almost entirely from the domestic political environment of the United States and do not reflect the major concerns of international members. This has led to an interesting "bromance" between leaders of the LDS church and evangelical leaders now united in a common cause, an American cause.

To help the church reach its divine mission, and to better serve the needs of all of God's children, the church should implement policies of decentralization. The LDS church has retained a highly centralized, hierarchal structure where many decisions are made in Salt Lake which makes the role of church Utah leaders and employees critical. In the early days of the church, Zion was a physical location which made a centralized structure logical. As the church grew, a large centralized bureaucracy accompanied this centralized structure. Now that members are not to gather to Zion, but are to create stakes of Zion in their homelands, this structure has lost its effectiveness.

The decentralization of the LDS church would more focus on temporal decision making, but it could include some aspects of spiritual decision making as well. This wouldn't be the first time for the LDS church; they have previously been located in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. When planning the move to the Salt Lake Valley, it was still part of Mexican territory. If there was a need, the LDS church moved to a better location.

Moving church headquarters can have a significant impact on the church. In human geography, a "forward thrust capital" is a capital that is moved closer to the periphery, away from the core to promote legitimacy and better governance. A move away from Salt Lake would enable the LDS church to finally move beyond being an American church. This could be positive for growth around the world and enable the church to focus on spiritual issues for the global masses rather than petty local issues like Utah alcohol legislation and participation in political elections.

With Temple square, Salt Lake would always remain the cultural headquarters for the LDS church. In a decentralized church, some functions would continue to be based in Utah. Humanitarian and welfare programs, Deseret industries, LDS employment and adoption services, and some of the for profit enterprises like Deseret Book could all remain. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir would continue to be a Utah based choir. Large new facilities such as the Church History Library would stay. The conference center could remain and house area conferences and concerts. Other facilities might not be needed. The Church office building for example could be sold to a private enterprise for office space.

A decentralized structure would enable the church to replace many LDS employees in Utah with employees under the area authorities throughout the world. They would ideally be placed under the jurisdiction of local clergy (stake presidents). All other aspects of church leadership would be moved to the new location. General authorities and their accompanying infrastructure would relocate to the new location. Important global meetings such as mission president seminars would also be held there. A decentralized church would mean that a leaner headquarters would be possible, making the move feasible.

What locations would help the LDS church become a truly global church while still being feasible? Here are some options to consider:

New Zealand would be a great location for several reasons. First, it brings the church closer to many members in the Oceana and Asia regions. The cultural transition for LDS leadership would be easy given the common language and identity, yet still take place in a multicultural setting. The church is big enough in New Zealand to absorb church headquarters with over 100,000 members. Currently the church is in the middle of redesigning a 1,700 acre plot of land owned by the church that used to house a church-owned school. The area just outside of Hamilton could easily be redesigned to include additional office buildings, housing units, and meeting halls. For a fun idea of how New Zealand could influence LDS culture, see Gina Colvin's blog post on the subject.

Hawaii would be the easiest move to make. Culturally and legally the move would be simplest if it remained within the U.S. Like New Zealand, the church owns a vast amount of land in Hawaii. Plans are currently underway to expand BYU-Hawaii and to make improvements to the community. These plans could be modified to turn agricultural land into additional buildings needed for church headquarters. While staying within the US would limit the benefits of moving church headquarters, Hawaii still might be able to function as a forward thrust capital. The international student body at BYU-Hawaii and the Hawaiian culture would have a positive impact on church culture. While Hawaii is part of the US, it is still closer to Asia and as an international tourist destination would be able to introduce the church to millions each year.

Mexico would be an interesting place to relocate and narrowly beat out Brazil as a representative state in Latin America. It would be a positive move for Spanish speaking members throughout the world. When projecting the growth of the church over the next 30 to 50 years, the number of Spanish speakers will only grow. The church currently lacks a prime location to establish headquarters, which would mean the cost of establishing headquarters could be a problem. Colonia Juarez, which was founded by Mormon pioneers, is too rural and too close to drug trafficking routes. The church does own a Missionary Training center on a 90 acre plot near Mexico City, but it is unknown how available land and facilities are in the neighborhood. Safety would certainly be another concern.

England's London or Preston would both be good locations for relocation. The church has a rich history in Great Britain and would be able to establish headquarters either in London or Preston partly using existing facilities. Real estate costs in Great Britain would be higher than Mexico, which could be an obstacle. Headquarters located in England would place the church right into the heart of secularist Europe. Regionalization in Europe over the last 60 years means that this would be a boost for church members throughout Europe, not just Great Britain. Over the last few decades the church has invested heavily in Europe (temples, missionaries, meetinghouses) with little to show for it. This move might be enough to reverse this trend which could increase the number of tithe payers from developed countries which in theory could partly for the move.

Relocating the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints might be a costly and unlikely move, but it is an option worth thinking about. Any of the above mentioned locations would better enable the church to fulfill its divine mission to become the global Church of Jesus Christ. It could be the first step towards establishing post-American Mormonism.

Matthew Crandall is an associate professor of International Relations at Tallinn University

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