In the last six years, City Creek Center has become a pillar of the Salt Lake cityscape.
The mall, constructed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sparked criticism and controversy at the time of inception. Now that the initial controversy surrounding its construction has faded, it is a better time than ever to assess the subtext of its creation by the destruction of what once stood on the same land: the first Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution.
When the beliefs of the LDS Church are understood in their proper cultural and theological context, the existence of City Creek Center makes sense and criticisms of it are misguided.
For a brief period, Utah was a true “theodemocracy," meaning that the faithful that sustained the church also sustained its governance of temporal affairs. The success of the cooperative movement of the 1870s was owed to the saints’ cultural adherence to the “law of consecration,” the devotion of all personal property and labor to the building up of what they believed to be God’s kingdom.
Many church co-operatives were started with this mindset, but the most important may have been the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution.
When the ZCMI opened across the street from Temple Block in 1869, Brigham Young led the dedication and made the ceremonial first purchase. When the City Creek Center opened on the same block where the Crossroads Plaza/ZCMI complex stood, church President Thomas S. Monson similarly led the opening. With a large pink ribbon cut, general authorities on a podium chanted in unison, “Let’s go shopping!”
Sentiments surrounding this new age of Latter-day Saint corporatism were more controversial this time around. The City Creek project cost over $1.5 billion and was one of the biggest projects that the church undertook. And for what? A luxury shopping mall?
Many were quick to critique the church’s decision to build the mall and viewed it as a shrewd business decision that wasn’t befitting of a religious organization. While the church publicly stated that no tithing money was put into the project, it is important to note that, even though the church invests in real estate and other business ventures nowadays, the church’s initial capital came from contributions by members. Many were quick to complain that the dollar amount the church put into City Creek was far more than the amount dedicated to charity work over the previous 30 years.
To many of the faithful, City Creek represents the blessings and abundance that their God has awarded to his people. To others, it is a monument to greed and the corruption of organized religion.
Critics of the mall fail to understand that the LDS Church must be viewed as its own independent religious system. In Latter-day Saint theology, a belief in the “kingdom of God on the earth” prevails, which justifies the corporate side of the church in the eyes of its members.
This type of behavior is justified within the broader framework of LDS theology, and to criticize the mall so hastily demonstrates a lack of context and historical awareness, completely ignoring the fact that, at one point in time, the church was essentially collectivist.
While critics may disagree about the ethics surrounding the mall, there’s no doubt that its existence serves as a great cultural center and is one of the highlights of modern Salt Lake City.
Kristian Fors is a student at Utah State University, majoring in economics and philosophy.
Brandon Christensen is also a student at Utah State University, majoring in economics with a minor in Japanese.