How Sprawl Impacts Religion

Lately I’ve been pondering on the effects of sprawl on my own religious community.  Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns is partially to blame for this.  I enjoy that he speaks openly about his own religious background as evidenced by two recent posts: in “Living in Communion,” where Chuck discusses the impact of the built environment on his local congregation, and in “The Cost of Transition,” which directed my attention to Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation from last November, wherein the Pope makes very clear his feelings toward “a financial system which rules rather than serves” and other ills of inequality plaguing our society.

While I’m going to keep this post secular, I feel strongly that religion still holds an important place in society.  My dad is an electrical engineer, who is also religious.  He raised me to look at the world in pluralistic manner, for which I will always be grateful.  Rather than seeing science and religion as contradictory, I see the two as complimentary and appreciate multiple perspectives.  But enough on that.

Before I can explain how sprawl impacts my own religious community as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS Church (AKA the Mormons), I need to give a brief overview of the basic structure of the church and how strongly tied it is to geography.  The basic congregation of the LDS Church is the ward, which usually consists of around 250 active members.  Having a boundary that delineates the geographic extent each ward is unique among most other religions.  In the LDS Church, geography dictates which ward you attend.

In areas of high LDS membership (like Utah), a ward’s geography may consist of only a handful of city blocks.  Most of the Salt Lake City metropolitan area was developed under land use policies that create the sprawl typically found throughout the United States, complete with the strict economic stratification created by zoning.  The end result is that for a ward covering a small area, there is little economic or demographic diversity among its members.  A good case study is the ward, where my aunt and uncle live in the Millcreek Township.  They describe the demographic makeup of their ward as “the newly-weds and the nearly-deads.”

Examining why the lack of diversity is detrimental to the ability of a ward to function requires a brief overview of the concept of social capital.  Social capital is a term coined by sociologists (and often used by city planners) to describe the exchange of goods and services that occur in a community among friends, family, and neighbors without an exchange of money.  Here’s a simple example: A family with teenagers has their kids shovel the snow from the walkways of the elderly widow’s home next door, and in return, the widow bakes cookies for the family.  The basic idea behind social capital is that everyone has strengths and weaknesses; we all have needs, and we all have something to offer others.  In a community with a high level of social capital, much can be accomplished without actually exchanging a single dollar.  Social capital tends to flourish in a diverse population, where the strengths of some can alleviate the weaknesses of others and vice versa.  However, social capital struggles in homogenous populations, where everyone tends to share the same set of strengths and weaknesses.

Religious communities perform many functions beyond saving souls, and the LDS Church is no different.  Considering the previous paragraph, a LDS ward can be seen as a mechanism for fostering social capital.  When a ward suffers from a lack of diversity, social capital struggles, which makes it more difficult for the LDS Church to achieve its commitment to welfare and self-reliance.  It’s true that the LDS Church can and does transfer the abundance of donations from affluent wards to those wards that are in need; however, I feel that the redistribution of wealth functions much better when we can be personally involved in it.  The more we become personally involved, the less we need formal systems for redistributing wealth.  When we build communities that naturally encourage diversity and promote a natural redistribution of wealth, society has far fewer issues that need to be formally solved later on.

Finally, a shout-out to LDS Earth Stewardship for the great conversation that I had with those who were tabling last Saturday at Salt Lake City’s Downtown Farmers Market.  Hopefully, this post will help to show that stewardship is also critical for creating the proper human habitats.