A passive role in business adopted by Mormon church

Perched above Temple Square, J. Howard Dunn's office looks over some of the finest property in Salt Lake City - Hotel Utah, the ZCMI and Crossroads malls, and more buildings looking west into the valley.

Much of it is owned, leased, or managed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) - a fact that is essential to understanding Salt Lake City's future.

But for all the property and political influence the church may wield in the former theocratic capital of Brigham Young's state of Deseret (as it was once called), its larger concerns are pictured on Mr. Dunn's walls.

Large aerial photos of Hawaii decorate Mr. Dunn's offices, where he serves as president of Zion Securities Corporation, the tax-paying property-management arm of the Mormon church.

Hawaii is just one place where the Mormon church owns tracts of land or commercial businesses. There's also a large ranch near Disney World, farms in Idaho, television and radio stations in several US cities, an insurance firm, as well as thousands of church buildings in dozens of nations.

For at least a decade the church has refocused its missionary efforts less and less in the ''land of Zion,'' or Utah, and more and more worldwide. It has divested itself of several businesses no longer considered central to its mission and has sold off land, hospitals, or such institutions as Zions First National Bank.

''We're a very large landlord, but not a dominant one in Salt Lake,'' says Mr. Dunn. ''In the last 10 years, we've consolidated our land into major holdings. Before, we had individual blocks. Now we're concentrating around Temple Square.

''We want to move into property management rather than property development, '' Mr. Dunn states, ''and play a passive role, letting the public take the lead.

''We're not particularly keen in being a competitor in the open market. It creates the wrong impression. We don't want to be known as the city landlord,'' says Mr. Dunn.

But, he adds, the church looks for the same type of return as any developer. The passive role extends as well to the church investments taking only a minority interest in major US corporations.

This year, church membership rolls reached an official 5 million, nearly double that of the 1960s. Just over 3 million members live in the US, while the Utah population of 1.5 million is considered to be 70 percent Mormon.

Faithful members pay 10 percent of their incomes to the church in a tithing system that brings in a steady flow of cash and securities, which requires corporate-style management and investment strategies as sophisticated as those found on Wall Street.

In fact, the church's head offices are located in a building that resembles a bank. And its top leaders, all men, usually bring with them a background in major US corporations before they are called to headquarters in Salt Lake.

''We try to operate the few - and I emphasize that - the few business interests that we do have in a businesslike, prudent way, as any prudent business corporation would do, and use them for the public good,'' says Gordon B. Hinckley, a church president.

The church uses commercial profits to meet its ecclesiastical goals such as welfare services to indigent members and mass communication to the public. A few businesses, such as a clothing mill and the Zion's Co-operative Mercantile Institute (ZCMI), are remnants of pioneer days when the church needed to support basic industries.

Since Brigham Young first led the Mormons to Utah in 1847, the church has shifted from a communal to a free-enterprise approach in business. ''Mormonism, as a religion, is one of the chief defenders of capitalism. It has become a successful institution as it moved more and more to defending the principles common to property owners,'' states Sterling McMurrin, theology professor at the University of Utah.

Leonard J. Arrington, the leading church historian, explains it this way: ''The church strongly emphasizes that religion enters into work as well as worship. This tends to elevate business and explains why church leaders are very willing to express themselves on economic matters.''

Church officials speak up publicly on what they define as ''moral'' issues: the Equal Rights Admendment, the basing of the MX missile system in Utah, or Utah liquor laws. The leaders complain privately that they are besieged with requests to take more stands. In fact, many non-Mormons in Salt Lake suggest the church is becoming too passive, ignoring important changes at its back door.

Church leaders want more planning to keep the city vital and to avoid the urban sprawl of Denver or Phoenix. The church helps anchor new real estate developments by selling property or promising to buy office space, such as in a new $410 million complex called the Gathering Place. But it has also been accused of paying too much attention to the Temple Square area at the expense of other parts of the city.

In Utah politics, the church's influence is more subtle. A large majority of political leaders are Mormons or were raised in Mormon families, such as Gov. Scott Matheson and Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson.

''The church is part of the process here. Its members cannot leave their values at home. They flow into the society,'' says Governor Matheson. ''It is helpful for us to meet with the church officials to discuss matters, and I often get their advice. They have an interest in public policy, but they never interfere, and they never ask for anything.''

The Mormon influence in politics is sweeping, says University of Utah political science professor J. D. Williams. ''Ever since (the Mormon prophet) Joseph Smith was killed in Navuoo, Ill. (in 1844), the church has never wanted to let power get out of its hands again. The voters here still look for signals from church leaders about candidates: 'Is he one of us?' ''

At the same time, points out Professor Williams, ''Political leaders lean over backward to avoid the appearance of being in the church's pocket.'' Still, most politicians think twice before taking a step that might offend the church. Some feel safe in speaking out, as Governor Matheson did in favoring the ERA.

The church can help ''animate'' issues by using its vast internal communication system, says Utah state planner Henry O. Whiteside, without actually taking a side overtly.

In the last ten years, however, the migration of so many non-Mormons into Utah has helped modify the church's influence. Only when the church feels threatened by too rapid growth will it exercise its authority, say many local leaders.

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