[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
The October 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine features as its cover article a lengthy, provocative, at times insightful, but mostly wholly tendentious anti-Mormon screed by Chris Lehmann, entitled “Pennies from Heaven.” Lehmann’s thesis basically boils down to 1) Mormon doctrine conveys a particularly pure version of the “prosperity gospel,” in which the tightly organized collective acquisition of non-speculative wealth (mostly gold or land) is held up as the ideal characteristic of God’s chosen people, and 2) this ideological mix of piety and material plenty has spread through the Tea Party movement and into the mainstream of the Republican party, with Mormon presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman being exemplary contributors to this continuing economic conversion. This thesis–both parts of it–is, to put it plainly, complete balderdash. At one point Lehmann, in criticizing the Tea Party, speaks of their “tortured and largely confabulated vision of the Founding Fathers” (p. 36); the exact same sentence could be used to describe how he treats what he calls “Mormon economics,” or indeed how he treats Mormonism itself. Even when he touches on an important point or two that could contribute to a thoughtful story about the unfortunate alliance between much of contemporary American Mormonism and the G.O.P.’s free-market fetishization, he still manages to get the actual argument wrong.
In short, Lehmann’s piece is the very model of the modern, high-brow anti-Mormon essay: one which purports to wrestle with a heavy and challenging thesis, of the sort which the much-discussed “Mormon moment” makes relevant to public discourse, and while so doing does manage to generate a fair amount of insight…but then shines that illumination in overwhelmingly false directions, ones that the author apparently has neither sufficient awareness nor ability to be able to double-check. Alan Wolfe’s “White Magic in America”, a fascinatingly wrong-headed excursion through Mormon history from more than a decade ago, in which Stephen R. Covey’s organizational mantras presented the theological key to understanding the faith, is another example of such intellectual confusion; Lehmann unintentionally aspires to that level of baseless thesis-mongering, and he very nearly reaches it. Rebutting Lehmann, therefore, requires more than just pointing out all the ways which many of his claims are wrong; you have to talk about how he misunderstands, or just plain misses out on, all the claims that he actually gets right.
Not to say that you can’t write a long piece focusing just on what he gets wrong; Hal Boyd did just that for the Deseret News, and he did a thorough job of it too. Very simply, Lehmann’s reading (assuming he actually did read it, which is doubtful) of the “prosperity cycle” in the Book of Mormon is patently ridiculous. Even if some libertarian economics professor with good Mormon connections says that the dramatic tale of the Nephite people developing themselves economically, and then suffering tragic reversals as they grow in pride and selfishness, and then ultimately ending their existence as a people in, as Boyd puts it, “utter destruction,” is really just an example of the “business cycle” in operation (p. 34)…well, that doesn’t make it true. It’s just not true, on any reading of church history, that Joseph Smith’s purported “awe of gold” (forgive me for not taking seriously such thoroughly discredited works as those of Fawn Brodie and John L. Brooke here) became part of “a theology of New World abundance” (p. 35). The Book of Mormon can, of course, be read in all sorts of diverse ways, as any scripture might be. But Lehmann is simply making stuff up when he draws connections from the Book of Mormon–building upon such misreadings as the notion that Jacob 2:17‘s reference to “your brethren…[becoming] rich like unto you” is comparable to some Kiwanis Club notion of corporate do-gooding, whereas it is actually a condemnation of wealthy Nephites who dressing in fine clothes, putting on airs, and failing ” to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted” (Jacob 2:19)–to the idea of a whole religion that draws its adherents together through a promise of God’s approval of material wealth. The fact that the American Mormon economic thinkers he cites “don’t really experience any such tensions” over the idea of wealth accumulation (p. 37) is an indictment of those Mormon thinkers themselves and the American Mormon political culture in which they are doing their thinking (and not even an accurate one, at that; Lehmann makes no mention of influential Mormons like the liberal Democrat Harry Reid or the quasi-socialist Hugh Nibley), not an indictment of the religious texts at the heart of the faith. Lehmann’s statement that “one scours the endless, incantatory pages of Joseph Smith’s revelation in vain for any suggestion that wealth complicates the lives of believers” (p. 34) only demonstrates, as Boyd shows at length, not only Lehmann’s utterly flawed grasp of what “Joseph Smith’s revelation” includes, but also that the man probably never so much as cracked open one page of the Doctrine and Covenants (which is, you know, only part of the standard works for the church).
Well, I could go on, but the point is made: there is no solid foundation to Lehmann’s allegations about “Mormon economics.” What is more disappointing, though, and what makes a particularly frustrating example of high-brow anti-Mormon writing, is that he’s not just making things up–there is something real to what he’s observing. American Mormons do tend, by and large, to think about wealth in ways that are different from many other Christians, to say nothing of many other Americans. For reasons that have at least as much to do with our church culture’s development through a history of political persecution and geographic isolation as with anything in our scripture, many American Mormons are infatuated with ideas of self-sufficiency, individual responsibility, and independence from government. Lehmann aligns this perspective with the prosperity gospel and the Tea Party (pp. 36, 41), and in making that alignment he’s advancing an electorally plausible, if theologically flawed, argument. But it’s the wrong argument to make. The right argument to ask–and which he would have asked, one suspects, if he hadn’t been primarily interested in simply holding up Mormons as money-obsessed villains at a time of great economic distress and disagreement–is why that alignment has any plausibility at all, given the distinct groundings which separate Mormon economic thought and practice from most of modern-day capitalism. Asking that kind of question might have opened up important lines of inquiry about both Mormonism and capitalism itself–but of course, doing that wouldn’t have given him much of a punch line.
What are the “distinct groundings” that I’m talking about? Lehmann asserts, repeatedly, that Mormons festishize tangile, material assets: Joseph Smith hunted for gold and set up a bank; Brigham Young set up vast business cooperatives; and Mormonism produced the flaky and bizarrely high-selling economics guru Howard Ruff, who has been urging people since the 1979 to fight socialism by investing in land and gold (pp. 35, 37, 39-40). There is something to that, of course: my father surely wasn’t the only Mormon conservative who read Ruff and Cleon Skousen, picked up material from the John Birch Society (strongly promoted by former church president, Ezra Taft Benson), and as a result invested in a small canvas bag full of gold and silver bars which sat in our basement for who knows how many years. But he’s missing the point, even when he all but states it clearly. The economic thinking which has emerged from the Mormon church in America has tended to be “deeply corporatist,” full of joint-stock companies and cooperative welfare plans, and premised upon a kind of pioneer ethic: Lehmann quotes Kim Clark, former dean of the Harvard Business School, as saying that his whole outlook begins with being brought up in a home where the children were expected to “make our bed, do the dishes, do our chores, and go to Church” (p. 38). You do what you’re supposed to do; you remain part of what you’re supposed to remain a part of. What is all this? It is, in a word, non-speculative. It is a vision of an orderly and sustainable and faithful and economically sound life that doesn’t admit much, if any, of the sort of risk, ambition, complex creativity, and appeals to profit upon which modern finance capitalism mostly operates.
Lehmann essentially passes over the Mormon church’s entire history of cooperative economics and attempts at local consecration practices; he reduces it all to a couple of sentences about how one early Mormon leader, before his conversion, had been an evangelical socialist. That’s a huge flaw, one of many such flaws, in his article. However, consider what he does identity from out of those decades of Mormon economic history: the fact the the Mormon church has a tradition of binding its people together, and together they build things. Real things. Irrigation canals, food banks, welfare farms–indeed, hundreds of communities all throughout the American West. Well, now if you want to believe there is such a things as “Mormon economics,” and that those Mormon economics fits right in with the paranoid, anti-government, economic-independence mindset of the present-day Republican party…doesn’t that present something a little strange? Why all this joining up, and building up, of fairly staid corporate forms? How does that fit into a modern capitalist state when most of the wealth being created in the country is being done under the terms of (and, for that matter, most of it exists in the hands of) institutions of speculation and investment and rapid growth and turn-over? Since the financial meltdown of 2008, if you’ve been willing to listen to some of the confused voices of the left, or listen even more carefully to some of the most marginalized voices on the right, you’ll will have heard this exact point made again and again: the real problem isn’t so much (or isn’t just) capitalism, but an unregulated, over-sized and over-grapsing, too-big-to-fail, government-entwined capitalism. This would seem to suggest that the Mormon economic argument, if there really is one (and some of us would desperately like it if our fellow church members recognized or remembered that there is such an argument out there), ought to be one that uses its supposed “obsession” with material, practical, personal and possessable and shareable wealth to critique the world of Wall Street bankers and corporate CEOs from the right (or even from the left, though that ship has, unfortunately, probably sailed). I mean, we are talking about a world where economics has become an abstract and elite game in which we all are, in essence, expected to embrace our dependency, and–whether we admit it to ourselves or not–pathetically beg for either big government to let loose with money to save the banks and hence our credit card interest rates (because I’m buying all my groceries on credit now anyway), or for big business to free itself from public obligations and redistributive taxation (because who needs libraries and school teachers and public parks anyway?) and start some of that wonderful “job creating,” preferably right here where I live. No, neither of those attitudes seem particularly Mormon–at least, not the corporate, cooperative, tangible, practical, material, debt-avoiding, pioneer-oriented Mormonism that Lehmann unintentionally touches upon in his article. And that suggests an even greater paradox: the prime Mormon candidate for president, the focal point of so much of this attention, is Mitt Romney, who…made his millions in equity-fund management? Who pioneered a whole industry of leveraged buyouts, corporate take-overs, and economic restructuring? And who, of course, strongly supported the TARP bank relief bailouts in 2008? How odd. How…un-Mormon, perhaps?
Alan Wolfe did a slightly better job with a later, second high-brow essay on Mormonism, “Mormons and Money,” which plowed somewhat similar ground to Lehmann’s. But in that essay, Wolfe didn’t dig into–and thus, like Lehmann, unintentionally (if wrongheadly) expose–any kind of purported Mormon economic ethic. He focused on the notion that Mormonism is a practical religion, a “this-worldly” religion, and hence that we tend to be organizational people, people who build, and thus like those who build well. Romney has certainly built well–and, if he becomes president, he’ll no doubt be able to build even more grandly. Lehmann’s clumsy attempt to show that the crackpot right-wing is, in some fashion, irreducibly Mormon, accomplishes really only one good thing: it presents the thought that maybe, just maybe, not all economic building fits into the corporate vision (a vision which, I would insist, even if Lehmann leaves it out, includes a healthy dose of equality and humility) of Mormonism. Which would imply, if you can believe it, that Romney’s financial success, and his possible success in winning over Republican party primary voters, may be happening exactly to the degree he, and the people who are supporting him, have forgotten an important lesson of this hypothetical “Mormon economics.” Now that would have made a fascinating, provocative article. But Lehmann would have had to have actually done some reading first if he wanted to write that one.