Mormonism and the (Relatively) New Quest for Success

In 1958 Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States to see why agriculture—“America’s biggest success”—was one of the Soviet’s great failures. Playing host was Ezra Taft Benson, at the time the Secretary of Agriculture, who would later become the president of the LDS Church. According to Benson, while touring farms, Khrushchev said to Benson:

You Americans are so gullible. No, you won’t accept communism outright, but we’ll keep feeding you small doses of socialism until you’ll finally wake up and find you already have communism. We won’t have to fight you. We’ll so weaken your economy until you’ll fall like overripe fruit into our hands.

It was an experience that Elder Benson was not quick to forget; he reminded Church members (and any other souls willing to listen) of the dangers of Communism every chance he got. (Thanks to Glenn Beck [what happened to this guy anyway? Too extreme even for Fox, and now I read he’s telling children’s stories or something of the sort?] for the reference).

Elder Benson is now the go to figure for conservative Mormons intent on advocating the virtues of private property and of capitalism. This is a group that has grown increasingly large and powerful in the last fifty or so years. And now, with high-profile political candidates and even more business gurus that are members of the Mormon Church, it is a group that has been finding itself in the spotlight quite a bit lately.

This week the Economist ran an article on Mormons and success. It is a wonderful article (and one that even manages a joke about facial hair), noting that “Less than 2% of Americans are Mormons, yet their commercial prominence belies their numbers . . . Mormons have constructed a huge pro-business infrastructure.” Perhaps one of the reasons for this success, the author writes, is a long-standing fascination with organization and a type of self-reliance drawn from being a persecuted minority. It tries, in other words, to draw a coherent line of explanation through Mormonism’s history.

Yet this self-reliance and striving for success has manifested itself quite differently in the past, and I think that in the face of all of this “success” it is easy to forget this. (The article in the Economist did not go into such detail). Up until about 60 years ago, Mormons were very much ill-at-ease in the larger world of business. Capitalism itself has had a rocky relationship with the Church, repudiated the first half of the Church’s history and fully embraced in its second. Now the success garnered under such a system is almost worn on the sleeves of members. It is to them a testimony to the lessons learned on missions and the principles of the gospel. As noted, this view—while now practically mainstream—was not always so popular.[1]

So there at least seems to be another tradition within Mormonism that is often forgotten, even as Mormons rush to the spotlight of success. While I don’t entirely know what to make of this historical flip-flop, I don’t think that the world of business schools and Goldman Sachs is one we should wholly embrace without critical thought. As even Milton Friedman recognized, capitalism is a morally neutral endeavor; it has one objective, and that is to maximize profit. It is, by nature, not involved in religion, charity, or ethics. To what extent, if any, it is detrimental to these, I do not know.

Business schools will not doubt continue to be filled with young ambitious Mormons eager for a taste of economic success. But if this is done thoughtlessly, and in a manner ignorant of tradition, such a quest can come with a high price.

[1] Why has this been? Richard Bushman summed up at least a few of the possible reasons: 1) Capitalism seems to “reduce receptivity to the gospel”; 2) It is ‘godless’ in that it neither advocates nor repudiates faith in God—in the realms of ethics and religion, it finds itself mute; and 3) Corporate values “invade our families in the form of consumerism.” In this light the modern striving for worldly success is odd; the Church has had a relatively smooth relationship with the also “worldly” endeavors of science and democracy, but that has not been the case with capitalism.
Others, most notably Hugh Nibley, have viewed business schools as a hotspot of moral deprivation, and wrote that “Every step in the direction of increasing one’s personal holdings is a step away from Zion, which is another way of saying, as the Lord has proclaimed in various ways, that one cannot serve two masters: to the degree in which he loves the one he will hate the other, and so it is with God and business, for mammon is simply the standard Hebrew word for any kind of financial dealing” (Approaching Zion). Some view Nibley as a type of lonely yet sane voice in a dark wilderness. I don’t know what to make of him–he’s fascinating, to say the least.



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