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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Angry God vs. Fun God

G.K. Chesterton said, “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.” I like that. It’s always around the holidays that everybody seems so serious: Bill O’Reilly telling Jon Stewart that he is headed for hell. Fox News’s blatant blowing “attacks on Christmas” entirely out of proportion. (Melville writes in Moby Dick, “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” Probably some truth to that.)

As Eric Weiner wrote in the New York Times this Sunday, “God is not a lot of fun these days. . . All we see is an angry God. He is constantly judging and smiting, and so are his followers.” When it comes down to it, our society isn’t really that good at talking about things like God and religion. This failure is probably symptomatic of a broader one: a book that came out earlier this year contained the research of two sociologists interviewing thousands of college-aged Americans to find out their views on morality. They found that we are quite horrible at it; in fact, we lacked even the vocabulary with which to meaningfully discuss moral topics.

Given such a dire situation, how can we hope to raise the public discourse about religion? Weiner thinks he has at least one solution:

“We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones [those who do not affiliate themselves with a religious denomination, yet still believe in God] among us. And for all of us.”

Although I appreciate the cultural reference, I am not at all sure that going to church should be like using my Mac. Don’t get me wrong—I love my Mac. Just not in the same way that I love religion. Religion fascinates me because it at times is the least intuitive endeavor one can undertake. It is at once messy and complicated, riddled with metaphysical questions. To believe—to really believe, and to consistently believe—and to grow and improve is a constant struggle. I am not sure how comfortable I would be with a populist religious uprising of the kind described.  It could be a good thing, but I don’t see how it could ever escape being a fad. A religion that never requires you to look into its history and ask hard questions doesn’t seem to be much of a religion at all. At least, it wouldn’t be a religion that did much for people–anymore than the thrill of attending a Super Bowl would do for them.

Additionally, I am not sure what a religion would look like that celebrated doubt. Doubt (no doubt) can play a crucial role in acquiring belief—I have always loved Dostoevsky’s line: “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.”—but is doubt something to be desired in and of itself? Telling people that it is okay to question and to doubt is different than celebrating that doubt. To place doubt on a pedestal as an object of desire is to ignore the greater issues behind belief.

We can still laugh about our religion while at the same time taking its claims very seriously. Interestingly enough, I actually think that the Mormon.org campaign is an effort to make religion more unencumbered and straightforward. The whole message is—“Look at my life. This is what I am. This is why I worship. It is normal. Anyone can do it.” I think that is a great introduction to our Church. But if you don’t think you are going to face tough issues in any religion, you are dreaming.

Weiner is right that most of what gets said comes from opposite ends of the spectrum: It is a Muslim fundamentalist. Then it’s a Republican Fundamentalist who hates Muslims. Then it’s a Koran burning cretin, followed by the Westboro bigots. Then it’s Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher and their caustic, naïve, and deleterious comments.  There is this huge gap in the middle, between avid believers and rabid atheists, and it seems mostly to be filled with apathy, that great master of our day. To raise our level of discourse would do many a service, indeed.

On Souls, Prayer, and Film

Precious little is known about director Terrence Malick. He was born in 1943 in the Midwest and studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford. He has directed only five movies in 38 years, but they have received widespread acclaim. He is known for being a recluse, but is apparently amiable and even charming. And with a new film, The Tree of Life, reaching theaters this month, Malick’s ghost has been thrust once more into the spotlight.

His films are unique. Poetry, music, and imagery are seamlessly bound—the pinnacle of the emotional power of the medium of film. Roger Ebert, after endorsing the Tree of Life, wisely says, “Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer.”

After watching Malick’s war epic, The Thin Red Line, I felt indeed as if I had just witnessed a prayer. The poetry will long be with me, as will the look of raw hope in Jim Caviezel’s eyes. This is something that very few books and movies can do, which isn’t to say there aren’t plenty good of both. At random, note Casino Royale; it had everything you could want in a Bond film: wit, action, love, etc. Yet, it was by all accounts, a fleeting glimpse of good entertainment. As for the plot and the dialogue, those will be quickly forgotten.

Sometimes, though, souls need more than just entertainment. We need something to believe in, something to hold on to in times of darkness and Light. Mr. Malick unabashedly offers a prayer for the soul in his films, and for this he deserves praise. It is not an easy thing to do in today’s world, to look cynicism in the eye and tell it that we are creatures of light and Love.

He does so in The Thin Red Line, which is certainly no conventional war movie. It was released in the same year as Saving Private Ryan, and is often compared to it, which is rather unfortunate. War movies, perhaps unintentionally, often gratify war. There is nothing gratifying about it in the Line, however. Rather, it is the prayer of different characters, most of them soldiers. Narrated poems and prayers make known their doubts and fears.

Sean Penn has this to say to an AWOL soldier:

“What difference do you think you can make…one single man in all this madness? If you die, it is going to be for nothing. There is not some other world out there where everything is gonna be alright if you die. There’s just this one. Just this rock.”

Caviezel’s character is meant to answer this charge. He seeks immortality, another world. In that way, it has something to say to all of us, something for each to ponder.

As does The Tree of Life, the story of a boy in Midwest America. It has so far received mixed reviews. At Cannes, where the film won the Palme d’Or, it was both booed and cheered. Deeply personal, it is nonetheless universal in the way it treats “the loss of innocence as an eternal part of the human condition”. He must choose between the ways of his father and his mother as he learns to navigate his world. He is searching for an Eden in a fallen world. Everyone, without fail, knows of the imperfections of family life. We know what it is to grow up in a world and to lose our innocence to it. We know what it is to lose the spark of wonderment we held when young.

Like the Line, the Tree of Life doesn’t have a well-defined plot, which can be maddening to conventional movie-goers. I have just finished Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God in which McCarthy’s prose grants small glances into a degenerate life, not necessarily in chronological order. The effect is profound, allowing the reader to stop and feel, to reflect and to remember. For perhaps, at the end our lives, although lived chronologically and in our own “boxes of space and time,” we will be best understood as a sum total of the thoughts we had, the love we felt, the emotions that passed through us. And these are often irrelevant to the reason and order we seek to impose upon ourselves in our mediums of art and in our present lives.

All of this to say: go see one of Mr. Malick’s films.

(Links: New York Times article, Roger Ebert Blog)

Christ Crucified

This is a piece by artist J. Kirk Richards. When I visited his house/studio last year in Provo, I saw this work in embryo. (Get a better look here.) At first glance I wasn’t sure what to make of it; it is, after all, a beautiful painting on a rather crude and makeshift piece of plywood. After seeing the finished product online, however, I can’t help but be impressed, for it now strikes me as being terribly suited to the crucifixion.

When Christ descended to Earth it was from beauty to chaos, from security to war, from Grace to Nature. In a way, this descent represents one of the few true acts of sacrifice in history, since he was really the only one who had anything to sacrifice in the first place. Christ in the flesh—Christ the man—became weak and submissive; resignation and pity is etched in his face here. The spirit, though, and I think this is the beautiful part of the picture, remains magnificent even in the depravity of the human world. It is absolute in its solitude and unmatched in its humility.

How oddly cruel, though, that it should be constructed out of cheap plywood and nails. Look closely and you can even see nail holes in the corners of the boards. More conspicuous are the oil stains and imperfections near the bottom. To look at the black oil stains is to be reminded of sins both individual and of those of a collective humanity. The crucifixion, in the end, is to be but another oil spot on this work, one that Christ probably looks down upon with pity.

The word FRAGILE can be made out among the grease stains, which is quite appropriate; for what is more fragile than a human life, both in terms of personal righteousness and the prospect of death and disease? Our history has been absurdly prone to lack of development and direction; with all of our knowledge of the past and our technology, we don’t seem to be any more morally competent than the Israelites in the Old Testament.

Russian great Fyodor Dostoevsky had one of the characters in The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan, lament the Turks’ treatment of their enemies in Bulgaria in the 19th century; before hanging their prisoners, the Turks made them spend the last night of their lives with their ears nailed to a fence. Ivan says, “No animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel.” Yet while we are the only species so cruel as to do so, we are also the only species with a well-spring of compassion, capable of deep reflection. And what act merits greater reflection, and indeed greater artistic attention, than that of the Atonement?

[As a side note, the header to my blog is actually also a work of Richards’. In it, Christ stands on the abyss with a very convincing Satan at his back. There is something very captivating in his work.]

Religions that Flourish

Great article by David Brooks this week (link here). There is a modern tendency to view religion as something beneficial as long as it stays out of the realms of metaphysics and the real world and teaches others to be accepting, all the while providing comfort. Brooks, and I think he is very persuasive here, argues that the religions that flourish have a very rigid theology, provide a “map of reality,” often have strict ethical codes, and do not change with fads. This “soft” view of religion that many have come to accept in is not very consistent with the timeless role religion has played in history.

Criminal Records Equal Wins

The state of college athletics is a joke.

Recruiting violations, blatant dishonesty, sex scandals, drug use, and academic fraud abound in nearly every beloved NCAA sport. By kicking Brandon Davies off the team with only a few weeks to go in the season, Brigham Young University is doing something that isn’t done very often anymore—attempting to put honesty and morality before wins.

The NCAA, especially in the realms of basketball and football, isn’t exactly a system that encourages academic and moral excellence. For that matter, the world of sports isn’t exactly the type of world that encourages those virtues. Last year I read a report about the graduation rate of the 64 teams in the NCAA tournament. Some records were impressive, but the majority were barely mediocre. Maryland was somewhere near the bottom with an eight percent graduation rate. You would imagine that Maryland probably had to pull a lot of strings to keep a team like that eligible, but they did a decent job of playing ball last year. There is a high cost, though, to pulling strings for athletes that are clearly not mature enough to act decently.

The NCAA will never have enough support to take a stand against it all—and even if they did I am not sure they would want to. We like our Michael Vicks and our Tiger Woods too much to put up a big protest. I think that the NCAA turns their heads a lot more than we realize, only occasionally investigating certain programs for recruiting violations. These investigations, though, are just often enough that it makes you wonder how many violations there are that no one ever hears about. And that is just recruiting violations—think of what an accumulative police record of our student athletes would look like, as well as those non-criminal acts that are blatantly immoral.

There will most likely be a lot of Hollywood-esque speculation as to what it was that Davies actually did. Then there will be a lot of people who question the Honor Code and whether or not it is too strict. There will be people claiming that Davies has been exiled and comments about why judgment doesn’t have a place in the Honor Code. I don’t think he will be exiled, but he will be treated like every other student at BYU; and that certainly isn’t too much to ask from our athletes. Word is that Davies turned himself in. If so, good for him; he will be better off in 10 years than a Michael Vick will be in his entire lifetime.

So can BYU ever win by putting principle (and a relatively strict one, at that) over winning games? The obstacles are indeed great. Several analysts at ESPN think, though, that it is certainly possible if everything falls together. They have a good point in that we could have been very close this year, and we did win the national championship in football. In today’s world, though, I am not so convinced. I think this season was exceptional, and it would have still been a miracle if we had actually won the championship. I think that a deep run into the tournament is a possibility, it just isn’t probable enough to make a difference.

Especially after today’s loss vs. New Mexico, I am starting to see that if BYU is serious about an NCAA championship, something needs to change. I think, though, that what BYU is doing has far better consequences than what other programs are doing for their athletes. By never allowing them to grow up, they are doing them a huge dis-favor. If all they care about is winning, though, in the words of an anonymous post that I found while following the game online:

“BYU needs sum bruthas with criminal records.”

The Slow Death of Education

Hugh Nibley saved some of his harshest criticism for those using education as means rather than as an end. Our scriptures are replete with exhortations to study and learn, even to seek out the best books. Yet it seems that education, once playing a central role in Mormon theology, has taken a back seat.

Nibley said, “Why should there be a school for the sole purpose of students preparing themselves? It is becoming the only purpose for which anyone attends school anymore. This is a new trend of just the past few years. They go not to get an education but to learn to acquire wealth, to earn more money. Students think there is something idealistic about that because they sacrifice for a time.” There is a quote from Joseph Smith that is very seldom repeated today because it would be flat out offensive to many members. He said, “The greatest temporal and spiritual blessings which always come from faithfulness and concerted effort, never attended individual exertion or enterprise.” If that is true, education must be more than a preparation for monetary gain.

We have effectively managed to quarantine a type of dry education at the University, not letting it diffuse to the rest of our lives. I don’t think society among the Latter-Day Saints has always been so wanting in intellectual life, though. Joseph had very little formal schooling yet seemed fascinated with the ideas of his time. He cared enough about the origins of the Bible to at least begin learning German, Greek, and Hebrew.

For the Confucians in ancient China, learning was more than the accumulation of knowledge—it was a way of life, a betterment of character through progress. Perhaps this is the type of learning we are encouraged to pursue, and if so, we have done a poor job. It is often said that the best art can make a person want to be better. Yesterday I went to an art show displaying forty portraits of Christ, each one unique. There was so much in each small painting of Christ open for interpretation—each person chooses their unique Christ. There is something in the best music and art that lifts character and accesses avenues of emotion not readily accessible by other mediums.

Literature, too, has fallen by the wayside in our attempt to obtain education for monetary gain. Somehow the days of Dostoevsky, when Schiller and others were often quoted by those of all ranks, seem very tempting to me. Gone are the days when quoting a Dostoevsky passage or a Schiller poem in conversation adds insight or wit rather than raises the eyebrow of the hearer. If God has had a hand in the past, it is more evident in literature than by any other medium.

I do not think that we should become a school nor a culture of intellectual snobs, but we have essentially been ignoring what should be a fundamental part of LDS theology. Education should be free because we should be so infused with the spirit of learning and curiosity that it is everywhere.

Mormonism and Capitalism

Based on the attitudes of members today, you would think that the merits of capitalism were included in the Thirteen Articles of Faith in the Wentworth Letter.

Yet the LDS’s relationship with capitalism has not always been such a smooth sail. In fact, it has been downright rocky. Richard Bushman, author of the popular biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, even calls it a “tortured relationship.”

On what grounds did the Church view capitalism with suspicion? Bushman gives at least four main reasons.

1) The advance of capitalism reduces receptivity to the gospel. I think Bushman is essentially right here. Whatever else the consequences (many of them beneficial, I realize), it is difficult to deny this observation.

2) Capitalism is godless. That is not to say that it repudiates faith in God as does communism, but neither does it make provision for faith. “Capitalism as a system subscribes to Korihor’s creed that one succeeds according to the strength of the creature.” You can believe, or you can choose not to. There are no rituals or tenets that expressly encourage religion. And finally, what I have written extensively about, capitalism encourages a type of individualism that just doesn’t fit in well with the type of communal service required by the gospel.

3) Capitalism creates incentives of its own that often replace religious goals. Corporate success, for many, takes the place of salvation. One need look no further than, say, Japan, to see that 80 hour work weeks are the new religion.

4) And finally, what I believe to be the most dangerous–capitalism adds fire to the fervor of consumerism. People find untold amounts of satisfaction in buying and selling material goods. It even seems that capitalism will not work without consumerism. Thus, consumerism invades our lives to the point where we feel like development of person is synonymous with getting ahead in the corporate world. Our sense of worth should not depend upon our ability to make money.

For obvious reasons, the Church did not embrace capitalism until after World War II. Leaders such as Brigham Young instituted provisions to moderate the emphasis on individualism and competition and have warned us to be extremely wary of consumerism.

All of this is not to say that the Church should again divorce capitalism, but it at least indicates that a full on embrace of libertarian free market ideals should at least be well thought out.

Serpent on the Pole

“This morning, on the radio, I heard something about the serpent on the pole. He said that the answers to today’s social and political problems are right in front of us! They are easy! All we have to do is look! But so many people, because of the simpleness and easiness of the way just…don’t look.”

“But do you really believe that? Aren’t today’s problems incredibly dimensional and complex?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“So how do people miss because of the simpleness and easiness of the way? Why didn’t people just look? Are we really supposed to take that scripture seriously?”

“Well, it is scripture.”

“Yes, but people are like water. Always looking for an easy way out. Imagine! If all you had to do was look! Ha! It would certainly make Abraham feel like he got the short end of the stick!”

“Think of the converts to Christ. Today they would come flocking to Him! ‘Just a simple glance is all it takes…look and live!’”

“I have to say I have never met a person who honestly would refuse to look. I myself have never shied away from anything because it was too easy. I have shied away from things because I thought the cross would be too heavy to bear.”

“Well maybe some people, like the Jews, just ‘look past the mark.’”

“Ha! Look past the mark? Sometimes I lose sight of the mark altogether! If only my sight was so lofty as to look past such a wonderful creature! Give us our simple bread with a promise and we will come flocking to You! You know that! Ask something of us, give us our agency, and we will quit! Why? Why couldn’t you have just given us our simple bread?”

“Salvation was never intended to be so easy.”

“There, and that is all I have been trying to say. No indeed, it was not. How, then, is it too easy for some?”