Mormons, Mammon & American Christianity
Watching a religious leader celebrate a mall may seem surreal, but City Creek reflects the spirit of enterprise that animates modern-day Mormonism. The mall is part of a vast church-owned corporate empire that the Mormon leadership says will help spread its message, increase economic self-reliance, and build the Kingdom of God on earth. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attends to the total needs of its members,” says Keith B. McMullin, who for 37 years served within the Mormon leadership and now heads a church-owned holding company, Deseret Management Corporation (DMC), an umbrella organization for many of the church’s for-profit businesses. “We look to not only the spiritual but also the temporal, and we believe that a person who is impoverished temporally cannot blossom spiritually.”
The Mormon Church is hardly the only religious institution to be less than forthcoming about how it amassed its wealth; the Catholic Church has been equally opaque throughout its history. On the other hand, says historian D. Michael Quinn, who is working on a book about the LDS Church’s finances and businesses, “The Mormon Church is very different than any other church. … Traditional Christianity and Judaism make a clear distinction between what is spiritual and what is temporal, while Mormon theology specifically denies that there is such a distinction.” To Latter-day Saints, opening megamalls, running a Polynesian theme park, and operating a billion-dollar media and insurance empire are all part of doing God’s work. Says Quinn: “In the Mormon worldview, it’s as spiritual to give alms to the poor, as the old phrase goes in the Biblical sense, as it is to make a million dollars.”
Regular readers know that despite all the problems I have with Mitt Romney as a politician, I tend to believe his Mormon faith is a plus. To the extent that what BB reports is true, I have two remarks:
1. This is obviously a very serious inversion of the Gospel. I don’t really care if the US president believes this, because I believe it is (alas!) standard American popular Christianity; the Mormons may simply be less hypocritical about it. Still, this is a big theological problem.
2. Seriously, thought, how is this belief all that different from how most American Christians function? You have the Prosperity Gospel people, but before them, it was, to my understanding, very common for Americans to believe — contrary to the Gospel — that material wealth was a sign of God’s favor. Harold Bloom famously said that Mormonism is the most American religion. He amplified those thoughts in a 2011 NYT essay. Excerpt:
Mr. Romney, earnest and staid, who is deep within the labyrinthine Mormon hierarchy, is directly descended from an early follower of the founding prophet Joseph Smith, whose highly original revelation was as much a departure from historical Christianity as Islam was and is. But then, so in fact are most manifestations of what is now called religion in the United States, including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God Pentecostalists and even our mainline Protestant denominations.
However, should Mr. Romney be elected president, Smith’s dream of a Mormon Kingdom of God in America would not be fulfilled, since the 21st-century Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has little resemblance to its 19th-century precursor. The current head of the Mormon Church, Thomas S. Monson, known to his followers as “prophet, seer and revelator,” is indistinguishable from the secular plutocratic oligarchs who exercise power in our supposed democracy.
The Salt Lake City empire of corporate greed has little enough in common with the visions of Joseph Smith. The oligarchs of Salt Lake City, who sponsor Mr. Romney, betray what ought to have been their own religious heritage. Though I read Christopher Hitchens with pleasure, his characterization of Joseph Smith as “a fraud and conjuror” is inadequate. A superb trickster and protean personality, Smith was a religious genius, uniquely able to craft a story capable of turning a self-invented faith into a people now as numerous as the Jews, in America and abroad. According to the church, about six million American citizens are Mormons, and there are more than eight million converts in Asia, Africa and elsewhere.
Persuasively redefining Christianity has been a pastime through the ages, yet the American difference is brazen. What I call the American Religion, and by that I mean nearly all religions in this country, socially manifests itself as the Emancipation of Selfishness. Our Great Emancipator of Selfishness, President Ronald Reagan, refreshingly evaded the rhetoric of religion, but has been appropriated anyway as the archangel of American spiritualized greed.
Marxist slogans rarely ring true in our clime, where religion is the poetry (bad and good) of the people and not its opiate. Poetry is a defense against dying. The American Religion centers upon the denial of death, literalizing an ancient Christian metaphor.
Obsessed by a freedom we identify with money, we tolerate plutocracy as if it could someday be our own ecstatic solitude. A first principle of the American Religion is that each of us rarely feels free unless he or she is entirely alone, particularly when in the company of the American Jesus. Walking and talking with him is akin to receiving his love in a personal and individual relationship.
This speaks directly to what I don’t understand about why so many conservative American Christians object to Mormonism. I completely understand — and share — their rejection of Mormon theology, but in the concrete world, Mormons seem to me to be exemplary versions of the American style of Christianity. (I mean “exemplary” not as a term of praise, but as a descriptive term, meaning the most typical.)