What are the philosophies, theologies, or ideologies that influence the way we think about the world? Martin Marty reflects on the suggestion of Chris Lehman, who recently wrote of the Mormon influence on our economic situation. Marty suggests that the author has probably written too broadly, but the idea is intriguing -- could we all be Mormons -- that is, in embracing what he calls the "Protestant ethic on steroids." It's really an economic principle that has a shared sensibility with Pentecostals such as Joel Osteen, and many of Adam Smith's descendants. I invite you to consider Marty's posting and offer your reflections.
-- Martin E. Marty
Chris Lehmann, in Harper’s, has a novel, focused, cogent name for the new order, one which also has to stretch the concept of “we” significantly, as he judges: “We are all Mormons now.” Read on: this column is not a Mormon-bashing, battering, beating down attempt to be relevant because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is in political news these seasons. I have and have had too many friends, University of Chicago colleagues, former Ph.D. students, and scholar-acquaintances at large who are Mormon for me to paint them all with a large, smudging brush.
Instead, I will attend to Chris Lehmann’s article on some often overlooked reaches of Mormon-influenced economics, themes which would be relevant even if there were no Mormons running for any office. In fact, you don’t even have to be Mormon to be Mormon in economics. In Lehmann’s vision, you could get the equivalent without having heard of the LDS world. For some, it does help to have this voiced through Mormon convert Glenn Beck or Steven Covey, supersalesmen of supersalesmanship; from Pentecostals like Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, or Horatio Alger of old, or most Libertarians, Tea Partiers, and the like. Don’t give one church all the credit or blame for the current evolution. Many moderns can get there from the heights of Adam Smith to the depths of Ayn Rand. Sometimes, overlapping between the descendants of Joseph Smith and Adam Smith are purely coincidental.
You can get all this straight and direct from Mark Skousen, who says and is happy to say that Mormonism is the Protestant ethic on steroids. He speaks of an “old Testament prosperity principle” in the Book of Mormon, “a kind of Abraham covenant. If you live a righteous life, God will bless you. Over and over, you read about the cycle of prosperity—a business cycle, if you will.” The Mormons who live by this reading of the Old Testament, one which demands a good deal of winking as one reads through 500 pages of the Major and Minor prophets, have a “distrust of debt and government; they tend to fetishize precious metals and land assets,” do well with tithing at church, and express disdain for motivation-sapping entitlements and the welfare state. . . Perhaps most important, Mormons, unlike adherents of most mainline Protestant denominations have very little ambivalence about the acquisition of wealth.” Therefore “not for Mormons the queasy business about the camel going through the needle’s eye before a rich man enters the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Lehmann’s brush is a bit broad and unfair if it is seen as a critique of the Mormon church in isolation. Too many Mormons individually go their own way so one cannot fairly make a universal out of the “Mormon economics” of which Lehmann speaks. Today, however, you can get its values on the cheap, without reading a page of the Book of Mormon. An advantage of buying into the secular translations of these teachings? Unlike faithful Mormons, you do not even have to tithe.
Chris Lehmann, “Pennies from Heaven: How Mormon Economics Shape the G.O.P.” Harpers, October, 2011.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
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Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.