Hal Boyd: Mormon gospel not money gospel: A reply to new essay on Mormonism from Harper's Magazine

Published: Monday, Sept. 26 2011 7:08 p.m. MDT

In 1910 an influential national periodical, Person's Magazine, published an article accusing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of having engaged in nefarious dealings with various politicians, including former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

In a searing reply, Roosevelt denounced the article and defended the character of the Latter-day Saints.

Refuting the report "point by point," Roosevelt wrote that the false accusations against the Mormons "brand with infamy the man who made them and also the magazine editor who published them."

A century later prominent magazines are still selling copies by sticking the word "Mormon" in headlines — the nationally influential Harper's Magazine is only the most recent to try its hand at a Mormon feature with its new October edition.

Yet, unlike recent cover articles on Mormonism by Business Week and Newsweek, the new eight-page Harper's essay, "Pennies from Heaven: How Mormon Economics Shape the G.O.P.," (subscription required) is a step backward toward the days of Person's Magazine, circa 1910.

Indeed, despite an ambitious attempt by its author, Chris Lehmann, the Harper's essay presents a factually inaccurate account of Mormon doctrine — so much so that it gets dangerously close to branding "with infamy the man who (wrote it) and also the magazine editor who published (it)."

Ironically, the piece takes aim at media mogul Glenn Beck, but the essay itself is not unlike the type of connect-the-dots chalkboard theory that might even make Beck blanch.

Lehmann: Mormonism as "prosperity Gospel"

The main thrust of Lehmann's essay is that Mormon theology fosters "an ethos of accumulation that makes so-called prosperity Gospel seem listless by comparison." He further writes, "Mormons, unlike adherents of most mainline Protestant denominations, have very little ambivalence about the acquisition of wealth.

"One scours the endless, incantatory pages of Joseph Smith's revelation(s) in vain for any suggestion that wealth complicates the spiritual lives of believers.

Not for Mormons the queasy business about the camel going through the needle's eye before a rich man enters the Kingdom of Heaven," he writes, adding, "Mormon scriptures stress the close alignment of wealth and virtue — a neat inversion of the New Testament ethic of self-sacrificing service."

Lehmann is correct in stating that members of the LDS faith believe in principles of self-reliance and frugality. For example, a leading authority of the LDS Church, Elder Robert D. Hales, of the Quorum of the Twelve, taught in a 2009 address: "To provide providently, we must practice the principles of provident living: joyfully living within our means, being content with what we have, avoiding excessive debt, and diligently saving and preparing for rainy-day emergencies."

Lehmann's claim that Mormonism has both "an ethos" of wealth accumulation (especially for gold and land holdings), and that Latter-day Saints "have very little ambivalence about the acquisition of wealth," is easy to disprove.

For example, Lehmann cites from The Book of Mormon: "Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you." (Jacob 2:17).

The author takes this verse and turns it on its head to support his theory that Mormons are a materially driven people. In reality, the verse comes from a long sermon in the Book of Mormon that condemns seeking riches. The earlier verses from the same chapter read: "You have obtained many riches; and because … (of this) ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts, and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel, and persecute your brethren because ye suppose that ye are better than they… do ye suppose that God justifieth you in this thing? Behold, I say unto you, Nay. ... let not this pride of your hearts destroy your souls!"

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