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

Published: Monday, Sept. 26 2011 6:00 p.m. MDT

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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!"

The scripture, when placed in context, does not support the idea that "Mormon scriptures stress the close alignment of wealth and virtue." Rather, they stress the close alignment of wealth and pride.

Lehmann makes much of what he calls The Book of Mormon's "prosperity" cycle, yet he neglects to mention that the end of the cycle is pride and utter destruction. In fact, the main overarching theme of The Book of Mormon (prosperity and pride precede the fall) contradicts Lehmann's entire characterization of Mormon theology.

One does not need to scour the "pages of Joseph Smith's revelation(s) in vain for any suggestion that wealth complicates the spiritual lives of believers," as Lehmann suggests. In fact, a simple search on lds.org (the LDS Church's official website) will turn up the following verses among Smith's revelations, admonishing believers to not seek after riches alone:

"Seek not for riches but for wisdom… Behold, he that hath eternal life is rich." (Doctrine and Covenants 6:7)

"And verily I say unto thee that thou shalt lay aside the things of this world, and seek for the things of a better." (Doctrine and Covenants 25:10)

"... It must needs be that the riches of the earth are mine to give; but beware of pride, lest ye become as the Nephites (a Book of Mormon people) of old." (Doctrine and Covenants 38:39)

As for the concept that Mormonism creates a "neat inversion of the New Testament ethic of self-sacrificing service," Joseph Smith taught: "A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation."

Lehmann's essay also omits mention that one of the official four-fold missions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is "care for the poor and needy" — this manifests itself in specific programs like Mormon fast-offerings (alms given to the local poor), the church's extensive humanitarian aid program (a program which has given $1.3 billion to disaster relief, vaccinations, vision treatment, clean water initiatives, feeding the hungry, wheelchair distribution, education initiatives and a variety of other church efforts in 178 countries since 1985 alone) — not to mention the LDS law of consecration, a co-operative system received by revelation in which property was deeded to the church during a period in the 1830s and then redistributed by the bishop to aid poor members of the church.

"And behold, thou wilt remember the poor," reads Smith's revelation in Doctrine and Covenants 42:30. "And consecrate of thy properties for their support that which thou hast to impart unto them, with a covenant and a deed which cannot be broken."

The Book of Mormon further teaches: "Wherefore, do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy. . . . Feast upon that which perisheth not, neither can be corrupted." (2 Nephi 9:51)

Despite all this, Lehmann argues that Joseph Smith's real legacy is "the invention of a New World religion, merging a deeply exceptionalist vision of America's role in the biblical history with a hard-money gospel of individual success."

Yet today The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the very organization claiming to carry on Joseph Smith's legacy, preaches nothing resembling a "hard-money gospel." Out of the 1,526,879 words spoken from the pulpit during all the LDS general conferences (semi-annual international church gatherings) from 2000-2010, the word "money" was uttered only 197 times (.012 percent of the time) and "gold" just 54 times (.0035 percent of the time) according to a Brigham Young University conference database. Despite Lehmann's inferences to the contrary, never once did church authorities admonish church members to make more money or advocate buying gold as a safe investment — and the very few times the word "gold" was used over the past decade it was usually quoting scripture warning against materialism or referencing The Book of Mormon's golden plates in telling the early history of the church.

The author claims to elucidate "the organization of economic life" of Latter-day Saints — yet, at no point in the article does Lehmann quote or even reference the seminal work on the subject, Leonard J. Arrington's "Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900," published in 1958 by Harvard University Press.

Lehmann: LDS influences GOP

Lehmann's other argument in the essay focuses on the way Mormonism's supposed "prosperity Gospel" has allegedly influenced the current tea party-faction of the GOP via Glenn Beck by his promotion of buying gold and reading the works of conservative Mormon lay-writer W. Cleon Skousen. In Lehmann's words, "Mormons tend to fetishize precious metals" — especially gold. His argument goes:

1. Joseph Smith found gold plates,

2. Mormon convert Glenn Beck advertises for gold companies,

3. Therefore, 14 million Latter-Day Saints "tend to fetishize precious metals".

While there is little doubt that Glenn Beck has influenced the Republican party, especially the GOP's tea party base, Lehmann fails to realize that when a Mormon writes a book or gives an opinion it doesn't mean that (a) it represents the views of other practicing Mormons and (b) it represents official Mormon church doctrine. In the case of Glenn Beck and W. Cleon Skousen, neither is a spokesman for the church nor are they authorized to declare official church doctrines.

And although it is true that more than 60 percent of American Mormons are Republicans, according to a 2006 Faith Matters survey, there are very prominent members of the church who are not Republican — most notable among them Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Mormon who currently holds the highest elected office.

During a 2007 forum address at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, Sen. Reid famously said, "I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it."

Likewise, one of the most noted Mormon scholars to teach at BYU, Hugh W. Nibley, was an outspoken critic of the excessive accumulation of wealth — his famous essay on the church's law of consecration "Work We Must, But the Lunch is Free" is a strong argument for why Mormon doctrine is antithetical to wealth obsession and materialism.

"Following Satan's instructions, Cain murdered 'his brother Abel, for the sake of getting gain' (Moses 5:50)," Nibley wrote. "… Recently this gospel was proclaimed by one of the richest Americans addressing the student body of Ohio State University (on TV): 'There is nothing that gives freedom,' he said, 'like bucks in the bank.' This seems to be the policy we are following today, and there is no doubt whose policy it is."

Additionally, although the author says Mormons have historically had a sometimes-tenuous relationship with the U.S. government, the LDS Church's Articles of Faith state clearly, "We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law."

The underlying problem: objective reporting

Ultimately, the fount from which most of the problems in this article flow is the author's lack of objective reporting.

Drawing on only two original interviews and using Fawn Brodie's controversial 1945 psychological biography, "No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith," as his guide (rather than Richard Bushman's critically acclaimed 2005 biography on Joseph Smith, "Rough Stone Rolling"), Lehmann inevitably commits several fallacies of composition. He assumes that because one lay member of the church gives an interpretation of Mormon doctrine, that most Mormons or the church itself feel similarly.

According to LDS Church spokesman Michael Otterson, "there are six million Latter-day Saints now in the United States (about the same number as Jews), and another eight million worldwide, and they represent a growing cross section of ethnicity, demographics, cultural experiences, professions" and political sensibilities. Indeed, members "are not obliged to think and act in lockstep."

Mormonism is a faith that continues to grow and receive visibility in the media — the hope of many is that over the next 100 years magazines will continue to make a concerted effort to truly understand what the faith believes and advocates before dedicating a feature article to the subject. As Theodore Roosevelt put it more than a century ago, "There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer ... in book, magazine or newspaper, (who) with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful."

EMAIL: hboyd@desnews.com

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