Steve Martin isn’t a Latter-day Saint. Neither is Adam Sandler. Neither is Apple’s Tim Cook, nor Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.
But many well-known people are.
It seems a common tactic in the news media to pick successful Latter-day Saints and hold them up as examples of how the LDS faith is succeeding in the world at some profession or other.
This seems especially true of business reporting.
As I see it, every few weeks some news organization talks about the success Latter-day Saints have in business.
Often, these articles are very favorable, describing how Latter-day Saints learn foreign languages on missions and work hard in their church callings, making them especially able to succeed in business.
I expect to see more of this coverage as Mitt Romney touts his business acumen in his run for the presidency.
Yet there are some simple problems with this coverage that boil down to this question: Basically, are Latter-day Saints really that unusual in their success?
The piece in the Economist, seeming to draw heavily from LDS journalist Jeff Benedict’s book "The Mormon Way of Doing Business," drew emphasis to this supposed LDS business acumen. (For those who haven't heard, Benedict has the cover story in Sports Illustrated about LDS basketball player Jabari Parker. As with all of Benedict's stuff, the article is terrific.)
The Economist wrote that LDS success in business “belies their numbers.”
The author wrote, “Not everyone will buy the idea that Mormons are just like the rest of us. They don’t get drunk. They have large families, stable marriages and a three-month supply of food in the larder in case of Armageddon. They are usually clean-cut and neatly dressed (the facial hair in the ‘I’m a Mormon’ ads is thankfully atypical). And they have a passion for business.”
Typical of pieces of this form, the author cites examples of LDS business success — JetBlue founder David Neeleman was one.
But stop and think about it. Latter-day Saints now comprise about 2 percent of the U.S. population. That’s some 6 million people. You would expect Latter-day Saints to be represented at the top levels of business.
Simple math assumes you would expect about 2 percent of all CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to be LDS. That would mean 10 should be Latter-day Saint as a matter of averages.
As it turns out, I find no single authoritative list of LDS CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. I only see Nolan Archibald, the gifted CEO of Black and Decker on what I did find at famousmormons.net.
Assuming there is only one LDS CEO in the Fortune 500, and I am assuming, only one CEO suggests that the LDS are, if anything, under-represented in those ranks.
By the numbers, there should always be one or two NFL quarterbacks who are Latter-day Saints at any given time. (Is John Beck the only one right now? So, that is about what you would expect.)
By the numbers, in the 10 years or so of American Idol competition, you’d expect to have had a small handful of finalists who were Latter-day Saints — about four or so. Yup, that’s about right, Elder Archuleta.
So, yes, Latter-day Saints are successful in business. Yes, they are successful in sports and in other pursuits, but I see no reason to think unusually so until more detailed studies emerge.
It is a stereotype to say Latter-day Saints have an unusual passion for business. The numbers don’t seem to support that conclusion in my view.
I needed to follow up on a recent column praising the idea that more journalists should consult what the Book of Mormon actually says. A recent editorial in the Washington Post by Michelle Boorstein is about the best article I have ever seen that follows this form. I urge you to glance at it.
In it, Boorstein explores LDS beliefs about America’s important role in the world. The article explores LDS history and discusses what the Book of Mormon says. It describes Glenn Beck’s brand of conservatism in mostly neutral, respectful ways.
I urge a glance at the article.
I was also struck this week by the continual power of the Book of Mormon to surprise.
In another recent column, I talked about how we need to be cautious of using the Book of Mormon as glib support for our political views. I used the example of taxation in warning against such glibness.
With the help of a colleague and my own Sunday School reading, I just reread a verse, Mosiah 21:17, that enhanced and expanded my knowledge of taxation in the Book of Mormon. It jumped out at me.
Read it sometime and see if it does what the Book of Mormon always does for me — frame some of my assumptions in new, thoughtful ways.
I think I’m nearing the 50th time through the Book of Mormon, if not more. It’s only becoming more amazing.
What a book.
Lane Williams teaches journalism and communications at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion and religion and politics.