Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Getting Everything Wrong (Even What He Gets Right)

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

The October 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine features as its cover article a lengthy, provocative, at times insightful, but mostly wholly tendentious anti-Mormon screed by Chris Lehmann, entitled "Pennies from Heaven." Lehmann's thesis basically boils down to 1) Mormon doctrine conveys a particularly pure version of the "prosperity gospel," in which the tightly organized collective acquisition of non-speculative wealth (mostly gold or land) is held up as the ideal characteristic of God's chosen people, and 2) this ideological mix of piety and material plenty has spread through the Tea Party movement and into the mainstream of the Republican party, with Mormon presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman being exemplary contributors to this continuing economic conversion. This thesis--both parts of it--is, to put it plainly, complete balderdash. At one point Lehmann, in criticizing the Tea Party, speaks of their "tortured and largely confabulated vision of the Founding Fathers" (p. 36); the exact same sentence could be used to describe how he treats what he calls "Mormon economics," or indeed how he treats Mormonism itself. Even when he touches on an important point or two that could contribute to a thoughtful story about the unfortunate alliance between much of contemporary American Mormonism and the G.O.P.'s free-market fetishization, he still manages to get the actual argument wrong.

In short, Lehmann's piece is the very model of the modern, high-brow anti-Mormon essay: one which purports to wrestle with a heavy and challenging thesis, of the sort which the much-discussed "Mormon moment" makes relevant to public discourse, and while so doing does manage to generate a fair amount of insight...but then shines that illumination in overwhelmingly false directions, ones that the author apparently has neither sufficient awareness nor ability to be able to double-check. Alan Wolfe's "White Magic in America", a fascinatingly wrong-headed excursion through Mormon history from more than a decade ago, in which Stephen R. Covey's organizational mantras presented the theological key to understanding the faith, is another example of such intellectual confusion; Lehmann unintentionally aspires to that level of baseless, high-powered thesis-mongering, and he very nearly reaches it. Rebutting Lehmann, therefore, requires more than just pointing out all the ways which many of his claims are wrong; you have to talk about how he misunderstands, or just plain misses out on, all the claims that he actually gets right.

Not to say that you can't write a long piece focusing just on what he gets wrong; Hal Boyd did just that for the Deseret News, and he did a thorough job of it too. Very simply, Lehmann's reading (assuming he actually did read it, which is doubtful) of the "prosperity cycle" in the Book of Mormon is patently ridiculous. Even if some libertarian economics professor with good Mormon connections says that the dramatic tale of the Nephite people developing themselves economically, and then suffering tragic reversals as they grow in pride and selfishness, and then ultimately ending their existence as a people in, as Boyd puts it, "utter destruction," is really just an example of the "business cycle" in operation (p. 34)...well, that doesn't make it true. It's just not true, on any reading of church history, that Joseph Smith's purported "awe of gold" (forgive me for not taking seriously such thoroughly discredited works as those of Fawn Brodie and John L. Brooke here) became part of "a theology of New World abundance" (p. 35). The Book of Mormon can, of course, be read in all sorts of diverse ways, as any scripture might be. But Lehmann is simply making stuff up when he draws connections from the Book of Mormon--building upon such misreadings as the notion that Jacob 2:17's reference to "your brethren...[becoming] rich like unto you" is comparable to some Kiwanis Club notion of corporate do-gooding, whereas it is actually a condemnation of wealthy Nephites who dressing in fine clothes, putting on airs, and failing " to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted" (Jacob 2:19)--to the idea of a whole religion that draws its adherents together through a promise of God's approval of material wealth. The fact that the American Mormon economic thinkers he cites "don't really experience any such tensions" over the idea of wealth accumulation (p. 37) is an indictment of those Mormon thinkers themselves and the American Mormon political culture in which they are doing their thinking (and not even an accurate one, at that; Lehmann makes no mention of influential Mormons like the liberal Democrat Harry Reid or the quasi-socialist Hugh Nibley), not an indictment of the religious texts at the heart of the faith. Lehmann's statement that "one scours the endless, incantatory pages of Joseph Smith's revelation in vain for any suggestion that wealth complicates the lives of believers" (p. 34) only demonstrates, as Boyd shows at length, not only Lehmann's utterly flawed grasp of what "Joseph Smith's revelation" includes, but also that the man probably never so much as cracked open one page of the Doctrine and Covenants (which is, you know, only part of the standard works for the church).

Well, I could go on, but the point is made: there is no solid foundation to Lehmann's allegations about "Mormon economics." What is more disappointing, though, and what makes a particularly frustrating example of high-brow anti-Mormon writing, is that he's not just making things up--there is something real to what he's observing. American Mormons do tend, by and large, to think about wealth in ways that are different from many other Christians, to say nothing of many other Americans. For reasons that have at least as much to do with our church culture's development through a history of political persecution and geographic isolation as with anything in our scripture, many American Mormons are infatuated with ideas of self-sufficiency, individual responsibility, and independence from government. Lehmann aligns this perspective with the prosperity gospel and the Tea Party (pp. 36, 41), and in making that alignment he's advancing an electorally plausible, if theologically flawed, argument. But it's the wrong argument to make. The right argument to ask--and which he would have asked, one suspects, if he hadn't been primarily interested in simply holding up Mormons as money-obsessed villains at a time of great economic distress and disagreement--is why that alignment has any plausibility at all, given the distinct groundings which separate Mormon economic thought and practice from most of modern-day capitalism. Asking that kind of question might have opened up important lines of inquiry about both Mormonism and capitalism itself--but of course, doing that wouldn't have given him much of a punch line.

What are the "distinct groundings" that I'm talking about? Lehmann asserts, repeatedly, that Mormons festishize tangile, material assets: Joseph Smith hunted for gold and set up a bank; Brigham Young set up vast business cooperatives; and Mormonism produced the flaky and bizarrely high-selling economics guru Howard Ruff, who has been urging people since the 1979 to fight socialism by investing in land and gold (pp. 35, 37, 39-40). There is something to that, of course: my father surely wasn't the only Mormon conservative who read Ruff and Cleon Skousen, picked up material from the John Birch Society (strongly promoted by former church president, Ezra Taft Benson), and as a result invested in a small canvas bag full of gold and silver bars which sat in our basement for who knows how many years. But he's missing the point, even when he all but states it clearly. The economic thinking which has emerged from the Mormon church in America has tended to be "deeply corporatist," full of joint-stock companies and cooperative welfare plans, and premised upon a kind of pioneer ethic: Lehmann quotes Kim Clark, former dean of the Harvard Business School, as saying that his whole outlook begins with being brought up in a home where the children were expected to "make our bed, do the dishes, do our chores, and go to Church" (p. 38). You do what you're supposed to do; you remain part of what you're supposed to remain a part of. What is all this? It is, in a word, non-speculative. It is a vision of an orderly and sustainable and faithful and economically sound life that doesn't admit much, if any, of the sort of risk, ambition, complex creativity, and appeals to profit upon which modern finance capitalism mostly operates.

Lehmann essentially passes over the Mormon church's entire history of cooperative economics and attempts at local consecration practices; he reduces it all to a couple of sentences about how one early Mormon leader, before his conversion, had been an evangelical socialist. That's a huge flaw, one of many such flaws, in his article. However, consider what he does identity from out of those decades of Mormon economic history: the fact the the Mormon church has a tradition of binding its people together, and together they build things. Real things. Irrigation canals, food banks, welfare farms--indeed, hundreds of communities all throughout the American West. Well, now if you want to believe there is such a things as "Mormon economics," and that those Mormon economics fits right in with the paranoid, anti-government, economic-independence mindset of the present-day Republican party...doesn't that present something a little strange? Why all this joining up, and building up, of fairly staid corporate forms? How does that fit into a modern capitalist state when most of the wealth being created in the country is being done under the terms of (and, for that matter, most of it exists in the hands of) institutions of speculation and investment and rapid growth and turn-over? Since the financial meltdown of 2008, if you've been willing to listen to some of the confused voices of the left, or listen even more carefully to some of the most marginalized voices on the right, you'll will have heard this exact point made again and again: the real problem isn't so much (or isn't just) capitalism, but an unregulated, over-sized and over-grapsing, too-big-to-fail, government-entwined capitalism. This would seem to suggest that the Mormon economic argument, if there really is one (and some of us would desperately like it if our fellow church members recognized or remembered that there is such an argument out there), ought to be one that uses its supposed "obsession" with material, practical, personal and possessable and shareable wealth to critique the world of Wall Street bankers and corporate CEOs from the right (or even from the left, though that ship has, unfortunately, probably sailed). I mean, we are talking about a world where economics has become an abstract and elite game in which we all are, in essence, expected to embrace our dependency, and--whether we admit it to ourselves or not--pathetically beg for either big government to let loose with money to save the banks and hence our credit card interest rates (because I'm buying all my groceries on credit now anyway), or for big business to free itself from public obligations and redistributive taxation (because who needs libraries and school teachers and public parks anyway?) and start some of that wonderful "job creating," preferably right here where I live. No, neither of those attitudes seem particularly Mormon--at least, not the corporate, cooperative, tangible, practical, material, debt-avoiding, pioneer-oriented Mormonism that Lehmann unintentionally touches upon in his article. And that suggests an even greater paradox: the prime Mormon candidate for president, the focal point of so much of this attention, is Mitt Romney, who...made his millions in equity-fund management? Who pioneered a whole industry of leveraged buyouts, corporate take-overs, and economic restructuring? And who, of course, strongly supported the TARP bank relief bailouts in 2008? How odd. How...un-Mormon, perhaps?

Alan Wolfe did a slightly better job with a later, second high-brow essay on Mormonism, "Mormons and Money," which plowed somewhat similar ground to Lehmann's. But in that essay, Wolfe didn't dig into--and thus, like Lehmann, unintentionally (if wrongheadly) expose--any kind of purported Mormon economic ethic. He focused on the notion that Mormonism is a practical religion, a "this-worldly" religion, and hence that we tend to be organizational people, people who build, and thus like those who build well. Romney has certainly built well--and, if he becomes president, he'll no doubt be able to build even more grandly. Lehmann's clumsy attempt to show that the crackpot right-wing is, in some fashion, irreducibly Mormon, accomplishes really only one good thing: it presents the thought that maybe, just maybe, not all economic building fits into the corporate vision (a vision which, I would insist, even if Lehmann leaves it out, includes a healthy dose of equality and humility) of Mormonism. Which would imply, if you can believe it, that Romney's financial success, and his possible success in winning over Republican party primary voters, may be happening exactly to the degree he, and the people who are supporting, have forgotten an important lesson of this hypothetical "Mormon economics." Now that would have made a fascinating, provocative article. But Lehmann would have had to have actually done some reading first if he wanted to write that one.


Western Dave said...

How can Lehmann even pretend to have read any LDS history? I'm a dabbler and his version is so obviously wrong it's not even funny.

Clark Goble said...

I think one problem, even for hatchet job essays like this one, is in assuming there's one economic view among Mormons. (Especially considering how many Mormons are converts and bring a lot of their existing ideas with them) I don't simply mean "famous" Democrats like Nibley or Reid. Just that it seems even supposedly homogenous places like Provo, UT there's a lot of diversity of thought on economic issues.

There are those who adopt the "corporatist" view you outline. But while that may describe a lot of the Harvard or Yale crowd it seems to me you have a big degree of entrepreneurship in Utah proper. (Both the good kind and the bad kind) Those people are risk takers. (I think of myself in that) However while there definitely are the "get rich quick" folks I simply don't believe they make up even a sizable majority. Rather most people are just people who try to do their best at whatever they do.

Further I think even amongst rich Mormons there really is a big concern about how to deal with it. I've seen people for whom wealth was anything but good for their mindset but I've also seen a lot of people who honestly try and give back to the community (or larger) as best they can. Then there are a lot of people who may not be sure what to do (torn between a $400,000 home they like and a nice car and their ethical duty as taught within Church). While those people may not always make the right choices I think they do struggle with the ethical demand more than they are given credit.

Put simply the topic is far more complex than it appears. Were I to have the time to really grapple with it I think a more interesting and fruitful route would be to see what incentives are in place in Mormon culture that might drive some people towards certain views. (Not just prosperity but also libertarianism or associated views) I think, for instance, that the undue (and typically silly) focus on gold comes not out of wealth seeking but a latent millenialist mindset still in place within the Mormon community. (For the origins see (Grant Underwood's excellent history of the topic) Often this leads people to adopt positions that seem a bit silly even to most Mormons.

One final comment is that I do think you give both Brody and Brookes a bit too rough a treatment. Both are flawed books — although Brody's is so old how could it be otherwise? It's more dated than plain bad. Brookes makes some silly claims (the chapter comparing counterfeiting and American hermeticism is particularly eye rolling) but I think he gets more right than wrong by far. It's fair to disagree with them but I don't think one can simply discount them anymore than one can discount say Michael Quinn who also has a view doozies mixed in with otherwise solid work.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Clark. (And you too, Dave!)

Were I to have the time to really grapple with it I think a more interesting and fruitful route would be to see what incentives are in place in Mormon culture that might drive some people towards certain views. (Not just prosperity but also libertarianism or associated views.) I think, for instance, that the undue (and typically silly) focus on gold comes not out of wealth seeking but a latent millenialist mindset still in place within the Mormon community.

That could make for a really fascinating and constructive inquiry, Clark, unlike the fascinatingly wrong-headed one which Lehmann has given us. It would be interesting to explore in a broad way the kind of economic incentives that exist in Mormon culture, and which are particular to Mormon culture. For example, while the millenialist/prepare-for-the-second-coming mindset you mention can't be dismissed (how could it; Ruff, among many other LDS financial gurus, have been poaching on that mindset for years!), I would also argue that it is at least as much a product of a kind of strained and warped form of the old notion of "rugged individualism" which has been appropriated in much conservative rhetoric throughout the western United States. (I can quite easily envision Sarah Palin saying some of the exact same thing which Mormon survivalist say.) I would also argue that the libertarianism you mention has very little real historical grounding in LDS thought and practice, despite the much praised principle of "free agency"; I think that also is almost entirely a regional import. But still, it's these sort of arguments which make you suggestion so interesting.

Lehmann, of course, would have it that he's looking not at Mormon culture or tradition, but solely our teachings. To that, your response is a good one: we have A LOT of teachings, bub, and they don't all fit together. Moreover, I don't even think he understood the real significance of our teaching, both for grasping the political impact of Mormonism as well as for teaching us something about ourselves. You think of yourself as entrepreneurial, Clark, and of course you are...but where did that come from? Is there a sense in which your economic behavior runs counter to the corporate/cooperative/security/sustainability mindedness of the consecrated community which Smith imagined, and which Young & Co. tried to build? Or, maybe even more intriguingly, has Mormonism always been kind of divided this way? One thing I didn't touch on from the article was the notion of Mormonism as "disruptive," which of course it is: joining a new church--to say nothing of crossing the plains!--involves a great deal of change, risk, and, well, speculation. So maybe there are these dual legacies in Mormon culture? Again, more good stuff which Lehmann could have talked about, but didn't.

Regarding Brooks and Brodie, let me point you to my comment over at BCC. On first reading I though Brooks was really on to something, but when I thought about again later I realized he was full of crap.

Clark Goble said...

I'll save my comments for BCC on Brodie and Brooke. I'll just clarify that I think I was saying there's a lot of crap in Brooke but that one can't discount the whole because of it. As I said he gets more right than wrong. But that's kind of damning with faint praise.

Matthew Franklin Cooper said...

Dear Dr Fox,

This is an incredibly fascinating article; made me realise how much I didn't know I don't know about LDS, and how LDS shares (in its civic, if not necessarily so much in its political, manifestations) quite a great deal of overlap with more traditional Christian forms of economic practice - more so, indeed, than the society at large!

I like your allusion to a 'dual legacy' for LDS. It strikes me also that a number of the factors at play in modern politics, particularly among LDS-heavy populations such as those in Utah and Nevada, hearken back perhaps to the secular 'theology' of Andrew Jackson and Thomas Paine, which was incredibly popular on the American frontier. Peter Viereck's Conservatism (though it's very heavy on literary description and light on analysis) I am finding to be very useful in better understanding the ideological undercurrents in American history. He attributes the popularity of various forms of populism and 'rugged individualism' in the American West to the Jacksonian promise (inherited, in turn, from Paine and Rousseau) of mass democracy and 'the supremacy of the popular will'.

I greatly enjoyed reading this post; it would be very interesting to read your elaborations on Mormonism's dual legacies, and how better future scholarship within or on the Mormon Church might be able to tease out these different historical strands.


Bryan said...

I enjoyed this reflection. I haven't read the Harper's piece and so am not qualified to comment on it. I venture only to say, in light of your review, that while Lehmann seems clearly unable to grasp what a fair reading of Mormon history would require, there is perhaps something to what he says if one considers the church as corporation. Our modern day correlated church has less and less to say about any sort of political-economic vision. That is indeed a phenomenon of our history. Church membership in large part reflects the growing gap between the wealthiest and the rest of us. The rank and file are advised not to be too materialistic and avoid unnecessary debt while on the other hand the wealthy who are faithful live the life to which so many young Mormons aspire. One wonders whether the condemnation we continue to be under vis-a-vis our attention to the Book of Mormon is not connected to the fact that the Book of Mormon is a "new covenant." What does that mean? Is it bound up with the prosperity-pride-destruction cycle or is it (i.e., the covenant) the solution to it? And if the latter, might it not have something to do with the teachings Jesus expounded at the temple at Bountiful? I suggest that false teachers and teachings abound within the church. That Lehman could mistake such falsehood for the truth of Mormonism maybe says more about our failings than his.

J said...

The Book of Mormon can, of course, be read in all sorts of diverse ways, as any scripture might be.

Well, given that the BoM has no connection to actual history (as say the Bible does, even if often allegorical/miraculous), one might say ...it can be read in infinite ways.

OR perhaps, it's just false, as Smith's claims of the "golden plates" were as well as the archeological material (israelites in the new world 2000 years ago,etc). .