Article — From the October 2011 issue

Pennies from Heaven

How Mormon economics shape the G.O.P

( 4 of 7 )

Clayton Christensen is a professor at Harvard Business School and the last remaining member of the triumvirate of high-profile economists known informally as Harvard’s “Mormon mafia.” He specializes in the study of “disruptive innovation”—the process by which new technologies upend traditional market structures. And in his view, the Mormon Church represents not only an engine of entrepreneurship but a disruption of the highest order.

“At its core,” he told me, “disruption transforms something that was previously expensive and complicated, and makes it affordable and simple, so that everyone can have it. In many ways, Christianity went off the rails when they decided to hire professional clergy to take care of you and to teach you. It meant that people didn’t actually have access. You had to have [clergy] to mediate between you and God…. The great thing about Mormonism is there’s no sense of high and low, wealthy and poor. We all take care of each other, and we all teach each other. So it really is disruptive.”

To what extent has this disruption been assimilated into the American mainstream? In a sense, the question comes a century and a half late. Mormonism broke through the welter of new sects that arose during the Second Great Awakening by fusing economic and scriptural appeal. Small wonder that this syncretism took root among the dispossessed landowners of upstate New York, who had every reason to regard the boom-and-bust cycles of frontier existence as a series of quasi-mystical events. And small wonder that the faith spread with impressive speed. Mormonism resonated profoundly with the idea of America that all manner of immigrants would embrace in their most intimate hearts—a resource-rich kingdom to be tamed by hard work.

These folk dimensions of Mormon faith provide a surprisingly durable template for American social mythology in the new millennium, as a cursory glance at any creationist museum or Tea Party gathering will quickly confirm. Now, as then, precious metals are ascribed magical properties, including the power to see anxious investors through every sort of economic calamity. Now, as then, there is the embrace of a supposedly virgin America, half pioneer territory and half primitive church. One can even note that the formulation of an alternate American history (albeit a comparatively plausible one) is now a byword of the Tea Party, which dotes on a tortured and largely confabulated vision of the Founding Fathers, who are made out as hard-money zealots, doctrinaire Christian proselytizers, and values-minded family men—in short, very much like the Mormon faithful.

This mythology, it should be noted, does not stop at the grave, thanks to the Mormon vision of eternity. Following Joseph Smith’s own revelations on the subject, Mormons propose a sequence of evolutionary steps toward divinity known as “eternal progression,” whereby believers continue to work and expand their families in the afterlife. Here we encounter a true innovation in the annals of capitalist theology: having already boosted church membership via the posthumous conversion of ancestors, the Mormons have also staked out the afterlife as a locale of ongoing entrepreneurial activity.

This brings us back to Clayton Christensen, who is occasionally quizzed by his students about the risk-to-reward ratio of religious faith. In this view, the Mormon vision of the afterlife seems no less disruptive:

One of them said, “You know, Clay, I’ve been thinking of becoming religious.”

And I said, “Well, that’s neat.”

And he said, “But the MPB [an economist’s acronym for marginal personal benefit] is awful.”

And I said, “What do you mean?”

He said, “Well, imagine that I become religious, and that I do everything that God says He wants me to do. And then I get to Heaven. What do you do in Heaven? Do you sit around all day on a cloud? If that’s what eternity is like, man, that’s an awful MPB. I have to give up everything in life that’s fun—and that’s the reward?”

But the great thing about the Mormon Church is that when somebody asks what you do in Heaven, we have an answer. Now, everybody else might not buy into it. But at least we’ve got a plan. And the rest of them don’t have a plan.

If you squint a bit to descry the sweep of the Mormon landscape—noting how efficiently it shores up the core, embattled features of the Horatio Alger myth of individualist success—you can appreciate that today’s generation of fretful pundits should be less preoccupied with the question of whether the Mormons are truly like us, and more focused on the extent to which we now resemble them.

Putting aside Glenn Beck, who is an actual convert, there are plenty of other prominent apostles of the Mormon-style gospel of wealth who have established wildly popular ministries in the Protestant mainstream. The “prosperity gospel” of the aptly named Creflo Dollar crassly markets an assurance of wealth as the sign of divine blessing, in a manner almost identical to the vision extolled in the Book of Mormon. The ministry of Joel Osteen—who is, like Dollar, a Word of Faith preacher in the Pentecostal tradition, and who presides over the largest megachurch in the country—plainly affirms that God “wants you to succeed; He created you to live abundantly.” Indeed, the prosperity gospel is perhaps the most popular and dynamic strain of evangelical worship today, even as the American economy continues to produce punishing levels of joblessness, wage theft, and wealth inequality.

None of the prosperity gospel’s proponents are themselves Mormon. Yet their message on the economic implications of faith—that God wants believers to be rich, that individuals are responsible for their own economic fate, that government is to be distrusted—aligns perfectly with the Mormon tradition. And polls show that American Protestants are less inclined than ever to a belief in hell and damnation. Instead they seek refuge in a sunny, sprawling body of self-help and business-advice literature—of which another Mormon savant, Stephen Covey, is the unrivaled modern master. To paraphrase Milton Friedman’s celebrated remark on the legacy of John Maynard Keynes, one can easily survey the leading figures of mainline religious and business thought in America today and pronounce, “We are all Mormons now.”

is the author of <em>Rich People Things</em> (Haymarket, 2011), the editor of the Yahoo! News blogs, and an editor of <em>Bookforum.</em>

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  • MachoCamachoNacho

    I know it’s old, but I just wanted to point out how very off base this article is. “unlike adherents of most mainline Protestant denominations…” What? I have met plenty of Evangelicals who have no problem with acquiring wealth.

    “One scours the endless, incantatory pages of Joseph Smith’s revelation in vain for any suggestion that wealth complicates the spiritual lives of believers.” Except for the entire Book of Mormon! Every time the Nephites acquired wealth, they became prideful and had to be put down by the Lord. The foundational scripture of Mormonism is full of examples of wealth complicating matters. Brigham Young said he feared the saints would become prosperous and forget the hand of the Lord. It’s all over the place.

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