Article — From the October 2011 issue

Pennies from Heaven

How Mormon economics shape the G.O.P

As the American media has copiously noted, the next year or so promises to be a breakout moment in the mainstreaming of the Mormon faith. There are already two Mormon contenders for the G.O.P. presidential nomination: former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Utah governor and diplomat Jon Huntsman. There’s the Tony-winning Broadway comedy The Book of Mormon, which has proved a runaway critical and commercial success. (Serving as recognizable fodder for parody certainly marks a cultural coming-of-age, and for the most part, Mormon leaders have taken the send-up in confident stride.) There are high-profile offerings from Mormon sources that bear no explicit spiritual agenda but abound with Mormon-friendly themes, such as Stephenie Meyer’s hugely successful Twilight franchise of teen vampire novels. And thanks to the heroic promotional efforts of the country’s best-known Mormon convert, Glenn Beck, the work of a previously obscure Mormon polemicist and historian, W. Cleon Skousen, has attained both bestseller status and pride of place in the Tea Party movement.

But for all the attention now lavished on how Mormonism fits in with the American experience, remarkably little is known about a key feature of Mormon belief: the organization of economic life. The omission is puzzling. Romney, after all, has staked his claim to the presidency largely on the basis of his business acumen. Amid a crippling recession, the former CEO of Bain Capital, with an estimated net worth of more than $200 million, presents himself as the assured corporate manager who can briskly lift America out of its long slough of despond. Surely, the conventional wisdom goes, Romney’s fiscal finesse should put him in the White House—and close the gap between Mormons and mainstream evangelicals, who have long regarded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a preserve of dangerous cultists.

In fact, the business side of Mormonism is a curious agent for the faith’s deliverance into the mainstream. It entails an ethos of accumulation that makes the so-called prosperity gospel seem listless by comparison. “Mormonism is the Protestant ethic on steroids,” argues Mark Skousen, a cheerfully libertarian professor of economics who holds the Benjamin Franklin Chair of Management at Grantham University, and who happens to be Cleon Skousen’s nephew. He describes what he calls an “Old Testament prosperity principle” in the Book of Mormon, “a kind of Abraham covenant: If you live a righteous life, God will bless you. Over and over, you read about this cycle of prosperity—a business cycle, if you will.”

Indeed, Skousen’s faith has been key to shaping his own anti-Keynesian outlook. “One of the reasons I rejected Keynesian economics and Paul Samuelson’s textbook,” he recalls, “is that I immediately felt they were contrary to church doctrine. The whole ‘paradox of thrift’ idea, [which held that] debt is okay—that made no sense to me from a traditional Mormon point of view.”

He is far from alone. Thanks in large part to the remarkable history of the church’s founding, today’s Mormons are model free-market apostles. They have a firm, strident (and historically well-founded) distrust of debt and government; they tend to fetishize precious metals and land assets over the fluid and unreliable fiat currencies that vie for dominance in global exchanges; they maintain a robust system of tithing and church voluntarism and a corresponding disdain for motivation-sapping entitlements and the welfare state; and by long-standing tradition, the heads of all Mormon households must carefully lay in a store of material provisions for the end times or other emergencies.

Perhaps most important, 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 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. Instead, paradise is pretty much set aside for the enterprising rich, whose upward mobility is thought to persist even in the three-tiered scheme of the Mormon afterlife.

These innovations in economic theology have long seemed a bit quaint—akin to the picture-book accounts in LDS scripture of wars and dynasties. But in recent years, and especially with the G.O.P.’s tilt to the right and the rise of the Tea Party, such beliefs no longer appear so fanciful. Indeed, the Mormon infatuation with maximal investor returns and precious metals has shaded steadily into the center of conservative mainstream thought.

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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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