THE PROSPERITY MYTH AND MORAL THOUGHT

One of the consistent and predominant themes in the post-mormon culture are quips and quibbles about tithing. The temporal economic strength of the Mormon Church is disconcerting to the non-believer. The unease comes in part from the knowledge that in many circles money is power and an institution that has power economically as well as socially and spiritually (intended to include the ability to influence thought and action in its believers) is a formidable and daunting foe. Proposition 8 is just the most recent tantrums about the Church’s economic clout, but the convergence of Church economics and politics is nothing new to residents of Utah.

My training at BYU is responsible for my extended bout of heresy – a long and different story. My Mormon-Marxist training began however with one of my religion teachers, an eccentric, tennis shoe wearing and unfortunately much maligned in the post- ex- non-believers community, Hugh Nibley. Hugh Nibley was constantly ranting at the Church for selling its economic soul. It has probably been more than a decade since I read what Professor Nibley wrote, but I did a quick Google search and his direct condemnation of American and Mormon society spilled out onto my computer screen. I’ll give you a few of the more relevant quotes for the present:

[F]inally the law of consecration is equally uncompromising—everything the Lord has given one is to be consecrated. . . . The first objection to the law of consecration is that it runs counter to the spirit of the times. Our people are so conditioned as to view any substantive sharing of the wealth with great suspicion.. . . . Even in our yearning to escape to nature, business takes over, as at Bear Lake and Park City—condominiums bumper to bumper, the wilderness partitioned into small, expensive tracts so that each can have his private wilderness. . .—the rich, the powerful, the manipulators, to make us all the same. Make sure that we watch a lot of television. Make sure that we all have credit cards and cars and houses that are all kind of sleazy.". . We must go out to the parking lot to assert our individuality in Mercedes, Cadillacs, and so forth. And which is the more depressing picture? The gaudy display of vanity fair is an attempt to cover up the spiritual and intellectual barrenness of the present world we live in. . . .“Why does it always come," asks Senator Abourzek, "that two hundred million people sacrifice and fifty-thousand at the top are never called upon to sacrifice?" Karl Hess, the busiest Republican speech writer of our time, and the principal formulator of the National Party Platform of 1960, has protested: "I don't know why in the world West Virginia miners should put up with people in Palm Beach owning the stuff they work on. Why? It doesn't make sense. I understand that it's legal, but legal does not necessarily mean right." It is not fair. In any sacrament meeting, you can hear young people get up and tell what a struggle they are having living on practically nothing, and yet the Lord has seen them through, and they are joyful and happy in it. That is a good thing. We say, Well, we can't give up anything or we'll have to suffer. Could we suffer any more, or even that much under the law of consecration?. . . But we get the idea that the only virtues are business virtues. Consider the qualities you need to be a successful businessman. . . . The virtue is the virtue of getting ahead. Of course that's the virtue in any field. We make it seem as if that fact obliges a person to go into business—because this is where it counts, because then you possess these qualities. Anyone knows that cheating pays off very well in this country. . . .One often hears the argument "If all the wealth in the world were divided up equally, nobody would have very much." True, but the average person would be much richer than today, and no one would be hard up. Ah, but there would be no big capital to invest, no giant industry to supply the wants of the world. This is a cultural argument: if the present order of things passed away, what would happen? It was the plea of the medieval barons that if the lord of the manor didn't own everything and keep all in strict subjection, there would be no great lords to fight the other great lords who were trying to subject their people.

Now I understand that Professor Nibley was arguing from a believer’s standpoint, but you won’t read the ringing condemnation of American Captialism in the Ensign. Nibley was also arguing something that I tend to believe in – the present economic imbalance is not a good thing socially. Professor Nibley is somewhat a voice in the Mormon wilderness, crying out against economic injustice, while the Church continues to buy more real estate and promote white collar men to positions of authority. I haven’t checked – and if I’m wrong, please let me know – but I don’t think there as been a blue collar member of the 12 within recent memory. Ok, I checked.

Successful business professionals predominate the top 15 Mormon leaders. All are white collar, most are business people, although a few are educators and a doctor and lawyer for good measure. This is the current ethos of the leadership of the Church and probably a good reason why the Church carries such economic power and strength.

Irony is obviously prevalent, since the Church hasn’t eradicated pesky doctrines like the law of consecration. A law (unlike say gravity) that is honored more in its breach than in its practice. In fact, it is the main law that all garment wearing, temple going Mormons covenant to when the go to the temple. I’ve seen the Church do a lot of good in the human welfare department. I’ve spoken to many people who have directly benefitted from the largesse of the local ward or branch. Like the humans that comprise the institution, the institution is full of contradiction and paradox.

The problem – and it is a problem that is not limited to Mormon culture – is that very little discussion takes place on the concept of economic morality. The discussion that does take place is superficial, ignoring the underlying complexities and troubling issues that almost immediately arise. The current pop culture responses to economic evil is two fold: People who don’t pay their debts are bad and Greedy corporate executives that take big bonuses while their companies falter are bad (and the corollary corporate crooks are bad). Economic good is simply described as lots of money. Has “money is the root of all evil” been cliched into none existence? Sometimes it feels like it.
I like having money. I like not having the worry and the concern that the power is going to get shut off. I like being able to buy my children Christmas presents. I like traveling – although I haven’t done nearly enough. I like having the mortgage payment made and buying books. I enjoy material comforts. I also am in a constant struggle to determine how much is enough?

Sometimes the right story comes along for the right time and I recently came across Leo Tolstoy’s short story, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” and it has been haunting me ever since. Tolstoy tells the story of Pahom, who becomes a land addict, always needing bigger acreage for his next fix. Finally, he finds a nomadic tribe that has a huge amount of land and for only a thousand rubles, he can have all the land that he can traverse by foot in a single day in a circular rout. The only catch is that he has to get back to the point of beginning by the end of the day. He takes off and makes the giant circuit only to die of exhaustion at the end. The moral of the story is that the only land a man really needs is the six foot plot when they bury him.

In today’s modern American capitalistic society, the question is more “How Much Money Does a Man Need?” I think $6000 or so can get you an economical funeral. Yet, we race around the circuit every day, hoping to capture our part of the American Nightmare/Dream. I’m writing this, because I’m as guilty as anyone of wanting economic security and money. The question is how do you acquire money morally? I had the work ethic pounded into my skull as I grew up. You work hard and you prosper.

The problem is that the agrarian work ethic isn’t very accurate. Hard work can equate to survival and maybe even a comfortable survival, but it doesn’t equate to prosperity. Prosperity comes from living off of interest. Interest comes from banks or stocks making a profit. The profit comes from hard work and effort of the manufacturers and retailers of economic goods that people need to survive and thrive. Once a certain sum of money is acquired, you can literally live off the back of the economic system that is providing you the creature comforts. Is that moral? What debt do you owe to the people who earned the money to pay the stock dividend? Legally – none – in fact, the company is legally obligated to try and make you a profit, even at the expense of the workers who make the profit possible. Morally, should you pay them for making you a profit? The capitalist’s argument back is that letting them use your money was your payment. In a more pure Atlas Shrugged/Ayn Rand-ian capitalism that requires active participation in contributing to the economic system, I would agree, but theory is not the reality.

The reality is colored by the current and prevalent immoral belief that one is entitled to prosperity. Mormon’s recognize this doctrine as pay your tithing and be blessed – the windows of heaven will open up and rain prosperity on your head. The more secular, new-age crowd will see this doctrine in The Secret. If you want money, it will come. The cynical will find it in the $50 billion dollar Ponzi scheme of Bernard Madoff and the idea of the country club elite that they were entitled to solid economic returns of their investments. The belief that all humans are individually entitled to prosperity is evil for one big reason – it is selfish.
Our current economic crisis deserves and is receiving a substantial examination, but there is a common thread of Enron, subprime loans, Wall Street Bailouts and ponzi schemes – greed, gluttony, sloth, envy and pride – five out of the seven deadly sins (I think a case should be made for removing lust and reducing it to six deadly sins.) And when the money that often didn’t exist in the first place disappears, the last deadly sin appears – wrath. With such solid representation from God’s top seven no-no’s you’d think that there would be more outcry against the evils of the business “virtues.” Yet we still pray to our economic pantheon of Gods – Gates, Buffett and Walton – that we to may become like them. As Sam Walton or Bill Gates once was, I can become. O Warren, who art in Wall Street, Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done in New York and on Main Street. Give us this day our daily dividend. Eliminate our interest so we can raise rates on our debtors. And lead us not into losses, but deliver us from that solitary evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

So have I cashed out my 401(k) because interest is evil? Have I stopped trying to figure out how to be economically secure? No. Call me a hypocrite, if you must, but I think the difference is that I don’t believe I’m entitled to what I have. I am fortunate. I am grateful. I work hard and try to give good value for what I am paid. I continue to try and figure out how to get paid more for what I do. I also try and calculate the value of the product I sell to the end consumer. I probably ought to take a little bit more time and make sure my investments are in socially responsible companies. I also remember the lessons that I was taught in Church that this life is a stewardship, help the poor and the less fortunate and you can’t take it with you – because you can’t.

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Tags: Morality, Prosperity, Tithing

Comment by MikeUtah on December 22, 2008 at 10:14am
Very well thought out piece. Thanks for posting!

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