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October 29, 2012 12:38 AM Mormonism’s Bain Moment

By Simon van Zuylen-Wood

In a week, if President Obama is re-elected, the amount of attention the national press bestows upon the Mormon faith will decrease by roughly 100 percent. What better time, then, to encounter what is perhaps the best essay to appear about Mormonism in the past several years. Jackson Lears’s piece, which has been published in the latest issue of the New Republic, parses Mormon theology and history to explain how the Church of Latter-Day Saints embodies the Spirit of Capitalism better than the Protestant Ethic itself. And in doing so, has led the Church straight to its Bain Capital moment.

The boundless zeal for individualism, curbed by a respect for centralized authority; the materialism embodied by the fluid barrier separating man and God; the focus on productivity rather than introspection. The Church of Latter-Day Saints, Lears writes, could not be “more suited to the political culture of the post-Reagan Republican party.” American exceptionalism and Mormon exceptionalism were one and the same: “America was God’s New Israel and the Mormons his Chosen People.”

But despite this, the Church would always be dogged by its suspect past: the fantastical origin story, the make-it-up-as-we-go-along prophesying, the polygamy, the refusal to allow blacks to practice until the late 1970s. In this way, Lears suggests, the crisp collar, firm-handshake ethos we associate with Mormonism began in the early 20th century as conscious pivot towards popular acceptance. George Romney, a civic-minded member of the producer class if there ever was one, was the apotheosis of the new, respectable Mormonism. But his son, Lears suggests, leaves us feeling “we are back in Joseph Smith’s world of confidence men—of smiling scoundrels, earnest frauds, and Nauvoo bogus.” Those conflicting versions of LDS—the opportunistic and the restrained-both fit neatly into the Mormon ethic, Lears argues. Making our moment, whether Romney wins or loses, a Mormon one.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.

Comments

  • jharp on October 29, 2012 1:10 AM:

    "In a week, if President Obama is re-elected, the amount of attention the national press bestows upon the Mormon faith will decrease by roughly 100 percent."

    Huh?

    I must have missed all of that.

    I haven't seen even one mention of Mormonism by the national press.

    Anyone?

    And what you have in mind with your type these two words I have no idea. It sucks and makes me come here less.

    2nd attempt

    3rd atte

  • Rand Careaga on October 29, 2012 1:51 AM:

    I personally have nothing against Mormons, but c'mon: would you want your sisters to marry one?

  • Ci on October 29, 2012 4:18 AM:

    Rand, can you seriously envision saying "I have nothing against Jews, but would you want your sisters to marry one?" and coming off as anything other than a complete cretin?

    As for the article itself, it was fairly uninformative--even stating why the essay was 'the best' in years would have added a lot. Or discussing the title of the article instead of it just being a throwaway comment... Though these are just the ramblings of an editor; take or leave as you will.

  • K in VA on October 29, 2012 8:12 AM:

    You left out homophobia. Don't forget that a very large portion of the money used to pass Prop 8 in California came from Mormons within and (mostly) outside California. (And at least $10K apparently came from Bishop Willard himself, though laundered through another group).

    As Governor of Massachusetts, High Priest Willard did has utmost to block marriage equality, and then to harass same-sex couples and their kids. Think he wouldn't do the same as President?

  • c u n d gulag on October 29, 2012 8:29 AM:

    Unfortunately, what we really need, is something I'll never see in my lifetime - a President who's an Atheist.

    I'm sick to death of feckin' religion - name the flavor, and it's done far more harm than good.

  • Rand Careaga on October 29, 2012 8:30 AM:

    @CI: MY comment was a variation on "would you want your sister to marry one," a well-established, even hoary cliche of prejudice as I'm very well aware. The use of the plural "sisters" was by way of a playful allusion to the former LDS custom of polygamy (still practiced, we are told, in some of the remoter precincts behind the Zion Curtain). So: "sisters" marry "one." You may not have noticed this on your way to the fainting couch.

    I'm glad we had this little talk.

  • Heather on October 29, 2012 9:04 AM:

    I thought the TNR article was pretty informative of how Mitt Romney's worldview has likely been shaped by the Mormon church. I think an interesting essay would be to contrast that with how Barack Obama's worldview has been shaped by the liberal Black Protestant church. I know Trinity UCC in Chicago has been heavily criticized for all the wrong reasons but it has a powerful presence in that City and has been, and continues to be, a prophetic voice in the proper sense of the word...i.e. unafraid to speak truth to power.

  • John Brandon on October 29, 2012 11:52 AM:

    Great post -- sad that Harry Reid might be influenced by the unfortunate tenets of Mormonism. I hear the Jews are a pretty greedy bunch too, with their tentacles in banking and the media. Eric Cantor is particularly avaricious. Let's hope that the Jew senators Charles Schumer, Diane Feinstein and Barbara boxer do not succumb to their religion.

  • John Brandon on October 29, 2012 12:02 PM:

    "I haven't seen even one mention of Mormonism by the national press."


    Actually, the national press' attacks on Mormonism have been constant and unrelenting. Typical is this Time Magazine piece entitled "The Root of Mitt Romney’s Comfort with Lying"
    (http://tinyurl.com/c2cfgky)
    Here's an excerpt:

    "But this pattern of lying and not acknowledging it, even when confronted directly, has persisted and led me to look for other sources of Romney’s behavior and of his clear comfort with continuing it. I think much of this comfort stems from his Mormon faith."

    Just Google Romney + Mormon and you'll find plenty of national press coverage attacking Mormonism.

  • Th on October 29, 2012 12:18 PM:

    As I read the article I kept thinking of the attacks Republicans would be making behind the scenes to their evangelical base if Romney was running as a Democrat.

  • glendenb on October 29, 2012 12:32 PM:

    The Mormon church had a near death experience in the early 20th Century. It was nearly bankrupt. Members largely ignored it teachings, which were far from standardized. Institutionally it was dysfunctional, chaotic and disorganized. No one was going to miss it if it died. It was this experience that convinced Mormon leaders they needed standardized teachings, clear and readily enforced lines of authority, and also mainstream acceptability.

    Today we think of Mormons as clean cut people who don't drink, don't smoke, don't drink coffee, don't sleep around. In the 1930s, Salt Lake was as wild and woolly as any American city. My grandparents, then a young married couple and both very Mormon, spent a great many nights out on the town drinking and smoking and having a great time. Over the next few decades, in their quest for mainstream respectability and acceptability, Mormon leaders enforced the church's dietary rules and behavioral standards. In the 1950s, church hierarchy began a concerted drive to create the public image we now associate with Mormons. It's been a very intentional campaign carried by an almost entirely white, entirely male gerontocracy.

  • bigtuna on October 29, 2012 12:37 PM:

    The essay was pretty good, but did not quite convey the intensity with with which the lds faith colors every aspect of life. I do not, for a second, condone voting for, or against, someone, based on their religion. However, it is fair game to ask how the faith influences the views of a politician. Thus we can have a pro human Joe Biden and an anti post birth human Paul Ryan both be professed catholics.

    Mormonism imbues ALL aspects of life, if one is faithful. It does incorporate a corporatist/capitalist operation - that is how the church is run, but it also allows for their own pecular level of hypocrisy [and note, I freely admit that WE ALL have some level of hypocrisy}. In the essay:

    Recent poll results confirm the merger of Mormonism and Republicanism ... 65 percent of Mormons identify with or lean toward the Republican Party—15 percent higher than Evangelical Christians and 30 percent higher than the general population. Moreover, they write, “56 percent of Mormons prefer smaller government (compared with 43 percent of the general population), 49 percent of Mormons believe the government should do more for the needy (compared with 62 percent of the general population), and 54 percent of Mormons think the government should do more to protect morality (compared with 40 percent of the general population).”

    While they may SAY they want smaller govt, Utah, and the arid Mormon west, exists in large part due to vast amounts of federal dollars that were invested on water project, roads, and railroads, to allow Utah to exist.

    Likewise, the large birthrates of mormons is in part funded by young people on Medicaid, before they leave college, having kids.

    And I have never understood the hands off approach to business, but the busy body approach to personal actions - ie, reproduction, etc., that Mormons and others love.

    A few other nuggets - Mormons feel the constitution was divinely inspired, and thus how we treat it is part of their religious views.

    And finally, among other things, remember that the LDS believe in the second coming, and as a result, the church and its members keep storehouses of food, equipment, fuel, etc. THese get released for various humanitarian efforts {haiti, etc}, and this is likely part of WIllard Romney's concept of disaster relief efforts - become and mormon and get government out of the way.