Where a previous post looked at the perception of Mormonism as a business, this one looks at the secular success of Mormon individuals.
When the LDS Church was first founded, there was no hint of a financial powerhouse in the making. If anything, the complete opposite seemed to be the case. Joseph Smith came from a farming family living on the edge of social, political, and economic existence. Although early on there were a few rich people who converted, the majority of members came from not much better than poverty. A hint of democracy and self-reliance can be found in the theological teachings, but the driving financial model was a form of communistic philanthropy. It failed whenever practiced and left tithing as the main economic structure.
For decades the financial situation was at best questionable. Most of the resources came from people’s hard work more than money. Things came to a head during the “great polygamy raids” that almost brought the LDS Church to ruins. It wasn’t until the mid 20th Century started that the LDS Church and its members alike were recognized as a financial success. Before that, critics used the poverty of converts as a focut of scorn. Now, the rich business owner has become almost a cliche as well known as the so-called Jewish banker. The web site Famous Mormons does seem to make this case with the number of names listed. However, it is only a small snapshot of a growing religion that relatively recently mixed in with the wider social tapestry.
At least one writer has decided to look closer at the business practices of a few successful top CEOs of some Mormon-run companies. What the author, Jeff Benedict, came up with in his book The Mormon Way of Doing Business was how religion played such a large part of how things were run. There is a book review of The Mormon Way at Dave’s Mormon Inquiry that discusses the book’s content. Although the ideas are refreshing, the relationship of business and faith is more questionable. The implication is that these people are model business executives because they follow the tenets of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is sort of a Calvinist work ethic with hopes of the American Dream writ large.
Some attention has been paid to the idea that Mormonism is a breeding ground for success. An article in Businessweek has claimed with quotes from LDS members that Mormon missions contribute to business and leadership success. Such a simple relationship of following the Gospel and finding financial success is probably not as simple as it sounds. This is especially the case theologically, where prosperity doesn’t always mean righteousness and poverty can sometimes be a spiritual blessing. Mormon scriptures both acknowledge a kind of “Prosperity Gospel” where righteousness leads to financial stability, and a warning that accumulation of wealth and status can lead ultimately to spiritual destruction.
What about the millions who are average? As the magazine that talks about missions and leadership states, most Mormons aren’t rich, but middle class. That isn’t a bad place to be from a secular point of view, but hardly indicative of special blessings. If there is any secret to Mormon successes, its that we believe in hard work and to be the best that we can be. A mission is only part of the equation and doesn’t contribute to every facet of success or promise the same. The blog Jr. Ganymede makes the comment, “Apparently, out of the tens of thousands of Mormon kids who go through the MTC, a few go on to be big lugs in the business world. Which tells us something or other, or perhaps nothing at all.”
Love of money might be the root of all evil (1 Tim 6:10), but it isn’t evil alone. At worst wealth is a tool that can be used for enriching our lives and those of others. The question is how accurate is it to say that Mormons have a business ethic that can bring financial success? From just the descriptions about the book and the articles above, it seems much is missing from an accurate portrayal of the moneymaking abilities of Mormons who follow their religion. For the handful of reliable and well to do CEO’s, both made and hired, there are uncounted numbers of faithful who don’t succeed at business. Many of them struggle to make a living. From the perspective of the book that following religious precepts is the Mormon ethic of business, it is hard to say what to make of the many examples of those Mormons who are unethical in their practices. Still uncounted, the many Mormons who (to be honest don’t follow the precepts of the leadership to live only according to what they have) get into heavy debt and end up bankrupt. Motivational material is always generic advice. Those successful Mormons written about are probably good examples of people living their religion while in the world, but it is unclear if that is the reason they are examples of good business models.