Guest opinion: How did US Latter-day Saints become such good capitalists?
Inspired by the communitarian visions of its early leaders, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made valiant efforts during the 19th century to equally distribute wealth and resources to its members. Known as the Law of Consecration, a familiar term to most Latter-day Saints, members were asked to consecrate their properties and possessions to the Church, which would then allocate to each member “as much as is sufficient for himself and family” (Doctrine & Covenants 42:32).
Along with a vehement emphasis on redistributive economic principles, leaders often raised a warning voice against the greed and selfishness of capitalism. One local church leader insisted that economic cooperation was a means of countering “a condition of affairs which was favorable to the growth of riches in the hands of a few at the expense of the many.” Brigham Young echoed this sentiment when he warned that “a tide of devotion to individualism and capitalism” was “catching the Saints.”
As noted in the book “Building the City of God: Community and Cooperation Among the Mormons,” Young’s aspirations for the Law of Consecration (later referred to as the United Order) were to “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and build up Zion,” as well as to “efface human selfishness and build an equitable society.” However, due to the turmoil of persecution, resettlement and migration, as well as ideological disagreements, repeated attempts at implementing the Law of Consecration were never fully realized. Given that communitarianism served as the foundation of the early LDS Church, why have most American members developed an aversion to the idea of economic collectivism today?
We can attempt to address this question by first discussing the political evolution of Latter-day Saints. Before the mid-twentieth century, members held a relatively diverse set of political ideologies. In fact, it was not until the 1930s that top leaders began explicitly encouraging members to support conservative political platforms. In response to the plethora of social welfare programs attached to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (FDR) New Deal, then-LDS President Heber J. Grant expressed on a front-page editorial in Deseret News that “The New Deal was socialism,” something he and other leaders repudiated.
Surprisingly, the majority of church members dissented from the political persuasions of President Grant and elected FDR in all four of his elections, which Grant referred to as “one of the most serious conditions that had confronted (him) since (he) became President of the Church.” Nevertheless, politically conservative seeds were being sown that would create an atmosphere in which the majority of members would bend to the political right during the 1950s.
Amidst the counter-culture movements and sexual revolution of the late 1950s and ’60s, LDS authorities found themselves in an ever-intensifying battle between their religious values and an increasingly “corrupt world.” Gay and lesbian liberation movements, civil rights struggles and pro-communist ideologies were classified by leaders as heathenistic, destructive and Satanic. President David O. McKay once described communism as the “greatest satanical threat to peace, prosperity, and the spread of God’s work among men that exists on the face of the earth.”
In addition to rhetoric from leaders, LDS members themselves have become effective capitalists due to a combination of middle-class integration, racial privilege, and specific aspects of LDS teachings and economic structures. Through most of the 19th century the Church was doing its best to be as economically, geographically and spiritually isolated as possible. However, shortly after the turn of the 20th century, leaders began emphasizing the importance of integrating into mainstream society. This shift was significantly influenced by the Church’s precarious relationship with the U.S. government over polygamy. Under increasing levels of political pressure, LDS leaders deemed it more advantageous to abandon what was considered an “anti-American” practice. As Latter-day Saints have continued to integrate themselves into American sociocultural norms, they have developed an increasingly strong footing in the U.S. economic market.
Another factor that cannot be ignored is the racial makeup of the American LDS Church, which has always consisted of a white majority. To analyze wealth accumulation among American Latter-day Saints without taking into account race would be purposeless, especially considering longstanding disparities in capital between white people and non-white minorities.
In particular, the legacy of slavery and centuries of systemically racist laws of the federal government continue to oppress Black Americans in just about every aspect of wealth distribution. Currently, Black households earn about half as much as the average white household and own only about 15%-20% as much net wealth. An even more disconcerting statistic is that white households own approximately 87% of overall wealth in the country. These statistical disparities have been embedded into the very foundations of American economics and politics, and have remained steady for decades.
Lastly, Latter-day Saints deserve some credit for their tireless emphases on self-reliance, thrift and industry, as well as built-in economic subsidizations for its members. LDS General Conference talks, church meetings and welfare programs are saturated with messages about prudent financial management and self-sufficiency. It is also worth noting that those who have attended church-owned Brigham Young University have benefited from a remarkably cheap higher education.
A host of complex and interconnected factors have contributed to the rise in financial status and capacity of U.S. Latter-day Saints. In the decades following the shift from communitarian isolationism to capitalist integration at the turn of the 20th century, the political ideology of church leaders (and in turn members) would continually bend to the right. Simultaneously, racial and class privilege would make the path to wealth accumulation faster and easier compared to that of non-white demographics. And lastly, philosophies such as thrift and self-reliance have cultivated attitudes and behaviors that mesh well with Western capitalist norms. Each of these influences have allowed church members to essentially get a “leg up” in the rat race of American capitalism. And because wealth accumulates generationally, Latter-day Saints have only continued to get richer and have never looked back. Moreover, the LDS Church has become one of the wealthiest religious empires in the world.
How could early Latter-day Saints cherish communitarian economic values, while Latter-day Saints today rank with some of the most ardent supporters of conservative economics and corporate capitalism? Simply put, capitalism has proven to be far more effective at filling the pockets of American members than the communitarian attempts of their predecessors. Not only does this contradict LDS scripture and countless statements from early church leaders, it presents a sobering reality exposing the powerful influence of cultural and economic norms on a religious community’s ideology and practice.
Keith Burns is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College who specializes in Mormonism and sexuality.