Why are Mormons so capitalistic?

Are American Mormons so economically successful?

Friedman claims that “Mormons have been extremely successful economically.” Below, I briefly look at some existing data to test this claim. The main takeaway is that American Mormons are less likely to be at the bottom of the income or education distributions, but not overly likely to be at the top of these distributions. Thus, they are more heavily represented among the middle and upper-middle classes.

Income and Education

According to Pew, American Mormons skew more middle class than the rest of the US, both in terms of income and education. This is most pronounced in their absence from the bottom of these distributions. By contrast, Jews have much higher incomes and are the richest religious group in the US.

Entrepreneurship

Beyond income and education, there is a strong entrepreneurial aspect to Mormon culture, which could be a form of “extreme economic success” that Friedman is referring to. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any data on entrepreneurial differences by religion to evaluate this claim. However, there are of course well-known successes here, such as Mitt Romney and J. Willard Marriott among many others.

Occupational Prestige

Do Mormons find themselves disproportionately in high-prestige occupations such as business administration, law, medicine, science or academia? Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any data with reasonable enough sample sizes to adequately evaluate this claim.

Doctrinal and Cultural Support for Capitalism

Doctrine: Choice and Accountability

Fundamental doctrines of the Church include moral agency and accountability. The second Article of Faith states, “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” While this is a denunciation of Original Sin, it also establishes the importance of individual accountability.

Doctrine: Post-mortal retention of intelligence

Another doctrinal tenet is the belief that any knowledge or skill gained in one’s life will remain with that person after death and resurrection. A revelation received by the Church’s founder Joseph Smith in 1843 states that, “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come” (Doctrine & Covenants 130:18–19).

Doctrine: The divinely inspired US Constitution

Mormon doctrine also places special emphasis on the United States constitution. In 1833 — shortly after his followers had been expelled by mobs from their lands in Jackson County, Missouri — Joseph Smith received a revelation that God “established” the Constitution “for the rights and protection of all flesh” and that the framers were “wise men whom [God] raised up unto [that] very purpose” (Doctrine & Covenants 101:77–80).

Doctrine: Honesty and lawfulness

The Church’s last two Articles of Faith include statements that “we believe in … obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” and “we believe in being honest.” It is easy to see how these doctrines would support a society where individual liberty is fundamental, where property rights are strictly enforced, and where corruption and other dishonest activities are condemned. An environment such as this coincides with the ideal conditions for capitalism.

Culture and Church Policy

Aside from doctrines, the Church also enacts certain policies and encourages members to hold certain values that are favorable towards capitalism. I label these as “culture” because they do not have direct doctrinal foundation, but are discussed often in church meetings and families.

Self-reliance

A major cultural tenet is self-reliance, which is the idea that a person and his/her family should be able to provide for themselves and prepare against any adverse circumstances that may beset them.

Valuing work

Emphasis on self-reliance naturally results in a high value on work. Most Mormon youth grow up being expected to work either in the home or holding a part-time job, and Church publications regularly provide tips to parents on how to instill this value in their children. As with the doctrinal emphasis on education, it is understandable that a group that emphasizes hard work would want to ensure that their work is appropriately rewarded.

Doctrinal and Cultural Opposition to Capitalism

Doctrine: Salvation only through Jesus Christ

The great doctrinal paradox of “Mormon capitalism” is that, although we believe “men will be punished for their own sins,” we also believe that men cannot receive salvation through any of their own merits. The third Article of Faith states that “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” Additionally, well known scriptures in the New Testament and Book of Mormon affirm the saving power of grace (Ephesians 2:8–9; 2 Nephi 25:23).

Doctrine: Caring for those in need

A fundamental mission of the Church is “caring for those in need.” The doctrinal basis for this is, of course, rooted in many of Jesus Christ’s teachings (see Mark 10:17–25; Luke 16:19–31) as well as in the Book of Mormon, where righteous King Benjamin exclaims, “Are we not all beggars?” (Mosiah 4:19). It was also reinforced in revelation to Joseph Smith that Church members are to “remember in all things the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted” (Doctrine & Covenants 52:40). The fact that we all require mercy from Jesus Christ to be saved further strengthens the focus on giving that mercy to others.

Doctrine: The cankering power of greed and pride

A final doctrinal foundation against capitalism is the idea that love of riches, greed and pride are quick tickets to eternal damnation. In this sense, Mormonism is anti-capitalism to the extent that capitalism celebrates materialism.

Culture: Family-centric values

One significant obstacle that restricts Mormons’ economic success is the strong emphasis on family. This focus limits career ambitions, since there is pressure to make time for family and child-rearing.

Culture: Norms of serving in the Church

Along with being expected to serve family, members are also expected to serve in the Church. This can be anything from supervising young children to mentoring youth to teaching Sunday school to presiding over the flock. However, those who are the most financially secure — and hence those who can spare the extra “leisure” time — tend to be the ones who are asked to do the most. (See the section on occupational prestige above.) The correlation is far from perfect, but it is positive. This tendency to demand the largest time commitment from those who have the most autonomy in their careers is a kind of progressive tax. And it is more salient in other areas of the world where the median Church member has lower income than in the US.

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