Mormons, Religion, Democracy, & Capitalism

I just read a thought-provoking opinion piece by Harold Myerson, about U.S. businesses systematically pulling their investments out of westernizing nations like China, and committing to countries like Vietnam, which still have communist economic systems, no unions, no labor laws, low wages, and economic predictability. Communism (in other countries) is good for (our) business. Mr. Myerson ends his piece by suggesting that the American soldiers killed in the Vietnam war “…whose names are on that wall on the Mall probably didn’t realize how compatible with global American enterprise Vietnamese communism would turn out to be or how the cause of democracy would turn out to have been of no real importance at all.”

This essay got me thinking, as I often do, about governments, economics, and religion. The connections here might not be totally apparent at first, but bear with me. Perhaps this will all hang together by the time I’m done.

We Mormons believe that the Founding Fathers of the USA were inspired to develop the system of self-government that was established in New England in the 1770s . We also have a book of scripture detailing struggles between self-government and totalitarian rule in two precolumbian civilizations. Some of us even remember that the ancient nation of Israel had a similar struggle ((The system of judges that was — against the Lord’s wishes — supplanted with a monarchy)), early on. Unfortunately, in the talk about the inspired nature of democracy, we seem to gloss over the issue of economics, lumping it in with the politics.

If you spend any time in LDS groups in the US, you will encounter many people who vigorously defend capitalism and the pursuit of individual wealth. It’s clear that modern revelation allows for this system (I don’t think there’s any special circle of hell reserved for capitalists or business owners), but the scriptures provide much more endorsement of noncapitalist economic systems as the ideal for the Lord’s people. Ancient Israel, the so-called “Primitive Church,” the Nephites (and Lamanites) at their most righteous — all had property systems distinctly different from our modern American/European capitalist system. Even in the mid-19th century, the Church briefly practiced a communal form of property ownership and redistribution ((Notably, this modern implementation failed, because of human greed and short-sightedness. Also notably, there has always been an understanding that the Church will someday be required to try it again.)) with the express goal “…that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low” (D&C 104:16).

Don’t get me wrong; none of these systems was communism, or really even socialism. But they were also most certainly not capitalism, as we know it today ((The case of ancient Israel may seem an exception, and I acknowledge that personal wealth accumulation was allowed under this system, but consider the following facts: nobody could possess, buy, or sell the land in any fundamental way; wages and certain labor conditions were fixed by divine decree; all debts were supposed to be periodically canceled, no matter their size; and usury was restricted. Also please consider the idea that, like our current American capitalist system as regards the American LDS church, the economic system of the ancient Israelites may have been largely a modification of the system of their previous culture, modified by revelation — not a wholesale new economic system put in place by God.))

Back to the present: many Mormons, in my experience, seem to think that, just as liberal ((Conservatives: do not get upset. The term “Liberal Democracy” refers, here, to most republican/democratic systems in the modern world where individuals have liberal amounts of personal freedom. It doesn’t mean we’re all a bunch of tree-huggers.)) democracy is the government system established by God for our time, capitalism is His economic system. The first part (politics) is firmly established by revelation, but I’m not sure they have a leg to stand on, for the second part (economics). Although the Lord clearly tolerates our current American economic system, with its hugely uneven accumulation of individual wealth, I can’t think of a single instance where He recommends it. And I can think of at least a dozen where He either suggests or outright states that inequality in wealth is a Very Bad Thing, especially among the members of His Church.

Why, then, do we hang on to this feeling that our current economic system is inspired (or at least endorsed)? The traditions of our fathers, for one thing. No matter how powerful an ideology or doctrine is, culture often has an influence on people that is nearly impossible to supplant. As my friend Amanda and I were discussing the other day, the flavor of Catholicism is influenced by the cultures in which it has been implemented ((Central and South America are the examples we discussed, and the effect can be striking in those regions)), and the same is true with Mormonism. The Gospel was re-introduced in the fledgling United States, to Americans, and it has had an American flavor ever since. ((Didja ever notice how, when the Gospel was introduced to nomadic livestock-herding tribes in the Middle East, it sorta had that flavor for a while, too?))

Culture can be a harsh mistress. We have mechanisms ((Gossip, mockery, intimidation, shunning, the police, the military, homeowners’ associations)) to pressure cultural deviants either back into the mainstream, or — failing that — completely out of our society as traitors. An unquestioning belief in the divinity of capitalism makes it easier to fit in with friends, co-workers, and fellow students in conservative circles in the US. It certainly makes it easier to feel good about North Americans being the richest people on earth. It makes it easier to buy things we don’t really need at Wal-Mart and Best Buy, while the cultural deviants are going on about consumerism and sweatshops in third-world countries. And it certainly reduces the mental effort required ((Remember, right after 9/11/01, when our government told us that the best way we could fight back against terrorists was to go shopping? Oh, excuse me. I just vomited a little. In my mouth, you know.)) when considering U.S. actions with economic consequences abroad.

Acceptance of our culture reduces the need to think carefully about lots of things.

Of course, acceptance of an alternative culture has exactly the same problems as accepting a dominant culture. Belieeeeve me, I see many of the moral problems inherent in so-called “liberal culture” in the U.S. ((Even though I kinda identify with “liberal culture” at least as much as “conservative culture,” these days.)) I can’t blame anyone who decides that these moral compromises are worse than those involved with “conservative culture,” and puts their eggs in the latter basket.

The world often poses us with untenable options, such as “liberal vs. conservative.” True religion often gives us (and requires of us) outside-the-box choices that don’t fall into any of the prefabricated alternatives presented by our culture. It is my belief that God has — if not a culture, per se — certain critical elements of culture ((You know, kindness, personal integrity, taking care of the poor, etc.)) that He wants implemented in the communities of people who follow His advice, and they don’t always line up nicely behind accepted political opinions. By the same token, there are many aspects of the cultures marinating us that are incompatible with His guidelines.

Although it’s hard for people (like me) who grew up in the Church to realize sometimes, the culture that the Lord would have us adopt may not always seem comfortable or familiar to us.
Human cultures are amazing, complex phenomena. They have emerged over thousands of years, through the fascinating, tawdry, glorious and mundane social processes that we humans wallow in. But to settle comfortably into one of these cultures, and uncritically insist that it is God’s will that we do so is a serious mistake.