How Money Has Shaped Mormon Culture

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Oct. 2 2012 9:07 AM

Profits of Zion

How money has shaped Mormon culture.

(Continued from Page 1)

Associating the spiritual with dignified bourgeois tastes also influenced the ways the church chose to spend its money. In that same decade, the 1950s, the church established uniform architectural and interior design guidelines for meetinghouses. Today, nearly all Mormon meetinghouses feature prints of the same traditional religious artwork, the same comfortable but not sumptuous furniture, and the same neutral carpet tones. The décor would not look out of place in an insurance office, but for the many pictures of Jesus. Stained glass or Gothic towers and other baroque decorations that occasionally graced earlier Mormon chapels—which now signaled garishness to Mormon leaders—were abandoned.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, standardized Mormon chapels spread across the world, followed by Mormon temples. There are now tens of thousands of the former and 138 of the latter. The church makes no apologies for spending heavily on the temples, which are meant to be remarkable outside and beautiful inside. They are typically large, constructed out of white stone and often landscaped in imitation of Temple Square. Most have floodlights keeping them illuminated at night. While meetinghouses are furnished like corporate offices, temple furnishings more closely resemble the lobbies of premium hotels. To Mormons, the interior of a temple holds the same hushed feel as a serious museum. The atmosphere is one of spiritual tranquility, grandeur, and formality.

Managing this real estate, keeping the floodlights on outside the temples and the plumbing and heat at work in the meetinghouses, subsidizing education at BYU—all of these things are an enormous financial drain for the church. This is where most tithing revenue goes. And for many Mormons, it’s worth it: The tidy beauty of Temple Square and other places like it embody the comfort and order that their faith brings to them. As Catholics encounter divine presence in cathedrals and Muslims in mosques, the gardens and especially the temples of their faith are where Mormons go to find God. The visionary otherworldliness of early Mormonism has been submerged into a thoroughly respectable, if sometimes bland, material spirituality.

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As the church has grown it has also invested in various businesses: media, real estate, insurance, and publishing. The church’s leaders emphasize financial prudence, staying out of debt, and banking financial reserves in cash, in real estate, in stocks, and other forms. But this financial success has also earned the church suspicion: Mormonism appears shadowy, powerful, and secretive. It demands that its members give it money. Americans have historically been leery of any sort of hierarchical religion, and Mormon wealth has exacerbated traditional fears of the faith. Some writers, like Ryan Cragun or Chris Lehmann, believe that Mormonism’s wealth is de facto suspicious, and compare it to other large financial institutions that have lately let down the American economy. But there’s an irony here, because the rise of the Mormon financial empire may simply reflect a prudent determination to sustain the respectable, middle-class identity that has become so central to the church in the past century.

Deepening the irony is that such careful planning seems in certain respects doomed to fail. Despite the steady spread of meetinghouses and temples across the globe, increasing numbers of Mormons, those from Africa or Latin America, do not fit the middle-class mold. To be sure, not all of these members are active Mormons. According to one study, only about 40 percent of the Mormons on the rolls of the church in the United States attend church, and in other countries the numbers are even weaker. In 2000, for instance, only about 200,000 Mexicans identified themselves as Mormons on a national census, even though the church counted more than 850,000 members there. Regardless, the gap between the number of American Mormons and the number of international Mormons is growing larger. For years now, places like Mexico have fueled the church’s growth. In the United States, the church grew between 1.4 and 1.95 percent per year over the last decade—mostly, it seems, through procreation. Outside the United States, growth rates are much higher. Mexico and Brazil both added 350,000 Mormons between 2000 and 2010; Chile and Peru nearly 150,000 each. There are similar numbers in other nations.

Americans, though, almost certainly continue to provide a significant majority of the church’s tithing. Per capita income is far higher in the United States than in Chile or Mexico, of course, and American Mormons like Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, Sr., and J. Willard Marriott help constitute a group of major “donors” not much present in other countries. These men—and millions of other largely middle-class American Mormons—are accustomed to their tithing funding the well-to-do church culture they were raised in, and which facilitates their own spiritual lives. It seems natural to them that this form of Mormonism should be spread—and even, perhaps, enforced. In the early 1960s, some enthusiastic Africans discovered Mormon magazines and missionary tracts and began practicing their own version of the faith absent any official representatives of the church, a curious turn of events—with echoes of The Book of Mormon musical—which inspired LDS leaders to create standardized practices and lines of authority. Thus, when a Mormon leader visited Africa in the 1980s, he found he had to correct what one Mormon magazine described as “omissions and errors,” among them “hallelujahs, drum beats, and the passing of collection plates” more reminiscent of traditional African worship than modern Mormonism. Church media consistently depicts members in Latin America or Africa dressed in white shirts, ties, and skirts, and worshiping in meetinghouses identical to those in Utah. American Mormons frequently praise these members for pursuing the virtues that made Mormons successful in the United States: education, entrepreneurship, hard work, and practical ambitions.

But even the most devout Mormons in Africa and Latin America can only provide a fraction of the church’s annual tithing revenues. Which is why, as the Mormon population outside the United States rises—and as demands for temples, meetinghouses, and other church resources in the global south rises—the church may find it has backed itself into a corner. It has closely bound Mormon faith to the tastes and mores of the American middle class. As its growth outside the United States continues, the costs of such things will be considerable. Hence, it appears, the church’s investments in real estate and shopping malls. Eventually, as has happened already to Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism, and Methodism, Mormonism will become a religion of the global south. And when that shift takes place, the money to keep the Christmas lights on in Temple Square will have to come from somewhere.

Matthew Bowman teaches religion at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and is the author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.