Capitalism As A Religion

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 12 2012 @ 11:02pm


[Re-posted from earlier today.]

Bloomberg's Businessweek has a fascinating story on how the LDS Church runs various large for-profit businesses – a shopping mall was one of its recent spiritual landmarks. What it helps reveal is something that has continually struck me as I have read more and discovered more about Mormonism: it really is a religion of business for businessmen. Unlike mainstream Christianity, Mormonism sees no conflict between God and Mammon, between the spiritual and the temporal. Making pots of money is part of God's plan. Joseph Smith, a grifter businessman himself, proclaimed conveeeniently that "Verily I say unto you, that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal." By which he meant that there was spiritual glory in capitalism itself – a heresy clearly at odds with almost everything Jesus himself said and taught.

The business starts with mandatory 10 percent tithing if you want access to Temples. All that money – estimated at an annual $8 billion – goes directly to Salt Lake City to a group of powerful businessmen who are the people who run the Church. There is no transparency. Mormons are sometimes charged to go make money for the church in various enterprises (my favorite is a Hawaiian theme-park that pays no taxes because it is related to church activities and yet brings in $60 million a year). Some are even recruited to volunteer services for for-profit enterprises. And the notion of charity is a very Mormon one:

A study co-written by Cragun and recently published in Free Inquiry estimates that the Mormon Church donates only about 0.7 percent of its annual income to charity; the United Methodist Church gives about 29 percent.

If you want someone to dismantle the welfare state, Romney's your man. But many Mormons are troubled by the lack of transparency and the priorities of their businesslike leadership:

Micah Nickolaisen, a 29-year-old photographer and devout Mormon worries that the church gives too little money to humanitarian causes, even though its leaders like to boast about Mormon welfare programs. “They spent more money on a mall in three years than they did in 25 on humanitarian aid,” says Nickolaisen. These Mormons spoke on the record despite fear of repercussions from family, friends, and church authorities.

Bain Capital under Romney was part of this commercial web:

Mitt Romney and others at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he co-founded in 1984, gave the Mormon Church millions’ worth of stock holdings obtained through Bain deals, according to Reuters. Between 1997 and 2009, these included $2 million in Burger King (BKW) and $1 million in Domino’s Pizza (DPZ) shares. Under U.S. law, churches can legally turn around and sell donated stock without paying capital-gains taxes, a clear advantage for both donor and receiver.

If you were to construct a religion as a business, it would be hard to beat the LDS Church. From its mandatory tithing for access to sacred Temples to its spiritual blessing on business and wealth accumulation and its tax-friendly admixture of for-profit and not-for-profit enterprises, it is the Prosperity Gospel with better accountants. And that makes it the quintessential religion for America – giving the New World a place in the Gospels, bringing the Garden of Eden to Missouri, and providing a divine blessing for American free enterprise. All it needs is a president of the United States to broaden its appeal in a fusion of faith and country. It's been trying since Joseph Smith ran for the highest office in the land – not a typical path for a "spiritual" leader. Now, as the unofficial religion of American capitalism in its least regulated and most rapacious form, it has its chance.

Think of running Bain Capital as spiritual enlightenment, and you begin to get the idea.