Everything is Spiritual

Every few years, someone publishes an in-depth look at the financial holdings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The articles’ tone varies—sometimes deadpan, sometimes scandalized, sometimes even admiring—but it seems they all express some sort of surprise. “It’s a church,” they seem to say. “Why does it own businesses?”

With the Mormon Moment now entering its fourth millennium (or so it feels to me), it was only inevitable that someone would write yet another version of the “Mormon Church Owns Big Businesses” story. Fortunately, Businessweek’s recent controversial entry in the genre succeeds in adding something new. I refer not to its impressive collection of interviews, nor to its large and embarrassing factual error, nor even to its sacrilegious cover art, but to its attempt to move beyond surprise. Where previous articles asked, “Why does the Church own businesses?” Businessweek’s Caroline Winter has an answer: “Because to Mormons, making money is spiritual.”

She’s right. But she entirely misses the point.

Winter grounds her answer in an impeccable source: The Doctrine and Covenants, one of Mormons’ four books of scripture. Speaking in the name of the Lord, Joseph Smith wrote, “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.” (D&C 29:34). She turns to historian Michael Quinn for an interpretation: “whether it’s investing in a merchandising store, or tannery, or a lumber mill, or a hotel, or a bank—all of which occurred under Joseph Smith’s leadership—according to that 1830 revelation, it’s all spiritual.”

What does it mean for investing in a merchandise store to be spiritual? Winter interprets it as a religious version of America’s “secular faith in money.” Quoting Quinn again, she writes that “in the Mormon [leadership’s] worldview, it’s as spiritual to give alms to the poor . . . as it is to make a million dollars.” Winter implies that to Mormons, financial success is spiritual success.

If this presentation of Mormonism were accurate, it would be horrifying. Prosperity gospels are bad enough when they claim merely that wealth is a sign of God’s approval, but Winter’s Mormonism would claim that wealth actually merits God’s approval, that winning fortunes wins salvation. It would be hard to imagine a belief more at odds with Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament: “Blessed are you who are poor.” (Luke 6:20, NIV)

Fortunately, Mormons’ denial of a distinction between spiritual and temporal is a subtler thing than Winter describes, and a holier one. It rests ultimately on our understanding of heaven.

To Mormons, heaven is not merely a state of mind. It is also not, as Dante imagined it, a host of souls sitting still, gazing eternally at God. To us, heaven is active and communal. God has work for us there, not merely for each of us individually but for all of us, together, as his children and heirs. The joy of heaven comes from communion with God, but also from our participation in God’s work and our communion with each other in a perfect community. Heaven is other people.

Because heaven is not merely an individual state of bliss but a perfect society, not merely our individual souls but our social relations must be brought into harmony with divine law in preparation for the next life. Further, because Mormons accept the Biblical teaching that heaven will ultimately be on earth, our treatment of the environment also takes on religious importance. And what aspect of human existence affects neither our souls, nor our relationships, nor our environment? Everything is spiritual to Mormons because everything matters, because there is nothing that can be dismissed as irrelevant to our salvation.

In the 19th Century, this Mormon belief that everything is spiritual manifested itself as the quest to build Zion, a religious utopia with a communal economy that would defeat the sins of greed and disunity. That dream died when the railroads integrated Utah into America’s capitalist market economy, but the impulse to use economic tools for religious purposes survived.

Thus, as the Church Newsroom explains in response to Winter, if the Church desires to spread the gospel message, it is not above owning newspapers, broadcasters, and publishing companies to do the spreading. If its youth want to go to college away from the drinking, sex, and atheism stereotypical of today’s higher education, it will found and fund universities for them. If its poor members need food, it will build farms and food processing plants to help feed them. If they need jobs, its businesses will avoid labor-saving improvements so it can hire them.

And finally, if the Church’s center of gravity begins moving toward poorer countries, where Church expenditures dramatically outstrip tithing receipts, why should it not save and invest to prepare for the days when it will be harder to pay for its temples, chapels, missions, and charities? To paraphrase one Book of Mormon hero, can the Church expect the Lord to deliver it from future financial troubles if it does not “make use of the means which the Lord has provided” for its deliverance? (Alma 60:21)

The problem with Winter’s article is that she gets this all backwards, confusing the means and the ends. Beneath the thin veneer of neutrality—really, she could have quoted at least one scholar who is not currently hawking a book attacking the Church for being too much like a corporation—her article quietly suggests that if “everything is spiritual” then the Church is really about the money, more a holding company than a religion.

In truth, if “everything is spiritual,” then even the money shouldn’t be about the money, then every resource available to Mormons and their Church must be devoted to preparing individuals and the Church community for life with God. It is an impossibly demanding ideal, and I’m sure the Church and its members fall far short of it, but conversations about Church finances should begin with it and not with the assumption that there is something unseemly about churches that don’t confine themselves to a distinct and separate religious sphere. Winter’s article on the Church’s businesses comes closer than any I’ve read to grasping this point. It’s a pity she still falls so far short.

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The Liberal Soul, by Richard Davis
Announcing the 2nd Wheatley Summer Seminar
Review: “Selma”
  • Mark Pickering

    One of the reasons the church gave in the press release for owning businesses was helping others in the event of a global crisis. So it stands to reason that the church’s owning so many hard assets (ranches, cropland, etc.) is to take care of people before, during, or after the Apocalypse.

  • Mike

    The Mormon Church is criticized for donating such a small percentage of its revenue to charity. But Mormons see that as a short sighted observation that comes from a different world view on the best way to help people. Our belief on helping people is much like that of Mohamed Yunus: “Poor people get handouts from the state. But this is not a solution to poverty. Charity freezes poverty, imprisons people. It takes away a sense of responsibility from people; it takes initiative away from them.” 7th Annual Nelson Mandela Address, Johannesburg, 7/11/09 We believe that humanitarian aid has its time and place, but the way to effect real and lasting good is by teaching people how to apply Christ’s teachings. “The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment.” (E. T. Benson, Ensign, Nov 1985) The Churches’ financial and manpower contribution to humanitarian efforts is significant but dwarfed by its financial and manpower contributions to help people apply Christs’ teachings, yet those contributions are totally ignored by people who either don’t understand or believe that those efforts produce real and lasting benifits to mankind.

    • the narrator

      Exactly! The best way to serve God and our fellow brothers and sisters is through the serving mammon.

    • Fred Kratz

      Mike, when is the time and what is the place to give humanitarian aid? I’ve read the recent news articles on your humanitarian site and see nothing, zip, nada about any aid being given either in dollars or boots on the ground to the tremendous crisis going on is South Sudan. If those people don’t need help, then no one does. Perhaps it is because your bean counters are busily doing a “cost benefit analysis” and realize there are no converts to be made there, just people to be saved. In a large refugee camp of 40,000, six children die each day because of lack of clean water. Aren’t you guys experts in that? You can quote the whole “inside out” nonsense till the cows come home but the fact is, your church gives less than $5 in humanitarian aid per CJCLDS member per year. That is truly disgusting!

  • Don Harryman

    Thanks for the article and ensuing commentary. Now I understand. EVERYTHING the Mormon Church does is spiritual, therefore everything ‘The Church’ does is approved of God. This explanation explains finally why the Mormon Church and its members spend millions on political campaigns to fear monger about, to lie about, to disenfranchise politically, and to destroy equal protection under the law for homosexual citizens. If only you had said that in the first place, we could have saved a lot of arguing and homosexual Americans would have simply acquiesced to Mormons’ political activity. Its all so simple–can someone remind me–I am still confused how million dollar condos and Tiffany’s in City Creek Mall fulfill in any way anything said by Jesus? One more thing–other than a few well publicized PR stunts disguised as civic help–how does the Mormon Church do anything to help the poor outside of their own numbers?

  • Rachael

    These logical jumps are becoming dizzying. Let’s start with at least one of them: Collapsing the spiritual and the temporal does not equate assigning equal value to everything. Alan is trying to point out that this theological paradigm simply means there is no compartmentalization– our economics, social life, professional careers, etc., are all reflections or forms of our spirituality–for good or ill. Stamping “spirituality” on something doesn’t make it ok–it can, in fact, (and should) highlight the ways in which we need to bring these different facets of our lives (individually and institutionally) into greater alignment. That is a debate worth having– if people are willing to engage in logical and thoughtful discussion.
    But, in short, one can view City Creek and other ventures the Church engages in (in context of its extensive welfare system and demanding infrastructural/maintenance costs) as a way in which Mormons value economic means, as with social means and technological means and intellectual means, etc., as another way of engaging in spiritual work– in this case, one that through careful stewardship of finances and resources, tries to create as stable and sustainable an institution as possible, in order to be more effective and useful in its stated four-fold puropse of 1) Proclaim the Gospel, 2) Redeem the Dead, 3) Perfect the Saints, 4) Care for the Poor and Needy. And that spirtual work should be, and is, constantly reevaluated– though with little obligation to do so publicly for journalists’ sake. Or you can make the easy and sound-bite-style logical jumps of asserting that the Church is investing, making, and hoarding money to become a big fat rich institution (which, for some reason, doesn’t go out and buy yachts and give fat salaries for all its top-dogs; and, for some reason, channels 100% of all donations directly to their humanitarian causes; and, for some reason, doesn’t use tithing money for these ventures; and, for some reason, doesn’t make a good return on City Creek other than the stable job growth and city development which keeps the area around the Churchs’ concentrated resources [Welfare Square, Temple Square, Church History LIbrary, admin and office buildings, etc.] a safe environment….. I could go on.)

  • Fran

    Adam Clark: Yes, there have been talks about the nvironment – 50 years ago! (Or maybe it was just 30 years – I’m not good at math, but it’s been a very long time either way). My issue however is not actually the environment. My issue is with what the LEADERS of the Church choose to address. I agree with you that it’s impossible to get members to do all the right things, nor do I think we should be pushed to do them. However, when “For the Strength of the Youth” for example gets longer and longer each year with more and more specific rules on how to live, and yet we cannot spare a mere mention in General Conference on simple things as good stewardship of the earth (something supported more by scriptures than how to style/cut your hair or how long exactly a skirt or t-shirt needs to be). It is a bit odd, isn’t it???

    So, my issue is that Alan is presenting a theology that in reality isn’t much of what the Church (as a whole, leadership included) does. I do think everything is spiritual. I do think we’re not up to par with our own theology. But that is exactly the issue, isn’t it? The Church as an entity seems to be acting in ways that appear incongruent with the theological goals I’d expect us to have. And that’s what bothers. Non-members may not be able to put their fingers on it as accurately, but the questions brought up by Winters or the criticism in general is not entirely misplaced.