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.

  • Clark

    Great response. Wish more people would see it.

  • http://okay tys my boy

    Well done… People do whatever they can to make the church look bad now that Romney is out there.

  • the narrator

    If the cover is sacrilegious, then they very apologetic that you and the Mormon Newsroom uses to defend the Church’s mall and corporate enterprise is sacrilegious as well.

    Note the second sentence of the Newsroom’s reply: “From the very beginning, members of the Church displayed a remarkable ability to set aside material things for spiritual goals.” This is crucial to understanding the Bloomberg article and why the magazines cover is absolutely spot on. When someone asks why it is that a church owns a multi-billion dollar mall and has a zillion dollar stock portfolio, the Church’s response is “this has been our religious/spiritual narrative from the beginning.” It is the Church (and you in this Patheos article) that implicitly brings this back to Joseph Smith. It is the Church and you (“everything is spiritual”) that wants to say that the priesthood restoration–the moment that marks the beginning of the Church in the Church’s historical narrative–and its owning a mall are one and the same.

    You can’t argue that the Church’s building of a multi-billion dollar mall and its spiritual/religious roles are one and the same, and then complain when Bloomberg creates a cover depicting that very argument.

    If the cover is sacrilegious, then your and the Church’s pointing to its spiritual/religious history (“from the very beginning”) is sacrilegious. If the image of John the Baptist commanding the building of a mall at the LDS Church’s foundational moment (the beginning of its divine authority) seems utterly absurd, then it is because pointing to that religious history as justification of a multi-billion dollar mall is that absurd.

    • Ubruni

      Looks like you’ve got a feverishly iron grip on a very tenuous analogy. If it suits your purposes, go with it, but it sounds cartoonish to me:

      To God, everything is spiritual.
      That must mean everything the church does must be of equal, sublime importance.
      Therefore, you can hold up some trite, corny action as the sole purpose of the church.
      And by disagreeing with your characterization of my church, I am being sacrilegious (because I am diminishing the importance of something that God has designated as “spiritual.”)

      If that’s true, then the real purpose of Mormonism is to commemorate the act of death by ritually eating specially-prepared cheesy potato dishes.

      • http://freeldssheetmusic.org Melissa

        you forget to ask the purpose, or the why, behind the actions.
        Why do Mormons make cheesy potatoes for funerals? Because it provides for the needs of family who have traveled to come to the funeral. It’s an act of charity.
        so, you could amend your statement to be: The real purpose of Mormonism is charity and compassion, through such acts as providing a meal for those who have lost a loved one and traveled to attend the funeral. I would definitely consider this act as “spiritual”, even if it is the same cheesy potatoes time after time.

    • http://freeldssheetmusic.org Melissa

      You miss one major point, as did the original article. The why. For Mormons, it’s all about the why. Ask us this question and you will discover that the cover art was sacrilegious because it took out the why, the purpose of our owning businesses, etc, and left only the what. The what is misleading because in leaving out the purpose, it leaves the essence of our intentions out. It encourages people to use preconceived stereotypes about businessmen in a context that doesn’t have the same application. It infers that there is something irreligious and unholy in the churches motives, because stereotypes block people from discovering the true “why” for themselves.
      If the caricature had included the why, (as the church newsroom does) it would not have been so offensive to members and nonmembers alike.

    • Clark

      Narrator, I think the cover is blasphemous in the sense that it is divorced from a Mormon context and placed in a Protestant one. This re-framing of the idea that everything is spiritual fundamentally changes what it is to be spiritual. I tried to get at this on my blog post. (I don’t know if I succeeded – it’s kind of a subtle but important point)


  • http://not-atamelion.blogspot.com Michael H.

    I worked in submitting tithing in several small branches on my mission in semi-rural South America, and there was no way that the tithing contributed covered all of the branches’ operating funds, let alone the welfare support distributed or the church buildings installed and maintained. Those were funded by others’ tithing donations, for sure – and the same is the case in many statistically poorer countries, in which the church is growing.

    Thanks for pointing out the purpose of having a steady source of income through for-profit ventures: to have a steady source of income and better provide for expansion. I’d never heard it expressed that way, but it makes sense.

  • Hugh

    A good read, Mr. Blue. Thanks for writing it.

  • Fran

    Alan, this was a nice attempt. But I found the article flawed in many ways. Some flaws were already brought up, such the Church pumping more money into poor nations than they get back from those nations in terms of tithing. It doesn’t matter how much they pay in tithing, because it’s always been policy to collect tithing from all, and then spread the money around to cover everything that needs covering. While those tithing moneys in poor nations certain may not cover expenditures there, they usually also do not even get CLOSE to what most members get in more developed nations. Even in richer nations, like most European countries, there is no welfare stuff available – no cannery, no bishop’s store house, no nothing…(not that we usually need it). So, the whole example in that department is just pointless anyway, and doesn’t really prove your case. But you also already mentioned that it was just based on guesses anyway (which are legitimate assumptions, and probably true).

    But I find other problematic ideas. I don’t think the issue is that it’s not spiritual for a Church to make money. Many other Churches make money, and no one really seems bothered (though maybe there aren’t that many Churches out there who can keep up with ours in terms of business). I think the issue is more the lack of transparency of how those profits are being used. Because, while everything we do here has spiritual meaning and consequence, not all our doing is unto, urm, salvation if you like. So, if we have all kinds of businesses but do not use those resources to further the Lord’s work, then I struggle with classifying that stuff spiritual…at least not spiritual in a positive way

    Ok, actually, I’m tired so I’ll just keep it short. You suggest that everything is spiritual to Mormons. I think that’s the biggest flaw in the ointment. While I agree that everything SHOULD be spiritual, much of our daily living is not treated as such. And not just by us lowly members but also by the Church leadership (ie. the last and only general conference talk I know of that dealt with environmental issues was in the 70s). We hear little talk about the stewardship we have over the earth. We discuss almost never how important our daily choices are, and how they can impact everyone else – not in terms of real, practical stuff like recycling, or how much we drive, or how our toys are produced etc. Instead, the common mindset seems to be that it’s ok to exploit the earth, its resources and its people, because that’s what we’re here for. And if we make a ton of money, and then pump it into missionary work, or temples, it’s all good, because we’re furthering the Lord’s work.

    I think you had the right idea, but it just doesn’t apply Mormonism as it currently actually is. It’s the ideal of what should be, and what our doctrines actually demand. But it’s not the faith we are at the moment. And with that, I think the criticsm we’re getting is well deserved.

    • John D.

      I agree with you here, Fran. Particularly your point about the environmental stewardship issue.

    • http://answeringthecritics.blogspot.com Travis B.

      Fran, the things you bring up are legitimate reasons to criticize the Church’s practices, not legitimate reasons to criticize this article. Alan is responding to the BusinessWeek article and discussing what it said. He didn’t mention the issue that you care most about, but the discussion wasn’t about environmentalism. The discussion is about the accuracy (vel non) of Winter’s description of Mormon theology.
      Yes, we could be doing much better about our environmental stewardship. (Btw, are you aware of the new prototype “green” meetinghouses?) As Alan says, we far fall short of our goal of devoting every resource available to God’s work. But Alan’s still right. The question is what theologically motivates the LDS Church to behave as it does. You seem to think that the question is whether the LDS Church is doing a good enough job of living up to its theology.

  • Adam Clark

    @fran, I disagree with you. You should go back through the conference addresses of David O. McKay and Spencer W. Kimball, or later or earlier, etc. You find some very specific things they talk about in many areas that members simply choose not to obey or follow because they don’t see it as a “commandment”. It’s the “it’s not a temple recommend question…” standard. And a terrible standard at that. For instance. The Word of Wisdom. It expressly states that it was written for the “weakest of the weak”. Meaning that it’s the very most basic of the principles and law behind it. Yes, coffee and tea are considered the standard restraints in the WoW, but a number of prophets have been pretty darn clear that the caffeine in them is the reason. Yet, because it is not expressly held as a “commandment”, many don’t refrain from it – at least not until a prophet comes out and tells them expressly not to do it. There is so much to improve on and do, but we have a hard enough time getting members to do the very basics of the gospel – the foundation of things, that telling them more expressly how to treat the environment would probably not be productive. Many members would make the environment the pet part of the gospel and they would center their testimonies around it. I think the leaders of the church (inspired by God, don’t forget), know that the real strength and foundation is indeed, as it says in the scriptures, Jesus Christ. I think the issue is that we have not reached a large enough, strong enough group of saints that would handle well too many more expressly commanded things – they could become a distraction from the basics of the gospel – many of which we still all struggle with. I have read the scriptures and know what they say and what they teach. I know the principles they are teaching me. I don’t need my leaders to further command me to do what I already know in my heart I need to do – otherwise I am indeed a “slothful and unwise servant”. When it is necessary they are specific enough. I am learning to listen and learn the principles they teach and what the scriptures teach. Why do we need them to come out and more specifically say what we already know? I can be a wise steward of the environment, of my money, of those around me without being hand held through that. That is the path toward Godhood – where I know and apply something because I have learned it and know it to be true – of my own self and not because someone commanded it.