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.

  • Speaks with Truth

    God is not just light, truth, omniscience, omipotence, and salvation. God IS ECONOMY.

  • Greg Masters

    Well put. Let’s hope that the “Everything is spiritual” reminder will help us as we talk to our neighbors and friends about the real mission of the Church.

  • Daymon Smith

    Mr Hurst,
    You provide the very evidence that disturbs on-lookers like C. Winters: The ends justify any means. With zion as our end, any means are approved, and it all is spiritual, because the end is so. What you call “spiritual” is merely a trick for claiming to be beyond criticism or investigation. Yet, it would seem that a bit of faith would lead one to conclude that God does not require us to build a mall as a ‘rainy day fund’ except that we believe that he, and the Mormons currently donating to a Corporation Sole, will someday cease to send rain on the Just and the Unjust. It is all spiritual, is your mantra, and that precludes criticism; it is all spiritual, is the outsider’s assessment, and that is why they cannot see that a Mall is part of the scheme: Malls being generally regarded as non-spiritual, in American culture (whatever our devotional practices say otherwise). As one “hawking” a book on the church corporation, I invite you to increase the pool of scholars currently hawking books on the Church as Not-A-Corporation. That is a short book, and so should be within the reach of your intellectual means.

    • Stephen Huntington

      Smug, thy name is Daymon.

    • Clark

      Daymon, why do you think it is the ends that justify it? I think we can discuss the ends and I think bringing the ends into the picture can provide problems with the framing. (After all one big problem with the story is that the ends are intentionally left outside of the frame) However I don’t take Alan to be making anything like a Utilitarian calculus nor do I think the Church sees it that way either.

  • http://www.SethAdamSmith.com Seth Adam Smith

    A brilliant response. Thank you.

  • Nayajja

    The critics base their catcalls on an assumption that the only “good” use of Church funds is for “charity,” which they seem to define as giving funds to other charities.

    I don’t pay my tithing to the Church so it can simply redistribute it to non-Church charities. I pay my tithing to help further the building of the Kingdom of God on earth. Why do I want to do this? Because I believe that these things the Church spends its money on (education, missionary work, building and maintaining church buildings throughout the world, salaries of many people who work full time to maintain these assets) bring millions of my brothers and sisters closer to God.

    • Don Harryman

      By all means, don’t give ‘The Church’s’ funds to outside charities. Do you own charitable work. Outside of charity for Mormon Church members and a few well publicized PR ‘charitable’ activities, perhaps you can describe the vast charitable works of ‘The Church’?

  • Fred Kratz

    Back of the napkin numbers for LDS humanitarian aid given from 1985 through 2009 (from LDS website)

    Total amount of aid: $1,212.2 million (cash 327.6 + materials 884.6)
    Amount of aid per year: ($1,212.2 / 25 yr) = $48.5 million per year
    Let’s assume an average of 10 million members of the church over that 25 year time span.
    ($48.5 / 10) = $4.85 per member given in humanitarian aid per year.

    To be clear, the Mormon church only gives out $4.85 in charitable aid per member per year.

  • Richard Parker

    “What a wonderful response!” THAT’S what I keep seeing here? This terrible, poorly argued response doesn’t even begin to engage Winter’s paranoid Mormonism at all. It’s kinda unbelievable, actually.

    No one here, it seems, has read section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants. No one has read “Being Loyal Citizens” by Joseph Fielding Smith. No one has read the Virginia Satute for Religious Freedom by Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison’s “detached memoranda” where he states: “But besides the danger of a direct mixture of religion and civil government, there is an evil which ought to be guarded against in ***the indefinite accumulation of property from the capapcity of holding it in perpetuity by ecclesiastical corporations.*** The power of all corporations ought to be limited in this respect.”

    What’s remarkable about Winter is that she nails very precisely the ultimate problem with all this: it’s culty. It’s zealotry. Zero transparency, and it becomes a secret society, a secret conspiracy, or a secret combination — whatever you want to call it, we all know a story or two about them. Unchecked by law or tax, it’s one of the fastest-growing international business empires using God to do whatever it wants in the political and civil life of millions. Winter has given the church’s PR and leadership every reason squirm exactly because she has underscored what this looks like to everybody else — and then confirmed that looks, in this case, might not at all be deceiving.

    Does anyone within Mormonism actually have a response to this worth hearing? Not even the “embarrassing factual errors” are really errors — then again, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that’s really the first defense Mormons are coming up with.