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.
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.