When Mitt Romney tells Israelis and Palestinians that “culture yields success,” he speaks the logic of nineteenth-century imperialism. But he does so with a Mormon dialect. Going back as far as the 1600s, British-American colonists told themselves that they had the right to take land from Indians because they would make it bloom. That same logic yielded Manifest Destiny in the nineteenth century, when the U.S. doubled its size between 1845 and 1848. That logic continues to prevail among Mormons today, who are taught that culture yields success from the time they are babes. It's an ideological juggernaut (though there are of course a few liberal Mormons who don't agree with it), and it is precisely what has made many of them into Tea Party conservatives.
Mormon history seems to prove them out: through hard work, they made the desert bloom in Utah, Arizona, Idaho, and parts of New Mexico, California, and northern Mexico. Everywhere they colonized the desert bloomed. But there's a lot more to it than “culture equals success.” And therein lies the story of how Mormon socialists became Mormon conservatives in the twentieth century.
Let’s be clear: Mormon culture did yield success, even in resource-poor areas.... Mormons settled, for example, in the Little Colorado River Basin on the Colorado Plateau. They created prosperous farming communities despite droughts, blowing sand, infertile soil, and spring floods that washed away dams. Same in northern Mexico. But in both places they claimed free land that nation states—at great expense—had taken from Indians. Mormon colonists also got access to railroad lines courtesy of U.S. and Mexican subsidies. And they got capital investment from the church. Mormon tithings got used for development. That was theocratic socialism, and it worked.
Beyond that, Mormon colonists arrived with a strong theological/corporate hierarchy in place. Everyone knew their role. Many had artisanal skills—brick making, shingling, metal smithing, etc. With their bishops, stake presidents, elders, and deacons, they arrived with a corporate organization (albeit in theocratic dress). Bishops and stake presidents in particular made sure that Mormons made economic decision for the good of the whole. Even after the church’s communist framework—called the United Order of Enoch—broke down in the 1880s, Mormons retained both a corporate order and socialistic one. Colonists bought goods at Mormon cooperatives. Indeed they bought all their goods from the Mormon cooperatives, because they were told not to buy from "gentiles."
In addition to that corporate/theocratic structure, Mormons created parochial schools. They put a lot of their tithing into those schools, called "academies." They eschewed the public schools in order to give their children a Mormon education, but they made sure that that Mormon education was a solid basis for success in life. The academies were first rate.
Most Mormons at that time were Democrats. In Utah, they were told to vote for the Mormon "People's Party." But in the 1880s, church leaders instructed them to participate in the two-party system. Most migrated back to the Democratic Party, whence they had come in the 1830s and 1840s. Many were drawn to the socialistic message of Populists in the 1890s. So why did Mormons overwhelmingly become Republican conservatives?
The answer is simple. After the federal gov't in 1887 abolished the church as a corporation, the church could no longer guide economic development, or at least not easily. Because the church never had a trained clergy, moreover—because church leaders simply came out of the laity—it was natural that Mormons who were successful in business began to move up the chain of authority. The church needed business leaders to continue the old work of economic development. Business leaders, moreover, contributed their tithings and their expertise to strengthen the church. Lay Mormons supported their business leaders because they provided jobs. Though the church was no longer a corporation, church leadership and business leadership became one and the same.
Church leaders, in turn, rather than following the socialist precedents of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, became diehard conservatives. The rank and file followed. The story they told themselves was "we succeeded through good values and hard work." In part, they were correct. But they also succeeded because they had a corporate/theocratic social structure and because they got subsidies from the U.S., from Mexico, and from the LDS church.
The Mormon understanding of their historic success is dangerous not only because it is simplistic but also because it is imperialistic. In the past, it legitimized taking land from Indians, or from Mexicans. It also legitimized Jews taking land from Palestinians. (I don't know how many times my Jewish girlfriend in college bragged that the Jewish people had made the desert bloom in Israel. The Palestinians wouldn't use that land properly, she insisted, but Israelis did, so it was theirs.)
That was the logic not just of Jewish and Mormon imperialism, but of European imperialism more broadly, dating all the way back to the 1500s, when the English took parts of Ireland from "savages" who refused to farm or live in "settled habitations.” It's a lot like saying "you have the right to take my car if I'm not using it." Or my house, or my garage, or my tools—you may seize them because I’m lazy and don’t deserve them.
Mitt Romney does not get that. Most Mormons don't get that. Most Americans don't get that. Telling ourselves that we have succeeded because we work hard and have good morals soon morphs into pride, and sin. Yes, quite frankly, sin. Self-righteousness. Blindness. That is precisely what Jesus warned against, something the Christian right forever forgets.
In the case of Mormons, it also produces a blindness to the real story of their success, which came from their odd mix of theocracy, corporatism, and socialism. When conditions were ripe—when the West's whole economy got transformed by WWII, with all the gov't spending that entailed—Mormons grew rich. Their real estate (and they had lots of that) suddenly became valuable. In cities like Salt Lake, Ogden, San Bernardino, Phoenix, Mesa, Tucson and others, demand for Mormon skills exploded. Mormons knew how to build homes, schools, sewers, irrigation networks, etc. Many of them got absolutely plain old stinking rich. Because church leaders and business leaders were one and the same, Mormons, newly prosperous, forgot all about their real history. When they remembered the old system of the nineteenth century, they pooh-poohed it, telling themselves that socialism had kept them poor.
That is absurd. Socialism is the very foundation of their fine house. And insofar as they forget that, they become arrogant—they become self-worshippers—as the Palestinians have just found out.
Thu Aug 02, 2012 at 12:04 AM PT: update x1: Gotta do it! The mandatory shout out ... THANK YOU for rec list and community spotlight. Thank you Rescue Rangers. My first rec list diary. Worth it, too, I might add.