In 1950, there were just over a million Mormons in the world. Most of these were located in the Intermountain West of the United States, a region of almost lunar landscape between the Rocky Mountains to the East and the Cascades and Sierra Nevada Mountains to the West. The religion was still thought of as odd by most Americans. There had been famous Mormons like the occasional US Senator or war hero, but these were few and far between. There had even been a 1940 Hollywood movie entitled Brigham Young that told the story of the Saints’ mid-1800s trek from Illinois to the region of the Great Salt Lake. Its producers worked hard to strain out nearly every possible reli- gious theme, a nod to the increasingly secular American public. Though it starred heavyweights like Vincent Price and Tyrone Power, the movie failed miserably, even in Utah. Especially in Utah.
Then, in 1951, a man named David O. McKay became the “First President” of the Latter-day Saints and inaugurated a new era. He was the Colonel Harlan Sanders of Mormonism. He often wore white suits, had an infectious laugh, and under- stood the need to appeal to the world outside the Church. It was refreshing. Most LDS presidents had either been polyga- mist oddballs or stodgy old men in the eyes of the American public. McKay was more savvy, more media aware. He became so popular that film legend Cecil B. DeMille asked him to consult on the now classic movie The Ten Commandments.
Empowered by his personal popularity and by his sense that an opportune moment had come, McKay began refash- ioning the Church’s image. He also began sharpening its focus. His famous challenge to his followers was, “Every Member a Missionary!” And the faithful got busy. It only helped that Ezra Taft Benson, a future Church president, was serving as the nation’s secretary of agriculture under President Eisen- hower. This brought respectability. It also helped that George Romney was the revered CEO of American Motors Corpora- tion and that he would go on to be the governor of Michigan, a candidate for president of the United States, and finally a member of Richard Nixon’s cabinet. This hinted at increasing power. The 1950s were good for Mormons.
Then came the 1960s. Like most religions, the LDS took a beating from the counterculture movement, but by the 1970s they were again on the rise. There was the Mormon Taber- nacle Choir, a symbol of Americana when Americana was under siege. There was Mormon Donny Osmond’s smile and Mormon Marie Osmond’s everything and the three-year run of network television’s Donny and Marie in the late 1970s that made words like family, clean, talented, patriotic, and even cute outshine some of the less-endearing labels laid upon the Saints through the years. New labels joined new symbols. A massive, otherworldly, 160,000-square-foot Temple just north of Washington, DC, was dedicated in the 1970s, a symbol of LDS power and permanence for the nation to behold. Always there was the “Every Member a Missionary!” vision beating in each Saintly heart.
By 1984, the dynamics of LDS growth were so fine-tuned that influential sociologist Rodney Stark made the mind- blowing prediction that the Latter-day Saints would have no fewer than 64 million members and perhaps as many as 267 million by 2080.3 It must have seemed possible in those days. In the following ten years, LDS membership exploded from 4.4 million to 11 million. This may be why in 1998 the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting in Salt Lake City. The Mormons—a misguided cult in the view of most traditional Christians, most Baptists in particular—had to be stopped.
They weren’t. Four years after the Baptists besieged Temple Square, the Winter Olympic Games came to Salt Lake City. This was in 2002 and it is hard to exaggerate what this meant to the Latter-day Saints. A gifted Mormon leader, Mitt Romney, rescued the games after a disastrous bidding scandal. A sparkling Mormon city hosted the games. Happy, handsome, all-American Mormons attended each event, waving constantly to the cameras and appearing to be—in the word repeatedly used by the press at the time—“normal.”
The LDS Church capitalized on it all. It sent volunteers, missionaries, and publicists scurrying to every venue. It hosted grand events for the world press. It made sure that every visitor received a brochure offering an LDS guided tour of the city. Visitors from around the world read these words: “No other place in America has a story to tell like that of Salt Lake City—a sanctuary founded by religious refugees from within the United States’ own borders. And none can tell that story better than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Largely unchallenged, the Mormon narrative prevailed.
What followed was the decade of the new millennium we have already surveyed. Mormons seemed to be everywhere, seemed to be exceptional in nearly every arena, seemed to have moved beyond acceptance by American culture to domination of American culture. At least this was what some feared at the time.
But Mormons did not dominate the country. Far from it. Remember that they were not even 2 percent of the nation’s population as of 2012. True, they were visible and successful, well educated and well spoken, patriotic and ever willing to serve. Yet what they had achieved was not domination. It was not a conspiracy either, as some alleged. It was not anything approaching a takeover or even the hope for a takeover.
Few observers seemed to be able to explain how this new level of LDS prominence in American society came about. They reached for the usual answers trotted out to account for such occurrences: birth rates, Ronald Reagan’s deification of traditional values, the economic boom of the late twen- tieth century, a more liberal and broadminded society, even the dumbing down of America through television and failing schools. Each of these explanations was found wanting.
The truth lay within Mormonism itself. What the Saints had achieved in the United States was what Mormonism, unfettered and well led, will nearly always produce. This was the real story behind the much-touted “Mormon Moment.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had risen to unexpected heights in American society because the Mormon religion creates what can benevolently be called a Mormon Machine— a system of individual empowerment, family investment, local church (ward and stake level) leadership, priesthood govern- ment, prophetic enduement, Temple sacraments, and sacrificial financial endowment of the holy Mormon cause.
Plant Mormonism in any country on earth and pretty much the same results will occur. If successful, it will produce deeply moral individuals who serve a religious vision centered upon achievement in this life. They will aggressively pursue the most advanced education possible, understand their lives in terms of overcoming obstacles, and eagerly serve the surrounding society. The family will be of supernatural importance to them, as will planning and investing for future generations. They will be devoted to community, store and save as a hedge against future hardship, and they will esteem work as a religious calling. They will submit to civil government and hope to take positions within it. They will have advantages in this. Their beliefs and their lives in all-encompassing community will condition them to thrive in administrative systems and hierarchies—a critical key to success in the modern world. Ever oriented to a corporate life and destiny, they will prize belonging and unity over indi- viduality and conflict every time.
These hallmark values and behaviors—the habits that distinguish Mormons in the minds of millions of Americans— grow naturally from Mormon doctrine. They are also the values and behaviors of successful people. Observers who think of the religion as a cult—in the Jim Jones sense that a single, dynamic leader controls a larger body of devotees through fear, lies, and manipulation—usually fail to see this. Mormon doctrine is inviting, the community it produces enveloping and elevating, the lifestyle it encourages empowering in nearly every sense. Success, visibility, prosperity, and influence follow. This is the engine of the Mormon ascent. It is what has attracted so many millions, and it is the mechanism of the Latter-day Saints’ impact upon American society and the world.
engine #1—progress: to pass the tests of life
Ask a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints what he is devoted to in this life and he will likely answer that he is intent upon pleasing his Heavenly Father and becoming like Jesus Christ. Hearing this answer, athe- ists and agnostics roll their eyes and say, “Of course, that’s the kind of thing all religious nutcases believe!” Traditional Christians, who use nearly the same language to answer the question, think this LDS Church member is keeping some- thing from us, that there is more behind his statement of faith than he is willing to reveal. It usually is not so. He’s telling us the truth, but for our purpose of understanding the Mormon impact upon America, it is the way that a Mormon seeks to please his Heavenly Father that tells the tale.
A Mormon believes he is in this world to pass tests. We’ll talk more about why he thinks this a bit later, but for now it is important for us to know that Mormons believe that this life is like an obstacle course they must master in order to qualify for what comes in eternity. It is this word qualify that should be flashing bright red on the page. Mormon rituals and doctrines are filled with the language of accomplishment and achieve- ment, possessed of the virtue of reaching goals and passing tests. Much of the terminology of Mormonism sounds like it comes from the handbook of the US Military Academy at West Point or from the textbooks of an elite MBA program.In Mormonism, the Heavenly Father does not create matter; he organizes it. Mormons are meant to do likewise: be like Heavenly Father in bringing order to the chaotic and lonely world, thus proving themselves worthy. The word orga- nize is used again and again in Mormon sacred literature†, as are terms like progress, pass the test, be found worthy, qualify, learn, make choices, prove, improve, and—unceasingly—make eternal progress. Even the Church’s magazine was once called The Improvement Era and for more than seventy years!
Laying aside the spiritual content of this vision for a moment, the fact that progress and achievement are at the heart of a Mormon’s purpose on earth helps explain why Mormons are so adept at creating, leading, and even rescuing institutions. It is what they understand themselves to be on earth to do. It is the skill set required of their divine calling, and it is nearly the same skill set necessary for real-world success. In other words, there is a direct connection between Mormon beliefs and the triumph of the Marriott Corporation. There is a direct connec- tion between Mormon theology and the remarkable success of Stephen Covey. There is an undeniable link between Mormon religious ideals and the fact that graduates of Brigham Young University are among the most sought after by the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Secret Service, andhundreds of graduate schools around the country.
Mormons make achievement through organizational management a religious virtue. It leads to prosperity, visibility, and power. It should come as no surprise, then, that an Amer- ican can turn on the evening news after a day of work and find one report about two Mormon presidential candidates, another story about a Mormon finalist on American Idol, an examination of the controversial views of a leading Mormon news commen- tator, a sports story about what a Mormon lineman does with his “Temple garments” in the NFL, and a celebration of how Mormons respond to crises like Katrina and the BP oil spill, all by a “Where Are They Now?” segment about Gladys Knight, minus the Pips, who has become—of course—a Mormon.
Mormons rise in this life because it is what their religion calls for. Achieving. Progressing. Learning. Forward, upward motion. This is the lifeblood of earthly Mormonism. Manage- ment, leadership, and organizing are the essential skills of the faith. It is no wonder that Mormons have grown so rapidly and reached such stellar heights in American culture. And there is much more to come.
engine #2—family: for time and All eternity
Another fuel of the Mormon ascent in America—also a reli- gious calling that wins secular success—is the priority of family and community. In LDS theology, the family is not only a sacred institution—something many religions claim— but it is an eternal institution. Mormons believe families existed together before they came to this world—in a state called “premortality”—and they will exist together as families throughout all eternity if they qualify. In fact, they will rule together one day as their Heavenly Father rules this world now with his family. This means that while American society as a whole is experiencing the destruction of the traditional family—with all the poverty, lost legacies, and broken lives that can result—Mormons are building large families that are passionately committed to a family destiny both in time and in eternity. In fact, the phrase spiritual dynasty is sometimes used.
The features of these thriving families are becoming better known as Mormons reach demographic critical mass. A Mormon mother and father believe that they were already joined before their life in this world began. They also already had children. They have a duty, they are taught, to make sure they give birth to enough bodies for all of their preexistent children. Mormon families, then, tend to be large. It is not uncommon for a professor at Brigham Young University to have eleven children. A family of thirteen children in a Mormon family is not unheard of. J. Willard Marriott, the founder of the hotel chain, was one of eight children. David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue, is the father of nine. Stephen Covey, the management genius, is also the father of nine—and grandfather to fifty-two!
As important as the size of these families is the culture they create. If they remain true to Church teaching, children in these families will understand themselves as playing a vital role in an eternal family purpose. They will respect their parents, help their siblings, and embrace their family as almost the central priority of their lives—and not merely a tyranny to escape as soon as the law allows. None of these family members will drink alcohol, smoke, do drugs, have sex outside of marriage, or even drink caffeine. They will serve their Church and their community by way of serving their God. Parents will invest in the education of each child as a religious duty. All will attend meetings in which their eternal calling, unity, character, and purpose will be reinforced. Fatherhood, motherhood, sonship, and daughterhood will not be understood as the product of biology alone. They will be cherished as eternal spiritual states modeled after beloved heavenly beings. When the time is right, members of Mormon families will be “sealed” to each other “for time and all eternity” in sacred Temple ceremonies. The ties that bind will never be broken. Ever.
engine #3—education: training the saints to lead
Connect families such as these at the local level and they will naturally begin devoting themselves to one of the great Mormon priorities—education, another engine of the Mormon ascent created out of a spiritual calling.In the same way that individual Mormons and their families are eternal, so too is what they learn in this life. One of the well-known LDS scriptures on this theme declares, “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.” In other words, do your homework: you’ll need what you learn in eternity.Mormon education begins early and reaches tremen- dous heights. The Church Educational System (CES) offers a program called “primary” for younger children, operates a “seminary” for high school students to provide “eternal Mormon perspective” on what secular schools teach, and then maintains an “institute” that challenges college students to deeper faith. The LDS educational vision coalesces at Brigham Young University. Here, the Mormon devotion to education meets the calling to “prove worthy” and turns toward the chal- lenge of the modern world. Most BYU students are upper tier academically, most are bilingual, most possess proven leader- ship gifts, and most intend to do graduate work. They not only complete an aggressive curriculum but also enroll in supple- mental programs that fine-tune their skills. The attention to detail is impressive. Pre-law students can experience a profes- sional etiquette dinner to learn what fork to use for the salad or how to make introductions at those White House dinners they plan to attend. MBA students can attend personal coaching sessions at the Marriott School of Management. Then, of course, there is the two-year missionary stint that most Mormon males undergo. It has been called the “boot camp of Mormon great- ness.” From all of these educational processes, the message is clear: “We intend to lead.”
The Mormon culture of progress moves young Mormons to pursue education the way members of another religion might pursue heavenly visions. Graduate schools are full of Saints on their second or third advanced degree. Mitt Romney earned a law degree and an MBA and earned them both from Harvard—at the same time. US Senator Mike Lee’s father was the founding dean of Brigham Young Law School. In addi- tion to the seminary and institute required of all LDS high school and college students, Mike sat through family dinners that were regularly transformed into seminars on due process or the establishment clause. After these years, he earned an undergraduate degree from BYU, a law degree from BYU, became an Eagle Scout, clerked for a future US Supreme Court Justice, and somehow found two years in which to do his LDS missionary service in the Rio Grande Valley. No one was surprised when he ended up in the US Senate. He simply followed the Mormon way: the impartation of family, the priority of education, the holy duty of service, the wisdom of networking, the eternal mandate to achieve.
engine #4—patriotism: the Calling of the United states and the free Market
Then there is the fiery patriotism inherent in Mormonism, which springs from the LDS certainty that the United States is divinely ordained. They draw this, first, from the Book of Mormon assertion that at least some of the ancient tribes in the New World were members of God’s chosen people, the Jews of Israel. That Jesus Christ appeared in America after his resurrection from the dead is confirmation of a special destiny. That the Book of Mormon was revealed in New York not long after the nation was born strengthens this view, as does the fact that the Garden of Eden, the spot upon which Jesus Christ will return to earth, and the headquarters of the true Church of Jesus Christ are all in the United States. Even the US Consti- tution is believed to be of divine origin. A treasured scripture finds Heavenly Father proclaiming, “And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men who I raised up unto this very purpose.” Then, after Jesus Christ returns to earth, the world will be ruled from two Temples, one in Jerusalem and another in—Jackson County, Missouri.
Mormonism has spiritually riveted itself to the United States, so it is no surprise that Mormons have become super- patriots as a result. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has sung at the inauguration of five presidents. Their Constitutional scholars, historians, and jurists have been among the most influential in the nation, particularly in recent decades. They, along with patriotic evangelicals, have tended the flame that illuminates a distinctly spiritual vision for the United States.
In recent years, this religious devotion to the United States has included a near-religious commitment to the free market system. It was not always so. Though in their early years Mormons were as devoted to free enterprise as they are today, they also esteemed economic equality, often embraced communal living, and strove for what one LDS historian described as “socialization of surplus incomes.” They observed a stern Law of Consecration and Stewardship in which the faithful deeded— “consecrated” all their property to the Church and were granted a smaller “stewardship” in return. The first generation of Latter Day Saints was so convinced of its social obligations that it was used as an argument for the controversial practice of polygamy. The uncared-for woman would have a home. The impoverished widow would be welcomed into the largesse of a loving family. Even Joseph Smith, founder of the faith, married two elderly women merely to provide them care.
By contrast, the Latter-day Saints of today have been called “free-market apostles.” It was likely only a matter of time before this occurred, since free-market principles grow organi- cally from Mormon soil. Their experience and their doctrines give them a fear of overreaching government, a devotion to volunteerism, an abhorrence of debt, a love of “hard” money, an admiration for thrift, a religious commitment to storing goods against the day of trouble, and, of course, a devotion to unfettered progress. There is also in LDS theology the guar- anteed spiritual exchange that many Americans associate with the prosperity gospel of television preachers: that to serve God is to be rewarded, that righteous living draws divine blessing. It is little surprise, then, that Mormons run many of the nation’s largest corporations. It is no surprise that Brigham Young University is becoming the Harvard of libertarian economics.
It is even less surprise that Mormons might supply most of the ground troops for free-market, multilevel enterprises like Amway and Mary Kay. And it is certainly no surprise that an LDS economist would insist that “Mormonism is the Protes- tant ethic on steroids.”
All of these—the ideal of progress, the power of family, the priority of education, and devotion to a divinely ordained America with its free-market heritage—have helped to fashion the engine of the Mormon advance in American society, the aid of their spiritual claims aside. They have each helped to create the celebrated “Mormon Moment.”