In a week, if President Obama is re-elected, the amount of attention the national press bestows upon the Mormon faith will decrease by roughly 100 percent. What better time, then, to encounter what is perhaps the best essay to appear about Mormonism in the past several years. Jackson Lears’s piece, which has been published in the latest issue of the New Republic, parses Mormon theology and history to explain how the Church of Latter-Day Saints embodies the Spirit of Capitalism better than the Protestant Ethic itself. And in doing so, has led the Church straight to its Bain Capital moment.
The boundless zeal for individualism, curbed by a respect for centralized authority; the materialism embodied by the fluid barrier separating man and God; the focus on productivity rather than introspection. The Church of Latter-Day Saints, Lears writes, could not be “more suited to the political culture of the post-Reagan Republican party.” American exceptionalism and Mormon exceptionalism were one and the same: “America was God’s New Israel and the Mormons his Chosen People.”
But despite this, the Church would always be dogged by its suspect past: the fantastical origin story, the make-it-up-as-we-go-along prophesying, the polygamy, the refusal to allow blacks to practice until the late 1970s. In this way, Lears suggests, the crisp collar, firm-handshake ethos we associate with Mormonism began in the early 20th century as conscious pivot towards popular acceptance. George Romney, a civic-minded member of the producer class if there ever was one, was the apotheosis of the new, respectable Mormonism. But his son, Lears suggests, leaves us feeling “we are back in Joseph Smith’s world of confidence men–of smiling scoundrels, earnest frauds, and Nauvoo bogus.” Those conflicting versions of LDS–the opportunistic and the restrained-both fit neatly into the Mormon ethic, Lears argues. Making our moment, whether Romney wins or loses, a Mormon one.