Economist Uses South Park as a Mormon Reference

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The Economist published an article a week ago, containing several obvious errors and misrepresentations about the LDS church. I used to think such was common or to be expected, but I can’t sit by and watch our church defamed with inaccuracies.

THE Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon church, is in a tizzy now that not one but two of its members, or “saints”, seem about to vie for the Republican nomination for president of the United States.

The vast majority of the members of the church don’t really care. Even myself, who is extraordinarily politically active for a member of the church, I really can’t say I have any sort of nervous excitement about the whole affair. We’ve had people from our church make serious attempts at the presidency before, starting with Joseph Smith. There will be many contenders to follow. The church has always had members at the highest levels of political leadership, and we always will.

Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman (see article) both seem determined to try to test the limits of discrimination

That’s not even on their list of goals, and I challenge the author to cite one shred of evidence that either Huntsman of Romney are running for the president “to test the limits of discrimination.” LDS members acknowledge discrimination, and live their lives in spite of it. For the most part, we’d rather let discrimination against ourselves occur than to challenge it. (“Turn the other cheek”, so to speak.) Hence, we make easy, passive targets for people like Mike Huckabee, who end up losing whatever political influence they had.

For most of the 181 years since Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon, such prominent Mormon candidacies for the highest office would have been unthinkable.

I don’t know where he gets this idea from. Joseph Smith was a viable candidate when he ran, and many people suggest that that was one of the reasons he was martyred. Even at the height of political persecution, Utah’s political representatives have always been powerful. You remember Reed Smoot? Yeah, he was an apostle who was also a sitting senator. Yet he wielded a substantial amount of political power, despite efforts to prevent him from taking his seat because of rumors of polygamy continuing in Utah at the time.

And ever since Smoot, one LDS member or another has found their way into politics, often rising to great heights.

The reason for this is actually quite simple. People label Utah as the Mormon State, but in truth, the entire West is Mormon country. The Mormon colonies stretched from Canada to Mexico. California, Oregon, and Washington, despite being considered liberal states, have significant Mormon populations, and generally send a few representatives to congress that are LDS.

Because of the nature of our country’s political organization, this means that politicians from the West will have a much higher chance of being a practicing member of the LDS church. Since the West composes a significant portion of the country, then that means a significant portion of the country will always be represented by members of the church.

How plausible is it that a semi-literate man in upstate New York should find golden plates written in “reformed Egyptian” and translate them, while burying his face in his hat, to reveal the tale of a family who left Israel in 600BC and ended up in North America?

OK, here’s the South Park reference.

First, though, was Joseph Smith semi-literate? Hardly. Although he only had 3 years of formal education, his family was well-versed in the Bible and read daily from it. If you can read the Bible, you are not semi-literate. Many people who are considered literate today can’t even understand the King James Version of the Bible, which was the version Joseph Smith’s family had and was well-verse in.

This attack on Joseph Smith’s education is patently absurd. If you got in a time travel machine and visited the part of the world where Joseph Smith grew up at the time Joseph Smith grew up, you would grow to understand that Joseph Smith’s family, although poor at times, was educated and well-read, probably moreso than most other families.

I detest people who think that those who live in the countryside and never attended a year of college are ignorant. My father’s family comes from Star Valley, Wyoming, which is very rural as rural goes. Yet if you were to spend a moment of your time actually communicating with the people from that area, you would discover that they are a well-read and well-educated group of people, despite their fancy for rodeos and hunting trips. My own great-grandmother who lived her whole life within the valley spent more time reading books and “visiting” faraway places than most people you’ll ever meet.

Second, they have the whole method of translation completely wrong, confusing two different things with each other. Can we not simply be satisfied by saying that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by revelation he claims from God? Truth be told, to those who do not believe in a living God who reveals His will to His children, that is more absurd than using magic stones to translate text, which may actually be technologically feasible one day.

Mormonism makes many other claims that seem ambitious in the modern world. In 1890 the church banned the polygamy for which it used to be notorious. But Mormons continue to believe, for example, in direct and ongoing divine revelation, which is why the church’s president, currently Thomas Monson, is considered a prophet and his quorum of church leaders are deemed apostles.

To compare the practice of polygamy to the principle of continuing revelation, as if there is ever a possibility that the LDS church can “abandon” revelation, is extremely absurd.

Yet in practical matters Mormonism seems well adapted to the modern world, for Mormons are, by many measures, disproportionately successful. Harvard Business School, it is often said, is dominated by the “three Ms” (McKinsey, the military and Mormons). Wall Street and the Central Intelligence Agency love to hire Mormons. And Mormons now make up almost 3% of Congress, even though they are less than 2% of the population.

The author is clearly trying to stir resentment against Mormons, the same way antisemites stir hatred against Jews because they run all the banks and are disproportionately successful.

As far as disproportionately represented groups, it is easy to find any sub-group that is disproportionately successful, as long as the groups are small enough. Our representative form of government demands that representation be disproportionate. (For instance, if people voted based solely on race, and only 45% of the country were non-white, but spread out evenly among all the districts, then no non-white would ever be elected to congress.)

Many missionaries become paragons of self-discipline, with their trademark white shirts and ties and a teetotalling, non-smoking, caffeine-free and abstinent Mormon work ethic. That experience—and perhaps the need to cope with repeated ridicule—seems to make many Mormons not only cosmopolitan but also resilient. Many become good salesmen and communicators, or indeed politicians.

Here, the author seems to be trying to equate our weird beliefs with weird professions. Why doesn’t the author mention we make great scientists, engineers, and pretty much every other job we put our minds to? Why only sales and politics? Because salesmen and politicians are strange and annoying.

And you know what, it’s not the coffee, cigarette, or alcohol thing that drives us to success. It’s our interpretation of scripture and the revelation that guides the church today. The church is teaching, today, that God wants us to be debt-free, to own our homes outright, to live within our means, to get as much education as we can. The welfare program of the church, given by revelation, is founded upon the principle of work.

Yet no mention of that critical detail?

This is what I find most dissatisfying about the article. All the “good” parts of LDS culture are conveniently omitted, and everything weird or questionable is brought forward, as if every Mormon is a Mormon because of our stranger beliefs and practices.

Mormons believe that families remain linked together eternally after death, and that one can even include ancestors into this union by retroactively baptising the dead. This explains why the church maintains probably the world’s most sophisticated genealogical database.

We do not believe that families remain linked together after death. In fact, we teach quite the opposite.

We do teach, however, that families can remain linked together after death, provided they meet certain strict requirements, such as being sealed in the temple and obeying the commandments and living a good life.

But other aspects of Mormonism have liberal, even socialist, elements. Joseph Smith had an egalitarian vision. The church demands, for example, that Mormons pay 10% of their income as a “tithe” to the church, although argument remains about whether this should be applied to income net of government taxes.

The first statement is partially true. Yes, the Mormon religion is “liberal” if we use the word as it used to mean before it was perverted to mean “leftist”. Joseph Smith’s platform for the presidency is probably one of the most liberal, meaning “supporting liberty”, candidacies ever in the history of the United States. Do some research, some of the ideas are still really good ideas, though radical and “liberal”.

But socialist? Hardly. In fact, the LDS church’s United Order is an egalitarian capitalist system, where people participate by choice, not by coercion. Surplus is given to the bishop, who distributes it to the poor. The poor are expected to build upon what they have, and everyone must find a way to self-sufficiency. Sloth is not rewarded with food.

Yes, we do believe that the earth is under a curse because there are the very rich and the very poor, but we do not believe using force or government to remedy it is better than the curse. We believe that people must choose to share their wealth, and that the distribution of wealth must be done judiciously by someone who has authority from God to do so.

There is no argument in the church about how to tithe 10%. I don’t know why the author would think so. Policy is exceptionally clear on this point.

A few Mormons may even stoke it themselves. For instance, Glenn Beck, an excitable television host, likes to allude to something called The White Horse prophecy, according to which America’s constitution, deemed to be divinely inspired, will one day “hang like a thread” until Mormon leaders rescue it.

The famous White Horse prophecy, which is nothing but bunk according to official church teachings. Glenn Beck isn’t perfect, and as a new Mormon, has been caught up in some of the bits of Mormon lore that veteran Mormons know to avoid.

The church is now waging a large advertising campaign to show the diversity of Mormons in America.

Yep, our campaign to show the world the truth that Mormons come from all walks of life and are spread all over the world is “waging” a war!

In conclusion, articles like these are stupid. They do nothing to inform, and only inflame passions. If The Economist wants to lower itself to this level of debate, then they should change their title to something with “Rag” in it. They might also find supporting a candidate like Mike Huckabee, who specializes in this sort of thing, to be a rewarding experience for them.

As a Mormon, I find that getting something so plain and simple wrong, and turning something so boring into a controversial topic, means that The Economist must be getting a lot of other things wrong and puffing up other issues into something from nothing. These kinds of articles hurt the reputation of the house that publish them.

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6 Responses to “Economist Uses South Park as a Mormon Reference”

  1. Misunderstanding or Malice? | Times & Seasons Says:

    [...] article in the Economist on the potential presidential candidacies of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. Federal Way Conservative somehow saw defamation and inaccuracies important enough to criticize. But when I read his [...]

  2. More on The Economist and South Park Mormonism « Federal Way Conservative Says:

    [...] and Seasons writes a response to my article about the recent article in The Economist about Mormons. Too often our reactions are knee-jerk. We [...]

  3. Voulkg Says:

    If the following passage from the Ensign can be believed, then perhaps he did bury his face in a hat.

    Russell M. Nelson, “A Treasured Testament,” Ensign, Jul 1993, 61

    The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights. David Whitmer wrote:

    “Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.” (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12.)

    • Jonathan Gardner Says:

      I didn’t deny that the hat wasn’t used, but I did call into question whether it was the only method used. Many people skip the other recorded methods used to translate and focus on the hat because it sounds like the most absurd of all. In reality, the most absurd thing Joseph Smith ever claimed was that God talks to him, and everything else is peanuts compared to this.

  4. Scott B. Says:

    JG,
    I have to admit–as an active, believing, practicing LDS, and being generally well-read in LDS history and modern LDS policy, I find a few things you wrote a bit odd. A couple of examples…

    OK, here’s the South Park reference.

    There wasn’t anything in that quote related to South Park. David Whitmer provided that description of the translation, if I recall correctly, and is a fairly uncontroversial point. South Park’s writers just did their homework before portraying the translation process–can’t really fault them for that.

    This attack on Joseph Smith’s education is patently absurd. If you got in a time travel machine and visited the part of the world where Joseph Smith grew up at the time Joseph Smith grew up, you would grow to understand that Joseph Smith’s family, although poor at times, was educated and well-read, probably moreso than most other families.

    This statement–especially the last statement–is patently false. The Smith family children were among the least educated in Palmyra (least wealthy, as well, which contributed to the educational dearth by requiring more work time spent laboring to survive), and this is a fairly uncontroversial reality.

    There is no argument in the church about how to tithe 10%. I don’t know why the author would think so. Policy is exceptionally clear on this point.

    The policy may be clear in the sense that it says 10% of our increase. However, what “increase” means is entirely unclear, and debates about this are certainly older than I am (I recall them as a child).

    • Jonathan Gardner Says:

      David Whitmer provided that description of the translation, if I recall correctly, and is a fairly uncontroversial point.

      I’m not disputing David Whitmer’s testimony, but I am disputing the idea that that was the only way the Book of Mormon was translated. To represent the church as odd because our founder looked into a hat ignores the most obviously odd point of all: that Joseph Smith actually talked with God. Why not call attention to the one most distinguishable feature of Mormonism rather than pecking at the fringes?

      This statement–especially the last statement–is patently false. The Smith family children were among the least educated in Palmyra (least wealthy, as well, which contributed to the educational dearth by requiring more work time spent laboring to survive), and this is a fairly uncontroversial reality.

      Compared to today’s time, or people that lived in the cities, yes, their education was pathetic. But they were literate, Joseph Smith could read at least as young as 14, and they understood the principles in the Bible. I don’t know how much you know about Joseph Smith Sr’s business, but he didn’t come from an illiterate background, at one point attempting to become a teacher. His mother, Lucy Mack Smith, was responsible for the education in the home and made sure Joseph Smith learned to read and write.

      However, what “increase” means is entirely unclear

      Every time this has come up in any course I’ve ever taken, from Gospel Essentials to Gospel Doctrine, even in missionary discussions and private meetings with the bishop, it’s never been unclear. To pretend it is some kind of controversy within the church (as The Economist did) is laughable.

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