Anyone interested in talking with a reporter?

Finances Mormons Stereotypes

Hey MSP readers:

I was recently contacted by a reporter from a prominent magazine who is doing a story on Mormons and business. The initial angle for the story was, “Why are Mormons so good at business?” But, in chatting with me, she has realized that all may not be as it seems. As the Eyre’s recently made clear, Mormons are not particularly good at business compared to, say, Jews.

I pitched the reporter some additional angles on this question, like the following: Mormon culture, particularly at the ward level, rewards people in the middle class. Leaders in Mormonism have to be literate and generally educated. They also tend to be quite successful. When was the last time you saw a janitor “promoted” to general authority status? Why are all the apostles former executives or have otherwise been successful in their careers? Why no business failures or bankrupt small business owners among the Mormon elite?

And, at a very basic level, Mormonism encourages people to behave in middle class ways: The way you dress to go to church (nice dresses or skirts for women; white shirts, ties, slacks, andpreferablya suit coat for men; both are indicative of the attire middle class professionals wear to work), the way you act at church (not speaking in tongues, no “hallelujahs,” etc.), are all typical of the middle class. What I suggested is that people who do not feel comfortable in that type of environment won’t be likely to stay. As a result, Mormons appear to be uniformly middle class.

I also suggested that there is a strong culture to appear successful in Mormonism, which ties into the Multi-Level Marketing efforts abundant in Utah, especially Provo, and the high bankruptcy rates.

The reporter had not seen this angle because, well Mormons tend to prefer to highlight their successes (e.g., famousmormons.net), not their failures (the thousands who file for bankruptcy every year or leave the religion because they feel pressured to keep up with the Joneses). I can’t fault Mormons for that; I do the same on my C.V. and my annual evals.

Anyway, in discussing this with the reporter, she was wondering if I knew anyone who:

  1. Left the religion because he/she felt the pressure to conform to middle class norms and didn’t like it.
  2. Was unsuccessful at business or had filed for bankruptcy in the pursuit of success (either still Mormon or not).

She is interested in talking with someone in either of those categories who would be willing to be “on the record” for her magazine story. If you’re interested, you can email me directly (profxm -at- gmail.com) or just make a note of it in the comments and I’ll pass your contact information to the reporter. And even if you don’t meet those criteria, if you know anyone who does, please contact them and send them my way.

Oh, and if you want, you’re welcome to just comment on the thoughts I mentioned in this post: Are Mormons disproportionately good at business? Does Mormonism present itself as “middle class”? And, are Mormons pressured to appear successful?

Final note: Seth, given your work, I’m particularly interested in your thoughts on this.

33 thoughts on “Anyone interested in talking with a reporter?

  1. My husband is a custodian and functionally Illiterate and has been called to be our ward’s second counselor.

  2. Hi Judy,

    Interesting counter-evidence. How does he manage as far as temple recommend interviews go? Does he memorize questions ahead of time?

    And, of course, I have to ask: Is he the exception or the rule?

  3. http://pewforum.org/Christian/Mormon/A-Portrait-of-Mormons-in-the-US.aspx#4

    Mormons are slightly more likely to be in a middle income bracket than the general population; 38% of Mormons report earning between $50,000 and $100,000 annually, compared with 30% among the population overall in this income category. Mormons are slightly less likely than the general public to be in the lowest income bracket (26% earn $30,000 or less per year compared with 31% among the general public), but they are about as likely to make $100,000 or more annually as the rest of the population (16% and 18%, respectively). This places Mormons roughly in the middle of other religious traditions on the socioeconomic spectrum. Jews, Hindus and Buddhists tend to have more education and higher incomes than Mormons, while Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of historically black Protestant churches and evangelical Protestant churches fall on the opposite end of the continuum.

    The graph at this link provides a handy visual:

    http://pewforum.org/Income-Distribution-Within-US-Religious-Groups.aspx

  4. One of my wife’s suggestions for reading after I had left the church was to read, “The Mormon Way of Doing Business: How Eight Western Boys Reached the Top of Corporate America” by Jeff Benedict. I perused it and it’s full to the brim with confirmation bias. But it’s these kinds of stories that gets your reporter interested.

    Her reasoning was, “Look at what good guys these fellas are and they’re Mormon.” I wanted to say to my wife, “I really want to be an actor. There are lots of Scientologists who are actors, I think I’ll follow their lead.” (For the record I don’t want to be an actor.)

  5. Since we’re throwing out random data points, I’ll just mention that when I was an active Mormon (as a teenager), our bishop was the #1 richest guy in our ward (a successful surgeon), and our stake president was the #1 richest guy in the stake (the CEO of a major corporation).

  6. I have several friends who went to Harvard Business School. One was a mission companion who moved back to California and turned his business training at Harvard into big money and then gave a bunch of that money to Prop H8. Harvard must be so proud.

  7. I’m with you chanson. I’ve never had a poor bishop, stake president, or mission president. My bishops include businessmen, the former State Auditor of Utah, two very rich dentists; my stake presidents include a millionaire real estate mini-tycoon, the former U.S. Secretary of Education, and other assorted businessmen; my two mission presidents were both multi-millionaires, one of which is now a GA.

    Yeah, the worth of every soul may be great, but methinks some souls are worth a tad bit more.

  8. I was always so turned off by the homogeneity of guys at BYU – it seemed like everyone wanted to go into business. But many young Mormon men I know (including my brothers and brother-in-law) pursue white collar professions because they plan to support a family on single income. There is also more pressure to make a lot of money for that reason.

  9. As I’ve said before, I don’t think that the once much-touted statistics on Utah bankruptcies say all that much of anything about “Mormon culture.”

    There are a variety of factors at work in Utah that would lean toward bankruptcy before you would need to look at the religion for reasons. It’s also worth noting that Utah bankruptcy filings are rather par for the course for Intermountain West states. Here are the big culprits I suspect for bankruptcy filings:

    1. The simple dynamic of new and growing economies – which seem to typify the economies of places like Salt Lake, Denver, Cheyenne, Santa Fe, Phoenix, and similar cities. There is a lot of fast and unsustainable economic growth that goes on in economies like this. There is also a high degree of entrepreneurship involved in such economies – which is always inherently risky. Last I remember reading (and this number would have to be independently verified) the failure rate of small startup businesses was close to 80 percent (or maybe I’m mixing it up with restaurant failure rates….). It’s very hard to start your own business without going heavily into debt. When it fails, bankruptcy is usually inevitable.

    2. Utah has extremely lax legal restrictions on debt collection agencies. Here in Colorado, our state restrictions on collection agencies and original creditors mirror the Federal “Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.” This allows people to sue abusive debt collectors for actions like calling you repeatedly at 3:00 AM in the morning, harassing you at work, badmouthing you to the neighbors (don’t laugh – I’ve seen it happen), and using false threats and abusive language. Colorado law extends this to both collection agencies, and to original creditors. Utah law has no such protection. Utah laws restricting abusive creditors are almost non-existent. This leaves debtors with no alternative protection to creditor abuse other than the federal protections of bankruptcy.

    3. I would be interested in seeing the stats for identity theft issues in Utah as compared to other populations.

    4. Health insurance is a huge problem in the bankruptcy arena. This is the only area I can see Mormon family size factoring in.

    I don’t mind talking to a reporter on the bankruptcy area as long as I have a bit of notice what issues the reporter would like to cover, so I can have more useful information handy.

  10. #3 – Although interesting and insightful, this poll includes only “self-defined” Mormons, which means it only counts those LDS who still consider themselves Mormons.

    A good part of the original post — which I happen to agree with — is that because there is an enormous social pressure for Latter-day Saints to adopt social and economic mannerisms of white-collar middle-class, the less affluent tend to leave the Church in disproportionate numbers. That, in itself, would skew those numbers (education, income, etc.) down.

    Here in Brazil I attended a ward for half a decade where the chapel would literally — and physically — split itself down the aisle. On the pews to the right side of the nave would sit those with middle-class income (professionals, higher education, home and car owners, etc.), while on the pews to the left side of the nave would sit the poor families (unskilled laborers, no cars, no high school diplomas, lived in ‘favelas’, etc.). And it was completely unconscious, too. Nobody had ever noticed this until I pointed it out to them, which then would become glaringly — and painfully — obvious.

    Needless to say, the retention rate on the left side of the chapel was markedly lower.

    Being an active LDS is quite an expensive proposition. Besides the obvious financial burdens of having to tithe at 10% (which is a disproportionately bigger sacrifice if you’re poor or on a fixed income or even on budgetary constraints) and the expensive clothes (which for a professional might be ordinary day-to-day outfits, but for a blue-collar worker is extraordinary and expensive), there is the free time issue with which to participate in the countless numbers of meetings and activities (which also puts much more pressure on the less affluent, who usually command less free non-work time). In order to get noticed enough to “rise” into leadership positions, it is easier (and more common) the wealthier you are, anecdotal exceptions notwithstanding.

  11. That sounds right to me, Marcello. I think there’s a similar dynamic in the US, but it’s less apparent because the convert baptism rate is much lower. Here’s the graf that follows the one I quoted above:

    The 26% of Mormons who are converts to the faith differ markedly from lifelong Mormons in several ways. First, converts tend to be older than lifelong Mormons. Nearly half of converts (48%) are over age 50, compared with about three-in-ten lifelong members (29%). Converts also tend to be less educated than nonconverts (16% did not graduate from high school, compared with just 6% of lifelong members) and they earn decidedly lower incomes (40% make less than $30,000 a year, compared with 21% among nonconverts).

  12. Seth R., you’re saying they didn’t break out baptisms of member children? That’d be surprising (although not as surprising as suddenly realizing that Swearing Elder and I shared the same missionary companion).

  13. I’ve had some interesting conversations over the years on the topic of why low and lower middle class groups don’t succeed in the LDS church hierarchy. More specifically, I’ve had multiple arguments with Mormons who have contended that blue collar workers cannot be expected to hold callings in the church that have a high responsibility associated with them, because they are always living from paycheck to paycheck. The converse argument was always made that white collar workers (including professional students, who are enrolled in programs that will enable them to be white collar workers) have both the obvious mental capacity and time needed for such callings, since they aren’t in a position of job insecurity or working 80 hours a week.

    Personally, I’ve always found the argument to be hogwash, since most of the white collar workers I’ve known in successful law, business, or medical professions work obscenely long hours. Not to mention that most of my family are in blue collar positions in sandwich shops and the like, and so the idea is just insulting.

    Anecdotally, I’ve definitely seen a “ceiling” to where lower middle class folks fall on the local church progression. In most of my wards in Philadelphia, there has always been at least 1 bishopric counselor (never the bishop) from the more “ethnically diverse,” local population of the ward. Appearances would indicate that ethnicity (rather than socioeconomic class) is the main distinguishing characteristic of such individuals, since the other counselor and bishop are universally white, white-collar, middle or upper middle class men with Utah ties.

    The same seems to hold true on the Stake level, in that there is always 1 or 2 high counselor(s) who are from the ethnic, “local” Philadelphia population – but this diversity does not extent to the Stake Presidency. VERY ironically, all of the members of the stake presidencies here seem to be drawn from a pool of individuals who work at the same law firm and have connections with Bain Capital (Mitt Romney’s business). The nepotism here is so thick that there was some controversy a few years ago when a non-lawyer university professor was called to the Stake Presidency. Rumor has it that Stake leaders were frustrated that they couldn’t “communicate” with him the same way as they had been used to, since he is the only one in a long history of men who didn’t fit a specific demographic. He’s since moved to California with his family, so the tenure was short.

  14. In my experience growing up in Seattle, leaders tended to be people who had enough free time to do the leadership work. The joke was “they picked a dentist again.” When I was an infant (1960s), and the Seattle stake extended from the Canadian border to the Oregon border, having a successful person who could afford to travel the distance was very important. A janitor wasn’t going to get the job.

    In general, I believe that in most non-Utah areas, the SP will be someone who can afford to be SP and has a flexible schedule (enough to do the job). A Utah stake could be walked across in under an hour. Some stakes in the USA can be driven across in a half day. Poor people need not apply (metaphorically speaking).

    Add that to the tendency in all wards and stakes I’ve ever lived in to call people who you are personally associated with to positions. In one Utah stake I lived in I think that around 1/2 of all stake-level leaders were fairly closely related by blood or marriage. This was a stake with lots of new houses, too, so there was plenty of people who weren’t related, but the related-to-each-other group knew each other well, and they didn’t know the newer folks as well. The situation changed over time as people became friends.

    In summary: I don’t think it’s as simple as “Mormons tend to think the wealthy are more righteous.”

  15. Hate to play devils advocate but…. I think way more mormons are TERRIBLE at business. How many of lost money in a pyramid scheme in Utah?! Sure, there are some prominent Mos who’ve been successful, but remember how Utah was the number one state in bankruptcy’s? Mos are too trusting when it comes to throwing their money at other Mos.

  16. In summary: I dont think its as simple as Mormons tend to think the wealthy are more righteous.

    I agree it’s not that simple, however, the fact that Mormons tend to think the wealthy are more righteous is a significant component of this complex picture.

    The idea that the leader needs to have the means to cover the territory is an interesting point that I hadn’t heard before. Last time we discussed this, one explanation was the following: In the mission field a ward or stake will cover a huge portion of a town or city, so the rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods will be together in a single ward or stake. In the Mormon corridor, OTOH, you can have a ward that is wholly contained in a blue-collar neighborhood, so naturally the bishop must be chosen from the people in that neighborhood (and with the opportunity to build leadership skills on the ward level comes the potential for even higher leadership positions). So the upside for the people outside the corridor is that they’re socializing on a regular basis with people outside their social class, and the downside is that there seems to be less opportunity for leadership positions unless you’re at least white collar and relatively financially successful.

  17. I dont think its as simple as Mormons tend to think the wealthy are more righteous.

    Maybe not that simple, but it is definitely a theme in Mormon practice. The bishop of my current ward (notice how hard it is to not say “my bishop”? 😉 ) talks about how the Lord has blessed him with material wealth every time he gives his testimony (or at least up through the last time I attended a few years ago). He’s a wealthy dentist. I would always cringe at this as I looked around the chapel at those who surely struggle just to feed their families.

    Both of my mission presidents — both multi-millionaires — made the point that righteousness would bring me greater wealth very explicitly. I could give numerous other examples of this kind of thinking in Mormonism. Yes, it’s not just “as simple as” all that, but the idea that wealth = righteousness is definitely a theme in Mormonism.

  18. It sounds like when a person views “the Lord and hard work” as the reasons for their financial success, this allows them to overlook the mechanisms of racial and familial nepotism. Or, they simply think the whole familial line is “blessed.” I can see how this would create huge class divides in the Church, as poorer folks would see the interrelationship between the theology and the money.

    I’ve mentioned this before, but the Proclamation on the Family reeks of white, middle and upper-middle-classness. It privileges a particular kinship structure where the father’s “providing of the necessities of life” equals “breadwinning,” when in fact, families are often made up of multiple breadwinners and the children don’t necessarily go “unnurtured” because mommy has to work. Grandpa might be at home to take care of them. In the Mormon view, such a household is “less than ideal,” which is insulting and very obviously reeks of class bias.

  19. Marcello (RE #13), would you be interested in chatting with a reporter about your insights? If so, please email me: profxm -at- gmail.com

  20. I’m kind of wondering what is uniquely “Mormon” about this.

    Viewing wealthy people as morally superior to poor people is kind of a common attitude in America in general isn’t it?

  21. Im kind of wondering what is uniquely Mormon about this.

    Viewing wealthy people as morally superior to poor people is kind of a common attitude in America in general isnt it?

    Sure, but a religion ought to help one see through such attitudes, rather than perpetuate them. If it doesn’t, then something is wrong.

  22. … And Mormonism is a uniquely American religion, so the fact that money and righteousness are intertwined in this “global” religion is unsurprising.

  23. Actually if people with these sorts of misguided attitudes were NOT being included in the LDS Church, wouldn’t that be an indicator that it was not reaching out to those who need to hear its message of humility?

  24. We’re talking about the nepotism within the church’s leadership, not the average Mormon. Mormon leadership is bound to the making of money because this is how the Church goes about its proselytizing mission. When the Church grows, both in size and wealth, it sees itself as getting the “truth” out there. Mormons don’t exactly spread the word the way Jesus or Buddha did.

  25. Um, it seems we’ve had a good number of apostles who were/are virtually lifetime church employees or church hacks to be less polite, hardly self made successes.

  26. Not every one who serves in leadership is wealthy and white. I am a minority living in Utah County. My ward is predominantly white about 98%. I am not wealthy – I’m a struggling, small, blue collar business. I live in a ward that is economically diverse, however, they are predominantly well above the median income level in the state. Many make six figures with a couple of families that are millionaires. I serve as a Bishop, have served as a 1st counselor and on two high councils by age 44.

    Incidentally, my mission president worked for the Church Educational System teaching in he seminary and institute program. Not wealthy at all. I know general authorities and mission presidents that are wealthy and I know some that have struggled financially.

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