All Is Well In Zion: Three Mormon Writers On Social and Corporate Darwinism, Part One

My wife and I were sitting in a Gospel Doctrine class of a former ward. They were good people in that ward, I had grown up knowing them. They were also a rather well to do ward, a majority of the members– certainly not all of them, but the majority of them– in some form of economic prosperity. As far as I’m aware, the Bishop’s storehouse certainly wasn’t being strained from that quarter. The lesson was on the law of consecration– so, as is almost always the case when such lessons come up, the focus of the conversation is really about money.

The teacher was really skilled and was handling the topic sensitively. Of course I had to spoil the good mood by paraphrasing this oft-used Brigham Young quote:

“The worst fear that I have about this people is that they will get rich in this
country, forget God and his people, wax fat, and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell.
This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty, and all manner of persecution, and be true. But my greater fear for them is that they cannot stand wealth; and yet they have to be tried with riches, for they will become the richest people on this earth” (Quoted by Gordon B. Hinckley in his address, “These Noble Pioneers.” See also Salt Lake City, George Q. Cannon & Sons, 1900; New York: AMS Press, 1971, pp. 11923, cited by Preston Nibley in Brigham Young: The Man and His Work, Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1936, pp. 12628).

I was very much caught off guard by how vehement the reactions became at that point– and some of the comments that came from the discussion I thought were completely bizarre, two of which still enflame my mind (I paraphrase a bit, according to the limits of my memory):

“Tithing is the higher law. We’ll never go back to the law of consecration.”

“We are the greatest generation the Church has ever seen– we are the most righteous. We have been blessed with riches because of that.”

My wife and I had been praying and fasting whether to move to a student married ward– we felt that we had received our answer. The next week went to the student ward in our area.

But that experience still haunts me to a good degree. Although my family grew up pretty well to do, my father emphasized that money, in the end, was a trivial thing. “Money is not what makes us happy,” was a mantra I remember him repeating to us.

My father is a very giving man– I have caught him reaching out to the poor again and again. I had seen him buy a motor home for a homeless man; contribute to programs for Africa; one of our family cars would magically end up in the driveway of a needy family, who had recently had a car accident and no way to replace their vehicle. These were things he never trumpeted abroad, but which I accidentally stumbled upon him doing. Even though my father has worked most of his life as a successful businessman in the corporate circle, he didn’t let their attitudes eat away at his charity. People came before profits every time in his philosophy. I grew up observing this attitude, and hope that I will somedaybe able to live up to my father’s example. So when I’ve come across writers with a similar focus, especially Mormon writers who have in mind the Law of Consecration, they’ve found a place prepared in me that really is fertile for their work. Three of those writers have taken specific root in me in recent years– Hugh Nibley, Richard Bushman and Eric Samuelsen. Samuelsen will be the one I focus on in the first part of this series.
One of the most powerful theatrical experiences I have ever had was in high school, when I watched Eric Samuelsen’s Gadianton at BYU. This (for lack of a better term) morality play took events like the local Wordperfect downsizing, fictionalized them a bit, and deconstructed the ethics of American– and in Microcosm, Utah– business ethics. I consider the play to be dazzling and one of the most morally honest plays that I have seen.

In the play, Samuelsen uses The Book of Mormon as a key text to condemn much of the profit before people attitudes that often crop up in the corporate world. In the author’s note Samuelsen refers to his reason for dubbing the modern play Gadianton (deriving from a group of terrorist-like secret societies in The Book of Mormon started by a man named Gadianton), “What interests me about Gadianton are what I perceived as contemporary parallels to his story. Nephi’s most damning charge against him is that he seeks, ‘to get gain, to be praised of men.’ Murder and robbery are simply tools Gadianton uses to accumulate wealth and power. The specific evils Nephi accuses him of reflect practices that sound remarkably like contemporary business practice.”

SPOILER ALERT: The following contains a good deal of information about the play Gadianton. If you do not desire to know the majority of the plot, including aspects to the ending, do not read farther.

In the play Mahonri Ward, owner and CEO of the fictionalized Datafine, has brought in Fred Whitmore, an outside source from out of Utah, to come and help make the business more profitable. Fred’s first suggestion is to “rightsize”– to instigate layoffs. In the following scene Helen Bryson, the head of Datafine’s public relations, is brought in by Mahonri Ward, Fred and Fred’s assistant Chad, to tell her that she is to be the one cushion the news for the public. I believe this segment of the scene encapsulates the essence of the conflict of the play:

WARD: Helen. Helen, when you build a company from scratch, when you begin with an idea, and pursue it, and obtain financing, and begin hiring others who share your vision… when you build a company, you don’t always anticipate… you don’t… (he breaks down)

FRED: There are going to be some changes.

HELEN: (shocked, staring at WARD) Yes?

FRED: Major changes.

HELEN: Mahonri?

WARD: Tell her, Fred.

FRED: Chad?

CHAD: Over the past year, Fred and I have formed an in-house task force reporting directly to Mahonri, designed to look at ways to improve our cash position and profitibility. After carefully evaluating every department in the company, we believe that we have a recommendation to make that will greatly enhance our company’s position in this very competitive market.

HELEN: You’re talking about layoffs.

(WARD winces)

FRED: (a brief pause) That’s right.

HELEN: How big?

CHAD: This will be quite a substantial rightsizing of the company.

HELEN: How many?

FRED: Chad?

CHAD: We’re initially targeting approximately twelve hundred positions.

HELEN: Twelve hundred?

CHAD: In the initial restructuring. An additional eight hundred will go in the second wave, six months from now.

HELEN: Two thousand total. A third of the company.

FRED: That’s right.

HELEN: Two thousand jobs.

FRED: Give or take a few.

HELEN: Uh huh. (she gets herself under control) And so you’ve told me about this so I can begin preparing.

FRED: That’s right.

HELEN: Begin preparing… a public statement?

FRED: But quietly. The timing’s really crucial here.

HELEN: Press release, press conference?

FRED: Looks like you’re on top of things.

HELEN: (Longish pause) Uh, Mahonri?

FRED: Yes.

HELEN: Can I ask you a few questions?

FRED: Shoot.

HELEN: Mahonri. We’re friends, aren’t we? I’ve been here from the very beginning. Explain this to me. Why are we doing this?

FRED: It’s a business decision.

HELEN: Mahonri, we paid cash for these buildings. Every expansion came out of profits. Last year was the worst year of our last five, but we still had total profits of 8 million dollars.

FRED: Chad?

CHAD: A figure down sixty four percent from fiscal nineteen….

HELEN: This is a profitable company with no debt, in the world’s most rapidly expanding market. (Not angry, but pleading) Why is it necessary to fire two thousand people?

FRED: Not firing, Helen. Not canning. Rightsizing. Reshaping, for the future.

HELEN: I understand the distinction.

FRED: You don’t seem all that supportive of this.

HELEN: I’ve always tried to be. Supportive.

FRED: (On “tried to be”) Hostile, even. Don’t you think so, Chad?

HELEN: … I don’t mean to be. (A pause.) I’m sorry.

FRED: You should know right upfront that your job is safe.

HELEN: I appreciate that, but…

FRED: The decision was made and for very good reasons. Don’t fight it.

HELEN: No, I’m not. I’m not.

FRED: Good.

WARD: Helen. I don’t like this anymore than you do. Maybe we, I don’t know, expanded too quickly, too thoughtlessly. I feel like I’ve made commitments to people and now… but if we’re to remain competitive, it simply has to happen. It has to, Helen.

HELEN: Thank you, Mahonri.

….

FRED: Helen, it’s like this. Your entrepeneur, he’s like the gunslinger in the old west. Rides in on his trusty palomino, forty five in hand, and tames some… forsaken corner of the wildnerness. Kills off the rattlesnakes, tears out the sagebrush, scares off the riffraff. Then in come the townspeople, and they set up a bank and a church and a blacksmith’s shop and a general store, and they build homes. Comes a time the old gunslinger just doesn’t fit anymore. Then its time to move on.

HELEN: Mahonri? You’re selling?

WARD: (after a moment, barely audible) Yes.

FRED: That doesn’t need to get around either, Helen, you know what I mean?

HELEN: Mahonri?

FRED: We don’t want to tie the layoffs to the sale, you hear me?

HELEN: Are they tied together?

FRED: Could be.

HELEN: I see. And if it got out it could hurt the purchase price.

FRED: Exactly. See, fact is, being a gunslinger doesn’t mean you necessarily can function great as mayor. You look at a town that’s had a gunslinger in charge of it and the first thing you see is four blacksmiths, and three general stores, and five feedlots, and six churches, and you don’t really need more’n one of any of ’em. That’s why we call it rightsizing. Cutting down to just one of whatever it is you just can’t live without.

HELEN: But those people, those extras. They’re not surplus, they’re people. With mortgages and families and ties to the community.

FRED: Exactly, they’re comfortable. Lost the fire in the belly.

HELEN: But they’re people…

FRED: (topping her) Lean and mean, Helen. That’s how you survive.

….

HELEN: Empasse is the buyer?

FRED: That’s right.

HELEN: After the layoffs?

FRED: After. You got a bran new boss, don’t want him to be the bad guy.

HELEN: And how much are you getting, Mahonri? What’s your golden parachute?

WARD: (clears his throat) It’s substantial.

HELEN: How much?

FRED: Helen, Mahonri stands to retire with a total package in excess of 650 million dollars.

And that’s how Samuelsen sets up the moral dillemma. Within the play, there is this macrocosm of business big wigs, but Samuelsen also throws in a parallel plot of a Bishop named Todd McKay who works in the mailroom. As the supervisor, he is able to get one of his ward members a job– Brenda Burdett, a pregnant divorcee, who won’t be able to afford keeping her dysfunctional unborn child without the insurance the company provides– without which she had contemplated abortion and the possibility of excommunication. Instead of letting her get fired and the repercussions that would be involved in Brenda’s life, he gives up his own job instead (a job his family needs, as they are in financial straits themselves). This unselfish act of a Bishop giving up his livelihood for one his flock, is a strong comparison against Mahonri Ward’s bailing 2000 others with his “golden parachute” of 650 million dollars — making Ward a “hireling” compared to the Christ imagery of Todd’s true shepherd.

Samuelsen’s scathing critique of some Mormons tendency to separate church and business into two entirely different philosophies is both uncomfortable and true. While on one hand supporting The Book of Mormon , some corporate Mormons don’t seem to realize the incompatibility of corporate darwinism and many of our holy book’s statements:

“The Lord will enter into judgement with the ancients of his people and the prices thereof; for ye have eaten up the vineyard and the spoil of the poor in your houses. What mean ye? Ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor, saith the Lord God of Hosts” (2 Nephi 13: 14-15).

“They rob the poor because of their fine sanctuaries; they rob the poor because of their fine clothing; and they persecute the meek and they poor in heart, because in their pride, they are puffed up” (2 Nephi 28: 13).

“And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift” (4 Nephi 1:3).
“O ye wicked and perverse and stiffnecked people, why have ye built up churches unto yourselves to get gain?…. And I know that ye do walk in the pride of your hearts; and there are none save a few only who do not lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts, unto the wearing of very fine apparel… For behold ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the needy, the sick and the afflicted…. Why are ye ashamed to take upon you the name of Christ? Why do you ye not think that greater is the value of an endless happiness than that misery which never dies– because of the praise of the world? Why do ye adorn with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick and the afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not?” (Mormon 8: 33, 36-38)

By naming his play Gadianton and tying it back to ourselves, Eric Samuelsen has called upon fellow members of his faith to look back at The Book of Mormon, the book written for our time, and asked them to really apply it to every aspect of our lives– including our business and economic affairs. Samuelsen re-trumpets the call, “All is not well in Zion!” There are many of our wealthy who are doing their best to live up to this aspect of their religion, and who are generous and giving and modest and selfless. But yet their are many who have yet to see if they’re willing to live up to the Savior’s injunction to the young rich man.
There is no “separation” of our faith from any aspect of our lives. Capitalism is certainly a better system than many that have preceded it, but it’s still not good enough. Its competitive spirit, its cut throats extremes don’t match up with the city of Enoch’s co-operative nature. Laissez faire won’t wash in the eternities. We’ve got to make the best with the systems we have, but we also can’t be continuing to make excuses for ourselves. We’ve literally got to put our money where our praying mouth is.

11 thoughts on “All Is Well In Zion: Three Mormon Writers On Social and Corporate Darwinism, Part One”

  1. Yes, you saw neo-calvinism in action.

    God saves the “special” because of inherent virtue.

    We can see inherent virtue because of outside signs.

    Neo-calvinists have identified wealth as the outside sign of inherent virtue. Money = inherent virtue = sign of God’s approval = salvation to this group.

    I’m always fascinated when I encounter it in the Church.

  2. One thing that always bugs me about these artistic critiques of business is how contrived they always seem. There’s a lot of real things to critique in business but, for example, this issue of the employees doesn’t seem one of them.

    I had a big response written and then accidently lost it before I could post it here.

    I do agree with Stephen though that there is a kind of neo-Calvinism (although I’m not sure that’s entirely fair to the real Calvinists, since their doctrine is a tad more nuanced) But there is a real Rameumpton like spirit at times along the Wasatch where riches are a sign of righteousness. Which is funny considering how many condemn it.

  3. Pride can take many forms, including in Pres. Benson’s landmark addresses on the subject, pride from underneath.

  4. Bro. Nibley talks in one of his books about how he gave an assignment to his students to write a paper about which person in the BOM they were most like. A studen, to his credit, wrote that it was Gadianton, because he was seeking for gain. I wish I remembered what book it was, and which page.

    I live in a very wealthy ward right now in AZ. Most of the members are great. I don’t know if they would really consacrate, some are attached to their wealth, some others are very christlike. I hope I always will be willing to. It’s easier now that I’m poor. We shoudn’t judge too hard.

  5. Agreed, Pooka. I’ve seen pride from all areas (most painfully, I’ve found it too often in myself), but often its tougher to take on the pride from above since it has more influence in the world. But I love President Benson’s talk. And neither set of pride should be allowed to canker our souls, from above or beneath.
    And I agree with you as well Carlos– the people in question in my essay from my ward were great folks. I hope the essay doesn’t come across as too judgmental, as I come from a more well to do family myself (depending on your definition of the word, I guess. Upper middle class is where I think where most people would have put my parents).

  6. I need to write a better and longer essay on neo-Calvinism, especially with the nuances, such as celebrity status vs. wealth (it is interesting to see the two compete, or merge).

    It is really fascinating.

    It contrasts nicely with C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce where he points out that poverty qua poverty is not virtue either.

  7. I agree about the spirit of pride and Rameumpton-itis that is prevailing among the saints. However, I take issue with the complaint against business and, in particular, layoffs.

    A business can only make profits by two means. The first, is to do what their customers want them to do, upon doing they will receive payment. The second, is to coax government to rob people and give it to the business. However, this second method is a problem of government, not of business.

    Layoffs are a good thing. They are instances that we can do more, or the same, with less. When you buy a washing machine or dish washer, you wouldn’t sit around as family worrying about the time you’ve “layed-off” of your normal schedule by no longer requiring a person to wash dishes. Any business layoff is similar and truly is “right-sizing.”

    Jay

  8. Jay,
    You said “layoffs are a good thing.” That is a pretty broad statement. I can maybe buy that “layoffs are *sometimes* a good thing.” But to put on such a blanket statement is pretty big assumption. Eric never says “layoffs are a bad thing.” He defines the circumstances of the particular layoff he’s analyzing (where the company was still profitable, the reasons for instigating them self serving to small group of people and the number of layoffs in the thousands)– and he condemns that particular scenario. Obviously, there are times when a company, to survive, will have to make some changes. But when those changes are reckless, unnecessary and motivated by selfishness, then I take issue with that. Business ethics and human ethics should not be separated.
    I feel that it is ironic that the tone of your reply seems to very similar to that of many of *Gadianton’s* characters– taking the livelihood of human beings and distancing yourself from them. You compare it to very logical, dispassionate, theoretical metaphors (such as your washing machine), and yet never analyze the very human, very immediate and very real consequences of purely “business” decisions.
    My father has been in high business positions, my brother Jared is currently a very successful businessman- and from what I’ve seen, they do their business honestly and care about the people they have employed. They take their business seriously not only on a corporate level, but also on a moral level. They take in account the human factor when they make decisions. There are many honest and ethical business people and many honest and ethical business practices. But there are also unethical and harmful ways of doing business. It is those sorts of practices that Eric criticizes.

  9. By the way, for those who think I’m just a liberal going off on his platform, I actually consider myself to be a moderate conservative. I even voted for Bush. Go figure.

  10. Hey Mahonri! Great post. I wish the RSS would work on Motley Vision, I don’t read these posts nearly often enough.

    People should take a look at Rick Koerber’s FreeCapitalist.com. Capitalism with the agenda of helping people. I like it.

  11. The RSS feed isn’t working? Sorry about that, Cory.

    I suppose I really should subscribe to the feed so I can monitor it. I’ll see what I can do about fixing it. I was actually considering moving back to Feedburner anyway.

Comments are closed.