Last week, I wrote about how Powell, Wyo. launched a community-ownership drive to replace the town’s department store after it was bought by Bain Capital and later closed.
Ironically, the organizing modeled by Powell is not much different than the efforts of the early Mormons of mid-19th Century Utah, who faced hostile outsiders who marked up prices when the Mormons came in to trade. So the Latter-day Saints founded the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution along generally cooperative lines. Community members were encouraged to buy stock in their local mercantile store, which brought local merchants together under one roof and provided a wide array of goods in what was known as “America’s first department store.”
Before long, there were around 150 stores organized more-or-less cooperatively, although it should be noted that sometimes wealthy members and the church had disproportionate control.
And as ZCMI grew into the major department store chain of Utah it also laid the groundwork for local stores and farms, as well as factories making boots and overalls. Some communities even set up their own currencies.
The Latter-day Saints built what Bloomberg Businessweek recently called the “Mormon Empire” on this base of cooperative economics, modeled after the shared wealth displayed in the Christian Book of Acts as well as their own scripture.
Unfortunately, the cooperative control didn’t last.
ZCMI was later sold off to Macy’s and Dillard’s, and the original store has been reduced to the decorative front of a new mall called City Creek Center. The many businesses spawned by ZCMI have mostly passed into history or lost their cooperative character.
The Deseret Management Corporation is one of many organizations that make up the Mormon Empire today. There is certainly room to criticize the decisions made recently – for example the nearly $2 billion spent on City Creek Center, a mall located across the street from the main Mormon temple in Salt Lake City. And we may not want to mimic the opaque and exclusive ways in which decisions are made by highly-paid executives.
However, the Mormons do still have their pooled prosperity. And this commonwealth is a useful model for how a faith community might seek to collectively build real prosperity in ways that avoid the concentration of wealth and power that manifests in individuals like Mitt Romney.
Romney apologists should note that the Mormon commonwealth was specifically created in response to an alarming concentration of wealth that was becoming apparent. In 1875 Brigham Young and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of the church issued a statement that is as challenging as it is relevant to our present day.
Here is an excerpt that shows how seriously the early LDS leadership took the threat of wealth concentration and the extent to which cooperation was viewed as an essential remedy to this evil:
One of the great evils with which our own nation is menaced at the present time is the wonderful growth of wealth in the hands of a comparatively few individuals….
Years ago it was perceived that we Latter-day Saints were open to the same dangers as those which beset the rest of the world. A condition of affairs existed among us which was favorable to the growth of riches in the hands of a few at the expense of many. A wealthy class was being rapidly formed in our midst whose interests in the course of time, were likely to be diverse from those of the rest of the community. The growth of such a class was dangerous to our union; and, of all people, we stand most in need of union and to have our interests identical. Then it was that the Saints were counseled to enter into co-operation…
The Latter-day Saints should understand that it is our duty to sustain co-operation and to do all in our power to make it a success. The local co-operative stores should have the cordial support of the Latter-day Saints. Does not all our history impress upon us the great truth that in union is strength? Without it, what power would the Latter-day Saints have? But it is not our doctrines alone that we should be united, but in practice and especially in our business affairs.
This was not fringe thinking. These words bore the signatures of the church’s entire core leadership. The current leadership ought to be reflecting upon their predecessors’ wisdom, which is rooted in core LDS scripture.
Here’s one example, showing what the Book of Mormon has to say about Romney’s wealth amidst poverty.
And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches…
Now the cause of this iniquity of the people was this—Satan had great power, unto the stirring up of the people to do all manner of iniquity, and to the puffing them up with pride, tempting them to seek for power, and authority, and riches, and the vain things of the world.
Romney’s personal wealth is in conflict with Mormon scripture, history and practice – notwithstanding the pervasive nature of his sort of sin, which seems to be as commonplace among Mormons as it is among Christians.
So non-Mormons should not fear Romney’s Mormon economics. Instead, we should hope they become more reflective of traditional Mormon values of community wealth building.
And we should recognize that Latter Day Saints are a diverse bunch, including anarchists and feminists as well as polygamists and capitalists. I have recently discovered a vein of radical (dare I say fundamentalist?) Mormon thought, from Latter-day Saints who see that Romney represents the worst of their community.
One of these bloggers mentions a Mormon theological concept called the “pride cycle,” which seems to be in play in the modern LDS community: Blessings and prosperity lead to pride and sin, which lead to chastening, which leads to humility and repentance.
It seems that Romney is leading Mormons through another round of the pride cycle, and there’s no reason to expect the results to be any less disastrous than they were in previous rounds.
Even without accepting Mormon theology, the harm of wealth concentration is becoming obvious to all from the experiences of communities like Powell, Wyo.
It is up to Mormons to hold Romney accountable and help him repent within their theological framework. But the rest of us should learn from the Mormon experience, which teaches the value of collective organizing as well as the need to guard the collective prosperity from internal and external threats.