July 29--The Mormon church's personal economic precepts sound like a mantra for fiscal conservatives: Pay an honest tithing, live on less than you earn, distinguish between needs and wants, develop and live within a budget, and be honest in all financial affairs.
But as debate rages about the ethics of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's leadership of Bain Capital -- a private equity and venture capital firm that sometimes made riches by shutting down companies and laying off workers -- it seems his business career might have dovetailed neatly with his Mormon faith.
"There's nothing in Mitt Romney's record that suggests that his financial or business decision-making have been motivated by anything other than bottom-line considerations. To be fair: As a capital manager, that's his job," said Joanna Brooks, a San Diego State literature professor who publishes the "Ask Mormon Girl" blog.
"It has not been a top note of his business life to ask questions about labor conditions or environmental impacts, the human costs ... and those aren't discussions he would be having in a Mormon circle either."
Modern Mormon communities "have come to view financial success as an inherent good without necessarily having the same conversations about how money is made, as may take place in other faith traditions," Brooks said.
It's a more profit-oriented, value-neutral approach to financial decisions, she said: Money is consecrated in the act
of tithing and other donations to the church, and "how that money is made is less of a religious preoccupation," she said. That's been particularly true as the Mormon church grew dramatically in the past 50 years, which required considerable money.
Romney's 2011 tax returns showed he and his wife, Ann, gave the church $2.6 million -- more than 12 percent of the $21 million they earned -- while also giving $1.4 million in cash and stock to their family foundation, which heavily supports the church. In 2010, they gave $1.5 million to the church -- about 7 percent of their earnings -- plus $900,000 to their family foundation.
Patrick Mason, chairman of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, agreed that "Romney is almost prototypical of the majority of modern American Mormons." The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- which in its early years embraced communal economics and criticized cutthroat business practices -- "embraced pro-market American capitalism" in the late 19th century as part of its attempt to assimilate into society, he said.
The Mormon ethics of self-reliance, accountability and hard work lent themselves well to that economic ethos, he said. "It's a mistake to say wealth equals God's favor, but it's not a surprise when God does bless you with wealth when you're living right."
Yet while there's a clear expectation that faithful Mormons must contribute some of their assets to building God's kingdom through their church, "Mormonism has never developed a real social ethic as opposed to Catholic social teaching or the social gospel that's in Protestantism," Mason said.
Mormons aren't unconcerned with social welfare, and acts of individual charity are important, he said, but "it largely is secondary; it doesn't define what the gospel is or how people go about their lives.
"I do think there's a strong element of libertarianism... within Mormon thought along these lines. It's very much a laissez-faire approach," he said. "It gives Mormons and potentially Romney an added layer of confidence, of assurance that this is not just good economics but it's good religion, too."
Rick Kopf of Alamo, who directs the LDS Church's Bay Area Public Affairs Council, said charity for the less fortunate in the community and humanitarian projects abroad are a huge part of Mormon practice.
Mormonism teaches that "materialism can be a huge burden to a person. .... It's how they use it that's very important," he said. "We encourage hard work, we encourage people to be successful but to do it for the right means. We're not out there trying to be rich for the sake of being rich."
Personally, Kopf said, "I would hope that any political candidate who's a member of the church would live by the values of the church, would be true and honest and virtuous and family-oriented."
Evan Chase, a staffer at the California Election Forum website, which offers election recommendations for Christian voters, said he would like to hear Romney say more about how his Mormon faith informs his fiscal and economic policies.
"I haven't heard him communicate that very much," he said. "That affirms my interest in voting for Mitt Romney. In the evangelical community, those are strengths, those are American strengths."
Josh Richman covers politics.
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