Perhaps you’ve heard about the goofy white underwear that Mormons conceal beneath their black slacks, white button-ups, and bike helmets? Or that they believe there was an ancient war fought between Israel and a ragtag alliance of Indians on the prairies and foothills of pre-modern America. Did you know that Mormons, upon death or apocalypse, inherit a planet of their own to populate with the children of fruitful polygamy? Had you heard that the leader of the Church of Scientology determines its leadership by competitive games of musical chairs set to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Did you know it was founded by a tax-dodging science fiction author? Seriously, have you seen that Tom Cruise video?
Half-truths, gaffes, and oddities—such as those listed above—are like butter for the mainstream media and Internet culture’s bread, and they’ve spread it on thick, creamy, and caloric in their coverage of America’s newest major religions, Mormonism and Scientology. Trey Stone and Matt Parker, the impish creators of television crass-fest South Park, recently wrote an eye-poking Broadway musical called The Book of Mormon to critical acclaim sold-out seats. Hacktivist group Anonymous has waged an ongoing picket-a-thon of Scientology facilities across the country, armed with Guy Fawkes masks and clever placards. But for all of the perceived kooky antics of Mormonism and Scientology, they are both worthy of serious, detached academic study and rigorous scrutiny.
Much ink has been spilled about Mormons of late for their growing influence in politics and foreign affairs. Of their two most recognizable public figures, one, Glenn Beck, for years harangued from the prime-time throne of the biggest cable network in the country, and the other, Mitt Romney, pontificates from the campaign trail bully pulpit. “[F]or all the attention now lavished on how Mormonism fits in with the American experience,” writes Chris Lehman for Harper’s, “remarkably little is known about a key feature of Mormon belief: the organization of economic life.” Through an exhaustive essay (sorry, subscribers only) covering how wealth figures into Mormon theology and politics, Lehman makes one thing exceedingly clear: The-Little-Church-from-Utah-that-Could is an important subject on which economics and business management professors should fix an unblinking eye.
Just look at the figures. Mormons are the fastest growing and richest religious group in the world—and their resources are being pooled more and more potently, such as the $14 million fundraised to ban gay in California in 2008. Although that figure alone is worthy of deep, deep investigation, there’s more. Allow me to quote from Lehman at length:
The church has its own welfare system, which distributes its own line of food and consumer products under the proprietary Deseret brand. It also holds extensive corporate investments, which are not fully disclosed—but in a 2007 study called Mormon America, Richard N. and Joan K. Ostling fix the church’s total assets at somewhere between $25 billion and $30 billion. (For the sake of comparison, the Ostlings note that a similarly sized U.S. denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, possesses $152 million in stock holdings, mainly to secure its employees’ pension plans.) The Mormon church owns a $16-billion insurance company, at least $6 billion in stocks, and a $172-million chain of radio stations, as well as more than 150 farms and ranches, which easily places the church among the largest landowners in the nation. (Emphasis mine.)
Heck, with the amount of influence the Mormon Church carries, I’m starting to wonder if maybe I’m a Mormon already and just haven’t yet been notified.
Tight-lipped and loaded with celebrity converts, the Church of Scientology also occupies a unique place in American culture. The ideas of founder L. Ron Hubbard “contain fascinating religious content that demands serious study,” argues Seth Perry in Chronicle Review in a review of two new books about the institution’s history, public perception, and what can be gathered about its theology.
Perry admits that Scientology can be a slippery subject. “The unearthing of the church’s complicated, often ugly history is an essential part of the study of Scientology,” he writes, “but it does not need to be the sum total of that study.” Its members are at once cultish and beatific, both mystical and matter-of-fact. Perry recounts one pilloried anecdote that embodies many of those elements:
For much of his career, Hubbard gave orders through what he called his Messengers—mostly adolescent girls who were required not only to convey his words verbatim, but to imitate his voice while doing so.
Of the two books Perry reviews—Inside Scientology: The story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman and The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion by Hugh B. Urban—he concludes that the two scholars “have brought the study of Scientology to a crucial, long-delayed point” and will enable academia to “encompass the variety of ways in which individual Scientologists have lived their faith both within that institution and outside of it.”
Lehman and Perry’s stances are refreshingly curious for the current discourse around these two uniquely American religions.
Images: A still from The Book of Mormon Broadway production and the cover of Dianetics.