Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Contemporary Mormonism : Latter-day Saints in modern America

Race, Ethnicity, And Class
Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

Others Mormons are more positive about capitalism. Unabashed by the early ideals, some LDS leaders and Brigham Young University professors defend it as the way to succeed personally and improve the world.

They praise the elements of the market system: freedom of choice and action, private ownership of property, incentives for investment, and productive effort. Historically no other system has promoted prosperity like capitalism, and the success of the Saints in business has enabled them to support a welfare system that aids the poor. Many smart young Mormons go to graduate school in business and work hard to succeed in corporate or entrepreneurial worlds. Utah has its share of millionaires and billionaires, many of whom pay a full 10 percent of their income to the Church.

In practice, the conflict works itself out in congregations where poor, uneducated converts will sometimes mingle with established business and professional people. Congregations are organized geographically, and rich and poor mix in communities where Church membership is thin. In cities such as New York, Chicago, and Boston, people of all classes worship together, but in densely populated Mormon areas in Utah and California, neighborhood segregation leads to Church segregation, perpetuating race and class division. Citizens living in large and expensive homes on the East Bench of Salt Lake City may never meet poor minorities. This means that the educated and affluent can easily abandon the inner city and attend church only with people like themselves.

An experimental program, the Salt Lake Inner-City Project, attempts to break down that pattern by assigning middle-class Latter-day Saints to impoverished wards in the center of the city. These service missionaries meet with families to provide friendship and advice, referring medical, dental, and financial problems to on-call experts. This program, begun in 1996, grew rapidly. In 2003, more than 500 missionaries were helping out in ninety-three inner-city wards. They work in the wards for an average of two years, often preferring them to their own neighborhoods.

Outside of Utah, rich and poor are more likely to congregate to worship. In areas lightly populated with Mormons many neighborhoods are needed to constitute a ward. Local leaders will often gerrymander the boundaries to achieve a mix so that experienced leadership is available to help the newly converted. Middle-class neighborhoods yield Mormons who can run organizations, teach classes, and make the local organization work. These experienced leaders teach less experienced members Church traditions. Although each congregation has a character of its own, this wide spectrum of incomes, education, and Church experience is the standard pattern.

This mix is harder to achieve in rapidly growing Church populations in Latin America, Africa, and the Philippines where the poor, uneducated, and inexperienced predominate. A scattering of Latter-day Saint expatriates helps out, and are indeed vital, but their numbers are too small to keep congregations going. The need for native leadership and the hope to help new converts get ahead has led to a program to aid upward social mobility in developing countries. President Gordon B. Hinckley introduced the Perpetual Education Fund (PEF) at April Conference in 2001, noting the similarity to the nineteenth-century Perpetual Emigrating Fund, which loaned transportation costs to Mormon immigrants. President Hinckley spoke of the dilemma of faithful members who serve missions and return home to unemployment and poverty. They had been brother missionaries with comparatively wealthy Anglos, wearing shirts and ties every day, and sleeping in neat apartments. After their missions, the Anglos returned home to college and prosperity, whereas their brothers from developing countries went back to crowded slums.

To break the cycle of poverty, Hinckley proposed Church educational loans at minimal (3 percent) interest. The loans, which come from member donations, mainly North Americans, pay for training programs in auto mechanics, banking, computer programming, hotel administration, and similar practical vocations. Funds go directly to schools as tuition. "We must do all we can to help [our people] to lift themselves, to establish their lives upon a foundation of self-reliance that can come of training. Education is the key to opportunity." The PEF, administered through the Church Educational System or CES, with no overhead costs, was immediately successful. The first year, contributions came from 250,000 people. Returning from a mission without skills, Rodolfo Uribe of Mexico, an early graduate of an experimental version of the program, studied welding at a Church-owned high school in Mexico City and later at Ricks College, now BYU-Idaho. He became an instructor himself. "I didn't have a good job and I didn't know how to do anything." Now, he says, "many companies want to pay me to work for them, but I stay with this program because I feel the hand of the Lord." Other early attendees have moved into management or started businesses.

In eighteen months, the PEF loaned about $700 each to 5,360 students, mostly returned missionaries, planning expansion to 100,000 annually within ten years. The average student is twenty-six years old and will need two and a half years of training; 40 percent of the recipients are women. Elder John K. Carmack, who runs the program, says students follow the agenda of mission, temple, and education for a brighter future. The process of converting people at the bottom of the financial ladder continues, and Church resources help them. The money to build chapels and temples comes from the United States, as does the money for mission support. Now developing countries have the PEF to help poor converts improve their status. As children acquire more education, they improve the prospects for future generations. This commitment to helping the poor is ground into the Mormon ethos from the old Zion principle. Mormons have been accused of perpetuating class distinctions through their zealous involvement with capitalism, but in partial response, the PEF transfers wealth from the beneficiaries of capitalism to populations still trying to get a foot on the ladder.

The days when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was primarily made up of white, English-speaking U.S. citizens have ended. The typical Mormon of the twenty-first century is tan or dark-skinned, urban poor or working class from a Latino background. He or she will not speak English. Such people introduce into the Church the most divisive social issues of our time-race, ethnicity, and class. Like every other church and social group, Mormons have suffered from and coped with these tensions. Some of the tensions have been magnified by peculiar Mormon doctrines and practices. Yet breaches have been healed too. The race issue is less tense than it used to be. The class issue is addressed on many fronts. Another generation will likely resolve current ethnic tensions, even as new groups arrive and new tensions develop.