Seek not after riches nor the vain things of this world; for behold, you cannot carry them with you. – Alma 39:14 (Book of Mormon)
But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. – Jacob 2:18 (Book of Mormon)
In a week when Mitt Romney has been asked to release his tax returns, and on a day when many “conservative” voters in South Carolina have shown their contempt for Mormons, family values and traditional morality, I thought it would be appropriate to address questions related to Mormons and prosperity theology. Does God always shower money on the righteous? Do Mormons pay tithing to their church with the expectation of becoming rich? Is there a connection between personal righteousness and prosperity?
Given the media’s current focus on Mitt Romney’s wealth, he makes a good case study. Has he been blessed with abundant wealth and a beautiful family because of his dedication to his faith? I think that many Mormons would answer yes, though there is nothing in our theology that establishes this link for everyone. After all, a good case can be made that a wealthy CEO/governor’s agnostic son who worked hard to get a dual graduate degree from Harvard would also become wealthy in his own right. In addition, Mormons are hardly the only people who are try to raise good kids. None of this is meant to minimize any of Mitt’s many accomplishments, but it’s important to note that LDS theology does not teach that a person’s righteousness can be determined by his wealth (or lack thereof).
The Book of Mormon specifically warns against setting one’s heart on riches, and several examples are given of how collective wealth leads to pride, which in turn leads to the downfall of tribes and civilizations. The only allowance that the book makes for seeking riches is for the purpose of doing good, but this is only after one has sought the kingdom of God (Jacob 2:19). If a Mormon obsessively seeks riches and ultimately finds them, he does so without the sanction of his faith.
The payment of tithing (10% of one’s income) to the LDS Church is usually considered to be a spiritual law, not a material one, and members who observe it are promised spiritual protection and blessings throughout their lives. They are also granted the privilege of entering LDS temples to perform our most sacred ordinances.
Are there financial blessings attached to the payment of tithing? Well, yes and no. Mormons certainly do not pay tithing because they expect to become rich. LDS leaders are fond of telling members that if they pay tithing faithfully, God will reward them according to their need, not their greed. In other words, God will meet their material needs, as determined by Him, but is not obligated to satisfy their wants. Has Mitt received blessings because of his faithful payment of tithes? You bet. Is his fabulous wealth one of those blessings? Hard to say.
This focus on Mitt’s wealth obscures the three main reasons why he is widely admired by Mormons, regardless of their political beliefs:
1) More than any other LDS politician on the national stage, he represents the Mormon model for how to live one’s life. He served a mission, married a faithful woman, got a great education, worked hard to support his family, served in church positions when asked, and remained faithful to the church. By way of contrast, many of Senator Harry Reid’s actions go well beyond the bounds of Mormon orthodoxy (e.g., support for gambling interests and abortion provider Planned Parenthood), and former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman remarked a few months ago that his identity as a Mormon was “tough to define.”
2) To the extent that a son of George Romney can be, Mitt is largely a self-made man. He is far wealthier than his father was (Huntsman is not), and has worked very hard to get where he is today.
3) As members of a once-persecuted group that is still opposed by people like some “conservative” rubes in South Carolina, Mormons are very proud that one of their own has a very real chance of being elected to the highest office in the land.
Whether Mitt’s faithfulness and diligence have caused God to bless him with material possessions is anybody’s guess. We all know God-fearing people who are smart and work hard, yet don’t achieve financial success. While Mormons are just as likely as other groups to admire the wealthy and powerful, especially if they are religious, they are less likely than most to attribute the good fortune of the wealthy to divine favor.