Monday, February 15, 2010

Socio-Economic Status and the LDS Church

There is a fascinating paradox within Mormonism. There is the general perception among many that this church caters to the poor and uneducated and ignorant and desperate. In fact, if you ask members themselves to identify the "best potential converts", I would be willing to bet that many would identify exactly this group - the poor, humbled ones.

Contrast that with the actual demographic descriptions that often are published in comparative studies of various religions. In all of them I have seen, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are aggregated as (among, at least) the most educated believers in the world - with a standard of living that also is near or at the top of the lists.

The question in my mind that rarely is discussed or addressed in these studies is whether both of these seemingly opposing claims are true - that the nature of the Gospel that we teach appeals to the poor and oppressed initially and then, in very real and practical terms, inspires and motivates and literally "empowers" those who stick with it to raise their education and/or standard of living - if not with the initial converts, then at least with their children. I suspect the "middle class" perception of the Church from the outside is a result more of this growth from generation to generation (how 2nd and 3rd generation Mormons appear and live) than it is to the status of converts when they first join the Church.

In that sense, if those around them tend to remain in poverty while Mormons (outside of America) tend to raise their standard of living in ways measurably different than those around them, then perhaps that contributes to the impression that these Mormons are more "American" than "native" - simply because they act and dress and carry themselves more "middle-class" than their friends and neighbors. (Fwiw, I have heard critics say that converts in poorer countries join the Church simply to "get a better education and make more money". How's that for a warped criticism - whether it's true or not?)

It would be an interesting way to explain the oddity that those in developing countries who become established in Mormon culture tend to raise their standard of living relatively high enough to have excess within their culture, while those who have enjoyed multi-generational prosperity tend to succumb more to the allure of their prosperity, over-extend and lose it. (Sounds like I'm paraphrasing the Book of Mormon, doesn't it?)

There is a good spiritual lesson in there for anyone who wants to look for it.


Patty said...

It's amazing to see the spiritual and temporal growth that comes from being fully immersed in the gospel. I've experienced in my own life and would never want to go back to my old lifestyle, even if it was easier at times. It's also hard to see some who stay on the fringes of the gospel, who never quite "get it" and are still struggling with the same self-reliance and poverty issues. God truly does bless obedience, even if it isn't always being raised to middle class!

Paul said...

I'd be interested in statistics to support your assumptions. I agree there is a perception that it is the poor who will more readily accept the gospel from missionaries. Do we have evidence of those poor improving their circumstance over time? I'm not sure my experience in Latin America and parts of Asia would support that claim.

I also wonder if the "middle-classness" of the church is a North American condition, or even a Utah - California condition.

Papa D said...

Patty, I agree that acceptance of the Gospel doesn't bring increased wealth automatically or immediately - or even over time. I know WAY too many situations where that simply is not the case to make that claim. I do believe, however, in a general, communal aspect of "prosperity" (NOT just financial prosperity) that comes from living the Gospel - and that it is available within and outside of the LDS Church.

Paul, if I have time I will try to find some of the studies I've seen in years gone by - all from non-LDS sources, by the way. There was one, in particular, that tried to compare those who (in all denominations mentioned)were "church roll members" (regardless of any measure of activity level) and those who self-identified as members (the presumption being that these people were more likely to be actively participating members).

Personally, I'm not sure I agree with the generalization totally, and the creation of and reason for the Perpetual Education Fund would argue against too universal an application of the "prosperity Gospel" applying to individals and not just societies as a whole - but it is a fascinating discussion.