What’s Wrong with the Controversial Businessweek “Mormon Money” Cover?

Just as they hoped, Businesweek’s cringeworthy cover illustration for Caroline Winter’s story “How the Mormons Make Money” generated lots of buzz today, especially among Mormons sensitive to the mocking depiction of a foundational moment in Mormon history.

As Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune describes:

It features an illustration of John the Baptist with his hands on the heads of LDS founder Joseph Smith and his assistant, Oliver Cowdery, and a quote bubble which reads: “And thou shalt build a shopping mall, own stock in Burger King and open a Polynesian theme park in Hawaii that shall be largely exempt from the frustrations of tax…”

The profoundly irreverent tone of the cover illustration is totally out of joint with Winter’s story, which offers a generally balanced and straightforward assessment of LDS Church finances and enterprises.

Winter depicts LDS Church-owned enterprises as extensive, diverse, competitive, professionally managed, and fully capitalistic in spirit and execution—even as her article raises worthy questions about the transparency of LDS Church finances and the allocation of its revenues to humanitarian purposes. (One of Winter’s facts on this latter point has been challenged.)

But the cover art makes those worthy questions moot. Today, I’ve been in contact with a few of the sources for the article, and they believe the mocking cover image will lead most Mormons to dismiss the entire article as an anti-Mormon hit piece.

Trying to sell a few magazines, Businessweek destroyed an opportunity for a serious discussion. That’s not what any of the sources consulted for the article would have wanted.

Another lost opportunity was Winter’s failure to pursue with any insight or curiosity the question of what motivates Mormon enterprise. It’s not that Mormonism is just another form of prosperity gospel. The faith has a 170-year-long history of seeking economic self-sufficiency, motivated at first by Mormons’ desire for autonomy from a hostile mainstream and by necessity engendered by their western isolation. Today, that drive is motivated—as I’ve heard discussed among leading figures in Mormon Studies this week and as was hinted at in the Church’s own statement and a Deseret News editorial today—by the need to create an endowment capable of sustaining the global physical infrastructure of Mormonism (temples, churches, universities) even as the bulk of the Church’s population shifts to the global south and tithing revenues flatline or even drop. 

This is no simple Creflo Dollar morality tale. This is story about history and global patterns of wealth distribution, as well as about the way a financially successful American-based Church takes what it needs from the market to realize its own countercultural priorities. A story maybe too big for Businessweek to grasp, and certainly too big for its juvenile cover.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.