Inspired by Hugh Nibley’s short essay, How to Write an Anti-Mormon Book, for years I have meant to write a response to a former employer’s screed in favor of greed. This former employer shall remain anonymous, partly out of a bit of contextual respect and partly because anyone who defends greed in public likely would defend it in court. Suffice it to say he was a salesman extraordinaire for get-rich-quick schemes. And my interest in his remarks is because he identified as a faithful Latter-day Saint.
His argument to justify greed was delivered at the University of Utah, my guess to students of its business school, in 1981 or 1982. He did not specify the audience or date it. But those were years I did work for his company and about the time I remember confronting him about his remarks titled, Is it Ethical to Make as Much Money as Possible?
Just as Nibley demonstrated the key elements and rhetorical patterns of LDS Church apostates who insist on disparaging the Book of Mormon, I hope to demonstrate the same approach regarding posers who shamelessly justify sin in the name of Jesus Christ — in this case, the sin of greed.
First, jump into the sin with both feet at full throttle. “It took me only three-quarters of a second to decide that my calendar would be cleared and that I would be here today. This is a subject upon which I have pondered, myself, for many years.” Of course, he had. Any person who claimed faithfulness but behaved sinfully would “ponder” the incongruity day and night.
Second, invite the audience to sin. “Is it ethical to make as much money as possible? This is an important question. Our eternal future depends upon how carefully we choose to spend our precious time in this life. If making money is not important then a lot of you are majoring in the wrong subject in university…and I am in the wrong business…and I considered the possibility.”
And, in the next breath, crown yourself a master teacher for the audience to follow. “It is easy for many Christians to rationalize and form superficial opinions about the subject of money. But when you take the time to delve into this subject, to ponder it deeply, you sometimes arrive at a different understanding than what you started out with. At least, that’s what happened to me. I want you to know that I took this assignment very seriously.” So serious, he says, that he wrote out the entire speech and then announced he was delivering it word-for-word. “I want to make sure that I don’t miss a point.” And just ask him for a copy “for your future reference.”
Third, redirect the sin. “So what is the real answer? It all depends. Yes, it all depends. It all depends upon the answer to two other questions. Question #1. How will you make your money? Question #2. What will you do with an endless supply of money once you have it?” Interestingly, my former employer does not answer question #1. He instead quotes an LDS Church President, David O. McKay, “The Lord will have no interest in how you earned your living, [only] if you were honest in all your dealings.”
Continuing to redirect the sin, he says, “A lot of people don’t understand money. They think that all money is acquired through illegal and/or immoral means.” Do a lot of people really think that all money is acquired this way? Really? He does not elaborate. Though perplexingly, he immediately shares a story about former Brigham Young University President Ernest Wilkinson (known for his strict morality) who when asked, “What do you think about tainted money,” purportedly replied, “It taint enough.”
That is redirection. If a beloved LDS Church prophet, David O. McKay, says the Lord doesn’t care how you make money, and a revered BYU president does not mind accepting “tainted” contributions on behalf of “the Lord’s University,” surely his answer to the all-important question hardly is, “it depends.” In fact, he next explains, “It’s true a lot of money has been acquired this way” and that “those who are true and faithful seem to lose out in the end.” He then doubles down on how good and honest people lose as he shares a story about Sir Thomas More being put to death after maintaining his integrity.
As a side note, I find his use of the word “acquire” curious. Why not “earn” or “make” money? I think he purposely used the word “acquire” because of his profession at the time which hardly could be defined as “work”: selling products at get-rich-quick seminars. Honest work cannot be defined as such when you steal money at a specific moment under intense circumstances by appealing to greed. Hence, acquire — he took their money that they might not have willingly given him if a few days had gone by.
Fourth, own the sin. “Although it may be out of fashion, I believe with all of my heart that a person can go farther in this world and in the world to come by being honest, industrious, hard-working, and compassionate than he can by another route.” And, here he owns the sin, [unlike McKay, Wilkinson, and More] “I believe that one can acquire wealth justly and honorably. I hope to show this to you today.”
Fifth, turn sin into a virtue. “Since we are supposed to live by every word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God (Doctrine and Covenants 84:44), let’s lay a foundation [to justify the sin of greed] by examining what Christ and His prophets, past and present, have said about the subject.”
To turn a sin into a virtue, you must first acknowledge the sin so much so that it easily can be buried in a “bait and switch.” My former employer does this to perfection. “It doesn’t take a doctor’s degree [sic] to soon realize that in the scriptures there are ten times as many warnings against having a lot of money to every instance where the Lord is in favor of wealth and prosperity.” Can you smell the impending bait and switch? He just gave us a taste by equating greed with “prosperity.”
But why belabor the inevitable? After sharing ten scriptural references, concluding with the widely used “The love of money is the root of all evil,” he reels us in. “He doesn’t mince a lot of words there. Nonetheless, even though we are counseled to not seek riches, we are very strongly counseled to be self-reliant, industrious, hard-working, and honest.” And, we’re off!
He will now argue to those poor university students in attendance that day [by the way, keep in mind he did not try to sell this nonsense at BYU] how the virtues of self-reliance, industriousness, hard work, and honesty require an affirmative answer to the topic of his remarks.
Sixth, seal the flimflam. Of course, he proclaims, it’s ethical to make as much money as you can because you need vast amounts of money to be virtuous. It is all a part of the Divine Plan. Being rich is a test of your virtue. Remember the redirect? “Question #2. What will you do with an endless supply of money once you have it?” Endless supply? Boom!
“Independent, self-sustaining [sic], and the diligent practice of this principle [i.e., self-reliance] almost seems to be a contradiction here. First, [the Lord] tells us not to seek riches and then He turns right around and tells us to work hard, become self-reliant, and industrious. In fact, He even promises us that if we keep His commandments we will prosper.” Done. Prosperity = Riches. Incredible.
And who are we to judge? “We can look through the history of the Church both ancient and modern and see examples of great men and women who have acquired great riches…Abraham was enormously wealthy…Lehi was wealthy…David and Solomon were both wealthy…Many of our Latter-day Saint leaders have risen through the ranks of business and industry to the highest levels of success and wealth.”
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, he opines, “Prosperity is a gift of God to those who keep His commandments. But by the same token, it is also a spiritual test…a very difficult spiritual test…Will you be up to the test? So to review, is it ethical to make as much money as possible? Yes, it is, but it depends on how you make it. If you make it ethically, the Lord will bless you with prosperity.”
If I were present in the room, I would have asked him if it’s possible for evil people to prosper. He never addresses this obvious flaw in his argument. Neither does he explain the Lord’s meaning of prosperity. Is prosperity always money? Or could it be good health, or happiness even in the face of severe trials? Does prosperity mean “vast riches,” even if it means materialism at all?
My former employer seals the flimflam with a self-righteous reminder for the rest of us to make sure we use our riches wisely and for the Lord’s purposes — to care for those in need. He asks if we are receiving a passing or failing grade in our “prosperity test.” He truly believed, as he shared these remarks, that God cares if you are rich, that God cares more about people being richer than others, and that how we handle riches is the true test of virtue.
I knew him. What grade would I give him on his prosperity test? I wouldn’t. I don’t know his heart. All I know is that he misses the whole point of prosperity in the eyes of God. He pimped greed in the name of God. I want to say this next point clearly: His profession was to teach people how to become rich. His profession did not teach people how to become virtuous. In fact, when his company had a chance to “give back” to its customers through an organized attempt to create a formal support network and trade association of former customers and even nurture struggling students trying to get rich quickly, he passed on the ideas. Insufficient ROI. Not a part of the business model of the Harold Hills of the world. Greed only sees objects, not people.
He made his money selling greed to others. He was a flimflam man in the kingdom of God, living in mansions of his own making, and insisting God had blessed him. A prophet of greed. A false prophet. But, man, they can sell!