In 1958 a political scientist published a book on the culture of Southern Italy that may have something to say about one of the potential pit falls of Mormonism. The political scientist — Edward Banfield — was interested in a fairly simple question: Why does Northern Italy work and Southern Italy not? If you go to Milan, in the north, you will find a bustling, functional, modern city with basically honest government and commerce. If you go to Naples or Palermo, in the south, you will find that government and commerce are riddled with corruption and mafiasos. What gives?
Banfield’s approach was to simply live in a small southern Italian town for a while and observe how people interacted with one another. He described what he found as “familial amoralism.” This is the socio-ethical system on display in the Godfather movies. It involves an intense commitment and loyalty to family and other insiders and an essential indifference to the plight of outsiders. In other words, it takes an essentially amoral attitude toward those not in the family. The results, according to Banfield, were catastrophic for southern Italian society. There was a breakdown of trust between strangers and even between unrelated neighbors, and without this trust social cooperation in either commerce or government became impossible. Not surprisingly, Robert Putnam — Harvard’s contemporary guru of “social capital” — was one of Banfield’s graduate students. (As was BYU professor Noel Reynolds, incidentally.)
I am sympathetic to the idea of Mormon tribal identity. To be sure, it is a tribe that is decisively defined by a covenantal relationship with God, but the same was true of Israel’s children. Familial amoralism is the great danger that tribes can succumb to. In his book Bowling Alone Putnam argues that there are good forms of social interaction and bad forms of social interaction. The good forms create “social capital,” ie widespread mutual trust between members of society. The bad forms create “familial amoralism” (although I don’t think Putnam uses Banfield’s rather awkward term.) It is interesting to ask which category Mormonism falls into.
The truth, of course, is that Mormonism as a set of social interactions is very, very complicated. It certainly has the ability to create a great deal of mutual trust between members of the Church. On the other hand, the very fact that Mormonism necessarily freights the divide between member and non-member with so much significance makes it difficult for the Church to be a generator of social capital when it finds itself embedded within a pluralistic community rather than acting as the context in which community occurs. At its worst, this has produced at least one horrible instance of familial amoralism — the Mountain Meadows Massacre (although obviously this is a very complicated case) — and many lesser instances, as any number of Gentile kids growing up in Utah can attest to. It seems that associations with much weaker ties and claims on their members — things like soccer clubs, the PTA, or swimming leagues — do a better job of generating social capital. In this sense, whatever the Church’s other virtues (and obviously I think that they are many) it doesn’t seem to be well suited to be an agent for the maintenance of civic life.
Or so my thinking goes at present. Interestingly, Banfield also did a study of another small southern town. This one was located, however, in the remote American west and is called St. George. The manuscript produced by this study (which lasted, I believe, one or two years) was never published. I believe that it now resides in the special collections at BYU. I would be curious to read some day what Banfield thought of the Mormon farmers he lived amongst.