Dow 6,000

March 30, 2009 | 14 comments
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One of the things people find odd about Mormons is our claim to be led by a prophet. Americans have little actual experience with prophets as popularly imagined, leading to a perception of strangeness and misunderstanding of what our prophets are. During the run-up to the 2008 election, what struck me as the strangest criticism of Mitt Romney (made in good faith by Damon Linker and others) was that Romney, as a member of a religion led by a prophet, was uniquely beholden to his religious leaders and therefore unsuitable for the presidency. The criticism seemed utterly foreign to my experience, but it was difficult to explain why. The prophet is such a fundamental part of Mormon life that sometimes we also don’t understand what a prophet is, or we can’t explain the concept well. I think we can find a good example of how prophecy works in Mormonism, however, in an address that Gordon B. Hinckley gave about the stock market.

In the fall of 1998, the Dow was roughly as high as it is today, and had seemed to be heading ever upward. But there had been some recent hiccups, including increased volatility and the collapse of the Long Term Capital Management hedge fund. In the October 1998 conference session for teenaged and adult men, Hinckley, then the prophet leading the church, shifted the immediate audience of his address from the young men to the adults, and read the story of Pharaoh’s dream of seven fat cows and seven lean ones. “I want to make it very clear that I am not prophesying, that I am not predicting years of famine in the future,” Hinckley said. “But I am suggesting that the time has come to get our houses in order.” (“I am not prophesying” is not a disavowal of the prophetic voice, but rather a parallel construction with the following “I am not predicting,” both of which should be read as transitive verbs with “years of famine” as their object; the parallel construction only clarifies that it is the specific act of prognosticating years of famine that Hinckley was avoiding.) Some people were living close to the edge of their means, he said, or even going into debt, and there were ominous signs in the global economy. “A stumble in the economy in Jakarta or Moscow can immediately affect the entire world. It can eventually reach down to each of us as individuals. There is a portent of stormy weather ahead to which we had better give heed.” He also spoke of his own experience during the Great Depression, when his father had helped organize welfare programs in his area. He cited the Church’s own history of resolving to end indebtedness, and its current practice of avoiding debt. Hinckley counseled discipline in avoiding debt and modesty in acquisition, including not purchasing a larger home than one actually needed.

Prophecy is, on one level, a particular manner of speaking. Hinckley was not just intending to give good advice. He was speaking prophetically not by predicting stock swings or forecasting the weather, but by explaining how the world works and how we fit into it. American Capitalism, he was telling us, has not revoked the relevance of Joseph’s experience in Egypt, or the business cycle. In our financial decisions, we ourselves are re-enacting both ancient scripture and Church history in the fullness of times. We as individuals are not just microscopic victims of macroeconomic forces, but also microcosms of the Church and the world since their inception. What made Hinckley’s speech prophetic was not a Bat Phone connection to deity, as Kaimi terms it, or a sure instinct for next week’s lotto numbers, but rather his inscribing of our bank statements and the day’s financial headlines into salvation history.

But in addition to a manner of speaking, prophecy is also a mode of communication, and communication requires both a speaker and listeners. However much Hinckley may insist—or deny—that he was speaking as a prophet, you and I as members of his audience choose whether to understand him as an out-of-touch old man still living in the Great Depression, or as a wise man giving us good advice based on years of experience, or as a prophet telling us how we fit into the cosmos. At one extreme, we could engage in vapid criticism by noting that scorning Hinckley’s advice and making leveraged bets on the stock market would have payed off handsomely on most days from his October 1998 speech up until October 2007. (The problem, as always, is that you never know if tomorrow is going to be one of those days or not.) At the other end of the spectrum, as we now appear to be sailing over a cliff into what looks like a nasty recession driven by the meltdown in real estate, it’s tempting to say that Hinckley saw this all coming when he told us not to buy bigger houses than we could afford. But the core of Mormon prophetic communication is not to be found in oracular utterances, I think, but rather in the interpretive practice of discovering present relevance in past statements. A large component of Mormon prophetic communication consists of ex eventu interpretation by the audience of statements made long before or, one might say, likening them to ourselves. Perhaps Hinckley only had October 1998 in mind when he sounded his warning, and was expecting clear sailing once we got to 1999. I don’t think so; compared to the limitless expectations some people had for the New Economy and the New New Economy, Hinckley’s voice of warning from the Great Depression sounds, well, prophetic (but that says as much or more about how I listen and read as about what was originally said). Seeing today’s business pages as the fulfillment of a 1998 prophetic statement is a consequence not of simple observation, but of accepting our roles in a particular model of the cosmos and in a prophetic communicative context.

* * *

After spending a good amount of time and effort trying to write just what I meant to say, it occurs to me that I may have arrived at an entirely trivial conclusion, and that the final result may still be completely unhelpful. If I had to reduce all this to the question about a Mormon’s religious disqualification for higher office, I would say that the skeptic needs to look both at statements by Mormon prophets and, or even primarily, at the Mormon tradition of prophetic interpretation. Interpretation is, however, highly individual, so that the concerned but sincere skeptic really needs to look at an individual politician’s usual manner of interpreting prophetic statements—and a close look at a particular individual almost never reveals anything worth mentioning.

14 Responses to Dow 6,000

  1. Dan Eastmond on March 30, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    Jonathan,

    President Hinckley would have been proud. You resisted the shameless pun on the word “profit.”

  2. mmiles on March 30, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    Great post! I’ve had the same questions and the same trivial answers.
    It seems to me that our prophets often mirror the Old Testament prophets in at least that there job is to interpret current events (like the Dow) in a way that effects “God’s” people spiritually and temporally. I’m not sure what mainstream non-Mormons have in mind when they think of prophet. It appears non-Mormon Americans think of someone who foretells far off events with specifics, like Nostradamus (or at least the Tabloid version of Nostradamus). I myself cannot think of any event that modern day Mormon prophets have explained that would fit this expectation.

  3. Julie M. Smith on March 30, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    I find reading that talk haunting. Guess we all better listen to conference this weekend, eh?

  4. Adam Greenwood on March 30, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    Very good post. Thanks.

  5. Dan on March 30, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    From his talk,

    I repeat, I hope we will never again see such a depression. But I am troubled by the huge consumer installment debt which hangs over the people of the nation, including our own people. In March 1997 that debt totaled $1.2 trillion, which represented a 7 percent increase over the previous year.
    In December of 1997, 55 to 60 million households in the United States carried credit card balances. These balances averaged more than $7,000 and cost $1,000 per year in interest and fees. Consumer debt as a percentage of disposable income rose from 16.3 percent in 1993 to 19.3 percent in 1996.

    Oh how much worse those numbers are today than they were a mere ten years ago…this will take a while to correct.

  6. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 30, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    I understand from the news that a lot of Americans have decided that it’s a good idea to grow some of their own food. That makes Spencer W. Kimball sound more like a prophet.

    I think that the statements from Kimball and Hinckley were about eternal principles of avoiding slavery to material idols and placing the gospel at the top of our material as well as spiritual priorities. If we had an individual Urim and Thummim, a lot of us would be looking for next week’s stock and commodities prices, rather than eternal verities. The Book of Mormon tells us constantly that basic righteousness and unselfishness leads to prosperity. The story of the Nephites is the constant temptation to go from prosperous to really rich, the temptation to which so many Latter-day Saints succumb in one investment scheme after another. Addictions like gambling, pornography, alchohol and drugs are all about gorging on sensations rather than investing in the long term pleasures of moderation and family relationships and service.

    The most basic reason that the Prophet is not going to dictate to a Mormon president what he should be doing is that the Prophet has more important things to do than mess with the Federal budget or the use of the armed forces. The fact is, by and large the Prophet even lets the bishops and stake presidents and mission presidents run the Church itself using their own inspired judgment.

    There may be some cases where the Prophet has advice for a government leader, on issues like morality and the effect of laws affecting behavior, such as same sex marriage. But when that happens I don’t think the Prophet is going to say something to a government official that he doesn’t already say to all members of the Church.

    Furthermore, the Prophets have respect for the principle that one receives revelation that pertains to one’s own calling and responsibilities. Their calling is not to lead America, but if Mitt Romney had been elected President, Romney would be the one entitled to inspiration about the decisions required in that office. I would hope and pray that a President would pray for inspiration in his most difficult judgments, such as selecting members for the courts, and deciding how to use the armed forces, and how to form policy that affects morality. Just like any of us, we have no certainty that every choice we make is inspired. We try to use our best judgment, and ponder our choices, and hope for insight from God. Lord knows he would be getting a lot of unsolicited advice from people in his political party and the general public, as well as the news media.

    But there is no reason to think that any Mormon official in government is a robot who simply blindly follows a Mromon prophet. There has been a century of Mormons serving in Congress. Which of them ever acted like that? Which Mormon governor called up Salt Lake every morning to get his marching orders? Which Mormon cabinet officer–including Ezra Taft Benson–was constantly soliciting advice from 50 East South Temple? When J. Reuben Clark was Solicitor at the State Department, or Ambassador to Mexico, was he checking in constantly to get feedback on the treaties on use of the Rio Grande?

    Anyone who makes a silly claim about Mormon government officials being mindless robots, “Manchurian candidates”, is ignoring a hundred years of real interaction between Mormon government officers and their prophets.

    The short response is “It hasn’t happened in 100 years, and it isn’t going to happen now. Mormons teach their members to exercise individual initiative to do good without being told what it is. Mormon church leaders at the local level take direction from the Prophet on Church policy, but he doesn’t tell them how to be lawyers, or doctors, or artists, or farmers, or professors, or engineers, or pilots, or electricians. He doesn’t tell Mormons who are government employees at the local, state or Federal level how to do their jobs. He doesn’t tell military officers how to carry out their duties. And he doesn’t tell elected officials how to do their jobs either.”

  7. Pat on March 31, 2009 at 11:22 am

    I agree. Great post! While it is true that many people could have given similar advice — and probably did — it is particularly important for the Damon Linkers of the world to know that our prophet doesn’t lead us around by the nose, that he gives us good advice about many things, but that in the end we are expected to make informed judgments about things, informed decisions about things and then be responsible for those decisions. Wasn’t President Hinckley’s position on movies to avoid “inappropriate” films? Maybe Linker’s problem was that he confused BYU with the church at large, a common mistake even among members.

  8. Naismith on March 31, 2009 at 11:49 am

    The thing is…the counsel didn’t do our family any good since I make all the investments, and the talk was only given to the men and boys of the church. Is there anything sinisterly sexist about that?

  9. Catania on March 31, 2009 at 11:50 am

    This is a good post. Interestingly enough, we recently had a stake conference where President Packer spoke. In his talk he mentioned that President Hinckley HAD warned us of rough times, we are now experiencing those times, and how relavent it is to heed the words of the prophet.

    Although people may not understand the role of a prophet, how grateful I am that we have one.

  10. Rameumptom on March 31, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    I remember watching that talk. Afterward, my friend, Whit, who was sitting next to me stated that this was the first time he’d ever heard a lesson on economics in General Priesthood session.

    When the economic dip was over, I still followed Pres Hinckley’s advice, even though I perceived the danger past. How prescient his words now sound, and how thankful I am that I listened. Only a house payment that is very affordable, and a 2 year supply of food storage has me sitting pretty.

    And my investments were diversified, so while the market hit me, I was still good on many safer investments.

  11. MinJae Lee on April 2, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    Re: #9 – The talk was published in the Ensign the following month. I am not aware of any effort made to prevent sisters in the church from reading the conference addresses given in the Priesthood session.

    That being said, I have trouble understanding why the video of the the Priesthood session is not made available on the Church’s website where all other sessions can be viewed.

  12. MinJae Lee on April 2, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    Ooops – that was @#8 not #9

  13. Rob Perkins on April 2, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    #8 — Not only the following month, but these days the website will have the video online an hour, audio files in 71 languages in four hours, broken up by individual speaker in 33 of those languages in the same amount of time, written transcripts within four days, and downloadable video files within 2 weeks.

    …Except the priesthood session. I have no idea why. But, that means that the women of the Church see this content at most four days after the meeting.

    Is that sinister?

  14. Onymous on April 3, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    I’ve often wondered if the reason for no video is to prevent providing any incentives to the men from skipping attendance at the priesthood session, by allowing them to get the essentially the full experience without having to go to priesthood session.

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