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.