In The New Republic, historian Jackson Lears explores the transition from 19th-century communitarianism to 20-century capitalist boosterism in Mormon culture:
The assumption behind much of the “Mormon moment” chatter is that Mormons are especially suited for success in the brave new world of unregulated capital: tanned, rested, and ready. Their abstention from alcohol and caffeine keeps them healthy. Their self-discipline, stemming from missionary work and a strict code of personal morality, strengthens their capacity to compete in a global marketplace. Their attachment to family and community insulates them from the market’s worst abrasions. Their zeal for education in science and technology gets them first-class seats on the cyber-express. And their organizational genius makes them the ideal candidates to steer the lean, mean neo-liberal corporation through the storm-tossed business cycles ahead.
The Mormon Ethic, which bears a strong resemblance to the Protestant Ethic in its Gilded Age prime, has become a powerful constellation of values for our second Gilded Age—perhaps a reassuring counterweight to the feeling that we are sailing into the globalizing future with no moral ballast whatever. Contemporary Mormons, whose ancestors were chased from town to town across the prairie by Protestant mobs, have become paragons of patriotism and icons of success. In 1856, the Republican Party platform declared Mormon polygamy one of “two relics of barbarism” in America (the other was slavery). In 2008, as in every other recent election, Mormons voted overwhelmingly Republican.
What any of this has to do with the Mormons’ religious beliefs is a tricky question. Most journalistic observers are content to characterize the Mormon faith as “weird,” then toss off a few lines about sacred underwear and a quotation from Mark Twain describing The Book of Mormon as “chloroform in print.” Few ask what is Mormon about the Mormon Ethic. How does it differ from an updated version of Victorian Protestantism? Mansfield quotes a cable news pundit’s characteristically profound observation: “Mormons have goofy, mystical ideas that produce wonderful, earthly success.” How this production occurs is anybody’s guess.
(Via: Religion in American History)