Amy Chua, also known as Tiger Mom, has written a second book, this time with her husband. She is presenting the controversial view that eight cultural groups in the United States are more successful than others. Although the book will not be released until mid-February, it is already generating a great deal of debate and criticism. One of the eight groups she listed is the Mormons, which is why I took note of the discussion. I haven’t read the book, of course, and probably won’t, so I can’t address why she specifically thinks Mormons are more successful than others, but she is not the first to note that Mormons tend to produce a lot of successful people. I found the three items she listed that she says makes some cultural groups more successful than others and in this article, I’ll evaluate them against Mormon culture. As I said, I don’t know how she addressed the issues. My discussion is simply based on Mormonism in general.
Do Mormons See Themselves as Superior?
“Americans are taught that everyone is equal, that no group is superior to another. But remarkably, all of America’s most successful groups believe (even if they don’t say so aloud) that they’re exceptional, chosen, superior in some way.”
This quote from the sales material suggests that Mormons might be successful because they consider themselves better than others or chosen. This is a tricky concept and involves understanding some subtle aspects of Mormonism.
It is true that Mormons teach that they have the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and are therefore the only completely true church on the Earth today. However, that is not meant to bring about any feelings of superiority or even a sense of being chosen. Mormons teach that conversion must be voluntary and that every single person will eventually have the opportunity to choose whether or not to belong—but that no one will be forced to do so, even after death. This means God didn’t choose them—they chose God.
This issue is specifically addressed in a story found in the Book of Mormon, which Mormons use as a companion to the Bible. A missionary named Alma encountered a group of people who restricted their church services only to those they considered chosen. Being chosen was demonstrated by wealth. These people, called the Zoramites, held very self-centered services in which they took turns standing on a podium dressed in their very expensive clothing and thanking God for making them better than other people. They considered they were chosen of God and that their wealth was their reward for being chosen. They persecuted the poor among them, believing God thought less of those people.
They did not understand that when God promises blessings, He does not always mean He will give them money. Money is often not a blessing—it certainly wasn’t for these Zoramites. They also didn’t understand that God loves all His children and wants them all to succeed and to come to Him.
And so, Mormons consider their membership a choice, not a foreordained event beyond their control. God didn’t choose them—they chose Him. A recent study showed that Mormons are more likely than any other religious group to believe that people on Earth today who are not Mormon may get into Heaven.
However, Mormons do believe that having been fortunate enough to have someone share the gospel with them while they were on the Earth—because God depends on us to do that—they now have a great responsibility. That responsibility includes sharing their beliefs with others, but it also includes living up to the blessings God has given them. This can lead to Mormons working harder to make use of any gift they receive from God, and that can lead to worldly success, even though worldly success isn’t a goal in and of itself, but rather the result of making good use of our talents and opportunities.
Are Mormons Insecure?
The promotional materials for the book state:
“Americans are taught that self-esteem—feeling good about yourself—is the key to a successful life. But in all of America’s most successful groups, people tend to feel insecure, inadequate, that they have to prove themselves.”
This subject sometimes comes up in interfaith discussions, particularly among evangelicals. Many evangelical faiths believe that once you have stated that you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, your work is over and nothing else is required—you are saved forever.
Mormons reject this belief. They believe that conversion is a life-time responsibility. While we don’t believe we are saved by our works, we do believe that our actions matter. People who are fully converted try hard to live as Jesus taught them to live. Our actions, when carried out purely because of our love for and faith in the Savior, Jesus Christ, are a reflection of our level of commitment to God and to Jesus Christ.
Does not being able to have a “signed” guarantee of Heaven no matter how badly we choose to live our lives mean we are insecure? No, it doesn’t. We believe that being willing to sacrifice our sins in order to be with God again is a gift. Mormons trust God completely. They know the judgment the Bible promises will be fair and that Jesus Christ will advocate for us. We know what is expected of us and we know that we won’t achieve perfection in this life, but that we are always expected to be working towards it.
This constant effort to improve ourselves is a blessing. We don’t make New Year’s resolutions, forget them, and feel free of the need to improve until next January. Mormons are taught to be continually improving our lives. Those improvements are made in both the spiritual and the temporal realms.
People who find themselves constantly improving and growing, and who know they have time enough, but none to waste, have an increased sense of self-confidence. Our confidence doesn’t come from a false sense of easily achieved salvation or of fake words of undeserved praise. We build our self-esteem by actually accomplishing hard things.
Mormons give their members every opportunity to grow. Through church service positions known as “callings,” they are able to develop new skills. For instance, although very shy when I became a Mormon, I soon found myself speaking in public, teaching children and adults, leading organizations, and even teaching English as a Second Language without any special training. All these opportunities led to authentic self-esteem improvements, because I learned I could do more than I ever imagined. Real self-esteem comes from our accomplishments, not from empty praise based on nothing of importance. Mormons do have that—and it is their confidence, not their insecurities, that give it to them. This often translates into successful lives in the world.
That said, Mormons have always been a persecuted and misunderstood group of people. Thus, they can feel misjudged even before they step out the door into an uncertain world. In this way, Mormons could be seen as insecure — insecure as to how they will be perceived and accepted by people of other faiths or no faith.
Are Mormons Willing to Forgo Instant Gratification?
The promotional materials for Amy Chuan’s book says: “America today spreads a message of immediate gratification, living for the moment. But all of America’s most successful groups cultivate heightened discipline and impulse control.”
This is somewhat addressed within the previous questions and the answer is actually true of most religious faiths. Mormons are taught to live deliberately, focused on eternal goals. We believe that this life is a time to grow, to learn, and to be tested. While God often gives us blessings during our time on Earth, the most important blessings come after our deaths. Because Mormons are focusing eternally, they are indeed often willing to put aside instant gratification in order to achieve something greater—eternal life—later on. They learn to try to engage in meaningful activities and to focus on things that have lasting value. It’s not that they can’t have fun—they do. Their fun is often, however, carried out with a purpose.
This, of course, does make them pretty good at everyday life. Mormons are encouraged to get a good education so they can support their families. When you’re not worried about how to feed your children, you have more time to focus on eternal things. This means many Mormons put aside playtime for study time, even at young ages. They often marry and have children while still in school. This makes life a bit harder, of course, but they find the blessings of a happy family worth the sacrifices. They work hard at their jobs, but balance that work with family time and spiritual time. Always, they are looking ahead, both towards their future needs in this life and towards their eternal goals.
Mormons are not successful merely because they are Mormons. God doesn’t hand out success as a baptismal gift. Their success comes because their faith teaches them to develop a good work ethic, a work-life balance, a moral lifestyle, and an eye towards a meaningful future. A Mormon who chooses to ignore those teachings will be no more successful than any other person in the world.
Are Mormons more successful than others? Many are, but their success comes from living life the way God wants us to live, which often means putting something other than temporary worldly pleasures first.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.