ORGANIZED RELIGION: SOME EFFECTS ON U.S. AGRICULTURE
As we look at the practice of agriculture in 2012 there are some surprises in store. Farmers and owners of farm land are not always one and the same. On the one hand, we have the Amish as the largest, homogeneous group of farmers in the United States. Given their large families and preference for rural living we can reasonably expect their influence on American agriculture will continue to grow into the foreseeable future. They are obviously deeply influenced in how they farm by their faith in God and their religion which institutionalizes that faith.
Contrasted to this, the largest holder of agricultural land in the United States is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints (LDS), more commonly known as the Mormon Church. While the exact number of acres is not known, it is conservatively estimated that total agricultural holdings fall somewhere between one and two million acres and is continuing to increase. Both the LDS Church farms and the Amish farmers, as guided by their Church, deliberately distance themselves from the USDA and its policies. There are different intrinsic values behind the motives that guide their farming practices. The irony is that they are both thriving in an agricultural environment that has routinely driven out conventional farmers who are guided by profit maximization. At some point, it would appear that any really serious student of agriculture will need to ask some pointed questions about the relationship between faith in God, religious institutions and the practice of agriculture in the United States.
I do not claim to be an expert, just a thoughtful observer. My observations are my own and I speak with no authority for either Church. While I am not Amish I have lived in their proximity, done business with them, and attended their meetings, read much of their history and literature. We have shared meals and serious discussions. We have worked together and prayed together. Among the LDS, I live a member of the flock. On Sundays my wife and I tend the babes in the nursery. My ancestors go back to the early days of the Church in Ohio, then Missouri and Illinois before finally moving west through Iowa to eventually settle in what was then the wilderness valleys of the Rocky Mountains.
There are similarities between these two religions. Both are deeply Christian, both believe that the ordinance of baptism should only be administered to those of an accountable age. Both believe baptism is essential to salvation. Both reject the Calvinist doctrine of Predestination and both shun or excommunicate members for violating certain tenets. Of particular interest, both go beyond the norms of conventional Protestantism or Catholicism … hence the persecution which has plagued and defined each Church. The Amish and Anabaptist, in general, fleeing the persecutions of Europe to America; and the LDS fleeing the persecutions of America to pioneer the unsettled territory of the West.
The LDS, in the beginning, were also a "plain" people, who were to build a Zion community of kindness and righteousness separate from the world where there would be no poor. The doctrine in 1831 was “let all thy garments be plain and … the work of thine own hands” and to consecrate the properties of the rich to help the poor. It didn’t last very long. In the broad expanses of the frontier, pride and selfishness crept in. Gold was discovered in California in 1848 and the gold seekers came to the Great Basin on their way to California. The gold fever was a contagious epidemic and like a flood, many got caught up in it. By the time the railroad came through 20 years later the community of Zion was discussed often, but was rarely an active municipal plan. Today, the discussion in the LDS Church on plain clothing has been relegated to finding clothing that will keep private body parts private and for the men; a white shirt to wear to church. And Zion … dear Zion, there are some who still, deep within their hearts, weep for it.
There are some key differences between these two religions. The LDS actively proselyte new members into the Church, the Amish do not. Each returning LDS missionary brings to his or her congregation a little broader base of values and ideas as does each new member. The LDS Church has never been at risk of collapsing inward on itself for lack of new ideas. Over the years things have slowly, almost imperceptibly, changed. In the early days when the Church was small, the LDS were to be separate from the world. Today, with the growth of the Church, that is not possible. Most LDS people try to excel in their respective careers within the world while not being a part of it–a difficult challenge no matter which way it is cut up.
Perhaps the greatest difference resides in their approach to education. For the Amish, formal, state education ends at the 8th grade and any further education is at home, in the community and at work. It is education based on what the ancient Greeks called praxis and phronesis–deeper value-based wisdom that is grounded in doing practical beneficial acts, often for others. The LDS, on the other hand, have generally accepted the contemporary educational model and often pursue advanced degrees. The hope is that it enables them to improve themselves and their ability to contribute back to their community and nation.
With their acceptance of conventional education and USDA policy, individual LDS farmers are highly motivated by profits and are as competitive as their neighbors or more so. They too, are heavily leveraged and carry incredible debt to support their growing operations in both equipment and land. As such they are not escaping the forces that have driven out other farmers in rural America. Consequently, at some point, they will have a neighbor who is more aggressive and competitive or perhaps just luckier than they and will be out-competed in their turn. Their passing from the rural landscape of America will be mourned for at least a few weeks while the new owner congratulates himself on his good business skills.
The genius of the Amish, on the other hand, is that they are more cooperative than competitive, at least within their communities. Perhaps the intolerance that forced the Mormons to the Rocky Mountains went away when the Mormons did. Perhaps it was redirected toward others, including the Amish. To survive in place, the Amish learned to build sustainable communities of incredible resilience and solidarity based on the intrinsic values of their faith in God. To survive the persecution they became cohesive and independent of those outside. They learned they had to put aside their self-interest for the betterment of their community; realizing for certain that health and prosperity only exist on a community level. Hence we see today in rural America the prosperous Amish communities, farms and families.
The remaining question is why does the LDS Church purchase and operate farms and ranches? The motive is different than that of the individual LDS farmers. This is best understood through the intrinsic values of the Church. There are three very distinct types of LDS Church farms:
1. One is for the caring of others; welfare farms, not for profit farms on which the fruit and vegetables, grain and stock are grown that supports the Church’s extensive welfare production and distribution operations as well as their humanitarian efforts. The labor for these farms is often provided voluntarily by the members of the church.
2. A second reason is to help remember its history. The history of the LDS Church is important to them; it helps define us and we are in large measure a product of our history. The LDS Church has land holdings, which operate as farms and ranches in areas which have significant historical interest to the Church and its members.
3. The third reason for the LDS purchase of farm acreage is simply as a wise steward of sacred Church funds. The Church is fiscally conservative and has an excellent institutional memory. In the not-too-distant past it was heavily indebted, but the Church today is not. Selective purchases of agricultural land are simply seen as part of the "rainy day" investments of a conservative, balanced, long-term portfolio. Obviously, there are many of the recent church leaders, including the former Secretary of Agriculture under Eisenhower, Ezra Taft Benson, that have had deep agricultural roots and intrinsic farming values that have influenced these decisions.
The question that persists in the back of my mind is; without the persecution, and with the acceptance and increased social and business interchange we currently see between the Amish and their neighbors, will they lose their plain ways and community character to become gradually more like their English neighbors, not unlike what happened with the LDS?