Mormons and the professions

I’ve been reviewing the essays in the groundbreaking (and, unfortunately, still one-of-a-kind) anthology Arts and Inspiration: Mormon Perspectives in preparation for a series that I plan on running on A Motley Vision this spring.

One of the impressive things about the work is the high level of professional achievement attained by the contributors. That combined with a passage in “Art: A Possibility for Love” by Johann Wondra got me thinking about Mormons and the professions.

At the time the anthology was published (1980), Wondra, a convert to the LDS Church, was serving as general secretary of the Vienna Burgtheater, one of the premiere theaters of the German-speaking world. In his essay, Wondra recounts how his conversion to the church prompted some soul-searching about his occupation — especially since he had four young children. He consulted with Elder Eldred G.Smith who advised him “to not change [his] profession and said that precisely in the areas of cultural and political life, indeed in those areas where in our time negative powers are seeking to exercise especially strong influences, members of the Church are needed in order to control the adversary, to keep him within limits, and to exert through righteous happiness an ever-increasing influence for good” (149).

Wondra goes on to assert:

“There is no goodness in the world that could not be improved by faithful, prepared members of the Church; there is similarly no evil that could not be countered or at least tempered by believing, skilled members” (148).

T&S bloggers have posted several times on Mormons in the professions. For example, see Nate Oman on Mormonism and the Commercial Virtues, Thoughts From A Professional Sabbath Breaker, and A Mormon Among the Yuppies; Adam Greenwood on Family Businesses: In the World but not of It; and Greg Call on Can a Good Mormon be a Meritocrat?.

But I’d like to raise the topic again — especially since we have academics, lawyers, graphic designers, writers, pr professionals and musicians among the bloggers and commenters here.

What is your reaction to what I’ve quoted from Wondra?

Do you have any examples of how Mormons have influenced a profession for good?

Can we really temper or even counter ‘evil’? [And is the adversary truly working through politics and culture and other influential fields?]

Is it difficult to be both believing and skilled?

I’d like to take Wondra’s exhortations to heart.

But I have my doubts about the extent to which Mormons can influence their workplace for good — let alone their profession and the larger sphere of public discourse. At the same time, however, I do think that truly outstanding people can have a huge impact on a field — reshaping or reorienting its methodologies, assumptions, definitions, practices, etc.

Ref. Arts and Inspiration: Mormon Perspectives, Ed. Steven P. Sondrup. Brigham Young University Press: Provo, 1980.

12 comments for “Mormons and the professions

  1. Great post!

    It really irks me when we laud the sacrifices of our fathers will tiptoeing toward the future. How is it that we understand so thoroughly that we would have nothing today were it not for the faith, courage, vision, hardwork, etc. of our fathers, and yet look to the future almost with a sense of guilt for wanting to make a contribution? I wonder sometimes if we’ve talked ourselves into believing that God will come knocking on our door when it’s time for us to do our part.

  2. That’s “while tiptoeing…”

    I wonder sometimes if we’ve been drilled so much with the importance of family-family-family (as important as it is) that we forget there’s a world out there that needs salvation. And inasmuch as our post-sixties world has little to no tolerance for any kind of pretense (one of the few good things that came out of the “enlightenment”), it behooves us to get out there and mingle a little bit as did Ammon. Also, it’s important for us to be really good at what we do while we’re mingling because, as was the case with Ammon, people will be more inclined to forgive you for being mormon if you’re excellent at what you do than if you’re a run of the mill unshowered half shaven joe schmoe who’s only claim to excellence is complete fluency with the functions of a remote.

  3. William, Johann Wondra was the Stake President in Austria when I was on my mission. He was, in my experience and by all accounts, a wonderful man, and his position with the Burgtheater gave the Church great exposure.

    You asked: “Do you have any examples of how Mormons have influenced a profession for good?” One of my fondest memories of law school was a conversation that I had with Professor David Strauss during my first year. When he learned that I was a BYU alumnus, he just had to tell me about his experience working in the Solicitor General’s office under Rex Lee. Of course, I knew something about Rex Lee (and his son Tom joined me the next year at Chicago, which helped me to learn even more), but I was quite surprised by the personal affection expressed by Professor Strauss. He left no doubt that Rex Lee had helped to shape him as a lawyer, and inspired him by his example. I have met many other people who were influenced for good by Rex Lee, and though I would be hard pressed to recount his influence on the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence (that’s not my game), I appreciate the trail of good feelings he left in his expansive wake.

  4. Well the extent to which Mormons can influence their workplace for good I’ve known LDS attorneys who people quit swearing around. I’m not sure a significant drop in the amount of background obscenity in a workplace is that meaningful, but it is something.

  5. Is it difficult to be both believing and skilled?

    I don’t think it is difficult for many LDS to be both believing and skilled — the difficulty comes in trying to be both faithful and considered great at an earthly craft.

    The built-in LDS regulator to earthly greatness in any craft is that the total devotion required to become the best in the world in any discipline usually requires us to consecrate our lives to something other the Christ and His gospel. And unfortunately, that total devotion is idolatry — “Whatever thing a man sets his heart and his trust in most is his god” (Spencer W. Kimball).

    Let me qualify this all by saying I am talking about the devotion required to be in the top 1-2% of any field – to truly be among the very best in the world. I believe many Mormons could magnify their natural talents in any field and be among the top 10-20% in the world at their craft without being in danger of neglecting their covenants. However, there is a serious problem with diminishing returns when it comes to the devotion required to move toward that top 1-2%. It usually takes total consecration to move from the 90th percentile in a field to the 99th percentile.

  6. Interesting post, William. We’ve discussed here before the toll that family and church service can take on professional achievement, and I think that’s a real phenomenon. The question is made even more difficult for women, who often never even enter the professional world.

    Perhaps Mormons are most likely to influence their fields through the kind of personal influence they exert on those around them, as Gordon describes President Lee having above. While I was in graduate school I took care to produce top quality work–and I did–but I was also conscious of the effect my performance and relationships would have on LDS women, and BYU students more generally, in the program after me. I take satisfaction in knowing not only that my committee approved my work with distinction, but also that they knew at least one BYU student, LDS woman, mother–however they defined me–who did top quality work. I think my positive experience was made possible in part by an excellent LDS student in the program some years before me–Ed Cutler–and by an excellent LDS faculty member who had retired few year earlier, Jamie Lyon. Hopefully my experience will do the same for someone else.

  7. I don’t know that Mormons can or need to do anything to change the content or methods of physics, but there is something about the culture of physicists… My Ph.D. advisor warned me to be discreet about religious belief, because it could affect my reputation and how seriously colleagues took me. This fostered an expectation on my part that most all physicists must be atheists.

    However, my advisor was himself a believer; and probably because my having gone to BYU can bring the subject up, I’ve been surprised to learn how many physicists actually do believe to some extent. I almost get the sense there’s a very large proportion of secretly believing physicists out there, who fear their status in the field would be compromised if anyone knew. Perhaps one thing believers can do is “make it safe” enough for others not to have to hide their beliefs.

    Rosalynde, I could have thrown a rock from our balcony through the Cutlers’ window in student housing…I graduated in ’97. Maybe you knew my brother, Taylor (and Michele), and the Wilsons, and the Austins, and the Allisons, and the Beazers, and… The Mormon World is a small world.

  8. Christian, I know exactly who you’re talking about! We moved into the 13th ward in 2000, and knew the Wilsons well (just got their Christmas letter), the Allisons well (they adopted both children while we were there, and my husband and Dave went on an spectacularly diastrous climbing trip to Whitney), and the Beazers, well, there’s no word to describe how wonderful they are. Taylor and Michele are not sounding familiar, at least not without a last name.

    We lived in 9152-D. Where were you?

    (watching the snowflakes flutter outside and missing San Diego)

  9. Christian may be on to something. I’ve noticed that my status as a forthright and ebullient believer gives people permission to get all churchy. Maybe they’re just scraping for my approval, but I doubt it. I think it’s a genuine outlet.

  10. Rosalynde, Taylor (Cardall) finished med school in 1999, I guess. I think we were in 4083 (or 4038?)-H?

    (A low of 27 expected overnight here in east Tennessee…definitely not San Diego.)

  11. One of my fondest memories of law school was a conversation that I had with Professor David Strauss during my first year. When he learned that I was a BYU alumnus, he just had to tell me about his experience working in the Solicitor General’s office under Rex Lee.

    Reminds me of the time I was interviewing, as a Columbia senior, at an investment bank (not the one I ended up joining). As soon as one of my interviewers saw the mission experience on my résumé she began reminiscing at some length about the fine church members she’d had as classmates at Virginia law. Indeed, I can’t think of a single instance in which my church membership has been a disadvantage in any professional way.

    During my time in college and in the workforce some several dozen people came to know me as not only as a student or employee but as a Latter-day Saint. I’d like to think I left a positive impression of the Church each of them. I can only imagine how the Church would benefit were there more members around me.

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