Thoughts

Some thoughts on Mormons in The Triple Package

I just finished reading Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s new book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. From the book’s jacket:

Despite America’s ideas about inequality, some groups in this country do better than others. [She lists the groups: Mormons, Cubans, Nigerians, Asians (Indian and Chinese), Iranians, and Jews.] Why do some groups rise? Drawing on groundbreaking original research and startling statistics, The Triple Package uncovers the secret to their success.

A superiority complex, insecurity, impulse control: these are the elements of the Triple Package, the rare and potent cultural constellation that drives disproportionate group success.

The fact that Mormons are included in this group is not surprising to me, or new, really, in contemporary thought. The group’s success has been observed and commented on extensively during the recent “Mormon Moment” (though I hardly believe ours is simply a “moment”). I was more interested in the authors’ observations of those three elements within LDS culture.

Before we get any further, let me say that I understand this book is “one of those” pop-psychology books, written by an author who excels at polarizing her readers and, in doing so, shooting book sales through the roof. I don’t intend on arguing her definition of success, her research methods,  or her selection of traits or groups. This is a counter-commentary to her commentary.

Superiority Complex

For the purposes of her premise, Chubenfeld (my portmanteau for author’s Chua and Rubenfeld, pronoun female) states, “Groups or individuals can be said to have a superiority complex only when they have a genuine, deeply internalized belief in their own exceptionality.”

Chubenfeld begins her observations of superiority in Mormonism thus, “Mormon superiority is, like Jewish superiority, historically founded on the idea of chosenness—only without the angst.” Chubenfeld goes on to give a fair synopsis of Church history while remarking on the elements of Manifest Destiny present therein. Granted.

After the history lesson, Chubenfeld spends a few pages in LDS doctrine, including revelation, Priesthood authority, missionary work, the nature of God, the Fall, family, and the Plan of Salvation. Again, she does a fair job, concluding, “Thus today, the Mormon sense of exceptionalism is focused less on American manifest destiny and much more on morality and mission.”

I’d say that’s accurate. All told, Chubenfeld’s section on Mormons is well done, even if it uses a few too many quotation marks. One point I’d like to clear up, though, is that while Mormons believe themselves exceptional, we do not believe ourselves superior. Perhaps the more accurate statement would be that Mormons believe our doctrine to be superior to all other doctrine—theological or otherwise. Because our doctrine is so closely tied to our identity, this can arguably be mistaken as a belief in personal superiority—a serious oversight. We do not believe a single person who ever lived on this earth to be inferior or unexceptional. We believe that all human beings are children of God with limitless potential. Additionally, Chubenfeld fails to note that unlike any other “success” group, Mormons are the only group that anyone can fully join—and indeed, we invite all to join. In contrast, I cannot become Asian or Nigerian at will, even if invited to do so.

Insecurity

Chubenfeld defines insecurity as “a goading anxiety about oneself and one’s place in society.” She writes, “Mormons were long persecuted.”

And that is literally all she has to say about insecurity in LDS culture. I’m not kidding. It’s a four-word sentence jammed into a paragraph on Jewish persecution.

For one, she could elaborate on Mormon persecution. That’d be easy enough, but not nearly as insightful as some of our other insecurities.

How about our anxieties about our personal and familial salvation and exaltation? How about exploring our unique repentance process? Our responsibilities to be “saviors on Mount Zion?” Or the struggles Mormons face living up to the injunction “Be ye therefore perfect?” Heck, even our insecurities about calllings?

Sure, this isn’t a book about Mormons. I get it, you feel obligated to spend equal amounts of time on each group. But this stuff is classic insecurity, and it demonstrates how valuable insecurity can be.

Impulse Control

Impulse control is pretty self-explanatory, but Chubenfeld defines it as “the capacity to resist temptation—including especially the temptation to quit when a task is arduous, daunting, or beyond one’s immediate abilities.” Interestingly, she cites the same marshmallow study that President Uchtdorf used in this conference talk on patience.

On the back cover, Chubenfeld praises Mormons as the champions of this trait, despite giving them only four pages in the book. Of those four pages, two discuss impulse control via the laws and programs of the church, and two oddly meander through “inner conflicts” of Mormonism that would fit better in the insecurity section.

Speaking of the insecurity section, likewise this section also fails to capture some truly fascinating and unique aspects of Mormonism and the Triple Package, such as, for example, our doctrine of free agency and its sister accountability. Or how about delving into the Mormon belief of “enduring to the end?” Or perhaps a treatment of grace as an enabling power? Or looking for a moment at our Addiction Recovery Program? Our provident living resources?

Right about this point I can tell that Chubenfeld is running out of steam.

The Underside of the Triple Package

This is the section where Chubenfeld suggests some downsides to the Triple Package. Where do Mormons fit in here?

“The Mormon superiority complex is no more invidious than any other—in some ways much less, because Mormonism has opened its doors to individuals of all races and made millions of converts all over the world—but it highlights a feature worthy of special attention. A group’s superiority complex isn’t always distributed equally among all group members. It can raise one class of people over another within the group.”

First off—thanks, Chubenfeld, for finally acknowledging within those em dashes that Mormons don’t really have a superiority complex. Second off, and this is the strange part, Chubenfeld goes on to argue that Mormonism treats its women as an inferior class. She does this in a “Well, yeah, officially they claim to believe in equality,” then whispered behind a hand “but really they don’t,” way. She can’t find a real juicy underside to our “superiority complex” because 1.) she wasn’t entirely right about it in the first place, and 2.) rightly understood, there is none. And so she must fabricate a dark side, settling on a hot issue (if unrelated) that will polarize and sell. Oh, and by the way, this is not an issue for faithful Mormons.

The remainder of the book discusses IQ, testing, and the United States as a Triple Package country, pulling examples from various groups as convenient and generally repeating what was written in earlier chapters. Oh, and an added splash of Tocqueville for authenticity, cause, you know, America.

So there you have it. The book is cookie dough—tasty, but not baked. It shouldn’t be the only thing you eat for dinner, and yes, it uses raw eggs, which can cause salmonella.

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