We’re in the home stretch! November 6 will be a relief, I think, to everybody. But before things end I’d like to post three more times, which will hopefully be interesting to any LDS voters who somehow aren’t decided yet. (Share! Share! Share!)
I was working on this post when Joseph went ahead and wrote a lot of what I wanted to say. So I’d like to build on his thoughts and try to explain how my beliefs about the gospel shape my view of economic principles and, accordingly, the best economic policies for governments to pursue. As I mentioned last time, I’m doing so in an attempt to explore a poetics of Mormon political theology separate and apart from any political ideology—although admittedly the general result is that I support progressive economic policies over conservative ones. With economics, I think it’s quite a long road from what the scriptures say to what’s happening in the world right now, but if space allows I’ll try to get into specifics about things like tax rates, government spending, deficits, trickle down theory, etc. My main goal, however, will be to explore what the scriptures say about money, what we do with it, and what it does to us, because our position toward money on an individual level effects how we think it should be handled in the national sphere.
I began this series by discussing how the Lord is above political parties and partisanship. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9). I believe this applies to economics as much as to party politics, and that remembering this can help Latter-day Saints who otherwise separate down party lines find common ground.
So, God doesn’t ascribe to any of mankind’s economic theories. Feudalism, capitalism, socialism, Marxism, communism, et al. are all equally irrelevant to the gospel and the Lord’s management of the universe. Knowing that allows us to start from a blank slate, look at what the Lord says, and build from there. As I’ve gone through the scriptures looking at economic teachings, I’ve been surprised and engaged by, first, just how many there are and, second, how deeply and fundamentally they differ from any of mankind’s economic systems, capitalism and socialism included.
I’m not an economist—the closest I can say is that I met my wife in an economics class at BYU—and I can’t really give a full treatise here, just a few thoughts. But let’s look, for instance, at the most fundamental principle of all economic principles: scarcity of resources. As far as I know this is the only thing every economist agrees on: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Jean-Baptiste Say, Nassau William Senior, David Ricardo, John Maynard Keynes, Alfred Marshall, John Locke, Milton Friedman, and on up to contemporaries like Paul Krugman and last week’s Nobel laureates Alvin E. Roth and Lloyd S. Shapley—I’m not aware of a single one of them who would argue against scarcity as the driving force behind all economic decisions; since there are limited resources we must make decisions regarding the most efficient allocation of those resources.
But it’s a proposition the scriptures seem to refute, both in direct teaching and by example. I cited one of the most prominent examples, from an 1834 revelation, in my last post: “For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves” (D&C 104:17). The preceding sixteen verses make very clear the Lord is talking about economic resources—both natural resources (as implied by v. 14) and financial ones as well. But what does he mean when he says “there is enough and to spare”? Scarcity is so ubiquitously recognized that it’s incredibly hard, even for me as I’m writing this, to take this statement unabashedly at face value, assuming the Lord really meant what he said. But a little reflection eases the doubts: the Lord is omnipotent and is able to supply as many resources of any type as needed at any moment’s notice. Verses 14 and 15 help in this regard: “I, the Lord, stretched out the heavens, and built the earth, my very handiwork; and all things therein are mine. And it is my purpose to provide for my saints, for all things are mine.” If he could build the earth, he can take care of us too.
In fact, if the Lord wanted to provide cash he could do it, as he admirably demonstrated in instructing Peter how to pay tribute with a coin taken from a fish (Matt. 17:24-27). If he wanted to provide fine wine when only water was present, he could do that (John 2:6-11). If he desired to feed fish and bread to a few people (John 21:9) or a multitude (Matt. 14:15-21; Mark 8:1-9) he could do that, even when no food was brought at all (3 Ne. 20:3-7). He empowered Elijah to bless a widow’s meal and oil to last during at least three years of famine (1 Kings 17:8-16) and Elisha to multiply another widow’s oil enough to pay off her creditors (2 Kings 4:1-7); Elisha also fed a multitude on a bit of bread and corn (2 Kings 4:42-44). The Lord gave children to the barren Sarah (Gen. 21:1-3), Hannah (1 Sam. 1:20), and Elisabeth (Luke 1:13, 36)—as well as to Mary, “for with God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37). He gave the brother of Jared light out of cold rocks (Eth. 6:3) and Moses power to call water from a dry stone (Num. 20:7-11)—and, perhaps most tellingly, he fed the multitude of Israel, possibly as many as two million people, on manna every single day for forty years—over 14,600 days (Exo. 16). It was a free gift from heaven and all they had to do was obey. Even the devil knew Christ’s ability to create resources like bread out of nothing and attempted to use it to defeat him in the desert (Matt. 4:3-4). No limitation of resources—natural or otherwise—is a limitation to the Lord. As the Psalmist says: “…He had commanded the clouds from above, and opened the doors of heaven. And had rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given them of the corn of heaven. Man did eat angels’ food: he sent them meat to the full . . . He rained flesh also upon them as dust, and feathered fowls like as the sand of the sea . . . So they did eat, and were well filled: for he gave them their own desire” (Psa. 78:23-29).
If the world thinks things are scarce, the Lord makes them abundant. And because he has this capacity for unlimited giving—“there shall not be room enough to receive it,” he told Malachi (Mal. 3:10)—it removes us from the restraint that limited resources traditionally impose. It’s not a license to be wanton, as the rest of Doctrine and Covenants 104 and other sections about stewardship make clear, but it does remove that onus of taking needed resources away from one person in order to give to another. There can be enough for everyone without breaking the bank because the Lord doesn’t play zero-sum games: he is willing to give liberally to everyone. As I noted last time, at present not everyone has equal blessings--where we hit problems is with people hoarding the manna, as we'll get to--but that’s our responsibility to rectify (see the severity of D&C 104:18, for instance).
As Hugh Nibley points out in Approaching Zion, if we realize that the Lord is willing to give so liberally to everybody on earth regardless of what they do to deserve it, then we’ll also realize that everything in this world is a free gift; as he says, the truism that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” is one of Satan’s greatest lies: it’s all a free lunch, in fact, because the Lord has given it to us without condition. Work we must, but lunch is free. After his warning in the Sermon on the Mount about not being a slave to cold hard cash (Matt. 6:24), Jesus continued:
“…Your heavenly Father will provide for you whatsoever things ye need for food, what ye shall eat; and for raiment, what ye shall wear or put on. Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, how much more will he not provide for you, if ye are not of little faith. Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. Wherefore, seek not the things of this world but seek ye first to build up the kingdom of God, and to establish his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matt. 6:25-34, JST)
Jesus here is saying that money and even financial planning, to an extent, are unnecessary—because we are not in control of that. We cannot think and make ourselves light haired or dark haired, young or old, rich or poor. Only the Lord can. We go to work, we get a paycheck, and that money didn’t come from our boss, but from our heavenly Father. The recent Republican rallying cry of “We built that” just doesn’t sit right with me when seen in this context. Not only do the government and society create an infrastructure and otherwise help support all entrepreneurs and businessmen, but the Lord himself—not some non-sentient invisible hand—is sustaining all our commercial efforts day by day. It's like Orson Whitney's response to "Invictus": we're not entirely the captains of our own souls.
So if 1) the Lord has access to unlimited resources, and 2) he knows our needs and will give us what we need, then it stands to reason that he can also take away those resources (blessings) at his discretion (Job 1:21). Your wealth certainly avails you nothing in the spirit world or resurrection; at least two parables directly contradict this: In Luke 12:13-21, when an evidently faithful man asked Jesus to help him get some money he thought rightfully belonged to him, Jesus responded by telling about a rich man who built himself a bank too big to fail (v. 19) but who, unsurprisingly, saw it fail immediately. (This is followed, by the way, by a repetition of those monetary teachings from the Sermon on the Mount, spoken to all “his disciples” [v. 22], which contradicts those who would use the 3 Nephi version to imply that Jesus was only speaking to apostles or those in the full-time ministry when discussing financial matters, as though the Sermon on the Mount itself didn’t have universal applicability.) A few chapters later, in Luke 16:13-31, the covetous Pharisees took issue with Jesus saying they couldn’t serve God and their bank accounts simultaneously (v. 13), so he responded with the parable of the rich man, who helped himself, and the beggar Lazarus, which means “helped of God.”
All of this is really getting at what Joseph wrote the other day and, I think, the amazing shift in national discourse where the wealthy are now portraying themselves as misunderstood victims. It’s no longer appropriate to call the rich rich; “job creators” has a much more socially beneficial ring to it, just like the business-minded Republican lobbyist Frank Luntz invented the term “climate change” to replace the more troubling “global warming.” It’s simply a scriptural fact that many people genuinely do want to serve God and mammon—they see wealth as a sign of divine approval—but Jesus really is asking us to pick sides. Take the rich man who wanted to become a disciple (Matt. 19:16-26): even when he had done everything else, he still couldn’t enter heaven without giving all his possessions to the poor. There’s no other way to do it; it’s like fitting a camel through a needle. Nibley points out that there was no postern gate to the city known as the “eye of the needle”; the disciples’ astonishment shows they’d never heard of such a thing. This was a fiction invented centuries later by men who also wanted to have it both ways. They also sometimes use that last verse, verse 26, which says that with God all things are possible, to point out that the Lord has the power to get a camel through a needle’s eye. True, but note how Joseph Smith corrected that verse so that it now says that if men “will forsake all things for my sake, with God whatsoever things I speak are possible.” You gotta forsake the cash.
Whenever I get into conversations about money and the scriptures with conservative friends or family members, it seems they always raise Jacob 2:19, which says, “And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.” They then follow this with an argument like, “See, my father (or uncle, friend, etc.) has just bought a bigger house, or has a comfortable retirement portfolio, or just took the kids on a tour of Europe, but he pays a large monthly fast offering and gives to quite a few charities, beyond the ten percent he pays in tithing. So he feels like the Lord has given him this money and he’s using it to do good.”
My first response, which is sincere, is that that is wonderful. I am very pleased that this person has chosen to give freely of much of his financial blessings to in turn bless others—that is the first stage in the personal level of redistributing wealth to those who need it most. Furthermore, it’s not a sin, I don’t believe, to desire to care for your family’s wants. Indeed, it’s actually a commandment, and a pretty hefty one at that, to do so (1 Tim. 5:8). The law of consecration and United Orders as practiced early in this dispensation allowed for people’s wants, not just their basest needs, to be covered (D&C 42:33; 51:3; 70:7; 72:11; 82:17; and 84:112). (The problem, Brigham Young said, was when they wanted more than they should have wanted.)
So trying to earn a living for yourself and your family is agreeable to the Lord. But I think it’s a misreading of Jacob 2:19 to say that we are therefore justified in seeking after riches to expand our comfort above what is proper, especially when surrounded by others who have much greater need for it. There are diminishing returns as bank accounts get larger, and all of that increase, 100% of it, belongs to the Lord anyway—if it goes to someone else because they need it more that’s not really any violation of the giver’s property or agency. Just compare verse 19 with the seven that precede it, Jacob’s firm condemnation of the accumulation of wealth and its inevitably resulting inequality, pride, and persecution of the poor by the rich once they are economically enabled to do so. Here’s verse 17: “Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you.” And, continuing past 19, verse 21: “Do ye not suppose that such things are abominable unto him who created all flesh? And the one being is as precious in his sight as the other….” Equality is the goal; anything less is an “iniquity and abomination” (v. 16).
My fear is that verses like Jacob 2:19 and 1 Tim. 5:8 are too frequently used as palliatives by Saints trying to justify their search for wealth. And I include myself in that category: my wife and I both work and scramble hard to earn enough to get by, to pay our New York City rent and our student loans. We always strive to improve our family’s comfort; we dream about vacations to Cape Cod or the gymnastics classes our eight-year-old keeps begging for—things that never seem to be in the budget. So any scriptural pronouncement that seems to say, ‘Hey, it’s okay to want to improve your financial position,’ can be really comforting and take unwitting precedence over the verses that surround it that say, ‘But really you’re supposed to share it with everyone else.’ That’s why President Benson, the most conservative of Church leaders, said that this pride is the great stumbling block to Zion. And while we must remember he warns against the pride of the poor aspiring upwards, the rich are equally or more frequently guilty of despising (1 Ne. 9:30 – Jacob again) and even “grind[ing] the faces of the poor” (1 Ne. 13:15) precisely because their financial power affords them the institutional means and societal approval to do so without repercussion (Hel. 7:5).
More than once someone has said to me it’s not money but the love of money that’s the root of all evil (1 Tim. 6:10), and that’s patently true. But what's the difference? Nibley, on page 237 of Approaching Zion, tells us that Paul’s actual Greek word there is philargyria, cash-loving, the desire for wealth. I’m just pointing out that the Greeks, at least, had a single word for this moneylust precisely because it’s so hard to divorce its two components, the money from the lust. I just think it’s incredibly hard to be blessed with the spoils of Egypt and not turn around and mold it into a golden calf.
Okay, that’s the ideal. But here we sit in this fallen world where Satan is ruling with cash, armies, blood, and horror. So what do we do with what the Lord has given us? In talking about foreign policy last time I introduced a little Hegelian dialectic that, as I said, guides a lot of my beliefs here as elsewhere.
1) We are all children of God, equally valued and equally valuable. His desire is to bless everyone on the earth equally.
2) People around the earth are not physically and temporally blessed equally; there is great inequality.
3) Therefore, it is incumbent on those of us who have been blessed abundantly to use the resources God has given us to bless others.
Thus far I’ve essentially been attempting to prove the first point. Point two is empirically self-evident, and it’s kind of the challenge the Lord is presenting us (or the results of Satan’s management of the accounting ledger). So now we’re at point three. And this assertion, that we’re required to help others by giving them what God has given us, is probably more contentious and controversial in economics than anywhere else because it takes us right to the topic of redistribution of wealth, which I’ve already touched on. The r-word. There’s no viler insult that can be hurled at a Democratic politician than saying that he or she wants to redistribute wealth. It’s socialism! That’s what communists do! It’s patently un-American! Even most Democrats would disavow financial redistribution. President Obama certainly has time and again, probably because Republicans keep hitting him with it. So I now want to ask not whether President Obama, or any government agency or program, currently is redistributing America’s wealth, but whether they should be.
The government’s role is the point of disagreement, I think, between conservative and liberal Mormons. I think we can all agree that we should throw out Korihor’s (and Ayn Rand’s) assertion that “every man fare[s] in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength” (Alma 30: 17). That kind of unmitigated free market is completely amoral, and to me that kind of amorality—that begets avoidable human suffering—is immoral. So we agree that whenever economic inequality exists it should be eliminated. What I believe is that if this can be done by the Church under inspired priesthood leadership, that is the best way; but if not that doesn’t mean that it is moral or ethical or even permissible to allow wealth and its attendant blessings like health, food, shelter, and education to accrue for one group or individual more than for any other, and we should use every means necessary—especially government—to achieve that end. For me this is a fundamental principle of the gospel and it’s so emphasized, so central to my conception of Mormonism that I cannot conceive of my faith without it; it’s no more peripheral than the atonement or resurrection.
I know I’m probably overdoing it and my posts are likely too long for anyone to read, but this is very important to me so I’d like to present just a few more scriptures that, to me, support this view of the centrality of the Lord’s economic system of wealth redistribution. The frequency and intensity of scriptures like these are what makes me see moving wealth from the rich to the poor as not just a feature of the United Order, but a litmus test of our humanity in any condition. Here’s a quick sample of a very large population of scriptures:
* Mosiah 18:27: “And again Alma commanded that the people of the church should impart of their substance, every one according to that which he had; if he have more abundantly he should impart more abundantly; and of him that had but little, but little should be required; and to him that had not should be given.”
* D&C 104:16: “…Behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.”
* D&C 78:5-6: “That you may be equal in the bonds of heavenly things, yea, and earthly things also, for the obtaining of heavenly things. For if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things…”
* D&C 70:14: “Nevertheless, in your temporal things you shall be equal, and this not grudgingly, otherwise the abundance of the manifestations of the Spirit shall be withheld.”
* D&C 51:3: “Wherefore, let my servant Edward Partridge, and those whom he has chosen, in whom I am well pleased, appoint unto this people their portions every man equal according to his family, according to his circumstances and his wants and needs.”
* D&C 51:9: “And let every man deal honestly, and be alike among this people, and receive alike, that ye may be one, even as I have commanded you.”
* D&C 82:17: “And you are to be equal, or in other words, you are to have equal claims on the properties, for the benefit of managing the concerns of your stewardships, every man according to his wants and his needs, inasmuch as his wants are just.”
And so on. Economic inequality and man’s love of money are, in fact, evidently the greatest sin on the earth today: “But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin” (D&C 49:20). That wherefore holds a world of meaning.
I’m attempting to prove, just in case it needs proving, that the Lord wants us to bless the poor, to mitigate suffering, and to be equal in worldly things according to what we need and justly want. Now I’d like to add to that and assert that the Lord wants us to do that through any means possible, and that government intervention in the free market can be an incredibly powerful tool given to us by the Lord to do so. Listen to Doctrine and Covenants 134:1: “We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that he holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them, both in making laws and administering them, for the good and safety of society.” Those are my italics, of course, but I’m emphasizing those phrases because for me that means anything but a limited government in a Jacksonian or a libertarian or a Tea Party sense. God instituted our government and expects us to use it for the benefit of all men, which the free market just doesn’t always do on its own. That’s not just a license, but a directive to employ an activist government that seeks out society’s ills and tries to remedy them. Government is not an autonomous sentient entity any more than the free market is sentient or a corporation is a person: it’s just an organization we the people have put together, with rules to make it run fairly and efficiently, that we can use to help members of our society who haven’t had the same advantages as the rest of us (or to accomplish any other goal, for that matter). It’s a tool from the Lord we can use to help accomplish his designs, including the “temporal” blessing of all his children.
Zion has an internal and an external component. On the one hand, it’s the pure in heart (D&C 97:21), a description echoed in describing Enoch’s city: “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness,” but now listen how the sentence turns to include the external component, “and there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:18). We are seeking for the internal component of Zion, the purity in heart, in our missionary work, our service, our teaching, our counseling, raising our families, and even—hopefully—in our discussing religious issues in online forums like this. But that doesn’t preclude us from seeking the temporal equality—that complete eradication of poverty—that is the external measure of Zion. Hence within the Church we pay our fast and other offerings, we tithe, we serve, and we provide humanitarian aid, disaster relief, and other measures to our neighbors of any faith—thus attempting to be inclusionary of everybody, as much like the Good Samaritan as possible. Why then, if we will send trucks of aid to victims of poverty regardless of their religion, do we sometimes complain bitterly when the government uses some of our money to aid the very same people?
It comes down to agency. I quoted Mosiah 18:27, about a progressive fast offering program, above. This is the next verse: “And thus they should impart of their substance of their own free will and good desires towards God, and to those priests that stood in need, yea, and to every needy, naked soul.” Alma was setting up a civil government here, but it was a theocracy or perhaps what Joseph Smith fleetingly called a theodemocracy, based on religious principles and a willing populace. So Alma’s goal, like Enoch’s, was that his citizens would be pure in heart. I don’t know when we gave up on that being a goal for American society, but many in the Church seem to think that that kind of giving program should not be carried out at the national level, generally through taxes and spending, because each and every citizen has not approved of the ways the government is going to spend the money it taxes. They claim—and I’m not trying to be vindictive or sarcastic in describing this—that a government taking your money and using it on programs you don’t approve of is somehow a violation of your agency.
Here’s an example, a review of Approaching Zion by Duance Boyce for the Maxwell Institute. In sum, Boyce claims that Nibley has a reductionist view of the law of consecration and that it is the will of the people in how their money is given and distributed that is paramount to forming Zion; the relief of the poor and the suffering is secondary to the protection of the agency of the givers. (I realize I’m being reductionist too; please read it if you want his full argument—but please read Approaching Zion in its entirety as well.)
Here’s another one, a blogger commenting on a now removed YouTube video of President Benson talking about how “‘redistribution of wealth’ is socialism,” with the connotation, in case we missed it, that socialism is bad and capitalism good. Again, I’m not trying to sound snarky: under capitalism individuals are supposed to have control over their private property, and under the worst abuses of communism—not so much socialism, I’d say—that right is taken away. (The United Order, by the way, retains private property even while redistributing it; check out Jim Lucas and Warner Woodworth’s Working Toward Zion for a great comparison of all these systems.) But listen to what this blogger says, in his own boldfaced type: “Today’s socialists—who call themselves egalitarians—are using the federal government to redistribute wealth in our society [he’s been talking about all federal taxes], not as a matter of voluntary charity, but as a so-called matter of right.” (Read the comments too, where someone says, “The kind of socialism we are talking about is forced charity in an attempt to equalize economic differences in a population. Taking wealth from one individual and giving it to another is a violation of liberty. The government should not have the right to take money from one person in order to give it to another.”)
So the emphasis is on the voluntary nature of the giving, not on the benefit the gift will give to the recipient. Given the importance of agency in our mortal experience and its potential vulnerability in the war in premortality, it makes sense that it receives so much attention in LDS thought; that President Benson and others spoke so much about it during the Cold War, followed by the general cessation of political statements by Church leaders (meaning that Elders Benson, McConkie, etc. essentially had the last doctrinal word vis-à-vis political philosophy) shows why it remains such an important topic for many Latter-day Saints today.
But in 1999, when I was a student at BYU, I heard Dallin H. Oaks give a great talk about agency and abortion in which he said this:
“Few concepts have more potential to mislead us than the idea that choice or agency is an ultimate goal. For Latter-day Saints, this potential confusion is partly a product of the fact that moral agency—the right to choose—is a fundamental condition of mortal life. Without this precious gift of God, the purpose of mortal life could not be realized. To secure our agency in mortality we fought a mighty contest the book of Revelation calls a ‘war in heave.’ This premortal contest ended with the devil and his angels being cast out of heaven and being denied the opportunity of having a body in mortal life.
“But our war to secure agency was won. The test in this postwar mortal estate is not to secure choice but to use it—to choose good instead of evil so that we can achieve our eternal goals. In mortality, choice is a method, not a goal.”
In terms of economics and charity, this shows something important to me. Yes, agency is important, but no one is violating your agency by using some of your money allegedly without your consent. First, I include “allegedly” because it is with your consent, at least if you consent to the contractual relationship the Constitution and Declaration of Independence set up with the American people. Without looking at individual clauses, which is where we start to bicker, the overall contract is that we agree to live here in this country and uphold its laws as long as they remain in force, and in return we receive the protection and the benefit of an organized society as administered through the government. We receive the benefits of the society/infrastructure/economy that this type of government can help create, but we do so by agreeing to remain part of that society.
The whole thing is a choice, subject to agency, and we can, if we so choose, use our agency to rebel or emigrate if we no longer approve of the contract. But my point is that income tax and a great many government programs are now part of the contract, and we receive the overall benefit of all the government’s activities, even if we don’t agree with all of them. And how could we ever agree with all of them? Who among the founding fathers or ancient Greeks would ever expect a democracy to please all the people all the time? That’s not the point; the point is that we receive great blessings for living in this country with its protections and infrastructure and political process, even if we don’t think subsidies should go to Planned Parenthood or Solydra—or Blackwater or General Electric.
Besides, even beyond the fact that we are all choosing to be part of this society, money has never equaled agency. The Supreme Court recently ruled that money is speech, which is nonsense. If money were speech we could buy groceries by reciting poetry in the checkout line. And we can’t. Money can purchase time on television in which speech may be disseminated to mass audiences, but if you take away my money you don’t take away my ability to speak. And if you take away my money—through legitimate taxation or outright theft—you haven’t taken my agency. Money is just a thing, and the Lord, as we’ve seen, is urging us to get rid of it all the time. Look at Elie Wiesel: he’s written that no matter how bad things got in the Jewish concentration camps, no matter how many possessions or family members or how much human dignity the Nazis stole from him, they could not take away his spirit, his ability to choose who he was and how he would lead his life. As Elder Oaks said, the battle for agency was won, and even in the most depraved of conditions, even when all our physical freedoms have been stripped away, we still maintain that agency to choose who we are, what we believe, what we stand for, and who we will follow through mortality. And that, not 20% of our income, is what Satan was vying so strongly to destroy.
So I simply cannot believe that my money going to government programs I disagree with is a violation of my agency (and I wish I didn't have to agree with Eric R.'s earlier assessment that so many conservatives are only interested in agency when it concerns their pocketbook, not their fellow citizens' ability to live free from pollution or free to make their own medical decisions). “Forced consecration” may not be true consecration in the Zionistic sense, but it not only doesn’t harm any of us one single bit, it can actually help us get a little bit of the spirit of the giver in us. It is not now and never has been a violation of liberty; you’re nowhere near that until the government takes away your vote or habeas corpus rights. And we’re nowhere near a 1984 or a Soviet or a Cultural Revolution society; the federal government has never considered anything remotely similar to taking away all our possessions and spreading them out even-Steven, or re-educating us, or setting up death panels, or anything like that. It’s not on the table, so why make such a bugbear out of it? It's just progressive taxation that we're talking about, often just the closing of loopholes or end of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest and most able to give. President Eisenhower maintained the marginal tax rates for the highest earners above 92% (compared to the less than 14% capital gains tax Governor Romney paid in 2010) and even Alma the Elder knew those who had been blessed more should give more—and that there should be a base, maybe up to 47%, that shouldn’t be required to give at all.
So not only is it not a violation of agency to be compelled to give cash toward the maintenance of a stable society or the leveling of the playing field for the disadvantaged, but I’d like to point out that sometimes—often—the potential good that can be achieved through “forced” redistribution of wealth far outweighs the damage it does to the givers—remember those diminishing returns. The Lord sometimes compels us to do things we don’t want to do—and it turns out much better for us for having done it. That’s why Alma says, “because ye were compelled to be humble ye were blessed” (Alma 32:14), for instance, and even the grumbling Israelites were better off under Moses than back in Egypt, as he repeatedly had to remind them. Laman and Lemuel were compelled to leave Jerusalem, and they lived long and healthy lives because of it. What of the government? No one is complaining that it compels us not to kill each other, or dump nuclear waste in the reservoirs, or even drive on the wrong side of the road (that one’s from an old seminary video explaining the necessity of laws for agency to even exist, by the way). So it stands to reason that the government can require things for the greater good. That means it can tax and it can spend, and we are all better off because of that, regardless of the Solyndras or other programs (Iraq, for instance), that go awry. And if we always wait for the market or generous individuals to step in, a lot of needs will go unmet--more than now--with very real consequences for real people. I know Obama's extension of unemployment benefits kept a roof over our heads a couple years ago, and I wouldn't have been able to receive that much assistance from family or Church.
So that’s a very long way to answer whether governments should have the ability to redistribute wealth. Yes they can and yes they should. We live in a country where that’s already the rule. We have the opportunity, through government spending and programs like Medicaid and Medicare to combine our resources and give a gift that otherwise might never materialize because it doesn’t have a direct commercial value. We are already the givers, so it’s barking up the wrong tree to remain evil or grudging givers; “wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God” (Moro. 7:8).
I haven’t spoken much about the free market alternative, so I’ll just add that no one’s trying to get rid of that either. Joseph Smith kept it, Brigham Young kept, Franklin Roosevelt kept it, and President Obama really wants to keep it. Neither it nor private charity are disappearing. The invisible hand just needs some guidance every once in a while because power and wealth tend to aggregate around where they already are; it’s okay for a government to break up feedback loops like that, as a trust-busting Republican like Theodore Roosevelt proved. (Would that the banks that are too big to fail today would receive the same treatment as the railroads that were too big to fail during his administration.)
So that’s my religious philosophy on economic principles, or at least the most important points. Where does that put us in this election? Although none of the Church’s warnings against unnecessary debt are meant to apply to businesses or governments (where liabilities have to balance some of the assets), we are in a long-term situation where too much deficit spending can lead to a fiscal situation that’s untenable. Democrats aren’t denying this any more than Republicans, and President Obama’s helped get our total debt to a six-year low, even in a recession, besides strategically shrinking government employment and spending. Of course, we’re still in a recession so worrying about long-term debt is not the right concern; deficit spending is on order and in this case Obama and Congress haven’t done nearly enough, although stimulus spending has helped and intervention in the auto and energy industries has been in cases remarkably successful. Governor Romney is proposing less stimulus—just like he proposed a managed bankruptcy for Detroit before taking credit for how President Obama ignored his advice and saved it—an austerity program akin to the UK, Germany, and other EU countries, which could be compared to LDS teachings about living within our means, teachings which are intended for families and individuals only, not governments. As Nicholas Kristof pointed out in the New York Times earlier this week, since Europe represents exactly the kind of program Republicans including Romney and Ryan have been advocating for, we can look at what kind of results Europe--and New Jersey--have had to judge how the Republican plan will work out here. (Spoiler: not nearly as good as America under President Obama; we're the only ones growing instead of stagnating.) Romney has proposed nothing to really differentiate himself from Bush or Reagan or any of the deregulatory tactics of his predecessors that created the recession, and he’s been famously vague, even in the debates, about how he’s going to make all of his proposals add up. President Obama should be clearer about some of his economic policies in a second term, but we’ve already seen his policies do wonders over the past four years. We’re not out of the hole yet, but we never fell as far in as we could have had an austerity program been put in place instead of stimulus.
I think that how we handle money and other natural resources are central to the gospel and that we can find a lot of common ground between conservative and liberal Latter-day Saints when discussing it. Right now on the ground, I think that a progressive Keynesian approach to handling our current economic crisis, with an eye toward long-term sustainability through reform (not elimination) of programs like Social Security, is the right way to go, because I'm most concerned about what the government as the agent of the people can do to benefit the most vulnerable--and I see that not as the government violating our rights but as part of our God-given stewardship over the government, for which we'll one day be answerable to him. Thus on economic issues more than anything else, my beliefs as a Mormon make me support the Democratic party and President Obama.
Post by Joseph M -
President Obama finally did it: he ended Tuesday evening's debate by calling out Governor Romney (to his face!) over the 47% comment. Romney set himself up for it; he answered the last question by declaring that he cares about 100% of America. This proved a temptation too great to for even Obama to resist, and Obama responded by referencing the behind-closed-doors 47% comment.
But on one point, Romney is correct: the Obama campaign has painted a picture of Romney as out of touch with the poor and the middle-class. But Romney has also done a lot of this to himself; when he attempts to be candid, he invariable says too much, and this ultimately signals open season on the fields of (class?) warfare. Romney's wealth, elitism, and disconnect from ordinary Americans have become his most salient features, and therefore this image of privilege has supplanted the real man.
And it seems that conservatives are getting rather testy about all this negative talk of Governor Romney's wealth - and also of rich people in general. This also is the case with some members of the church as well, and I'm not sure when the shift began; it used to be that we were concerned about not speaking ill of the poor, but now the super-wealthy seem to be deserving of our charity and sympathetic glances.
Two examples: some months back, our Elder's Quorum lesson devolved into the semi-annual discussion of how should we respond to "pan-handlers" on the street; one comment from the group asserted that we should be cautious because homeless people are often hyped-up on meth and might kill you. And then the next Sunday, another good brother commented on how there's such hostility towards wealthy individuals these days, and that he was surprised by the poor opinions that many people have of the rich. (Yes, he used "poor" and "rich" in the same sentence as if to say, "those poor rich people.")
In an extreme case of political-correctness-hijacking, the wealthy are no longer referred to as "the rich," but now they are part of the protected class of "job creators," "entrepreneurs," and "innovators." I'm guessing that congress might even enact laws shielding them from hate crimes. This is necessary because all of them own small businesses and hire lots of people to do lots of things; money trickles down from these wealthy folks like water flowing towards a floor drain after a long shower at the gym.
In a recent column, David Brooks extolled the virtues of a wonderfully ambitious job creator, Elon Musk, one of the minds behind PayPal. He writes, "Government can influence growth, but it's people like Musk who create it...A few ridiculously ambitious people can change an economy more than any president." Romney reiterated this when he reverted to his high school cheerleading days and attempted to lead a chant towards the end of Tuesday's debate, "Government does not create jobs! Government does not create jobs!"
So if David Brooks is correct, we shouldn't be looking to tear down Romney and his financial success - even if he did eliminate jobs in order to make companies profitable and more efficient. The goal of a business is to make money; when a company makes money, its workers will benefit - the company can hire more workers. (Wait, is that what Romney meant when he said 'corporations are people?')
So this just begs the question: why all of this class warfare anyway? and when did this feeling of animosity towards the wealthy begin? and who decided that it was okay to criticize someone just because of their riches?
Well, let's start here:
"Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. (Matt. 19:23-24)"
Or Matthew 6:24: "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon."
"Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days (James 5:1-3)."
The Book of Mormon is also rife with admonitions as well; I'll just give the first one I found:
"Wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are set upon their treasures; wherefore , their treasure is their god. And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also (2 Nephi 9:30)."
So I guess when people ask where all this rich-bashing came from, I'll just say, "well, it's Biblical."
Of course, being "rich" is relative; with the advent of the middle class, most people would not think of themselves as "rich," but might feel like they're somewhere in the middle. However, I wonder what wealth looked like during the time of Christ, a time when money changers were cast from the temple? And for the young man who received Jesus' condemnation, what made him rich? We are told that he had "great possessions," (but so do many of us, and we are clearly in the middle class.)
These questions are particularly hard for many of the super rich, who tend to view their "great possessions" with a sense of pride. Chrystia Freeland, the author of Plutocrat: the Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Downfall of Everyone Else, said on NPR on Monday that "in America we have equated personal business success with public virtue. And to a certain extent, your moral and civic virtue could be measured by the size of your bank account."
Freeland goes on to say that the "super rich" are angry because President Obama is pushing the idea that "what is good for the guys at the very top is not necessarily good for the people in the middle." They see this as an "existential threat," because people don't just want to be wealthy and successful, they want to be good. Therefore, any suggestion from progressive thinkers, Obama, or Jesus to the contrary is met with disappointment: "Wow, I'm not as full of virtue and goodness as I thought I was?"
Freeland notes that the numbers of plutocrats has increased, and the gap between them and everyone else is huge; ultimately, they can be expected to "rig the rules in their own favor," while convincing themselves that what is good for them is in the interest of everybody else, (i.e., cut entitlements and shrink the national debt, while reducing taxes for the wealthy.)
However, I am not interested in pointing fingers at Romney - or to imply that any church members with several fancy cars and a horse are not going to heaven until they learn to thread a needle. I guess I am more interested in understanding America's relationship with money. Capitalism has become our national pastime - and I am not sure what this says about us. But alas, that is also another post.
I think our prophet Brigham Young's fears for the Church and the Saints is of particular note:
"The worst fear I have about this people is that they will get rich in this country, forget God and His people, wax fat, and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell. This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty, and all manner of persecution and be true. But my greatest fear is that they cannot stand wealth; and yet they have to be tried with riches, for they will become the richest people on this earth."
What did President Young see of our future when he said this? The implications for America (or even for me and my own life) will make my head hurt if I think on it too long. Clearly this is a truth that is hard for all of us (including the rich) to take in. The pursuit of wealth is truly a moral conundrum; for what is so powerfully connected with self-worth in the American context is defined as a burden that drags one to hell in the scriptural sphere.
So I will end this for now. I have the new episode of The Walking Dead saved on my DVR, and I am really excited to watch it on my 48-inch flat-screen LED TV with my Bose speakers! (And my TV is a Samsung, because everyone knows that is the brand second to none when it comes to flat-screens!)
Post by Rob T.
Wednesday, in the Huffington Post, LDS historian and author Dr. Gregory Prince wrote a piece that, in some ways, I've been waiting to appear since Governor Romney said we should "double Guantanamo" back in May of 2007. The newly revealed remarks dismissing 47% of the country (including many Mormons), prompted Dr. Prince to write in part:
"The very basis of Mormon community, stretching back to the earliest years of Mormonism nearly two centuries ago, is that the more able have a sacred obligation to assist the less able. That sense of physical community was institutionalized in the Church's Welfare Program, which sprang out of the Great Depression as an exemplary and effective means of combining church and government assistance not only to give to those in need, but also to help them to help themselves . . . Judge Mitt Romney as you will, and vote for or against him as you will; but do not judge Mormonism on the basis of the Mitt Romney that was unveiled to the public this week. He is not the face of Mormonism."
Dr. Prince was on the Lawrence O'Donnell show on MSNBC Thursday evening to discuss his column, Mitt Romney, and Mormonism. I encourage you all to watch it here.
(Picture: pass-along cards used to invite people to see Mormons discuss their faith at Mormon.org.)
Post by Rob T.
One of my lengthiest discussions about Mormonism happened with a high school friend who had just finished his first year at a top-25 dental school.
It started with his question: "Why do so many of you become dentists? Half of my class is Mormon: they're all from Utah, they're all married, and they all have two or three kids."
While I never answered that particular question, I've had many Mormon friends go to dental school. My wife completed professional school, I'm almost done with a doctoral program. We Mormons are told to get married, have children, and get all the education we can. This leads to a simple fact: despite the fact that we've settled down, we're raising the next generation, and we're working very hard to secure a stable future, we fall into Governor Romney's 47% who pay no income tax, who can't be convinced to "take personal responsibility and care for [our] lives."
There are two broad reasons we pay no income tax (though, of course, we still pay sales, gas, and payroll taxes). First, as Ezra Klein lays out, Republican tax cuts have reduced the income tax liability for poor and middle-income Americans, even as that reduced liability is now being used as a reason to cut services to pay for new tax cuts for our wealthier fellow citizens. Second, as FactCheck.org explains, over the last few decades, presidents from both parties have supported and expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. This is because they've believed that it was good to encourage people to work and to have children. There's that personal responsibility again.
We don't consider ourselves victims for choosing to marry young, go to graduate school, and have a daughter. We've had incredible opportunities, and done our best to only use as much of the social safety net as we needed, and not begrudging others who used more. (If anyone out there doubts the general eligibility of young Mormon student families for government benefits, check out this thread from Mormon Mentality in 2007. It's one of the most epic discussions that has ever graced the Bloggernacle.) We do our best to take responsibility for our lives, both in the here and now and in planning for the future.
Four years ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to hear Michelle Obama speak at a rally in North Carolina. She talked about how she and Barack only managed to finish paying off their student loans in 2004, as sales of Dreams From My Father started to take off. The President's also talked about this. Sitting in those bleachers back in May of 2008, listening to the future First Lady as we faced graduate school and having kids, we said to one another, "She and Barack get it. They know what we're going through. They're going to pursue policies that help young families who are just starting out." And so they have.
We Mormons are taught to take responsibility, to make choices that can lead to getting an education, to marriage, to children. Many of us are part of the 47%, and many of us are voting for President Obama, because we know he's got our backs.
Post by Eric R -
In recent weeks I have been part of several discussions with conservative Mormons about how the proper role of government should intersect with Christ’s commandment to take care of one another. A common point that keeps coming up is “free agency”. More precisely, my friends object to the federal government requiring citizens to contribute to social programs, as they feel that it is a violation of their free agency to choose how they will (or will not) contribute to the temporal wellbeing of their brothers and sisters in need. Yes, we need to help take care of the sick and afflicted, they agree, but the government shouldn’t force us to do it, rather it should be a matter of individual initiative and obligation.
What I found most frustrating was the fact that I knew these people support the government restricting our individual agency in hundreds of other ways each and every day, because they recognize that it is for the public good, and often in support of a larger moral imperative. Speed limits, bans on indoor smoking, age limits for alcohol consumption, mandatory education for minors, and the list goes on and on (much to Ron Paul’s dismay, I’m sure). Most Republicans support these types of common-sense regulations that all have one thing in common: they restrict individuals’ free agency in the name of the common greater good.
And then there are more controversial restrictions of individual free agency that many conservative Mormons support: a ban on same-sex marriage; public decency laws limiting the display of pornography; keeping personal drug use illegal; and changing current law to make abortion illegal even in the case of “legitimate” rape. ‘Yes, these are restrictions to free agency,’ conservatives would agree, ‘but they are necessary on moral grounds!’
I understand the ‘moral imperative’ argument, and unlike many other liberals, I do believe that it is appropriate to acknowledge the role of personal morals when discussing public policy. What I cannot understand, however, is why so many conservative Mormons fail to see poverty, hunger and homelessness as being worthy of morally-anchored government action. For some reason many conservatives believe that it is appropriate to arrest an individual for using drugs in their own home (requiring tax payers to pay for their incarceration), but it is not appropriate to require citizens to contribute to poverty alleviation programs that address hunger and homelessness.
This selective defense of free agency by conservative Mormons is particularly baffling given what I know of our common faith. The scriptures commanding us to take care of one another are too numerous to mention. So why is taking care of each other less worthy of a government mandate than, say, not allowing two men to get married? Both are issues with a moral component, both are relevant to our larger society, both include an element of the government deciding what individuals may or may not do. It seems like many conservatives are only concerned about the government limiting our freedom to choose when it has to do with their wallets.
Do the freedoms that Republicans hold so dear include the freedom to pursue an education if you were brought to this country by your parents illegally as a child? Not so much. The freedom to have safe drinking water if you live in coal mining or natural gas country? Well, maybe not that. The freedom to worship in a mosque without being spied on by law enforcement, when no illegal behavior was ever detected, or even alleged? Now that is going too far!
The hypocrisy and selective nature of the freedoms and rights that Conservatives choose to idealize is mystifying. But alas, none of this is new, as the GOP has been at it for decades. It is just disheartening to see Romney and other conservative Mormons, with whom I share a common gospel centered on loving your neighbor, buying into it so wholeheartedly.
PART ONE: THE LONG VIEW
I casually started watching Mitt Romney’s career over a decade before I ever heard of anyone named Barack Obama. My oldest brother was his son Tagg’s roommate at BYU, then a trip to Boston to work on his ‘94 Senate campaign connected him with his wife-to-be, then Mitt swooped into my native Utah to save our Winter Olympics, then another sister-in-law became his speech writer as governor in Boston. At first, circa 1993, it was cool to have these connections with someone so famous and, frankly, rich, and I suppose I was even a little proud to see a Mormon challenge a politician as powerful as Ted Kennedy. In a way Church members like Mitt made us feel like we’d arrived on the national scene.
By the time he gained the Massachusetts governorship, however, I myself had matured and I’d learned a lot more about Romney’s views, leaving me apathetic at best about his single term in the corner office—with the exception of the Massachusetts health care reform law, which I saw as a shining example of bipartisan cooperation to achieve a much needed goal, one that I thought needed to be repeated on the national stage—and that deeply reflected my religious beliefs. But after not even attempting a re-election, Romney started his gradual shift to the right and I became increasingly critical and frankly skeptical of his beliefs, which seemed to be changing with the whims of the extreme faction of his party. As he shifted so did I: I became embarrassed and ashamed then eventually a little bit angry. When people learn I’m LDS the last thing I want them to do is equate me with the far right agenda that Romney has worked hard to embrace.
The thing is, I think I hold Romney up to a higher standard than most politicians. I don’t mean to, I consciously try not to, but it’s hard when he’s one of us. He’s the most-recognized face of my religion and hence he’s a surrogate for each of us Mormons, a symbol, supposedly, of what we believe and stand for. I realize he shouldn’t be and that it’s not fair for us Latter-day Saints or the nation at large to put him in that position, and heaven knows he’s tried with all his might to disassociate himself from the Church. But that’s just where he is, and it would only increase exponentially were he to win the White House. So because he’s become this public face of Mormon belief yet I disagree so strongly with essentially all of his positions—and on religious grounds, at that—I’ve been searching around for ways to explain the difference between what I believe and, from what I can tell, what Mitt Romney believes. I’m grateful to Joseph here at Mormons for Obama to give me a little opportunity to do that.
What I hope to do is write a short series of posts about why my religious beliefs as a Mormon lead me to support the Democratic Party in general and President Obama in particular, and why they cause me to generally reject the Republican Party in general and Governor Romney in particular. I know it’s a fool’s errand to attempt to persuade my conservative LDS friends and family members to join me on the Light Side, but what I want to do, as has been stated many times on this website and by organizations like Utah’s LDS Democratic caucus, is to add my voice and give insight into why I, as a Latter-day Saint, disagree with a majority of my fellow Church members and choose to embrace a progressive political agenda; to help show there is a diversity of opinion within Mormonism that is only going to continue growing as converts keep coming from different walks of life.
In undertaking a task like this I’m obviously not alone. We’ve seen a real upswing of Mormon Democrats adding their voice to the national discourse over the past four or five years; as has been pointed out by people like Joanna Brooks, it's generally the progressive Mormons that the news media is turning to for explanations of the faith, and news coverage of last Tuesday’s meeting of Mormon Democrats in Charlotte shows that progressive Mormons are often more interesting to outsiders than their conservative counterparts. Since all these Mormon Democrats have discussed their political beliefs with eloquence and gusto, I’d like to take a slightly different tact and instead discuss my religious beliefs. My thesis, I suppose, comes from Harry Reid, who first said in a 2007 BYU forum address (a pdf), “My faith and political beliefs are deeply intertwined. I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it,” an assertion he repeated this week in North Carolina.
I’m also a Democrat because I’m a Mormon, but what does that mean for me personally? On my mission I was fond of misquoting Marx to claim that politics is the opiate of the people. My thought was that people were too focused on the temporal and passing issues du jour—what Ecclesiastes repeatedly calls “divers vanities” (5:7), and which John Bunyan in his 1678 novel The Pilgrims Progress described as a “Vanity Fair,” a place where the faithful are tempted to leave the path of progress to dally in the passing issues of the world (heaven knows why anyone would name a magazine after such a fleshpot). Thus I thought the politically consumed were neglecting the weightier matters of the law, limiting their vision to a myopic moment in the spectrum of eternity. There’s still a lot of weight to that argument, I believe; after all, Neal A. Maxwell said the plan of salvation “is a most stunning example of the precious perspective of the gospel of Jesus Christ”; it widens your view to the things of eternity over the cares of the day. But after my mission I began to increasingly notice the claims that all truth can be brought together into one great whole and quotes like Brigham Young’s claim that “Mormonism . . . embraces every principle pertaining to life . . . no matter who has it. . . . There is no truth but what belongs to the Gospel.” Such truth would surely include political truth. I also became aware that if God, though above politics, was intimately interested in the intricacies of our lives, then how we govern our nations and communities would be included in that—D&C 134, Mosiah 29, and the common LDS belief that America’s founding fathers were divinely directed (i.e. 1 Nephi 13) evidenced that. So, even though I’d always been inclined toward the Democratic Party, as I allowed my political beliefs to solidify out of what I believe about God, Jesus Christ, the scriptures, and the plan of salvation, I found myself aligning firmly with that party. Not always, but usually.
The epic caveat to all this, of course, is that God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and he favors neither Democrats nor Republicans. God is not progressive or conservative; he’s not a monarchist or a socialist or a capitalist or a Marxist or a Tory or a Whig or a Bull Moose. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9). The work of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent no matter who is king, chief judge, president, or prime minister. I think any discussion of Mormonism and politics needs to begin—and perhaps end—with Hugh Nibley’s 1973 speech “Beyond Politics.” I’d love to reprint the whole thing (please read it!), but here’s the most pertinent passage for what I’m talking about and what I hope to do in my subsequent posts:
“The wide difference, amounting to complete antithesis, between men's ways and God's ways should always be kept in mind. If we would remember that fact, it would save us from a pitfall that constantly lies before us—especially here at Brigham Young University. Nothing is easier than to identify one's own favorite political, economic, historical, and moral convictions with the gospel. That gives one a neat, convenient, but altogether too easy advantage over one's fellows. If my ideas are the true ones—and I certainly will not entertain them if I suspect for a moment that they are false!—then, all truth being one, they are also the gospel, and to oppose them is to play the role of Satan. This is simply insisting that our way is God's way, and therefore the only way. It is the height of impertinence. `There have been frauds and secret abominations and evil works of darkness going on [in the church], . . . all the time palming it off upon the Presidency, . . . practicing in the Church in their name.’ Do you think these people were not sincere? Yes, to the point of fanaticism—they wholly identified their crackpot schemes with the church and with the gospel. Some of the most learned theologians, such as Bossuet, have shown from every page of the scripture that God is an absolute monarchist, while others, equally learned and dedicated, have formed religious communities dedicated to the equally obvious scriptural proposition that the Saints are Communists. You can search through the scriptures and find support for any theory you want, and it is your privilege to attempt to convince yourself of any position you choose to take—but not to impose that opinion on others as the gospel. God certainly does not subscribe to our political creeds. The first issue of the Times and Seasons contained a lead editorial to the elders: ‘Be careful that you teach not for the word of God, the commandments of men, nor the doctrines of men nor the ordinances of men; . . . study the word of God and preach it, and not your opinions, for no man's opinion is worth a straw.’”
With that warning in mind and before jumping in (in my subsequent posts) to how the scriptures have led me to believe what I believe politically, let me just add with a few thoughts about how I see Mormonism as positioned between conservatism and progressivism (so hopefully we can all get along!).
Taking the long view, I think it’s helpful to remember where our political terminology comes from. I remember learning in high school that the terms right and left are simply relics of the French Revolution, when members of the National Assembly randomly divided themselves on the right (monarchist) and left (revolutionary) sides of the room in order to hear themselves over their opponents’ shouts. I like the terms conservative and progressive (rather than liberal) because they better connote the desires of people who thus self-identify. Conservatives want to conserve, they want to retain what they or their country had in the past: traditional values, traditional ways of doing things. They look back to a lost time when life was better, people were happier, and their beliefs were not under attack from new ideas. Their goal is to deliver society out of its contemporary morass by making the future more like the past. Progressives, on the other hand, look forward; they want to progress. They see the past with all its warts and want to create a future that is more just, pleasant, and egalitarian than anything we’ve seen before. Conservatives look back to a paradise lost, progressives forward to a coming utopia.
Where do Latter-day Saints sit? I think the tenth Article of Faith puts us right in the middle: “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.” We look back to Adam and Eve and the earth before the fall, Israel before its apostasy, Zion before it was taken to heaven, and we want to regain that state; we believe that Christ’s atonement was specifically planned before the earth’s creation to achieve that. But we also look forward to Christ’s second coming, when the glories of the new Jerusalem will surpass those of the old—or even of Enoch’s city—and the renewing of the earth as it fulfills the measure of its law and transforms into the Celestial Kingdom. We look back to the prophets but forward to their prophecies’ fulfillment. We trace back our ancestors and our priesthood authority, but do it to bless our children and those who come after us. Our past physical bodies, a great gift, will be renewed and perfected in the resurrection.We will go back into God's presence but with the new stature as exalted beings ourselves. Basically, we want to conserve all that the gospel has given us as we progress toward the millennium. Remembering this can help us see beyond immigration policy to the greater vision Elder Maxwell was talking about.
But we still live here in mortality, it’s still a fallen world, and immigration policy still needs to be addressed. I’m grateful to live in a country that guarantees me the right to freely exercise my religion and to belong to a church that allows all men the same privilege, to worship how, where, or what they may—and encourages me to exercise my franchise and be involved in my community and the political process. I greatly appreciate Church leaders’ oft-repeated declarations of political neutrality and, like I said, I’m gratified that one result of Mitt Romney’s campaign has been to shine a light on the breadth of Mormon political belief.
But why are so many American Latter-day Saints, especially multi-generational Latter-day Saints, politically conservative? (74% compared to 17% liberal, according to this year’s much-discussed Pew Forum survey.) We should let them speak for themselves, of course, but I think I understand some of the causes.
Reason #1: Agency. Conventional wisdom is that early Mormon converts, often New Englanders transplanted to the antebellum frontier, tended to vote in a bloc—hence the Gallatin Election Day Battle in 1838, for instance—and that nearly all Mormons in nineteenth-century Utah supported the People’s Party, essentially an arm of the Church itself. When this was disbanded during the Great Accommodation of the 1890s and Church members were encouraged—and often assigned—to join the two national parties, there was a great amount of resistance to Mormons becoming Republicans; it had, after all, been the Republican Party that had spearheaded the campaign against polygamy and refused Utah statehood for so many decades. But I can also see how the Republican platform would appeal to Utahns from that time, particularly in its evolving emphasis on states’ rights over a strong federal authority: local self-determination had, after all, been the rallying cry of Mormons since the first mobs pushed them out of their homes in the east—and it certainly reflected how they felt about anti-polygamy legislation and Washington-appointed governors and judges in Utah territory. In other words, in all of this, the distant federal authorities were seeking to restrict the populace’s God-given agency, a right they saw as guaranteed in both scripture and the Constitution. If they chose to live polygamously, or follow a prophet over a legislature, or work communally instead of individually, then the government had no right to limit their belief or religious practices, just like it couldn’t for Abinadi, Alma the Elder, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, or Abednego. Political self-determination merely protects individual agency, and if the anti-polygamy raid didn’t cement this belief, by the Cold War it was easy for Mormons to see any government that limited agency as either wrongheaded or inherently evil. Communist countries exemplified this, making it easy for Mormons to gradually migrate to the right.
Reason #2: Fiscal self-sufficiency. Mormons’ nineteenth-century collectivism was, by the Great Depression, replaced by a sense of fiscal propriety, of living within one’s means. The Church’s welfare program, launched as something of a response to the New Deal, still included the value of caring for one’s neighbor, but it also emphasized maintaining a house of fiscal propriety free from debt or speculation. Financially strained Church members were to rely on family first, Church second, and government welfare only as a last resort. Work was “to be re-enthroned as the ruling principle” of Mormons’ lives. “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” (1 Tim. 5:8) There were at least two results from this: first, reliance upon government assistance for any reason became a sign of weakness or infidelity—or at least poor judgment—and, second, Church members extrapolated the Church’s advice on personal finance, specifically to avoid borrowing and deficit spending, to government finance as well.
Reason #3: Social issues. My friend Boyd Peterson, whose 2009 article “Why I’m a Mormon Democrat” is another must-read, summarized this well on NPR’s Tell Me More on Thursday. After talking about Utah’s pluralistic political atmosphere of the 1960s and 70s (with a Democratic governor and congressmen) he said, “It’s interesting that we’ve [since] become so closely identified to the Republican Party. I think a lot of that has to do with the social issues that have come to the floor recently that have been so divisive, from the women’s rights movement of the 70s on through abortion and now gay marriage. I think those kinds of issues have polarized the electorate and the two parties in ways that have kind of influenced the way the Church members have seen it.” It was difficult for Mormons to affiliate with a party that supported the Equal Rights Amendment, for instance, when their church so strongly opposed it.
There’s more to it than that, of course, but those three reasons help me as a progressive understand how so many of my friends support a political party that I otherwise find so foreign to my beliefs. But there’s a flip side to the coin. While Mormons were developing their vehement dislike of government authority in the 1800s, so too grew their belief in centrally organized communal industry under the leadership of Brigham Young and John Taylor. The Great Basin Kingdom that Leonard Arrington describes so intricately in his 1958 book was, he believed, the predecessor and model of the New Deal. As he says in the preface, “[This book] may be said to suggest the positive role which a government, whether secular or theocratic, if sufficiently strong, can play in the building of a commonwealth.” Or, as LDS historian Ronald Walker says in his new introduction, “During a time of New Deal and Fair Deal reform, the Mormon Kingdom was a concrete, practical example of what government central planning could be” (p. xx). It persevered as the last manifestation of Jacksonian democratic ideals while the rest of the nation fell under the spell of capitalist industrialists and robber barons. (My friend Roger Terry wrote an interesting comparison to early Americans’ view of private corporations in Thursday’s Deseret News.) Indeed, Arrington's book shows it wasn’t polygamy but rather this centralized planning and communal social safety net that Americans rejected most strongly in the 1800s, and it would have to be overcome before Utah could gain statehood. Great Basin Kingdom reads like an autopsy of the early progressive Mormon ideals; as their communal industries died out one by one, the stage was set for capitalist expansion in Utah, through mining and other industries, akin to the rest of the country. For better or worse, Deseret—symbolized by the communal hive—disappeared as Utah joined the Union.
But for Mormons who retained a memory of this isolated period, Christ’s call to be our brothers’ keeper trumped any qualms about a large activist government, federal authority, or deficit spending. This is exactly what prominent Mormon Democrat James H. Moyle, an assistant Cabinet member for both Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt, said in a memo on Mormonism requested by FDR in the 1930s (as reported by a young Gordon B. Hinckley in his 1951 biography of Moyle). More recently, at the meeting in Charlotte this week, Robert Cooper said, “I feel there’s a big-tent approach, helping those who are disadvantaged. If you look at economics, Mormons take good care of themselves. We give ten percent of our income to the Church, in addition to a monthly donation. So a lot of Mormons say that’s not the role of government. But not everyone has that support structure. That’s one of the roles of government, to help those who don’t have that support structure. A lot of people don’t have what we have.”
I’ll explore these issues in greater depth, but Cooper's statement is a cogent summary of why many Mormons support the Democratic platform despite its obvious flaws. Along with churches, charities, and individuals, government can often be part of the solution to society’s problems; in fact, because the federal government is as large as it is and has the authority it has, it can almost universally be a greater part of the solution than any other organization. The Church is amazing in its humanitarian programs, disaster relief, and myriad other efforts—and I’ve been a grateful beneficiary of it—but it cannot revitalize infrastructure, ensure healthcare, repair environmental disasters, regulate industry, protect our food supply, deliver our mail, run our public schools, provide police and national defense, care for the poor, or do most of the other things the government does to the extent that government can do it. With all the problems facing us today, there is room for both. Next I hope to get into some more specifics about President Obama and Governor Romney as individuals and why I think the former remains the better leader for our country.
As this year's political race between Obama and Romney gains traction in the media, on social networks, in churches, and elsewhere, there are Mormons who, while having nothing against Romney personally or religiously, have decided to vote for Obama. The following is from a Mormon (not me) who supports Obama and the reasons why:
I am voting for Obama. I voted for him in 2008, and I believe that he was the best candidate at that time. In my opinion, he is again the best candidate for president this year. Here are my key reasons:
In my opinion, Obama has been the greatest foreign policy president we have had since Ronald Reagan. He has largely shifted America's foreign policy focus to Asia where it rightly belongs, reduced resources in Iraq, plotted an escape route out of Afghanistan, managed the Arab Spring revolutions better than I ever though possible, strengthened international resolve towards Iran, reduced tensions along the Mexican border, corralled India in a tighter alliance, and done all of this with fewer resources. Oh, and he killed Osama in an incredibly daring but brilliant operation. How could anyone even compete with that?
Much of the success belongs to Obama's excellent Cabinet choices. Secretary Clinton has been a fantastic Secretary of State, the best we've had since Colin Powell. Gates was so impressive as Defense secretary (I have mixed feelings about Panetta) and even Mullen as Joint Chiefs has demonstrated an excellent ability to think outside the box and also confront his own bureaucracy. But Obama is the one who assembled the team from rivals (Clinton) and the other political party (Gates). And he is the one who has ultimately made the right decisions at the right times.
Even his supposed failures in foreign policy reflect good thinking in my mind. Liberals are upset over his inability to close Guantanamo, but that issue is way more complicated than most people realize. And Obama is willing to recognize reality, even in the face of his unrealistic campaign promises. Others have criticized him for his response to Libya, but again, I think he struck the exact right balance of intervention without U.S. commitment. And it was a good chance for Europe to step up to the plate and work out its defense arrangements a little bit more.
Foreign policy is largely controlled within the executive branch of government, so I hold the President more accountable on this count than most others. And I think because Obama has a freer hand in this policy realm, we have seen more of his true colors in this respect. Plus, his rhetorical gifts are so needed and so effective in the international arena. Words matter there, and Obama has the ability to really influence things by what he says. Speeches in Russia and in Egypt prior to the uprisings had a dramatic regional impact.
Those who want Ron Paul's version of foreign policy are living in historical fiction, though I empathize with their aspirations. It was Woodrow Wilson, nearly 100 years ago, who presided over the transition of America from an isolated, waterlocked, largely agrarian society to the global economic and military power it is today. That transition, while not irreversible, has been so comprehensive as to make the costs of returning to isolationism far higher than any benefits. We are a global power, our military is a crucial international asset used to secure shipping lanes, reduce transaction costs, and save lives abroad, and our role in international fora cannot be replicated.
I actually think Romney wouldn't be too bad in the foreign policy realm. He certainly wouldn't be as bad as Bush or Carter were. But I worry about his Cabinet choices, about too much focus on domestic issues, about his inability to connect with Americans let alone foreign countries. And Obama has a clear track record in this realm. Absent some compelling flaw in the President's foreign policy or some remarkable asset in Romney, I am certainly not willing to change presidents after only four years.
This is the second most important issue for me, but I suspect it will be the number-one issue for most Americans. The economy is whimpering along, barely making much of a recovery with major structural problems at every level. My perspective is surely influenced by the fact that I have a job and that I am doing OK financially. If I didn’t have a job, or if my future prospects didn’t look bright, I would probably be looking for a change somewhere. In the Book of Mormon, Lehi murmured against the Lord only when he couldn’t feed his family, so I fully respect those who want a change of leadership given the lack of recent improvements. But a couple of thoughts:
Investment is the key to growth, and we are not making the right types of investments. If you think about your own life, you made significant investments in education, maybe a home, other capital. You likely took out loans to pay for these things (I sure did) with the understanding that your investment will yield returns later on. The problem with the U.S. right now is we had to take out loans just to survive for the past few years. It’s like we were living on credit card debt. Now the gut reaction once things start improving is to pay off the credit card debt right away. We all hate debt and hate watching how much interest eats up our paychecks. But the counterintuitive right course (in my opinion) is to take out more loans for the right type of investments first and then start paying off the credit card debt. Domestic infrastructure, education, state and local government, and energy development all desperately need significant investments right now. Waiting until our nation’s credit card bill is paid will be too late and only result in a lower rate of growth in the future. Accordingly,
The Republican’s prescription is the wrong one. What they are proposing is the equivalent of a doctor ordering chemotherapy for broken legs. Everyone is focused on debt right now, thinking paying down our debt will somehow cause the economy to come back. Again, think about it from an individual’s perspective. Does paying off debt make you any richer? Insofar as you get to keep the money you were using to pay interest, yes. But that is really a very small amount in the grand scheme of things. Things that actually make us richer—such as getting more education, getting a promotion, finding a new job, coming up with a new invention—come from investments, from risks, from innovation. Somehow, we are not focusing on that at all; instead, we are bickering about how we have mortgaged our children’s future. That cliché is driving me nuts. Of course we mortgage their future! That’s how we hope to finance a better world that they can then easily pay off with their spaceship explorations to planets made of gold and unobtainium.
In all seriousness though, the Republicans and Mitt Romney would have a valid argument if U.S. interest rates were going up and if inflation were a concern. But that’s the thing: inflation rates are at historic lows, and the world is more than happy to lend us as much money as we want. (See my first point on foreign policy; in a way, this is the reward for all our global expenditures.) Which leads me to the final point on economics:
The current public debate is not looking at the big picture. The U.S. economy is so closely tied into the world’s economy now that it is silly to try to separate them or focus on domestic reasons for our malaise. China’s economy depends on U.S. debt as much as we depend on it. Europe’s problems make our issues look childish in comparison. Brazil, China, and India are practically begging the U.S. to spend their money in our country on our goods and with our workforce. We are missing all these issues in our angry, navel-gazing rhetoric about who destroyed which job. And I think those global issues will ultimately have much more bearing on the domestic economy than nearly anything the executive branch will do.
There may be one exception to this point, however. In periods of panic and serious economic volatility, the President does have real power: rhetorical power and the ability to act quickly to stabilize the market through emergency liquidity measures, etc. Romney and Republicans have all but eschewed such tools, however, saying it is not the government’s role to take such action. And that denial of governmental responsibility in the face of economic crises is frightening. The last presidents to believe this were Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge, who together helped precipitate (but not cause) the Great Depression.
Just to summarize the economic issue:
· Investments, not deleveraging national debt, is the key to growth.
· Republicans have made paying off debt their Holy Grail, creating a myopic and misdirected economic policy.
· International economic policy matters far more than Republicans acknowledge.
· At the end of the day, the President has very little influence on economic issues, except in crises. And it is such power that the Republican party has said should not be wielded by the government.
Looking at Romney individually, I think he is actually very intelligent when it comes to economic issues. I suspect he understands all these points, and I even suspect he may agree with me. But his party has demonstrated no willingness to compromise or acknowledge any complexity on the issue, and I fear Romney would face a revolt from his own party if he suggested increasing spending on anything. So even if Romney really knows how to handle our economic challenges (although his current rhetoric suggests otherwise) his party would never allow it.
Domestic Policy and Entitlement Reform
As the words Obamacare and socialism ring through the air, I think this is the arena where the public debate has gotten out of hand. To be fair, the rhetoric on foreign policy issues was ridiculous when George Bush was president. Whereas Obama is depicted as a Keynian socialist who hates America and wants to decide when senior citizens are killed, Bush was depicted as a bumbling, warmongering puppet controlled by Dick Cheney who wanted to torture foreigners. Neither caricature is particularly helpful, except to put “rage in the hearts” (2 Nephi 28:20) of people. I suspect most Americans were not in either of these two rhetorical camps, but their rational thoughts are getting drowned out.
Obamacare—By far, the strangest thing about this entire debate is that Obamacare will not be truly implemented until 2014! We haven’t even seen what Obamacare will do, but listening to people you would think it single-handedly brought down the economy even before it was passed. The individual mandate hasn’t been implemented, insurance competition provisions remain unenforced, and the whole thing is in limbo before the Supreme Court (and I think a constitutional examination is warranted in this case). My point is, how could you possibly judge a law on its merits when it hasn’t even been implemented? One of the only truly substantive components of the law that has been implemented is the mandate that insurance companies cover dependents until they are 26 (reflecting the fact that children are in school and deferring marriage until later). And I think that has been a great success—I have family members who would not have insurance were it not for this provision.
Medicare—This is the real elephant in the room, and the part where I agree with the Republicans the most. Medicare costs are the fundamental driver of increasing health care costs, and Obamacare’s great flaw is its failure to reign in Medicare costs. The economic reality is that it is inevitable that Medicare benefits will be cut and there will be some type of provisioning of those benefits, aka death panels. Because promising essentially unlimited medical expenditures for the most expensive patients while refusing to raise additional revenue from the healthy patients is unsustainable. Given this reality, however, I think reform is actually more likely with a Democrat as president. He would have the best ability to convince his own party of the need for reform. Remember, Bill Clinton was president when welfare reform was passed. Right now the Democrats are quite intransigent on this issue, but I think economic realities and appropriate pressure from Republicans in Congress could help them come around, provided a Democrat is president. If a Republican is president, there would be too much opposition from Democrats and too much partisan gloating from Republicans to really push anything rational through.
Social Security—See my previous point. Social security as currently constituted is unsustainable, benefits will need to be cut, and I believe Obama is able and willing to compromise on this point.
Women’s and Family Issues—I have no idea what is going on with the Republican party or why they think targeting contraceptives or abortion is going to win the election. But I believe their rhetoric is harmful and counterproductive. Roe v. Wade is a reality, so let’s start talking about how we can reduce the number of abortions through education, contraceptive use, and strengthening families. This war on women and the family is phony, pathetic, and a political red herring.
Of course, I am not happy with everything that Obama has done. I generally like solid conservatives on the Supreme Court who have a more traditionalist interpretation of the Constitution. Obama will most certainly not do that. Obama’s leadership style is frequently too detached to really enact substantive change. Despite his rhetoric, Obama does not have the gift of a Reagan or Clinton to reach across the aisle and really work with the opposition party. And I am concerned with growing consolidation of authority at the federal level at the expense of state and local government.
In these policy matters, I feel Obama is on the wrong side of the issue. But democracy is all about choosing the least bad alternative. I am concerned that Romney is not the master of his own fate. Too many political forces within his own party have compelled him to change into something and someone that he is not. I really liked the Romney who was governor of Massachusetts: a compromiser, able to deal with the political realities at hand, and eminently pragmatic. If that Romney resurfaces, I would be incredibly happy. My concern though is that the Republican party has been captured by a mix of libertarian, Conservative with a capital C (ie., pre-1932), and isolationist groups that have a skewed historical perspective. I am extremely uncomfortable with the rhetoric of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and other pundits from this camp, and Romney has been far too willing to pander to these groups. True leadership would occur if he stood up against those in his own party. But he hasn’t done that.
Of course it is neat that Romney is Mormon, but I actually feel that has very little bearing in this year’s election. It will make for some very interesting attack ads and quite a spotlight on the church, but I haven’t really seen how it will influence his policy choices. Has Romney ever suggested his Mormon faith has influenced his political positions? So that puts me squarely in a very small minority of Mormons for Obama.
This year’s election is not the “once in a lifetime” election I have been hearing about. Yes, there are important issues and yes, it is valuable to be civically engaged. But I have too much faith in the American system to believe that one presidential term could ever fundamentally alter the American way of life, either for good or bad. Presidents are leaders more than they are actors. What I mean by that is they set the rhetorical tone that compels others to action. But no matter who is president, there will be good people in the U.S. doing much good of their own free will.
The Constitution is an incredible document with such flexibility that I believe we can definitely tackle the pressing issues our country faces. I have tremendous appreciation for our country’s commitment to the rule of law and respect for minority opinion. I honestly believe that the U.S. has one of the greatest political systems in the world, if not the greatest ever created. It may look really messy at times, but believe me, we could do much, much worse. Nowhere else in the world is there such a large and diverse population able to live in freedom and peace. As the ridiculous rhetoric heats up on both sides, it is good to keep that in mind.
Seeing that we at Mormons for Obama are not without sin, I don't want to be the first to cast a stone at another; (so can somebody else please do it for me, and then I will surreptitiously cast the second stone?) And then there's that thing about a glass house; (is that even biblical?) Well, Buzzfeed caught wind of this and put it out there - (the media is running out of Mormon stories to run): some Romney Mormons have co-opted the "Choose the Right" slogan and slapped it underneath the Romney logo to drum up Mormon fervor for the Mormon candidate. (As if they needed to do that.) Click on this link for the Buzzfeed article.
Clearly, we have riffed the "I'm a Mormon" campaign with our bumper stickers - and so legally, I can't find fault with these people too much, except to ponder, "why didn't we think of making buttons?" Although Buzzfeed does make a good point: Isn't Romney trying to distance himself from the religion discussion, and isn't this unhelpful in that regard?
Well, regardless of their intent, I feel I should respond in this way: instead of being upset because my childhood CTR ring (that would invariably leave a rusty-brown line around my finger not unlike the ring circling the inside of a dirty commode,) has now been connected with a political candidate who just might begin spewing white oil any day now, I have produced my own version of their bumper sticker... and then all associations with happy memories of my youth are washed away. And please, no need to ask! Feel free to use this graphic in all your Romney campaigning this fall:
We all know Mitt Romney is the Mormon in this year’s presidential race. Therefore, we ought to be safe in assuming that Book of Mormon teachings more closely align with his views than those of President Obama.
Alas, if we made that assumption, we’d be wrong.
Let’s examine what the book says and where the candidates stand.
When it comes to the Book of Mormon’s central message—that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Redeemer of the world—Obama, a member of the United Church of Christ, and Romney, who belongs to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, agree.
On other key topics, however, they part ways.
For example, the book prominently features wars and other conflicts. The subject occupies around 170 of the book’s 531 pages. Prophets often admonish Book of Mormon peoples never to “go up” to war against their enemies. Instead, they must wait until their foes “come down” to their land. In other words, they may fight defensive wars but must never be aggressors. As LDS scholar Hugh Nibley wrote, righteous principles “rendered aggressive warfare impossible and preventive warfare utterly unthinkable.”
In the Iraq War, we saw the United States “go up” to attack a nation that hadn’t attacked us. Supporters of the war deemed it preventive or preemptive. Romney strongly supported the war, favored increased U.S. troop levels as it dragged on and criticized Obama’s decision to end it. Obama, on the other hand, opposed the war from the start. As president, he terminated U.S. troop involvement in December 2011.
The Book of Mormon also declares that righteous nations must treat prisoners of war humanely. In Alma 62:27-29, prisoners not only were freed, they were given land and were welcomed into the society. On another occasion, prisoners were allowed to depart promptly in peace after a bloody battle (Hel. 1:33). Centuries later, however, after both sides had rejected God, they abused and tortured their prisoners (Moroni 9:7-10).
In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the war on terror, U.S. soldiers and our agents have engaged in a variety of abuses and torture of prisoners, including waterboarding. Among the most infamous sites of prisoner abuse has been Guantanamo.
Romney declines to renounce waterboarding, and his aides have said that he does not view it as torture. His support of “enhanced interrogation techniques” has drawn strong criticism from 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Romney also has said, “Some people say we should close Guantanamo. My view is we ought to double Guantanamo.”
Shortly after taking office, President Obama issued an executive order halting harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. He has sought to close Guantanamo but has faced stiff resistance from Congress.
In terms of military spending, Nibley assures us that when the Nephites were righteous, their “military preparations were defensive—minimal—with God acting as their radar and warning system.” Rather than “minimal” defense spending, Romney wants to restore American power and has pledged to boost the military budget by close to $2 trillion over the next 10 years, adding 100,000 soldiers. (U.S. military spending is by far the world’s largest.) Obama favors significant cuts to the military budget.
Clearly, it is Obama, not Romney, who heeds the counsel of Book of Mormon prophets on war. His actions prove that he regards Christ as the Prince of Peace rather than the Prince of Preemptive War.
Another yardstick measuring the uprightness of Book of Mormon peoples is how they treat the poor.
During the longest peaceful era in Book of Mormon history, the people established economic equality—“they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor” (4 Nephi 1:3). Earlier, a prophet rebuked those who neglected the poor and who allowed great disparities to develop between the haves and the have-nots (Alma 4:11-13). The practice of “oppressing” wage earners was condemned (3 Nephi 24:5).
The Book of Mormon stresses equity. In Mosiah 18:27 we read that those with high incomes should give “more abundantly” and that for those with little, “little should be required” and “to him that had not should be given.” King Benjamin reminds his people that he has only sought to serve them “and have not sought gold nor silver nor any manner of riches of you.” Prophets denounced taxation that enriched the wealthy and those in power while burdening everyone else (Mosiah 11:3-6; Ether 10:5,6).
Romney deserves credit for leadership at Bain Capital that rescued some companies that might otherwise have gone out of business. But his actions widened the gap between the haves and have-nots, with people like himself and others at the top reaping multiple millions in income while many at the bottom lost jobs and saw jobs shipped overseas where it is legal to oppress wage earners by paying them below minimum U.S. wages. Romney favored a minimum-wage hike early in 2012 but then reversed his position. His proposed boost in the military budget would come at the expense of social programs that aid the needy. President Obama has supported hikes in the minimum wage and is often called a socialist for supporting programs that help lower-income and unemployed Americans.
Although both candidates can be viewed as wealthy, Romney’s 2010 tax forms, the latest he has released, show income of $21.7 million, 13 times greater than Obama’s $1.7 million. But Romney paid federal taxes of only 13.9 percent while Obama’s federal tax rate was 26 percent. In order to reduce the gap between the haves and have-nots and help cut the deficit, Obama favors allowing the tax cut for people making more than $250,000 annually to expire. Romney would extend the tax cut for the wealthy, making it easier for high-income Americans to continue paying lower overall rates than those of modest income.
Another prominent Book of Mormon message is to beware of pride while remembering “your own nothingness . . . and humble yourselves, even in the depths of humility” (Mosiah 4:11). Prophets rebuke those who feel they deserve their riches and who claim “every man prospered according to his genius” (Alma 30:17). Part of this pride among the Nephites also manifested itself in feelings of national superiority and boastfulness after military victories.
In his 2010 book “No Apology,” Romney lays out the case for American greatness. He vows to “never again apologize for America.” He has reminded critics of his income that America's capitalistic system allows some to accumulate great wealth (“I’ve been extraordinarily successful”) and that those who are less successful should avoid “the politics of envy.” President Obama has apologized for American mistakes that have offended other countries, such as the burning of a Koran at a U.S. military base. He has stated that no one achieves success alone but instead receives help every step of the way.
On immigration, the Book of Mormon offers a limited “open door” policy. If people are willing to be good citizens, the attitude is “y’all come.” For example, when believers among the Zoramites found themselves expelled from their country, they entered the land of Jershon. The people of Jershon, being righteous, did not say, “You don’t have proper papers, so self-deport yourselves back to where you came from.” Instead, Jershon “did receive all the poor of the Zoramites that came over unto them; and they did nourish them, and did clothe them, and did give unto them lands for their inheritance” (Alma 35:9).
Mitt Romney coined the phrase “self-deport” in saying those who lack citizenship papers should leave the country. He has opposed the DREAM Act, which provides a pathway to citizenship for those brought to the United States as children. He also supports making English the country’s official language and has said Arizona and other states should be allowed to enact their own immigration laws. Obama halted deportation of young undocumented immigrants in June 2012 and supports the DREAM Act. He also directed the Justice Department to pursue its successful challenge of Arizona’s “show me your papers” anti-immigration law.
With Mitt Romney’s positions so often contrary to the Book of Mormon, what shall we say to Mormons who support him? Perhaps a one-word answer is best. It’s a word that repeatedly pops up in the Book of Mormon: Repent!
Brothers and sisters, there is nothing more dangerous than fear. We learn about that in Sunday school all the time. I want to talk with you a little bit about the fear of being open about political opinions. I am not suggesting that anyone is wrong or ignorant for being quiet about their support for President Obama, and I certainly am not giving expert advice on the topic. But I want to point out a few things on the topic of fear of sharing political opinions. Here’s why:
1. This is America. You are entitled to freely express your political opinions without fear of repercussion from the federal government. Oftentimes in our culture we extend this to mean that you shouldn’t fear repercussions from anyone simply because of your beliefs. This security to state your stances freely is fundamental to our identity as Americans engaging in the political dialogue of this nation.
2. The concept of declaring your beliefs freely is also deeply engrained in Mormonism. From the oft-quoted Romans 1:16 (For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ) to the brave and heroic examples of our pioneer ancestors, we have a strong tradition of actively making our true convictions known, even when to do so puts us at odds with those around us.
3. Even if, after boldly admitting that you support President Obama, someone were to react negatively such to make you regret being open about it- their intolerance is their problem. As Mormons, we are told to surround ourselves with good people. There are plenty of good people who may not share our political beliefs but appreciate civil discourse and sharing opinions with an open mind. If someone you meet is going to give you a hard time about your beliefs purely because they disagree with you, it might be a good time to evaluate if they will be a good influence on your life in the first place.
Granted: there may be people already in your life, such as friends, family, and coworkers, who may be intolerant and unavoidable. How you handle those relationships is of course a personal decision. Additionally, I am not suggesting that we should risk death or any other extreme outcome in exchange for openly supporting President Obama.
What I am advocating for is a little less fear and a little more faith.
I openly admit that I relish the occasional dirty looks from people who are anti-Obama when they see that I support our President. It reminds me that "there must needs be opposition in all things," and that there is still a lot of work to do to re-elect him.
Every day that goes by when another person finds out that I’m an Obama supporter (it usually becomes known pretty quickly- as I said, I’m extremely open about it) and they get excited to find someone who shares their passion, I am grateful that I put on that Obama shirt or brought my Obama water bottle with me. I cherish the opportunity to connect with like-minded people and to express my deeply held opinion that Barack Obama is the best candidate for President. No amount of insult, derogatory gestures, or rude glances can invalidate that belief. I'm not suggesting that my commitment to Obama is deeper than anyone else's- simply that I choose to risk negative encounters because I value finding those few people in Provo, Utah who do also support the President, and those positive encounters are worth the risk for me.
If we all stood a little taller, spoke a little more freely in the appropriate settings (i.e. not at church), opened our minds to the possibility that those who we thought previously would brazenly disparage our opinion might not be as churlish as we had imagined- who knows what deeper relationships and more significant connections we might develop.
Conversely- for every opportunity we pass up to share our convictions about supporting our President, we’ll never know which voter we may have reached, directly or indirectly, who might have cast the deciding vote for President Obama.
So perhaps now would be a good time to take a minute; think about how you represent yourself and your beliefs. Heading into the heated and controversial campaign season this fall, we could have a little less fear and a little more faith that the benefits of being open about our support for the President will far outweigh the potential for push-back.
106 DAYS UNTIL ELECTION 2012