And Then There Were Five
And Then There Were Five

My opinion is not a popular one, especially among Mormons. It’s based on one of my foundational beliefs that I still maintain from my days as a centrist: both sides of our political divide are founded on sound principles that are imperfectly applied – because we’re humans. (Just like I believe our Church organization is inherently flawed because it’s a human organization.)

Conservatism in the United States seems to be marked by virtues of personal liberty, sovereignty, tradition,  judeo-christian belief, protecting family values (as they define them), robust national security, free markets, and low regulatory burdens. American liberalism is based more on expanding civil rights, pluralism, international cooperation, aid to the disadvantaged, government regulation to limit exploitation of workers/citizens, community, redistribution of power, diversity, and federalism.

Is it possible for there to be too much: tradition, religious tests, defense, free markets, sovereignty, etc.? Yes
Is it possible for there to be too much: secularism, cooperation, welfare, regulations, redistribution, etc.? Yes

Then it is our obligation to come together and find a way to compromise – or in other words, work out a way for moderation in all things to be a principle of how we relate politically to each other. Each political virtue is often in contrast with an opposing political virtue, imagine a pendulum swinging back and forth. In response to one good thing being taken overboard and having negative consequences, course corrections are then needed. A modern society cannot be stable if the two sides demonize each other and in an attempt to “win” try to destroy the opposing principles.

We have plenty of modern Mormon leadership who have been vocally conservative. So much so that in Elder Holland’s recent call to serve the poor – the cultural environment required him to include a caveat (couldn’t be seen as a bleeding heart liberal!). Not being a Mormon historical/political scholar I admit my shallow knowledge and ascribe our Mormon conservative roots to the rise of Ezra Taft Benson and his vocal politicking from the pulpit.

Those 1939 Church Leaders, Godless Socialists
Those 1939 Church Leaders, Godless Socialists

Yet it seems that Mormonism has not always been so stridently conservative. Over the last 24 hours an opposite-minded political quote from early Mormon leaders has gone viral on imgur titled, “Early Mormon Leaders feelin the Bern.”

“…since all capitalistic systems are founded upon the institution of private property, inheritance and the profit motive, great inequalities of ownership and income inevitably result. …Among the more plausible suggestions offered to correct existing abuses without adversely affecting the productive system, is to continue the socialization of our service institutions through a system of progressive taxation based upon ability to pay…taking the bulk of their [captains of industry] profits to finance free education, free libraries, free public parks and recreation centers, unemployment insurance, old age benefits, sickness and accident insurance, and perhaps eventually FREE MEDICAL AND HOSPITAL SERVICE (Emphasis mine). …The average family may not have much more money, if any, to spend under such a system than now. But…then the meagre (sic) family income can be devoted entirely to the necessities of life, plus some of the comforts now enjoyed by the higher income classes. …To finance all of this, of course, will necessitate huge sums of money. …And it will also require a carefully worked out tax system so that every one will contribute according to his financial ability. Inheritance and estate taxes will become progressively higher, until the present system of permitting large fortunes to be passed on from generation to generation will become extinct. And incidentally, the so-called idle rich who have been living on the earnings of past generations will be no more.”

Since the quote was cherry picked from a whole chapter I wanted to see if there was broader context – I don’t own a copy of Priesthood and Church Welfare (A Study Course for the Quorums of the Melchizedek Priesthood for the year 1939 – prepared under the direction of the Council of the Twelve, pages 88-89) so I transcribed the whole chapter from the posted images here. It’s worth reading the whole thing, it’s less than three pages long.

Overall the chapter seems to be more of a thought experiment than a sermon, especially when one includes the questions at the end of the chapter that highlight the tensions between the virtues of caring for the poor and rewarding hard work.

  1. How can we reduce inequalities of wealth and income and still retain the qualities of individual initiative?
  2. If we eliminate the profit motive will we destroy individual initiative?
  3. What incentives do Church workers have to spur them on to maximum achievement?
  4. Is it not wrong to take wealth away from people after they have struggled so hard to acquire it? What if the wealth was acquired through inheritance?
  5. Is there a difference between confiscating wealth and taxing the income from the wealth as it is produced?

It seems there was once a value on critical thinking in our culture (!) and encouragement to have debates on complex topics at Church. Anyways, just reading the questions doesn’t provide the full picture either, as one of my favorite money lines was:

Thus we see how the Mormon Church, through the wisdom and foresight of its leaders, has led the way in the movement toward a greater diffusion of the benefits of our economic progress. They have set the pace for a greater realization of the Christian ideal of the brotherhood of men, through a wider distribution of economic and temporal things as well as in religious and spiritual blessings.

It seems the purpose of the manuals back then wasn’t to make sure you agree, but to make sure you think. I would have LOVED to attend one of these meetings where these principles were discussed.

Again, I wish I were a historian and had done the hard work to answer my own questions, but it seems prior to the Cold War there were no real disagreements from achieving the principles of the law of consecration through government intervention. I think in the Baby Boomer generation, especially, we can see a real reaction to the fear of the world they grew up in – when the narrative was evil socialism/communism vs. god-fearing capitalists. My mom still tells the story of the day she learned of socialism at school and all the Rigby High School; kids freaked out that it was the law of consecration, but to their great relief their seminary set them straight that socialism is Satan’s plan because it takes away your agency. Obviously our early Mormon forefathers did not espouse this line of thinking.

Meanwhile, today’s generation is growing up where the countries who rank highest in education, health, and happiness are founded on social democracy. The biggest threats to our safety, so they say, are from groups that are theocratic and let the rules of their religion rule their government. We also see widespread peace where pluralism rules the day.

Nearly four years ago I was pulling the lever for Mitt Romney as a self-described moderate conservative. Then I was a centrist, and recently admitted to myself I am now a liberal. I vote for liberal policies and politicians because I see progress that needs to be made (and I believe the pendulum of tea party is pulling us far to the right) and my theology has changed in that I believe the purpose of the Gospel is to serve the poor and liberate the captive/oppressed. I’m a bit of an undecided voter because I think the establishment has allowed an Oligarchy to gain power (so I’m feelin’ the Bern, #OccupyWallStreet) but I know that good government is pragmatic and makes compromises. I don’t think the visions Sanders & Cruz are selling are achievable and could possibly only lead to more angry, disenfranchised voters (Which leads to more Trump). I’m not happy with any of the candidates, either.

The reason why I think God is apolitical is that I don’t think God has a horse in the race. I think God cares about leaders spreading peace and doing good for their constituents, whoever they are [1]. I don’t think God wants anyone to win, I do think he wants us to be at-one. I also think God cares about you being engaged and thinking critically about the issues, studying history and learning from it, and even learning to identify the tensions and even the virtues of opposing sides. I think when our scriptures reference the condemnation of a people and a land who has forgotten God, it isn’t referring to government leaders – it is referring to their interactions with each other in their communities (even the love of God waxing cold in your heart for your political opponents). If you want a Christian nation, than it starts at home and in your community. YOU need to be a better Christian. You should walk out your door every morning and be more Christ-like. That’s how it happens.

I think there have been plenty of world leaders who were religious who burned their countries to the ground and there were plenty of godless leaders who were pretty darn good leaders (#ImWithHatshepsut). In the end, I’m of the opinion if you think God agrees with your politics, you’re wrong. You might want to review the part of the Gospel about not remaking God in your own image.


[1] I do think God cares that you vote for a leader that would spread peace and be a good governor. So, #NeverTrump.