Will Mitt's Mormonism Make Him a Supply-Side Liberal?

In my post “Rich, Poor and Middle-Class” I made this statement on my own behalf, as a statement of what I believe Supply-Side Liberalism suggests as the right attitude in response to class warfare in the U.S. context:

I am deeply concerned about the poor, because they are truly suffering, even with what safety net exists. Helping them is one of our highest ethical obligations. I am deeply concerned about the honest rich—not so much for themselves, though their welfare counts too—but because they provide goods and services that make our lives better, because they provide jobs, because they help ensure that we can get good returns for our retirement saving, and because we already depend on them so much for tax revenue. But for the middle-class, who count heavily because they make up the bulk of our society, I have a stern message. We are paying too high a price when we tax the middle class in order to give benefits to the middle-class—and taxing the rich to give benefits to the middle-class would only make things worse. The primary job of the government in relation to the middle-class has to be to help them help themselves, through education, through loans, through libertarian paternalism, and by stopping the dishonest rich from preying on the middle-class through deceit and chicanery. (Miles Kimball, “Rich, Poor and Middle-Class.”

The question for this post is whether Mitt Romney (the son of my grandmother Camilla Eyring Kimball’s first cousin George Romney) would agree with my statement in his heart of hearts. For now, I am going to give Mitt a pass on the parts of this Supply-Side Liberal statement on “Rich, Poor, and Middle-Class” that have to do with the rich and the middle-class to focus on what we can guess about his feelings about the poor. Here, I am going to make use of what is literally inside information. I know that until I was at least 37 years old, I believed in Mormonism with all of my heart. And I remember my thoughts and feelings then. (See my posts “UU Visions” and “Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life” for a little more of my spiritual autobiography since then.) This is a key to understanding Mitt, since everything I know about Mitt from any source suggests that he believes in Mormonism with all of his heart. (I would be interested in any evidence anyone has on this subject, as well as the related historical question of what John F. Kennedy believed in his heart of hearts in relation to Catholicism.) Inevitably, what follows will represent my own reading of Mormon scripture and Mormon belief and so will at least serve as a way of telling you about an important influence on my own views about our duty to take care of the poor.  

Because Mitt has shown a willingness to pander to the electorate in the Republican primaries, saying things in this and his previous presidential campaign that seem at variance with what he has said in earlier campaigns for senator and governor, it is often hard to know what he really believes based on his statements. Therefore, I think it is extremely important to draw on a wide range of resources to try to reveal what might be in his heart. My belief that he believes in Mormonism with all of his heart (as I once did, but no longer do) is my interpretive key.    

Mormons believe in the Bible (preferring to use the King James Version) and in three additional books of scripture that they consider the Word of God on a par with the Bible: The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price. Searchable text of all of these can be found online here. Although at anything short of the level of high theology, Mormon doctrine on the atonement and saving power of Jesus Christ is totally standard Christian doctrine, Mormonism’s doctrines about the nature of God are so heretical according to the decisions of Christian councils such as the Nicene Creed that many Christians refuse to recognize Mormonism as Christian. The Mormon Church has countered the claim that it is not Christian by emphasizing the official name of the Church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and by adding the subtitle “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” to the Book of Mormon.  

Of the three books of scripture that Mormonism has in addition to the Bible, The Book of Mormon is the most important, so I will begin with what it says. Speaking as a Unitarian-Universalist and an atheist (or more precisely teleotheist: see my post “Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life”), let me say that the Book of Mormon is a genuinely moving book, fully deserving of an honored place among the holy books of the world’s religions. In saying this I disagree strongly with Mark Twain, who called the Book of Mormon “chloroform in print.” As a Mormon missionary in the Tokyo North Mission from the Fall of 1979 through the Summer of 1981, after striking up conversations near subway stations and convincing some fraction of those I politely accosted to talk at greater length about religion, the main approach my missionary companion and I took (Mormon missionaries always work in pairs–or sometimes in triples, if the total number of them is odd) was to persuade those we were teaching to read The Book of Mormon and then pray about it, with the promise that God would tell them in their hearts that the book is true if they did. (Many people, including me, have had powerful subjective spiritual experiences when they do this.)  

The Book of Mormon tells the story of an Israelite offshoot being shown by God how to build a seaworthy ocean-going ship and led by God around 600 B.C. to somewhere on the American continents (thought by most Mormon scholars to be in Central America and Mexico, so that they consider Olmec and Maya texts relevant for understandingThe Book of Mormon). In the narrative, because of their relative isolation, this Israelite offshoot was given very clear prophecies of the coming of Jesus Christ centuries later–not only to Palestine, but also, after Jesus’ resurrection, to their descendants in the American continents. 

The Book of Mormon not only emphasizes a duty to take care of the poor in the strongest possible terms, it takes apart some common excuses for not taking care of the poor. I don’t need to comment much on the next two quotations because they are so clear: 

But wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despite the poor, and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god. And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also.  (2 Nephi 9:30)

And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.

Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just–But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.

For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?  (Mosiah 4:16-19.)

The Book of Mormon not only lays out the duty to take care of the poor, it also stresses the the ideal of social and economic equality, the role of equality in helping to make society prosper, and the evil of inequality. Here is a time when things were good:   

And when the priests left their labor to impart the word of God unto the people, the people also left their labors to hear the word of God. And when the priest had imparted unto them the word of God they all returned again diligently unto their labors; and the priest, not esteeming himself above his hearers, for the preacher was no better than the hearer, neither was the teacher any better than the learner; and thus they were all equal, and they did all labor, every man according to his strength. 

And they did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick, and the afflicted; and they did not wear costly apparel, yet they were neat and comely. 

And thus they did establish the affairs of the church; and thus they began to have continual peace again, notwithstanding all their persecutions. And now, because of the steadiness of the church they began to be exceedingly rich, having abundance of all things whatsoever they stood in need–an abundance of flocks and herds, and fatlings of every kind, and also abundance of grain, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious things, and abundance of silk and fine-twined linen, and all manner of good homely cloth. And thus in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.

And thus they did prosper and become far more wealthy than those who did not belong to their church. For those who did not belong to their church did indulge themselves in sorceries, and in idolatry or idleness, and in babblings, and in envyings and strife; wearing costly apparel; being lifted up in the pride of their own eyes; persecuting, lying, thieving, robbing, committing whoredoms, and murdering, and all manner of wickedness; nevertheless, the law was put in force upon all those who did transgress it, inasmuch as it was possible.  (Alma 1:26-32)

And here is a time when things were bad:

And it came to pass in the commencement of the ninth year, Alma saw the wickedness of the church, and he saw also that the example of the church began to lead those who were unbelievers on from one piece of iniquity to another, thus bringing on the destruction of the people. Yea, he saw great inequality among the people, some lifting themselves up with their pride, despising others, turning their backs upon the needy and the naked and those who were hungry, and those who were athirst, and those who were sick and afflicted.  

Now this was a cause for lamentations among the people, while others were abasing themselves, succoring those who stood in need of their succor, such as imparting their substance to the poor and the needy, feeding the hungry, and suffering all manner of afflictions, for Christ’s sake, who should come according to the spirit of prophecy; (Alma 4:11-13)

The Book of Mormon recounts how, after his resurrection, Jesus came in full miraculous power to teach people in the Americas. At that time, he chose 12 “disciples” who were the equivalent in the Americas of the 12 apostles in Eurasia and Africa. These 12 disciples set up an ideal society, in which all property was communally owned:   

And it came to pass that the disciples whom Jesus had chosen began from that time forth to baptize and to teach as many as did come unto them; and as many as were baptized in the name of Jesus were filled with the Holy Ghost…. And they taught, and did minister one to another; and they had all things common among them, every man dealing justly, one with another. (3 Nephi 26:17,19)

In case the phrase “had all things common among them” (compare Acts 2:44 “And all that believed were together and had all things common;”), a few chapters later, it explains: 

And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift. (4 Nephi 1:3)

In the 19th Century, the Mormons made an attempt at replicating this communal ownership of property. Here is an excerpt from a much longer section of The Doctrine and Covenants laying out details for this communal ownership of propertyincluding an allusion to the sophisticated and subtle principle of a “stewardship” (temporarily assigned quasi-private property): 

It is wisdom in me; therefore a commandment I give unto you, that ye shall organize yourselves and appoint every man his stewardship; That every man may give an account unto me of the stewardship which is appointed unto him. For it is expedient that I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessing, which I have made and prepared for my creatures. 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.  But it must needs be done in mine own way; and 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. 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. Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment. (Doctrine and Covenants 104:11-18)

19th Century Mormons ultimately were not able to make communal ownership work, although they did better than many other groups who tried. The Mormon Church retreated to the principle of tithing and a “Welfare Plan” to take care of the poor. Tithing, which is taken very seriously in the Mormon Church, means that Mormons pay 10% of their income to the Church. But the ideal of a society with full equality lives on. Mormons (and I) use the word “Zion” to signify an ideal society. This meaning of “Zion” is clear in this lovely passage from the last book of Mormon scripture I listed, The Pearl of Great Price:    

And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them. (Moses 7:18)

What should be clear from all of these passages and this discussion is that for Mormon Republicans (and yes, there are Mormon Democrats)–even for very conservative Mormon Republicans–it is OK for the Mormon Church to do what it is not OK for the government to do: require that the rich give money that is then transferred to the poor, in cash and in kind. (I don’t think I am going too far in using the word “require” to talk about tithing, since unless someone declares to their Mormon bishop that they have paid 10% of their income to the Mormon Church, Mormons are not allowed to enter Mormon temples, even to see  one of their children get married. Many marginal Mormons have paid tithing in a particular year simply to be able to attend the wedding of one of their children.) This is not a logical inconsistency. After all, in the Mormon view, a Church led by a modern Prophet who receives direct revelation from God can be expected to spend money collected from tithing better than an uninspired government can spend money collected from taxes.

The point I am making is that the duty to take care of the poor is laid out in an unequivocal way in Mormon scripture–the question is only about the means. (1) Voluntary donations and volunteer work to help the poor are preferred, followed by (2) efforts organized by the Mormon Church (using all of the power it has to require things of committed Mormons), with (3) government action to help the poor as by far the least preferred means. But as a believing Mormon, Mitt knows God requires that the poor be taken care of somehow. This is very different from the attitude directly condemned by The Book of Mormon in the passage above: “The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer…” This Mormon ordering of the means of helping the poor from best to worst also seems to me an ordering from least distortionary to most distortionary: 

  1. voluntary, 
  2. induced by social pressure (perhaps quite heavy social pressure),
  3. enforced by the threat of jail time.

So there is nothing wrong in principle with this ordering. The one concern I have is with the tendency to convince oneself that voluntary actions and actions induced by social pressure are in fact enough in situations where they are not.  

Other Posts about Mitt:

“Rich, Poor and Middle-Class”

“Corporations are People, My Friend”

Post about Barack:

“You Didn’t Build That: America Edition”

Other Posts about Religion

“UU Visions”

“Teleotheism and the Meaning of Life”(This one has philosophy, cosmology, evolutionary theory, and science fiction, as well as theology.)

Note: On Mitt’s genealogy, see this from Familypedia. I am named after our common ancestor: Miles Park Romney.