The ramping up to November's US presidential election has made pretty much everybody in my country go even crazier than we already were. Mormons aren't immune to it either.
Last month, the blog titled My Life By Gogo Goff put out an article all about how socialism is of the devil. This particular blog may be infamous in some ex-Mormon circles, but it does seem to enjoy a healthy fanbase in Mormon circles, clocking in an impressive number of Facebook followers just shy of the sixty thousand mark. And since last month's article delves bravely into some of the worst fruits of the church—especially as they relate to a crucial election in the country where 40% of the church membership resides—I think it's important to deconstruct this kind of thinking.
Not to be that guy who says "not to be that guy" and then commits the offense he pretends to prefer avoiding, but...not to be that guy to point out logical fallacies, but it needs to be said that the title of this article is a No True Scotsman fallacy:
WHY PRESIDENT BENSON WAS RIGHT: “NO TRUE LATTER-DAY SAINT CAN BE A SOCIALIST”
First I will address why members fall for socialism and secondly why it is wrong. This is a non-political post, I’ve written about politics before, and how God is neither a Republican nor Democrat (Click here for that article), today I am simply focusing on eternal truths and principles as taught by the Prophets and Apostles on the topic of Socialism and Communism.
I think what the author means when he says this is a non-political post is that this post does not endorse any specific party. Obviously this is a political post. It may discuss gospel principles, but it discusses gospel principles as they relate to theories of secular government. It unequivocally repudiates the Socialist party and the Communist party, and I think we're kidding ourselves if we assume it's not taking gospel-sanctioned shots at the left wing of the Democratic party. But it is a non-political post in the sense that it's not explicitly telling us to vote Republican or Libertarian.
Satan is a master at counterfeits because they are so similar to the truth he can deceive even the very elect. President Joseph F. Smith taught, “Satan is a skillful imitator, and as genuine gospel truth is given the world in ever-increasing abundance, so he spreads the counterfeit coin of false doctrine. Beware of his spurious currency, it will purchase for you nothing but disappointment, misery and spiritual death.” And President Ezra Taft Benson taught, “Whenever the God of heaven reveals His gospel to mankind, Satan, the archenemy to Christ, introduces a counterfeit….Communism introduced into the world a substitute for true religion. It is a counterfeit of the gospel plan.”What is socialism a counterfeit of? It is a counterfeit of the United Order.
What a strange claim to make. According to the church, the United Order was established in 1832, at which point Henri de Saint-Simone—one of the founders of socialist theory who's actually credited with coining the term "socialisme"—had already been dead for 7 years. Satan is more cunning than I ever realized if he's actually capable of counterfeiting something before the original has even been produced.
As loath as I am to agree with someone like Ezra Taft Benson, I think I can almost get to a place where I sort of see where he's coming from with his comment about substitutes for true religion. I disagree with the way he's focusing his distaste on one particular political philosophy and I also disagree about whether "true religion" adds any non-fungible value to humanity. But if he's warning us about how people can make their political ideology their religion and thereby take things way too far, then I think he's got a point. That probably isn't actually his point, of course. I might be giving him too much credit.
In a Nutshell, anyone who wanted to join the United Order could, when joining they would covenant to live the law of consecration and give everything they owned to the Church. The Church would then deed to each member of the Order according to their needs and wants. Each year you would give your surplus that you did not need to the Church and they would use it to take care of the poor. Anyone was free to join or leave the United Order at any time.
The author is stressing the voluntary nature of the United Order because freedom of choice will become crucial to the argument in a moment. But, in the meantime, we should recognize that this is essentially a form of socialism—the arrangement stressed collective economic cooperation, the community authority oversaw the redistribution of the means of production, and the importance of individual ownership was de-emphasized.
The author goes on to quote a 1979 Ensign article:
The United Order operates under the principle of private ownership and individual management. It is neither communal nor communistic. Each man owns his own property with an absolute title. The individual family is preserved. There is no common table… The United Order, according to Elder Harold B. Lee, is “more capitalistic … than either Socialism or Communism, in that private ownership and individual responsibility will be maintained.”
What this kind of underplays is that, yes, even though the United Order preserved private ownership, those private ownership rights were granted by the church—and those rights were only for what was deemed requisite for your needs. So if you owned your farm after you joined the United Order, you only owned it because you'd given it to the church and the church permitted you to keep it. Any other properties you may have owned that were not deemed necessary for you and your family could have, in theory, been deeded to a family without property. You weren't going to become filthy stinking rich under the United Order because any excess wealth or property or resources you had should be going to someone with less so that everyone, as a group, could be productive. And that way, in turn, no one in the group should be left destitute.
Call that what you will, but it's certainly not pure capitalism. There's an individualism in it that jives with capitalism, but honestly it feels more like what you'd hear from Bernie Sanders than what you'd hear from Cornelius Vanderbilt...or from Ezra Taft Benson, for that matter.
Before I tee up the next quote, let's review some of God's instructions to Edward Partridge in Doctrine and Covenants 51 about how to administrate the United Order:
4 And let my servant Edward Partridge, when he shall appoint a man his portion, give unto him a writing that shall secure unto him his portion, that he shall hold it, even this right and this inheritance in the church, until he transgresses and is not accounted worthy by the voice of the church, according to the laws and covenants of the church, to belong to the church.5 And if he shall transgress and is not accounted worthy to belong to the church, he shall not have power to claim that portion which he has consecrated unto the bishop for the poor and needy of my church; therefore, he shall not retain the gift, but shall only have claim on that portion that is deeded unto him.
We are commanded repeatedly in every book of scripture and by every prophet to take care of the poor. We covenant to do so at Baptism, and we are told if we fail to do so, we will be rejected by Christ at the last day. Socialism, like the United Order, promises to take care of the poor. Satan tricks many members by showing them the scriptures regarding the poor needing to be succored and then mingles the philosophies of men that unless we enact social reform and the government steps in, the poor will not be taken care of.
This mingling the doctrines of men with scriptures is called socialism. And it relies on a Satanic belief that the ends justify the means. This spiritually damning philosophy led to the War in Heaven. Think about the War in Heaven, both Satan’s and Heavenly Father’s plan had the same goal, the exaltation of all of God’s children. The difference between their plans was the means. For Satan’s Plan, the ends justified the means, therefore taking away agency, and forcing people to do ‘what was right’ was an acceptable cost.But God, in His wisdom understood that the ends do not justify the means. But rather the means sanctify and qualify us for the ends. God’s plan was not simply to get from A to B at wherever cost, yes we needed a body, yes we needed to return to heaven, but we also needed experiences that only agency would allow. If Satan’s plan was implemented, it would’ve robbed us of those experiences and not even produced the results that he promised it would.
Counterpoint: God also adopted a Machiavellian mentality, but since the victors write the history, he's able to spin it a little bit better than that. Practically speaking, did we have agency after the War in Heaven? When the dust cleared and Satan and a third of the host of Heaven had been cast out and we all knew the only option left was for us to follow Jesus's Plan of Salvation, did we have the choice to opt out of it?
We could have spoken up and said that we didn't like this plan either, but that would mean that we'd be left in a state of eternal stagnation at best. At worst, we'd have been cast down just like Lucifer and his cohorts. Is agency through coercion really agency? Weren't we basically threatened and railroaded into following Jesus's plan?
This is kind of supported, in a strange way, by the very next line of the author's article:
President Russell M. Nelson has emphasized that the means matter and that we need to do things the Lord’s way, he taught, “I repeat the Lord’s prescription: ‘But it must needs be done in mine own way’! We begin where we are, now, and work according to his plan.”
It must needs be done in mine own way. Exactly. So if it always had to be done that way, what was the point of the whole exercise that led to the War in Heaven? Kind of sounds like we were given a choice where none existed. God allowed different people to put forth their plans even though there was only one viable option and he allowed the discussion to escalate into a conflict. A third of his children sided with a plan that God knew from the very beginning could never work and he punished them for it. This tells me that God is more interested in making us think we have choices than he is in providing us with real choices.
We have also been warned by Howard W. Hunter what will happen if we do not choose the Lord’s way, “If man will not recognize the inequalities around him and voluntarily, through the gospel plan, come to the aid of his brother, he will find that through “a democratic process” he will be forced to come to the aid of his brother. The government will take from the “haves” and give to the “have nots.” Both have lost their freedom. Those who “have,” lost their freedom to give voluntarily of their own free will and in the way they desire. Those who “have not,” lost their freedom because they did not earn what they received. They got “something for nothing,” and they will neither appreciate the gift nor the giver of the gift.”
Oh, wow, there's so much awful stuff in here.
Let's start with the "if man will not recognize the inequalities around him and voluntarily...come to the aid of his brother" part. In addition to helping individuals and donating to causes that help people we're not able to reach ourselves, isn't voting another way to come to the aid of your brother? Or running for public office? I don't see how being active in socialist politics as a way to try to ensure that the poor and downtrodden are taken care of doesn't count as coming to the aid of our brother. And it's still a way of gaining experiences and exercising our agency, so that should satisfy the "through the gospel plan" part.
Hunter appears to be irritated that paying our taxes to a government that will (theoretically) help provide a minimum standard of living for everyone will compromise our ability to choose to help. That's completely ridiculous. If he's just talking about money, there's a grain of truth to it but it's still silly.
I'm not a man of great means, but I do have enough money to meet my own needs and I don't have to pay ten percent of my income to a church that will stockpile it. Even after paying my taxes, some of which will help fund programs that are considered socialist, I have money left over. And sometimes I choose to donate money to non-governmental organizations to further their causes. Hunter is either ignoring or forgetting the fact that the haves—and especially the super-rich haves—are in no way prevented from donating further even after the government has taken a chunk of their paychecks for nefarious socialist purposes.
But, of course, it's not all about money. We can donate our time. We can donate our labor. We can donate our clothing. We can start non-profits or organize protests or start letter-writing campaigns. We can still choose to do all of these things with that precious free agency we've been given.
And there's a hilarious bit of hypocrisy in here, too. Did you catch that part of Hunter's objection is that, after being forced to give support to the less fortunate, the taxpayer has no way to ensure the funds are used in the way that he desires? That sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it? Because, while tithing is not mandatory, it's about as mandatory as taxes. If you don't pay your taxes, you face legal penalties, which is why most people do it. If you don't pay your tithing, you pay spiritual penalties, which is why a lot of people do it. And in case you haven't looked at a tithing slip lately:
The most contemptible part of the Hunter quote is the ending, though. Claiming that someone loses their freedom when they receive assistance is an elitist non-sequitur. Public assistance is some kind of addictive substance, I take it? Once you get a taste of it you're enslaved to it forever? You'll never be able to support yourself after that? That's a really long way to say "I hate poor people." Or it might be a slightly longer way of saying "I'm comforted by the fact that poor people exist and that I'm not one of them and I'd prefer not to solve the problem because then there won't be any poor people left to make me feel better."
The concept of earning that Hunter introduces is dehumanizing and un-Christlike as well. I mean, as far as I'm concerned, everyone has earned a meal and a warm place to sleep at night just by being born. You shouldn't have to earn the basic necessities of life. Everyone deserves them. And if someone should be required to earn the assistance they receive, we can throw the concept of Christlike charity out the window. What did the traveler do to earn the charity of the Good Samaritan? Nothing. He was just minding his own business, bleeding to death on the side of the road. But the Samaritan understood that the traveler was a person and that people shouldn't have to bleed to death on the side of the road. Rather than bemoan the fact that the traveler hadn't earned the assistance he so desperately needed, the Samaritan decided to act like a human being with a shred of decency and he helped the poor guy out.
And then there's the claim that beneficiaries of socialist programs will not appreciate the gift nor the giver of the gift. First of all, if you're giving the gift so that you'll be appreciated for it, then you're doing it wrong—and Jesus would back me up on this (Matthew 6:1-4). Secondly, it's simply not true that beneficiaries will be incapable of appreciating what's been given to them. Look what typing two words into Google uncovered: people sharing how Obamacare positively affected them. And finally, someone's ingratitude is not a good enough reason to abstain from helping them. Refusing to drive your buddy to the airport because he didn't even offer to pay you for gas last time is one thing. Opposing public programs that can literally save lives because you've decided that millions of strangers around the country will be incapable of properly appreciating the benefits they can receive is entirely different. Ungrateful people deserve housing. Ungrateful people deserve to be able to afford their medications. Ungrateful people deserve to live. Pretty shocking for a prophet of God to be so callous and so inhuman in his discussion of alleviating human suffering.
Not only do the means matter because the Lord has said so, they mater because they qualify us for exaltation. Marion G. Romney emphasized the importance of the means when in the Oct 1981 general conference he taught, “The Lord doesn’t really need us to take care of the poor. He could take care of them without our help if it were his purpose to do so… It would be a simple thing for the Lord to reveal to President [Nelson] where the deposits of oil and precious ores are. We could then hire someone to dig them out and we could float in wealth—and we would float in wealth right down to Hades. No, the Lord doesn’t really need us to take care of the poor, but we need this experience; for it is only through our learning how to take care of each other that we develop within us the Christlike love and disposition necessary to qualify us to return to his presence.”
Okay, since we have this weird the-ends-justify-the-means thread running through this article, let me ask this: how is opposing public assistance programs because they're socialist and you won't get to heaven supporting socialism not an example of a positive end goal justifying some less-than-honorable means? Is the road to the Celestial Kingdom paved with the poor people we step on to get there?
God is perfectly content letting people starve to death because he's letting the rest of us learn to love those people.
My experience learning to develop Christlike love is more important than whether another person sleeps on the street tonight.
And, of course, in addition to be a strikingly cold-hearted way of phrasing things, Romney's quote still doesn't tell me why using my free agency to donate to my local food bank and using my free agency to vote for a socialist candidate who I believe will introduce programs that will help those in poverty is such a horrible, damnable, Luciferian no-no. I mean, a vote is more passive than personal action. Direct support for a local food bank is more likely to have a directly positive outcome. I get all that. But both of these actions can be motivated by Christlike love and both of these actions can be earnest attempts to help our less fortunate brothers and sisters.
Why is any of that bad?
Maybe the author will explain.
Marion G. Romney also taught a year later, in Oct 1982 general conference, “Service is not something we endure on this earth so we can earn the right to live in the celestial kingdom. Service is the very fiber of which an exalted life in the celestial kingdom is made.” From these two quotes, we learn that the ends do not justify the means, but rather the means qualify us for eternal life. We learn that even if Satan’s plan had been enforced either in heaven, or as Socialism on earth, we would not gain the promised results.
Yes, service can be more personally fulfilling than sending a Paypal donation or heading into a voting booth. Service is important. But nobody's explaining why service and socialism are antithetical.
Also, I'm not sure we have a proper understanding of the phrase "the ends justify the means." Because Marion G. Romney's first quote kind of makes it sound like God believes that the ends justify the means. The ends? Get people qualified for eternal life. The means? Don't intervene to prevent poverty and starvation because people need an endless supply of poor people so they can learn Christlike love. There are hungry children whose malnutrition merely represents acceptable collateral damage from God's worldwide constructivist classroom.
And we've now explicitly stated that socialism is the earthly equivalent of Satan's premortal plan. And I've yet to see any reasoning that explains this assertion. It seems to revolve around the concept that Satan doesn't want free agency and that socialism denies us our free agency. The first half of that is pretty well established in scripture. The second half makes no sense.
Unless...? Is the concern that socialism will actually solve the problem of poverty and then deny us of our opportunities to serve because there will be no one left to need our help? No. That would be too crazy. Right?
Returning to where we have started. We now see that in Heaven Satan tried to force people to do what he deemed right. We know that Socialism is the earthly manifestation of that plan that led a third of the host of heaven to eternal damnation.
You heard it here (there) first, folks—everyone in Outer Darkness is a socialist.
But we're restating the thing we still haven't proven. Isn't it kind of weird that in this lengthy article, the author can't whip out a quote from a prophet or an apostle plainly stating that socialism is the earthly manifestation of Satan's plan? The closest thing we have are President Benson saying that communism is a substitute for true religion and the quote we're about to circle back to:
It is with that understanding that with 100% clear confidence that I can again echo the words of Ezra Taft Benson, “No true Latter-day Saint can be a Communist or a Socialist because Communist principles run counter to the revealed word of God.”
Interesting that only communist principles run counter to the revealed word of God and that socialist principles appear to be sort of guilty by association.
If you have supported socialism because you were ignorant, now you know the truth. If you have supported socialism because you were deceived, now you know the folly of your ways. Finally, if you have/do support socialism even after this knowledge, then I call on you to repent before it is too late!
There's some fun words we're throwing around. Ignorant? Deceived? Folly? Right, I mean, surely there's no room for differences of opinion in Mormonism. Benson gave the No True Latter-Day Saint speech in 1961. A lot has changed in the church in the last 59 years. For example, black people can attend the temple now. The title page to the Book of Mormon has been updated to be less anti-science. We're now admitting that the golden plates were translated using a rock in a hat. We also found some of the Book of Abraham papyri that we thought had been lost forever. Maybe the concerns of the brethren have also changed as the political landscape has evolved.
I mean, this speech was given pre-Kennedy-assassination. Pre-Watergate. Pre-Reagonomics. Pre-Iran-Contra. Pre-fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall. Pre-Monica-Lewinsky. Pre-9/11. Pre-Obama. Pre-Trump. Is socialism really the salvation-poisoning political malady that concerns the apostles today? Perhaps the General Conference Corpus can help us if we search for a few key words that might have been mentioned from the pulpit:
I dunno, it sure looks to me like the Lord's mouthpieces haven't been particularly concerned with socialism since the 70s. The lone mention of the word "socialist" in 2004 was Nelson using the full name of the USSR while telling a story about a personal visit. It's also worth pointing out that Ezra Taft Benson, whose words form the crux of this evils-of-socialism argument, was merely an apostle when he gave the quoted speech. He became the actual prophet in 1985. There was not one General Conference mention of socialism or socialists during his eight and a half years presiding over the church.
Could socialism really be the earthly implementation of Satan's diabolical scheme if it hasn't merited an acknowledgement from the prophets in their addresses to the worldwide church in more than four decades? Could calling people to repentance over an issue the living prophet isn't providing any warnings about be considered a modern-day steadying of the ark?
Probably not. I mean, what do I know? I don't actually believe in prophets.
As the American elections approach, even though I'm gloomy about my options, I think it's critical to put people in power who will, among other things, institute policies that will support the underprivileged, the underrepresented, the undervalued, and the marginalized. I think it's important to recognize that some organizations—not just Mormonism—have managed to convince people who care about poverty that they should not want a government that tries to end poverty. Mormonism hasn't fed all the hungry. Other churches haven't housed all the homeless. And you and I, with our well-meaning contributions here and there, haven't made much of a dent either.
The way I see it, the whole reason humans started forming communities and governments was to solve problems that are too big for the individuals. Homelessness, starvation, and poverty are enormous problems and they're problems that demand a solution. As flawed as our government is, it's undeniable that it has massive resources at its disposal. And it's critical that we put people in power who will use those resources to accomplish some good.
There are plenty of other issues I can sermonize about similarly. Obviously, this is not just limited to poverty. But these arguments that using government as an implement of charity is somehow immoral strike me as being kind of Pharisaical. Sometimes you need to pull the ox out of the mire on the Sabbath. With millions of poeple drowning in the mire, would Jesus really want us to callously stand on our academic principles or would he want us to roll up our sleeves and use every tool at our disposal to leverage our brothers and sisters out of the mud?