The Gospel of Redistribution?

by Matthew Wappett

The foundations of the U.S. welfare system were laid by FDR during the waning years of the Great Depression. But, what many don’t know is that this system of welfare was directly modeled upon the Mormon Church’s welfare work in the early 20th century. According to a 2008 radio piece on NPR by Ken Verdoia, the Church “developed a very progressive social welfare system in the 1930s that became the envy of the New Deal. Roosevelt administration people were sent out to Salt Lake City to study the Mormon Church’s welfare system for caring for its own.”(1) Thus, the welfare system we have in the U.S. today is partially modeled on the visionary welfare work of the Church and it has served a worthwhile and important purpose as a safety net for those in need during troubled economic times, and for those unable to participate in the market economy as a result of age, disability, or family circumstance.

The recent election saw many react negatively to ideas about “redistribution” and “socialized” programs, and yet most charitable programs including Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, and Social Security are meant to serve as agents of redistributing limited goods to those in need to equalize outcomes and opportunity. But unfortunately within recent years we have seen significant steps taken at the state and national levels to dismantle these social support programs. Indeed, some might say that the doctrine of “fiscal conservatism” has trumped the doctrine of charity. Many Mormons within the conservative movement are still spouting anachronistic, Cold War era warnings about “socialism” and “commies” running our country without truly examining our spiritual heritage which laid the foundation for some of the most socialized programs to operate on U.S. soil.

The Church has a long history of progressive, socialized welfare policies that go back well beyond the early 20th century, with intimations of such systems at the time of Christ’s visit to the Nephite peoples in Mesoamerica some 2,000 years ago. We learn in several places in the Book of Mormon that within Nephite society, when all things were held equal, the people were richly blessed and there was no contention among them.

For example in Alma 16:16 we read: “there was no inequality among them; the Lord did pour out his Spirit on all the face of the land to prepare the minds of the children of men, or to prepare their hearts to receive the word which should be taught among them at the time of his coming.” Later on following Christ’s visit we learn that the Nephites “had all things common among them, every man dealing justly, one with another” (3 Nephi 26:19) 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). On the other side of the coin, we also learn from 3 Nephi that the downfall of the Nephite civilization prior to Christ’s visit was caused by the great inequality in the land:

And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches. Some were lifted up in pride, and others were exceedingly humble; some did return railing for railing, while others would receive railing and persecution and all manner of afflictions, and would not turn and revile again, but were humble and penitent before God. And thus there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch that the church began to be broken up; yea, insomuch that in the *thirtieth year the church was broken up in all the land… (3 Nephi 6:12-14).

This particular scripture has, within recent years, struck an eerily familiar chord with me as I have seen students drop out of school because of their inability to pay, as I’ve heard friends “rail” against the poor and oppressed of society, as I’ve seen more and more class distinctions being made within our country. Upon reading these scriptures it seems to me that the Spirit of the Lord is more present and the world is more harmonious when all things were held in common, and that wickedness and dissension arose when things were unequal.

These same issues of class, equality, and welfare are also addressed and expanded upon in the revelations received by Joseph Smith, and contained in the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C). The first mention of equality in the D&C comes in Section 51, verse 3 where the Lord says: “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.” That sounds an awful lot like the “redistribution” of wealth doesn’t it? It sounds very similar to the equality that we read about in the Book or Mormon.

Later in D&C Section 70, verse 14 the Lord says: “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.” The Lord goes on to say that, “if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things (D&C 78:6).” Then later in Section 82 the Lord establishes the United Order as a covenant among the Saints in Kirtland and gives Joseph Smith the following commandment:

Therefore, I give unto you this commandment, that ye bind yourselves by this covenant, and it shall be done according to the laws of the Lord. Behold, here is wisdom also in me for your good. 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 all this for the benefit of the church of the living God, that every man may improve upon his talent, that every man may gain other talents, yea, even an hundred fold, to be cast into the Lord’s storehouse, to become the common property of the whole church—Every man seeking the interest of his neighbor, and doing all things with an eye single to the glory of God. This order I have appointed to be an everlasting order unto you, and unto your successors, inasmuch as you sin not. And the soul that sins against this covenant, and hardeneth his heart against it, shall be dealt with according to the laws of my church, and shall be delivered over to the buffetings of Satan until the day of redemption (D&C 82:15-21).

In this particular passage of scripture we learn that the Lord bound his people with a covenant that they were to be equal, like in the Book of Mormon, and that this equality was achieved by casting all properties and talents into the Lord’s storehouse where they were to be used for the common good. There was also a tremendous promise that went along with this covenant and a price for those who sinned against this covenant by “hardening” their hearts against it; but selfishness is a common human trait and we have a tendency to covet what is ours whether it is money, land, or possessions. This selfishness eventually surfaces in Section 104 where we learn of the United Order being reorganized because of the “covenants being broken through transgression, by covetousness and feigned words” (D&C 104:52).

Because of our human tendency towards psychological egoism the United Order was eventually dissolved, but that didn’t absolve the Saints of their responsibility for “seeking the interest of his neighbor” (D&C 82:17), and as the Saints prepared to cross the plains, the Lord revisits the notion of redistributing resources and responsibility as a means of protecting and nurturing the weak and marginalized of society: “Let each company bear an equal proportion, according to the dividend of their property, in taking the poor, the widows, the fatherless, and the families of those who have gone into the army, that the cries of the widow and the fatherless come not up into the ears of the Lord against this people” (D&C 136:8). Thus the Lord seems to understand that some level of redistribution is necessary to achieve equality of means and ends. The Lord also seems to indicate that redistribution doesn’t just mean material things, but that every person has a responsibility to watch and care for the weak and oppressed. Indeed we still live by this covenant when we promise to consecrate our time, talents, and everything we are blessed with to the building of the Kingdom of God.

Now, I know that there will be those who feel that I am interpreting these scriptures too broadly. They will likely argue that this structure of governance was intended for within the Church and among those who had entered into the covenant only; that those outside of the covenant, including government, can’t possibly be bound by the same spiritual laws, and yet I believe that we must have more faith in our fellow man. Indeed when it comes to welfare and charity I believe that we need to once again look to the example of Christ for the answer to this quandary. Christ did not discriminate. Christ taught the Samaritan woman at the well about the “living water” of the gospel (John 4:10-11), and raised the ire of the Pharisees when he “drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, this man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them” (Luke 15:1-2) an action that was taboo among orthodox Jewish society of the time. Christ welcomed all, nurtured all, and rejected none…therefore I find it hard to believe that Christ would only say that this responsibility for charity, or even the responsibility to give unto each (redistribute?) as his/her needs dictate is the sole privilege of Church members. Indeed much of the welfare aid from the Church today goes to individuals who are not members of the Church, but who are nevertheless in need.

The fact that the Church engages in this interdenominational welfare does not relieve us of our responsibility to do the same within our neighborhoods, cities, counties, or country. We should try to accomplish the same mission of caring for the underprivileged through secular institutions, including government, as well as through the institution of the Church. Many argue it is immoral for the government to forcibly take from those who have wealth and give it to those who don’t. Though I am certainly sympathetic to the fact that government robs us through taxation, caring for the needy is the one use of our tax money I wouldn’t object to. Those who are opposed to the government taxing us to help the poor, never seem to complain when the government does the same to build roads, or parks, or museums, or what’s more, tanks, or bombers, or nuclear weapons, or to fund going to war against nations who have never attacked us, such as Vietnam or Iraq. These undertakings are not given priority in scripture, and in the case of offensive war, are even condemned. In contrast, helping the needy is a clear commandment.

From what I understand in the scriptures, there is no virtue that is of more everlasting value than the virtue of charity. In Colossians Paul gives us a laundry list of virtues and duties, but concludes by saying: “And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.” (Colossians 3:14). Moroni is a little more explicit when discussing charity: “And except ye have charity ye can in nowise be saved in the kingdom of God” (Moroni 10:21). Thus charity, both the action and the attitude, are pivotal to our overall salvation. Unfortunately many see charity, both the attitude and the action, as a burden and promote policies and attitudes that are harmful to those in need. We are living in a day when Solomon’s words in Proverbs have indeed come true: “The poor is hated even of his own neighbour: but the rich hath many friends.” (Proverbs 14:20).

We live in a society that praises and rewards selfishness. The foundations of the American system of free enterprise are based upon the notion that the pursuit of individual wealth and power works to the good of the whole of society; a paradoxical notion at best, and an excuse for the most egregious behavior at worst. We live in a country and culture that encourages egoism and accumulation. It is something that many seem to aspire to. It is behavior that is entirely antithetical to Christ’s teaching that if we are to “be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Matthew 19:21).

In conclusion, I do not believe that democracy needs to be synonymous with a capitalist economic system. I look to the many democratic socialist countries in Europe and see great hope for the world there. I do not believe that the wisdom of the masses, democracy, can peacefully coexist with an economic system that is based upon the pursuit of profit and each individual’s self interest. We cannot have a system of government that is meant to serve the common good while we have a personal, social, and economic ethic founded upon principles of psychological egoism. Similarly, we cannot believe in the divine origin of man and the earth and then participate in a culture and economy that views people and the earth as a means. Man and the earth are of divine origin and thus are an end in, and of, themselves…they should not, and cannot, be used as a medium for achieving profit, prestige, or privilege. I believe that we cannot sit idly by and take the world as it comes to us. I believe that we have a divine calling to take love, charity, and hope into the world.

I believe that we should be “anxiously engaged” in making the world a better place and ensuring that we leave it better than we found it. This is a principle that I learned from my father many years ago in the White Mountains north of Fairbanks. When we would ski and snowmachine into the BLM cabins in that priceless wilderness we would frequently find the cabins bare of firewood. We would end up travelling down the trail, oftentimes several miles to gather wood to heat the cabins. At the end of our stay we would do exactly the same thing; we would spend our last morning cutting firewood. We would haul the wood back to the cabin, chop kindling, stack kindling and wood inside the cabin, and bank the fire in the wood stove to ensure the cabin was ready for the next visitors. My father would always reiterate that it was our responsibility to leave the cabin “better than we found it”. I believe in this principle. I thank my father for teaching it to me through example. I believe we must all make every effort to leave the world better than we found it. I hope that my comments will serve as a reminder of the wider social role that the Gospel should, and must, play in our lives. Let us take virtue, charity, love, and peace into the world. Let us be hopeful and kind. Let us be examples of the believers.

1. “Mormons Take Care of their Own,” Marketplace, October 3, 2008. Accessed online at: http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/10/03/mormon_welfare/

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