Growing up, I lived in society where housing was assigned to families based, first, on their size and, second, on their seniority within the government. My parents never paid rent or utilities and, when something in the home needed repairing, they would call a central maintenance department that serviced the entire city. When we were sick, we simply went to the hospital where we were treated and handed our prescriptions after showing our identification cards. Both of these services were always free of charge, of course.
I had a rather idyllic childhood, looking back, perhaps partly because I was proud that my family served in one of the United States’ most cherished (and, ironically, rather socialist) institutions—The U.S. Armed Forces.
I have other vivid memories of my childhood outside of the everyday workings of my Air Force home. For example, once a month, on a Saturday, we would pile into our family car and drive out to a large orchard in the middle of the Mojave Desert. There we worked for hours with other volunteers picking, pruning, polishing, sorting, and boxing tons of fruit for a processing plant in town where other volunteers washed and bottled all our hard work into jarred applesauce and canned peaches. After that, still more volunteers would then load those cans and jars into semi trucks to be distributed to special grocery stores around the country.
And I knew, as I stood there in the heat of the California desert, that these special grocery stores were there as security for other volunteers, other Mormons, like me. I polished apples knowing that, if my family was ever in trouble, we would be allowed to go to one of those special stores and we would be given food for free.
I came to understand “entitlement programs” and “social-welfare contracts” while heaping compost around tree roots for the LDS Welfare System.
Two times over, then, I’ve experienced this unique contradiction of living in socialized systems that (in the majority) fiercely, ardently, even religiously counter-identify themselves with the bootstrap-pulling morality of Ayn Rand-style American individualism.
I don’t really have any answers as to why this contradiction exists. True, I can make some flailing speculative ventures into the reasoning behind my military upbringing—historical theories which involve terms like “Cold War” and “McCarthyism.” However, the aversion Mormons have to claiming their own socialist tendencies is downright perplexing.
Even as early as 1831, the LDS church was actively working toward organizing welfare systems. In fact, I’m not exactly sure how to interpret Doctrine and Covenants 42: 30-34 as anything other than the establishment of a divinely-mandated socialist program:
“And behold, thou wilt remember the poor, and consecrate of thy properties for their support, that which thou hast to impart unto them, with a covenant and a deed which cannot be broken. And inasmuch as ye impart of your substance unto the poor, ye will do it unto me; and they shall be laid before the bishop of my church and his counselors, two of the elders, or high priests, such as he shall appoint or has appointed and set apart for that purpose…
Therefore, the residue shall be kept in my storehouse, to administer to the poor and the needy, as shall be appointed by the high council of the church, and the bishop and his council.”
Perhaps I’m being a bit obtuse in offering such a simplistic analysis without really fleshing out the deep discomfort many Americans (and thus an American religion) have about even muttering the word “socialism.” Perhaps it is because of my unique upbringing mingled with the fact that I currently, and very happily, live in an openly loud and proud socialist democracy. Perhaps it is now painfully obvious that my graduate experience was much more immersed in cultural history than political theory.
But, truly, why are Mormons so very averse to proudly and publicly claiming the rich, social justice-driven legacy of the LDS Welfare System? Why do so many Mormons (who dutifully pay monthly “fast-offering” contributions to help other members in financial need) angrily oppose social safety net legislation like the Affordable Care Act?
I can’t believe that the influence of Republican political platforms are the only driver here. Where does this contradiction between progressive practice and conservative self-identification stem from within the Mormon tradition itself?