Mormons, Soldiers, Socialists, and Me

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?

  • Larry bates

    Just a thought on the two experiences you relate. On the one hand, the constant demand on the Federal budget by the military , eventually reaches a point of diminishing returns over time and the subsequently denial of some or all of the benefits that the military receives. These budget demands eventually overcome the ability to fund them. I could use Greece, Spain, Italy and any number Euro countries in trouble to support this. This would ultimately be the fate of Obamacare as well. I live in Canada and can tell you that public healthcare deteriorates over time to the point that people die waiting for the opportunity to see a specialist 18 months to 2 years down the road. With an emergency, you can go to a hospital and wait 8 hours while those who have sore thumbs get looked after. There are everyday examples of women losing their babies in waiting rooms, bleeding all over the floor, while waiting for those ahead of them to be seen only because they were there first. Money doesn’t solve the problem, though it soon takes a larger and larger portion of the Federal budget.. The system is inherently inefficient.
    With the Church’s system the organization, purpose, and attitude behind it is different in degree and purpose. It’s the Lord’s way. It succeeds because He wants it to. We obey because we love him, and desire to become like him. Government welfare is a matter of building empires and power. Such is not the case in the Church. Just my thoughts.

  • DRS

    I practiced medicine in the socialist institution of the U.S. Air Force for fourteen years and loved it. Most of my patients had the option of going to a civilian doctor and using the very good insurance the military provides if they chose, but most chose to stay within the system because it really is very good. I now have two children in the socialized U.S. Army Medical Corps practiciing medicine. Of course, every doctor in the system also had the option of leaving if they wanted, and most did as soon as their committments were up. I was in the middle and stayed longer than committed but not long enough to retire.
    The advantages of both systems, and the disadvantages are obvious to me as I have been in the private sector now for two decades. However, this is not the main point of my input, just some background.
    The word that is missing in the discussion of governmental styles above is Theocracy. This is a bad word in most of today’s enlightened political science discussions. However, if loving, personal, interested God [the "Mormon" God] is really behind it, then is there a better form of government? That’s what Mormons have to decide from the begining of their religious awakening, “Is God really behind this?” Once decided in the positive, there is no absolutelly adequate substitute and we look for those systems that seem most closely in line with what we believe. That means we as LDS will not always agree.
    Some of us will emphasize the ‘agency’ and ‘self reliance’ doctrines and look for the systems that allow that to the greatest degree.
    Others of us emphasize the ‘caring’ and ‘charitable’ doctrines and favor those in the systems of governance we support.
    While both have their good and bad points, I have come to the conclusion that using agency and teaching self reliance is the most caring and charitable thing we can do for people. This is what the LDS Welfare program is based upon. Yes, there are always going to be local imperfections. I’ve been a Bishop twice and I administered the program much better by the end of my nearly 10 years than at the first. I never did get it perfect.
    I look at those who are dependant on anything, be it drugs, parents, government, etc. as being in a place that their agency is more restricted. Agency was the founding principle of the system we chose from the begining because it was the only option that allowed personal development to the degree we are capable. I still believe that.
    There was another option we rejected that would have provided for everyone’s needs, but at the expense of personal growth. We rejected that plan, but I can see how it is attractive in the sense that there was less pain and suffering. Of course, there was also no joy…

  • Jake

    Methinks many commenters here protest too much regarding the “vast” differences between Communalism and Socialism as it pertains to the Mormon church. It’s not wrong or strange to refer to this system as “socialist.” Check out Hugh Nibley:

    [Interview, 1983]

    In my office at BYU they had these openings under the doors, because we had no air conditioning in those days, and in the summertime we would leave all the doors open. I always could hear across the hall exactly what was being taught in those classes because religion teachers, being of that type, usually speak in a loud voice. They are very loud and obnoxious. And they were all teaching the same sort of thing: the Book of Mormon is nothing more on earth but a tract against socialism. That’s what it is. And this was the theme they aimed at all the way through, as if that made all the difference in the world. So that was very discouraging at times, because they wouldn’t let up on that. Let it be that, as far as that goes, but you have something else to talk about, don’t you? “Oh no!”

    This is very interesting. Here we are, unemployable by any academic standards, living on the welfare of the church, which has been set aside by revelation for the support of the widows, poor and so forth, and to justify ourselves we spend our days fulminating against the evils of socialism and the wickedness of the idle poor. That’s what these teachers are doing, they are living purely on the welfare of the church.