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Grant Hardy
Friday, April 01 2011

The Book of Mormon and Social Justice: A Few More Thoughts

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I’m grateful to all those who took the time to respond to my recent article. How we treat the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted, is a major theme in the Book of Mormon, and it is good for us as Latter-day Saints to think hard about our responsibilities in this matter. Many of the comments, however, seemed to focus on the proper size and role of government—an issue on which Nephite scripture has less to say. Here are a few observations that might be helpful in ongoing conversations.

In a representative democracy, taxation is not exactly coercion, much less an embodiment of Satan’s plan. Together as a nation, we freely choose how our resources are allocated, including how our taxes are collected and spent. If we, as individuals, disagree with those practices, we have a responsibility to speak up and to vote our consciences, but I believe that God will judge us, as a nation, on our policies towards the disadvantaged.

It is useful in such discussions to have an accurate idea of what our government actually does. One tool is the “tax receipt calculator” at www.thirdway.org/taxreceipt. Put in the amount of federal taxes that you pay and see what you are getting for your money. We are actually receiving more in benefits than we pay for (which is the cause of the deficit and national debt) and over half of our taxes go to just three programs—Social Security, Defense, and Medicare—programs that many conservatives, particularly those over the age of 60, are reluctant to cut or reform.

It might also be helpful to undertake a thought experiment suggested by the philosopher John Rawls, which is in some ways reminiscent of LDS teachings of the pre-existence. Imagine that you were designing a society in which you would someday have to live, but from an “original position” behind a “veil of ignorance,” that is, without knowing the circumstances into which you would be born—rich or poor, urban or rural, gifted or average, healthy or sick, black or white, Christian or non-Christian, a child of illegal immigrants or a descendent of early settlers. Is the United States a country in which you would be willing to take your chances at any social situation? And if not, why not?

We should probably be wary of vague, emotive terms like “socialism.” The United States is not a socialist state in the classic definition of “common ownership of the means of production” and there are no major political forces advocating such a change. We are, however, a “welfare state,” especially with regard to Social Security and Medicare, but less so than Canada, the United Kingdom, or Sweden. There are faithful Latter-day Saints in each of these three countries who support their government’s policies. As in all modern, industrialized counties, our own government plays a large role in the economy, including the redistribution of wealth though taxes, tax breaks, monetary policy, and social services. Sometimes the government facilitates resource transfers from the rich to the poor, and sometimes from the poor to the rich. All of this has moral implications and should be cause for concern and attention.

“Social Justice” is perhaps one of those vague, emotive terms that should be avoided (I plead guilty here). It originated with Christian, specifically Catholic, thinkers in the nineteenth century, though it has since been adopted by some secular groups. I had its religious background in mind, in the sense of “a just or righteous society, as defined by scripture,” in this case, the Book of Mormon, which highlights God’s approval of societies characterized by equality, solidarity, and concern for their most vulnerable members.

As far as the Church’s position on “social justice,” I should have referred readers to Michael Otterson’s essay for the Washington Post last year. Brother Otterson is the Head of Public Affairs for the LDS Church and is perhaps uniquely positioned to speak to the media on behalf of the Church. When he was asked to comment on Glenn Beck’s assertion that Christians should leave their churches if they preach or practice social justice, he responded:

Here is the issue in a nutshell: Should care of the poor and

needy fall to our individual, charitable and church responsibilities, with government playing a minimal role? Or should government take the major role, with individual charitable efforts in support? That depends on your personal politics. The answer is a mixture of both. And your politics in this case may reflect, in part, your upbringing, where you've lived and how much exposure you've had to genuine poverty. . . . The question of how to translate government concern and moral obligations into specific tax-supported programs is political, not theological. Governments can and should act on the common principles of human compassion that afford individuals and societies a basic level of dignity without swallowing up the charitable initiative and effective spontaneity of individual people and religious entities. So the tough questions are, at what level and by what means?

(You can read his entire essay at newsweek.washingtonpost)

That was the point I was trying to make in my own article.

P.S. For those looking to make the world better through private charity, I don’t think there are many other organizations in which nearly 100% of donations go to the needy, with the distribution often undertaken by unpaid volunteers. And the Perpetual Education Fund is a model of economic redistribution based on Gospel principles.

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