by Jason B.
(Mormon May Day was an international response to recent statements by latter-day McCarthyist Glenn Beck that social justice was a code word for communism; and that anyone involved in a church that preached such a deceptive perversion of the Gospel should leave their congregation and find a new place to worship. Participants in Mormon May Day held teach-ins and discussions around the topic of Social Justice and the Gospel on May 1, participated in a fast, and then bore testimony on May 2 in wards around the country.)
Therefore, wo be unto him that is at ease in Zion! Wo be unto him that crieth: all is Well! (2 Nephi 28:24-25)
The reactions to Mormon May Day were overwhelmingly positive. People came out of the wood work to tell us how much they appreciated our efforts to assert a place in Mormon culture for liberals and radicals. Many people told me that had they known that there were people like us in the church they may not have left. While it became crystal clear to me that our work is sorely needed in the church, some members reacted with sincere curiosity. They had never noticed politics in church, and indeed many consider themselves ‘apolitical’. With these brothers and sisters in mind, the purpose of this post is to better articulate a deep frustration that many liberal and radical Mormons feel when they attend church. That frustration boils down to the fact that moral issues of the political right are constructed as moral absolutes, while the moral issues of the political left are either dismissed as misguided or minimized to the agency of an individual’s personal spirituality. This usually means they don’t get much air time in general conference, Sunday School or Priesthood/Relief Society. This leaves us with a problem: many Mormons feel that their interpretations of the Gospel are not valid because they do not fall within the contemporary orbit of conservative morality.
Here is what I mean.
Homosexuality and Protecting the Family
In the 2008 debate over gay marriage in California, the LDS church actively campaigned all over the state to defeat a California Supreme court ruling that legalized gay marriage. For many of us from California who sympathize with gay rights, we were horrified as testimony meetings and Sunday school lessons were filled to the brim with election slogans about protecting the family. The family, the rhetoric goes, is under attack from those who would expand the definition of marriage and it is our sacred duty to defeat this most recent affront. Using the civil rights struggles of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as a measure of the strength of families is an excellent example of how a seemingly politically neutral and core aspect of the Gospel such as the family is framed in the moral language of the political right.
Now, this is not a polemical retort against the erosion of family values. I too believe that the family is being weakened, but my worldview causes me to look for the cause in a very different place than those on the political right. It seems to me that if we want to talk seriously about protecting the family as the basic institution of society, then perhaps we should start with the historical impact that free market capitalism has had on the family over the past 200 years. The massive upheavals that occurred in Europe and America—which are being repeated all over the globe through the globalization of production—are a result of the need for a landless and mobile labor force. It is easy for former CEOs and bootstrap entrepreneurs to wax moral about spending more time with our families while their workers scrape by on 60 hours a week. In this sense France is a more family friendly country than ours! Their workers fought for and won generous vacations with pay, universal healthcare, childcare, a 35 work week and living wages. If we are serious about protecting the family why not address issues that allow families to be together more rather than scapegoat the gay community.
Glenn Beck follows a long line of Mormon cold warriors. But depending on who you talk to, Mormon radicals may agree with the sentiment that we need to limit the government’s role in our lives. Indeed, many of us at the Mormon Worker would like to eliminate it completely in favor of United Order style communes in every watershed.
While there is a spectrum of opinions on the Mormon left with respect to the proper role of the federal government, many of use see the words of 5 time socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs as representing the true spirit of socialism; not as an absolutist political ideology but as a powerful call to live as Christ taught. While being tried for sedition, Debs, in response to his charges defiantly said:
“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence. Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind then that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free” (Sept. 18th 1918).
Deb’s stirring words are unmistakably inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, and when some of us proclaim sympathy with socialism, that is what we mean. None of us are suggesting that the Gospel is socialist, but there are certainly legitimate overlaps in the call for a classless society and an end to exploitation and Christ’s message of equality and love. Rather than mythologizing the cold war in pre-mortal rhetoric about free agency which implies God’s divine sanction of capitalism, perhaps we should take the words of Catholic Worker founder, Peter Maurin more seriously:
“Christianity has nothing to do
with either modern capitalism
or modern Communism,
for Christianity has
a capitalism of its own
and a communism of its own.
is based on property without responsibility,
while Christian capitalism is based on property with responsibility.
is based on poverty through force
while Christian communism
is based on poverty through choice.
For a Christian,
voluntary poverty is the ideal
as exemplified by St. Francis of Assisi,
while private property
is not an absolute right, but a gift
which as such can not be wasted,
but must be administered
for the benefit of God’s children.”
We learn in D & C 58:16-20 that the good things of the earth are made to “please the eye, gladden the heart” in addition to the more utilitarian “food and raiment”; and despite being granted full access to the abundance of the earth, we are not to use it “to excess, neither by extortion.” It is significant to me that Joseph Smith’s vision took place in a forest which to us is now a Sacred Grove. What an inspiring refutation of the colonial Christian ambivalence toward nature and the “dark woods” to begin the last dispensation in a grove of trees; a stark rebuke to the Western world when that grove was filled with light on that morning in 1820. Soon thereafter nature would be reenchanted by the transcendentalist, wilderness and environmental movements.
For these reasons, it seems clear that the environmental crisis is a moral crisis; perhaps the most serious our civilization has ever faced. It will not be solved through legislation or adjustments to our consumption habits. So, when I attend church and don’t hear it addressed with unequivocal condemnation I feel confused. Isn’t our duty to care for the earth and each other as important as protecting the family, paying tithing, reading the scriptures, avoiding rated-R movies, family prayer, etc.? While policy prescriptions may be bitterly partisan, the fact remains that our stewardship over the earth’s bounty is a moral responsibility one that deserves the full attention of moral language.
Another area where liberal and radical members feel silenced and marginalized is around war and violence. Many church leaders grew up during an era of honorable war; of self-sacrifice for a national cause. However, many in the rising generation feel much more skeptical of leaders who proclaim just war. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan simply do not fit the narrative of an honorable war in defense of freedom. For many of us they were geopolitical maneuvering that had more to do with oil than bringing freedom to the downtrodden. Many of us were not only critical of the war, but participated in protests and other actions against the war. These actions were carried out not in spite of our religious conviction but because of them and are driven by the admonition in D&C 98:16 to “renounce war and proclaim peace.”
The invasion of Iraq especially, mirrors the kind of preemptive and unrighteous war that is harshly condemned in the Book of Mormon. For many of us, being a pacifist, or nearly so, is a core moral issue and to hear members of the church denounce those who would oppose the war as unpatriotic or worse bad Mormons is disconcerting. Let us be consistently pro-life; valuing not just the lives of unborn children, but also the lives of Iraqi men, women and children caught in the middle of an unjust and illegal occupation.
In Mosiah 4 we read that all the prayer and pious action in world mean nothing if we do not have charity and act upon it. One item on an oft repeated list of charitable to-do’s is “visiting the sick and administering to their relief.” We live in a country where over 40 million people do not have health insurance. Regardless of who you believe should administer healthcare, this is a massive failure on our part to live up to this Gospel commandment. Why, when we read that scripture do we not see the faces of those who cannot afford healthcare? We have allowed the polarizing rhetoric of big vs. small government obscure our duty to the sick.
Christianity is supposed to transcend party politics, but that does not mean the Gospel is apolitical. Christ did not join Judas and the Zealots or the Essenes in the desert, but he adamantly critiqued the Sadducees and Pharisees for their blatant hypocrisy and priest craft. And while communism may very well have been Satan’s counterfeit, his real genius may have been setting it up as a straw man so that capitalism could slip in the back door. The Gospel is a worldview, not a hobby and I reject any neat delineation of my life as a citizen and my life as a Latter-day Saint. By decontextualizing the scriptures and church history and de-politicizing religious-right moral issues, contemporary Latter-day Saints have (whether they intended to or not) marginalized those who would interpret the Gospel through a distinct political worldview. To argue that the way the Gospel in talked about in church is apolitical or neutral is naïve and disingenuous at best.
Now, let me be clear, I am not calling for an extension of the cultural divide between American liberals and conservatives into the church; as should be clear I am opposed to using the Gospel to justify any political ideology. But as reverend Jim Wallis points out in his amazing book God’s Politics, the separation of church and state, does not mean the separation of our faith from our public life. As Wallis points out, there needs to be a coming together of moral issues on the left and right framed in religious language. This kind of politics, God’s Politics, “would not be an endless argument between personal and social responsibility, but a weaving of the two together in search of the common good” (76). While, it has been my purpose to expose the political bias of some seemingly apolitical aspects of Mormon culture, I am in agreement with Wallis that the Gospel is not republican or democrat, but a call to radical charity that includes both individual ethics and social justice.
Mormon May Day was meant to bring attention to a problem within Mormon culture. It was not about confrontation or criticism of Church leaders. When liberal and radical Mormons leave the Church we all loose a unique and valid perspective on the Gospel. I am pleading with Mormon culture to recognize many of the above issues as equally important to our salvation. I am also calling on liberal and radical Mormons to step out of their comfort zones and begin to open our mouths in church settings on topics that we feel passionately about and which are central to Christ’s message.