The commitment of Church leaders to relieve human suffering was as certain as it was irrevocable. President Grant wanted “a system that would … reach out and take care of the people no matter what the cost.” He said he would even go so far as to “close the seminaries, shut down missionary work for a period of time, or even close the temples, but they would not let the people go hungry.” 3
Quote-mining prophets and apostles past for specific effect has occurred forever and for every purpose, so that’s not really all that remarkable. But what perhaps was more remarkable for the listeners or viewers of the last General Conference (and now readers, for the April 2011 General Conference transcripts have been posted) — or at least, what was remarkable for me — was the selection of this quote from President Grant by Presiding Bishop H. David Burton in his Sunday morning session talk, The Sanctifying Work of Welfare.
Unlike Mormon Expression’s Tierza, who wrote:
The problem with conference is its utter banality. If this is God’s one true church on the face of the Earth you would think that our most important meetings would be filled with something important. Instead these hours of soothing male voices don’t offer solutions to life’s real problems. They don’t even engage a call to action against poverty, hatred, or any other social ill.
…I felt that this conference — or at least most of the Sunday sessions — focused incredibly on life’s real problems…and they especially called to action to work to help these problems. I guess it was because Tierza only heard the Saturday sessions, while I only heard the Sunday ones. I suspected that perhaps the focus on the church’s welfare system was because of the recent natural disasters (and affiliated fallout [no macabre pun intended]) in Japan, but nevertheless…just look at that quote from President Grant!
Does President Monson have a similar perspective? And, if so, does the fact that the seminaries and temples are not being shut down imply that he believes the hungry have all been fed?
I digress; that isn’t even the question for today.
In the #twitterstake, it was interesting to see certain liberal elements of Mormonism reflecting on talks like Burton’s. Joanna Brooks commented that several factors of General Conference led it to be a “Mormon liberal dream session.” Even from disaffected, post-, or at the very least heterodox Mormons, there was a sentiment that conference was “almost a promotion of a socialistic agenda.”
Now, I liked all the talk of the church’s welfare system too…but really…is it creeping socialism?
One thing I noticed even more than Burton’s (and other speakers’) mentioning of welfare was the almost lock-step follow-up of every mention with an emphasis on personal responsibility or self-reliance. Thus, we have another quote featuring a previous leader:
One of the distinguishing characteristics of this inspired gospel-centered endeavor is its emphasis on personal responsibility and self-reliance. President Marion G. Romney explained: “Many programs have been set up by well-meaning individuals to aid those who are in need. However, many of these programs are designed with the shortsighted objective of ‘helping people,’ as opposed to ‘helping people help themselves.’” 5
And if one didn’t get the message from that talk, Sister Allred repeated in her talk, The Essence of Discipleship.
Despite the rapidly changing world, welfare principles have not changed with the passing of time because they are divinely inspired, revealed truth. When members of the Church and their families do everything they can to sustain themselves and still cannot meet basic needs, the Church stands ready to help. Short-term needs are met immediately, and a plan to help the recipient become self-reliant is established. Self-reliance is the ability to provide the spiritual and temporal necessities of life for self and family.
All in all, I don’t necessarily find this “self-reliance” and “personal responsibility” stuff negative. Yet, as another tweeter, @youngph, note, these modifications suggest instead the Mormon *conservative* dream session.
But what really resonated with me were Sister Allred’s next lines:
As we increase our own level of self-reliance, we increase our ability to help and serve others the way the Savior did. We follow the Savior’s example when we minister to the needy, the sick, and the suffering. When love becomes the guiding principle in our care for others, our service to them becomes the gospel in action. It is the gospel in its finest moment. It is pure religion.
From here, I can see an ideal that I had not seen before — maybe because I don’t live it. Where the “conservative charity” and “liberal social net” ideals split is that the former envisions a world where each person — as they become more self-reliant, is freer to serve others in the way the Savior did. They gain self-reliance through a Gospel process that ideally transforms them to want to do this good continually, and so they do. So, this individualistic charity model offers greater personal growth and a more “elegant” end result than institutional or governmental welfare does.
…On the other hand, my reservations still poke through. We have to trust that self-reliant people will be driven to serve the poor to greater extents…but this requires a personal ethical transformation that isn’t certain (even among the faithful!). Can the poor really “wait” on people to become more Christ-like for individual/non-institutional charity to kick in or is a less personal social net a “lesser” evil?