We’re in the home stretch of the US Presidential elections. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to try to pursuade voters to vote one way or another. We have a Mormon running for the first time against a first-time African-American president. We have multiple issues – massive debt, economic problems, wars and rumors of wars in the Middle East, and social issues at home. Stepping away from all of these issues, away from Republican or Democrat, away from Tea Party or secret socialist, away from Bain capital and birth certificates – let’s look at it from a religious point-of-view. In other words, in a hypothetical candidate for US President, what characteristics most reflect the “Mormon ideal”. (DISCLAIMER: In the interest of full disclosure, I worked at one time for the Salt Lake County Republican party. I’ve given money to mostly Republican candidates in prior elections – and a few selected Democrats)
If we look at the “ideal societies” that we talk about in our Sunday lessons, we have a few examples. There is the city of Enoch and the Nephites immediately after Christ visited them in the meridian of time. We have the early saints in the Old World who personally walked with Christ in mortality. In looking at these societies structurally, there is one main common characteristic – they had everything in common. There were no poor among them, but there were also no rich. Joseph Smith tried to institute this ideal society in the early days of the Church through the law of consecration, but the idea of the “rich” giving of their substance to help the “poor” was too much for the people to handle.
So how are WE doing as a country in working towards this ideal? There is a measure of this called the Gini index, where 0 is perfect equality (all people have exactly the same income) and 100 is perfect inequality (where one person has all the income). According to the World Bank, countries like Denmark, Japan, Czech Republic, Norway, Germany, Ukraine, Austria, etc. all have indices in the 20s. The United States is 41, grouped with countries like Qatar, Turkmenistan, Russia, China, Ghana and Nigeria.
Another measure of the discrepancy between rich and poor is a ratio between the average income of the richest 10% to the poorest 10%. According to the CIA’s data, in a country like Japan this ratio is 4.5 (ie. if the lowest 10% averaged 1,000,000 Yen income, the richest 10% averaged 4,500,000 Yen). In many countries, this number is 6-7, such as Hungary, Norway, Finland, Ethiopia, Austria, Germany, etc. The value for the United States? Our ratio is 15.0, in line with Georgia, Nicaragua, Cameroon, Nepal, Iran, etc. So, by any objective measure of gap between rich and poor, as a country, we are far from the societies we teach as “ideal” from a Mormon viewpoint.
But we give voluntarily…
Not really. We espouse the idea of voluntarily giving to the poor and doing charity that way, but are we good at it? What percentage of us actually give significantly to the poor? If someone with no insurance needs a $30k operation, are you personally willing to pay for it? How much – $100, $500? Most people are just getting by and aren’t really able to do that much, but if we could, do we do it? People making $75-$100k give, on average, 2.4% of their annual income to “charity”. People making more than $100k give 3.1%. That’s not very much. Also, this “charity” also includes (and is dominated by) giving to religious organizations. But do religious organizations primarily help the more unfortunate among us, or do they spend most of the money on their own organization?
Many churches are tight-lipped about how they spend their money, ours included, but it doesn’t seem that most of it is spent helping others. Even in our own Church, of the $4-5 billion that it is estimated to take in each year, most reports suggest we spend the majority of our income on BYU, on spreading the message of the Church through missionary and PR work, on building things including temples and ward houses, etc. This isn’t saying that is bad, as the purpose of most churches in today’s world is NOT to help the poor, but to grow and help their own members.
We do spend some on humanitarian aid, but the Church’s own fact sheet suggests that this is in the range of around $40-50 million a year, or only around 1% of annual income. We do spend some unknown amount on bishop storehouses, etc (and the part of the recent documentary about this was really cool). But we also spend billions on malls, private hunting grounds, hotels, and other commercial ventures. So even relying on churches is problematic, as most spend the majority of their money on themselves as opposed to helping the poor.
So what do we do?
If our distribution of incomes in the United States is far from what we teach as an ideal, and if we voluntarily don’t really do much to help the poor as individuals or as religious institutions, what is the answer? Do we ignore the issue completely? Or should we choose leaders who will help set up systems to pool a country’s resources in a more equitable fashion? It’s something to think about.
Again, aside from economic issues, are there other characteristics that make sense in the “ideal” candidate from a “Mormon” point-of-view? Consider abortion and a woman’s right to choose. Our church obviously teaches that this is wrong except in certain circumstances, but does this mean that it should be illegal? Just because someone else chooses to have an abortion doesn’t mean that I have to have an abortion (difficult because I am male, but you get the point). So, should we have a more authoritarian government or does a more libertarian government make more sense?
An approach to this hearkens all the way back before there even was a United States. We teach that the big decision in the pre-existence was whether people should be compelled to act a certain way, or whether it was up to the individual to decide what was right for themselves. We obviously chose the latter, even to the extent that individuals in history have made terrible choices that adversely affected millions. But apparently free agency is worth even that price. Given this underlying philosophy, regarding things like abortion, should we choose a candidate who decides for others what they should do, or should we choose one who might be personally against abortion, yet still allows others the agency to choose what that want to do?
For a good part of our history as a church, marriage was a defining feature. The vast majority of the citizens of the United States thought polygamy was an evil perversion of marriage and fought against it. As a church, we were an extremely small minority, but we claimed that it was our right and perogative to marry how we wished, and that it didn’t affect other people in the country. We felt that it wasn’t up to someone back in New York or some other part of the country to define what marriage meant for us. As we select a presidential candidate, do we still feel the same? Do we back a candidate that only wants to allow marriage that fits their own definition of marriage, or do we select a candidate that allows other forms of marriage that may seem wrong to them personally but which are important to other citizens?
In the LDS Church, we basically ignore someone’s immigration status. We have some congregations in the United States who are largely made up of undocumented immigrants. We ignore the 12th Article of Faith about “obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law”. We ignore temple recommend questions of honesty and let illegal aliens serve missions, hold leadership positions, go to the temple, etc. We even have policies about sending them to missions where they can drive so airplane flights don’t raise the suspicion of INS agents. In an ideal presidential candidate, should we support someone who mirrors this same attitude, or should we support someone who would disallow these members full fellowship and send them back to their home countries?
Freedom of Religion
Early immigrants to this country came because of religious freedom. This freedom of religion allowed Joseph Smith to start a new church and allowed early Mormonism to take hold and grow into the Church we have today. We claim, in the 11th Article of Faith, that we allow all men to worship according to the dictates of (their) own conscience – how, when and what they may. This includes Mormonism, but also Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and even atheism. So, ideally, as Mormons we should support a candidate that most supports this freedom of religion.
Summary of Ideal Candidate
These are just a few points, but politics aside, it seems that from a Mormon point-of-view, we should support a candidate who:
- Supports policies that promote more economic equality to reduce the disparity between rich and poor, with an ultimate goal of a Zion society
- Allows individuals free agency are widely as possible, even when some of their choices regarding things like abortion might conflict with what the candidate him/herself believes
- Allows individuals to join together in marriage, even if their choice of marriage is disapproved by some (or many) members of society
- Supports policies that freely allows immigrants to come to the United States to better provide for their families as equal children of God
- Supports freedom of religion of all sorts, extended past the traditional Judeo-Christian background, without imposingbeliefs of the majority on minorities who might believe differently
From a “Mormon” point-of-view, and based on our teachings, it seems that these are values that we should support and look for in our ideal candidate for US President. Ironically, putting this template of ideals over the current US political landscape, it seems that the US Presidential candidate that is most in line with “Mormon” ideals is the candidate who isn’t actually Mormon.