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The case for Book of Mormon socialism

Published February 26, 2011 12:15 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Whether one accepts the historical or theological claims of the Book of Mormon, one theme in it is obvious: At their most righteous, the Nephites presented in the book were benevolent socialists; at their most depraved, they were greedy free-market capitalists.

In the zenith of Nephite culture, "the Lord called his people Zion because they were of one heart and one mind and they did have all things in common — and there were no poor among them." Having "all things in common" suggests a society invested in public infrastructure and welfare for the whole.

Redistribution is not an anomaly in Mormon scriptures. Joseph Smith declared that "It is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin." (Doctrine and Covenants 49:20).

For any conservative this is surely commie talk! Yet Smith persisted, "If you are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things" (D&C 78:5-6).

Early Mormon leaders advocated a United Order to redistribute wealth for the benefit of all Saints.

Though redistribution is the highest economic order in Mormon scripture, Sen. Chris Buttars vehemently denounced Alpine School District for allegedly advocating "democratic socialism." He, Mitt Romney, Glenn Beck and others seem to believe that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a de facto 14th Article of Faith: We believe in the unquestioned virtue of unregulated capitalism.

But Mormon scripture makes such a belief indefensible. The notorious villains of Nephite civilization were the Gadianton Robbers, who perpetuated policies that exacerbated class inequality. They eventually "did obtain the sole management of the government, insomuch that they did trample under their feet and smite and rend and turn their backs upon the poor and the meek, and the humble followers of God" (Helaman 6:39).

Many politically powerful Latter-day Saints have also turned their back on the poor and working class in this country. The Patrick Henry Caucus, Eagle Forum and Romney are determined to eliminate the very social programs that have traditionally protected vulnerable populations. Conversely, they are equally invested in protecting the wealthy.

They demand fiscal austerity but are unwilling to fairly tax the super rich. They demand the poor make sacrifices, but are unwilling to end corporate welfare and tax loopholes that keep big business from sharing the burden. They want to cut public funding for education, arts and health care but remain unwilling to defund our military occupations abroad.

They denounce socialism but have no problem when the redistribution of public wealth goes upward into private hands. Gadianton himself would feel right at home amidst Utah's GOP.

My reading of the Book of Mormon is not idiosyncratic. As a missionary in England I met many Mormon socialists with testimonies of the scriptural admonition for equality. They saw in their sacred texts a spiritual rationale to support their own government programs, including their prized National Health Service.

They actually believe the admonition of Jesus, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." Matthew 25:40.

Fair-minded Latter-day Saints must reclaim their sacred texts from free-market fundamentalists. Don't be taken in by the right-wing performance art of a hysterical Glenn Beck. Americans can support both a robust market economy and sustainable safety nets for the meek and humble. But it will require that corporations and affluent citizens invest deeply in public infrastructure.

The Book of Mormon narrative, regardless of its historicity, admonishes contemporary Latter-day Saints to reject riches and to care for the poor and needy. Democratic socialism is the very essence of Mormon theology and scripture. It is our common quest for Zion.

Troy Williams is the executive producer of RadioActive on KRCL 90.9 FM.