Johnny Townsend: Securing the well-being of citizens is not tyranny

(Pat Bagley | The Salt Lake Tribune) This cartoon, titled "Face Mask Tyranny," appears in The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday, May 12, 2020.

A former missionary colleague of mine explained that he believes both those on the right and the left want basically the same thing — to help people — but his beef is that those on the left want to achieve it through tyranny.

If “the government” assists the poor, the rest of us are forced to pay higher taxes. Helping is only appropriate if the behavior is performed without coercion. It was “Satan’s plan” to make people be good. God instead chose to give us free will. But everyone, both on the right and the left, should want the state to improve the lives of all its citizens.

During the current pandemic, many insist that requiring people to wear masks is heavy-handed government interference. And yet some Republican business owners deny their employees a choice by firing them if they wear a mask to work. It’s economic tyranny if “big government” orders businesses to close temporarily to avoid spreading the virus, but it’s not a problem if Republicans order them to reopen and immediately rescind unemployment assistance to workers who must now choose between homelessness and serious illness.

A “stay at home” order to protect the public during a crisis is a violation of the First Amendment, but routinely monitoring emails and phone calls without a warrant under normal circumstances is “for the greater good” and so doesn’t violate the Fourth Amendment.

Republicans claim that using tax dollars to provide everyone a college education is tyranny. But requiring every pacifist to financially support the military is no more than “responsibility.” Demanding we share the burden of providing health care to all is a prescription for losing our souls. But compelling everyone to gift fossil fuel corporations with billions in subsidies is a divine cure for the economy. It’s a sin to use a single penny of taxpayer money on abortion but it’s “free will” to force women to bear the children of rapists.

My missionary colleague and I spent two years of our lives volunteering to teach others about Mormonism. But even among Mormons, free will isn’t entirely free. No one is forced to pay 10% of their income to the church, but if they don’t, they can’t marry in the temple. They can’t attend their children’s weddings. They can’t enter the Celestial Kingdom after they die. Our culture determines the “natural” consequences to every free choice, in order to elicit the behavior we want.

To quote Dana Carvey’s Church Lady, “Isn’t that conveeeenient?”

As citizens of a civilized nation, we make a social contract. If it’s not tyranny to use taxpayer money to hire police officers and firefighters to protect the community, it’s not tyranny to use taxes to hire doctors and nurses to protect patients. If it’s not tyranny to use tax dollars to teach a child to read, it’s not tyranny to provide an adult adequate job training.

Many on the right firmly believe in enforcing the policies that complement their religious or political agenda. They only protest — carrying assault weapons into state capitols as a show of “force” — if those policies make compulsory helping people they feel no compulsion to help.

Grandma might die? She’s so old she’d be dead in a couple of weeks, anyway. And it’s not like we’re condemning her to hell. She’ll go straight to Paradise.

Desperate asylum-seekers might die in detention camps? Well, we can’t help everyone. The truly empathetic would understand that those folks are better off in Spirit Prison, where they’ll finally be open to accepting the gospel.

Working together to improve the lives of all members of our society is not tyranny. It’s our civic duty. It may well be the purpose of religion to help perfect our souls, but the job of the state is to secure the physical well-being of its citizens. If those on the right feel that obligating them to treat others humanely is a sin, the rest of us are free not to accept their conclusion.

But those of you on the right needn’t worry. Rest assured that if you’re forced against your will to protect workers, or give the unemployed an education that allows them to support their families, or stop corporations from polluting the environment, God can always punish us later for helping you.

Johnny Townsend

Johnny Townsend, Seattle, is the author of books that include “Breaking the Promise of the Promised Land,” “Human Compassion for Beginners,” and “Am I My Planet’s Keeper?”