Johnny Townsend: Taxes pay for the nation’s physical, not spiritual, needs

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Volunteers of the Utah Food Bank pack food boxes in the parking lot of the LDS Church at 1860 S. 300 E. in Salt Lake City Friday April 13. It's one of 18 locations the bank operates to get food out to the food insecure. An army of volunteers make the distrbution system work. Walmart, Feeding America and Utah Food Bank are teaming up during the month of April to fight hunger through an online and in-store donation campaign.

Whenever I discuss poverty with my Mormon family members or former missionary companions, they tell me, “Helping others should only be done out of the goodness of our hearts. The government has no right to force us to be kind.”

But it’s not the government’s responsibility to ensure our spiritual growth. The government is responsible, however, for ensuring the physical well-being of its citizens.

If we allow people a choice whether to help their fellow man, and they choose not to, what benefit is that either in building their moral character or in alleviating the suffering of others? It’s a lose/lose for everyone.

But if the poor know that people aren’t just going to throw a handout their way, religious conservatives say, they’ll learn responsibility and take care of themselves.

I wonder, though, if a hungry 5-year-old is really capable of holding down a good job. Is an 82-year-old? Can homeless parents take care of their homeless children, find a way to wash themselves and their clothes and travel to job interviews with their kids in tow?

“Well,” I hear conservatives say, “my cousin Bob did it! Maria at the office did it!”

That’s great. Really. My gay ex-Mormon neighbor climbed Mount Everest. One of the missionaries I served with in Italy qualified for the Olympics. But exceptional people are just that — exceptions — and everyone, even those who are not extraordinary, deserve housing, health care and food.

Are those who are unemployed because of a pandemic really supposed to pay five months of back rent out of their moral pocketbooks?

If 30 million tenants are evicted because they can’t pay such an enormous sum, how does that benefit their landlords? Will the landlords suddenly find 30 million new tenants willing to pay someone else’s back rent?

It’s another lose/lose for all concerned.

Exactly how moral must one be to afford cancer treatment? How righteous to afford dialysis or insulin or mental health care with a minimum-wage, “essential” job?

Many Latter-day Saints and other religious conservatives are only too eager to force certain moral decisions on others. They’re fine with demanding folks wear clothes in public. They’re OK with forcing legal adults to wait an additional three years before they can drink alcohol, and requiring those with traditionally untreatable health issues to continue suffering rather than benefit from medical marijuana.

So why do religious conservatives resist being asked to do something that not only helps millions of poor, ill and uneducated Americans but also improves the success of the nation as a whole?

I regularly hear from conservatives, “All you people want is to take, take, take!”

But doesn’t that imply what conservatives want is to “keep, keep, keep”?

Does that latter behavior get conservatives points in heaven? Do Latter-day Saints get their “calling and election made sure” by leaving others to suffer simply because they aren’t extraordinary?

Sure, religious conservatives donate to religious institutions, and those in turn give some financial assistance back to the community. But they also get to pick who receives their generosity. That’s their right, of course.

But it doesn’t help everyone. And the government is responsible for all its citizens.

When I hear religious conservatives praise morality-promoting austerity programs, I can’t help but wonder if any of them ever received assistance from their parents with tuition. Any help getting a car? Housing? Free babysitting?

If these folks don’t feel sinful and weak for accepting help, why would such a moral stain exist if someone else receives help from a friend? Or from the entire community?

If we can all pitch in and fund bomber jets and killer drones without feeling morally compromised, why are we so resistant to spending even a fraction of that to provide food or postsecondary education or health care to our own citizens? To our neighbors? Why does that destroy our character?

If the military is worthy of our forced benevolence because it ensures our physical well-being, surely these other essentials are worthy as well.

Families have their responsibilities. Religions have theirs. As do individuals.

But the government has responsibilities of its own that shouldn’t depend on the conflicting caprices of its citizens.

It is the personal responsibility of each of us to support the government in accomplishing its task of ensuring the physical well-being of everyone it governs.

Not only support, but demand.

Johnny Townsend

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

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