Mitt Romney and Mormon Socialism

One of the recurring refrains from Republican candidate Mitt Romney during his campaign was that the incumbent, President Barack Obama, was a European-style socialist. Romney’s criticism intends to go beyond mere political description and instead stands as a political epithet replete with spoken sneer and derogatory intent. To rev up the Republican base Romney must paint his opponent as inspired by European social democrats and not understanding capitalism and the free market system. The irony is that a casual look at Romney’s religious background shows that if the former Massachusetts governor were living during the time of Mormon founder Joseph Smith he would most likely be praising efforts to follow European socialism.

Presently, Romney is truly preaching to the faithful when he speaks to fellow Latter-day Saints, the most conservative and most Republican of all U.S. religious denominations, including evangelical Christians. A January 2012 survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life indicates that 66% of U.S. Mormons describe themselves as Conservatives and 22% as Moderates against all Protestant church members claiming 44% Conservative views and 37% Moderate beliefs. ((The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Mormons in America. January 12, 2012. These findings stand against the U.S. general public who claims to be 37% Conservative and 37% Moderate. Moreover, 74% of Mormons lean toward the Republican Party against the general American population of 45%. As a political bloc, 84% of all Mormons are registered voters with, whom else, Mitt Romney receiving an 86% favorable rating against President Obama’s 25%. However, being a Mormon politician is no guarantee of Mormon group support in that Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid, a Mormon, garners only 22% favorable rating from Mormon registered voters.

Why do Mormons give overwhelming support to Republicans? The answer is that self-reliance and free agency now trump economic equality and concern for the poor in the Mormon value system, especially among the Mormon Church’s leadership. As a result, most LDS members gravitate towards the political party that advocates smaller government, fewer services, free markets, and lower taxes. This is because Mormons feel confident that they can take care of themselves, even against the vicissitudes of corporate corruption and a shaky international economy.

This blind allegiance to conservative values has not always been the case. In fact, looking at Mormon doctrine no better quote summarizes Mormon egalitarianism than the words of Joseph Smith from the Mormon text Doctrine and Covenants when he states “if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things” (D&C 78:6). Moreover, Joseph Smith was a declared presidential candidate in 1844. The LDS founder ran as an independent on a broad-minded and reformist platform calling for upholding First Amendment religious rights (to protect his own followers), purchasing freedom for slaves, emptying the jails, and overhauling the economy in a populist mode. ((Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling. Mormon America: The Power and the Promise. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1999, 13.)) Ultimately, assassination prevented Smith from appearing on the ballot in that election. However, the tenor of his platform indicates a progressive rather than a conservative agenda.

The question about the true nature of Mormonism arises in the press over the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney, just as it did with his father Michigan Governor George Romney nearly 45 years ago. Interestingly, for those not familiar with Mormon Church history, there are three books written by LDS members that sustain the contention for a socialistic side to this faith, although the original Mormon faith was more accurately a theocratic socialism than a democratic socialism. A good starting point is by Richard and Joan Ostling called Mormon America (1999) as well as a fascinating book on the LDS settlement in Utah by Nels Anderson titled Desert Saints (1942) and the best work on Mormon communitarian organization is by Leonard J. Arrington, Feramorz Y. Fox and Dean L. May titled Building the City of God: Community and Cooperation among the Mormons (1976). ((Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1999; Nels Anderson, Desert Saints: The Mormon Frontier in Utah, University of Chicago Press, 1942; Leonard J. Arrington, Feramorz Y. Fox, and Dean L. May, Building the City of God: Community and Cooperation among the Mormons. 2nd. Ed. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992.)) These works support the claim for socialist Mormon roots based on a revelation to Joseph Smith and established under the Law of Consecration and Stewardship which led to an economic system based on communal self-reliance, central planning, and material equality. In other words, Smith proposed the opposite of the Mitt Romney platform.

Mormon Socialism under Joseph Smith

Those familiar with early nineteenth century communitarian movements know that Joseph Smith’s egalitarian roots stem from his first evangelical efforts in the “burned over district” of western New York, the location of many religious and social revivals. One of Smith’s first converts, Sidney Rigdon, once considered emulating the structure of the early Christians who became a community of believers who, according to the Acts of the Apostles, “had all things common” and provided for all who had need. ((Arrington, 19.)) Rigdon, a man familiar with the social experiments of Robert Owen and other communal societies, eventually became a Smith confidante and was quite influential in both spiritual and economic matters. Modern Mormon leaders go to great efforts to note Joseph Smith’s condemnation of socialism, but the thrust of the LDS prophet’s critique was the insufficiency of material equality without spiritual equality—that is, he opposed secular forms of socialism.

The case for Mormons and socialism is most apparent in Joseph Smith’s revelation of the Law of Consecration and Stewardship, also called the United Order of Enoch or simply the United Order. The Law of Consecration was first announced in 1831. It requires the faithful to turn over all surplus material goods and property to their bishop to create a common storehouse for distribution to the poor. Accordingly, the United Order program “… was a prescription for transforming the highly individualistic economic order of Jacksonian America into a system characterized by economic equality, socialization of surplus incomes, freedom of enterprise, and group economic self-sufficiency.” ((Arrington, 15.)) A primary reason for the promotion and enforcement of the Law of Consecration was Joseph Smith’s desire to create an ideal religious community to counter mainstream America and usher in a more disciplined congregation. In his view, an excess of liberty and the anarchy of Yankee capitalism and materialism were endangering the religious flock. For Smith, the antidotes to early nineteenth century U.S. society were order, unity, and community. Rugged individualism would be replaced with a communitarian congregation and the Law of Consecration organized by the United Order would be the economic lynchpin. The Mormon Church would be at the apex of the fiscal order through its control of investments formed by the surplus to be collected thorough the Law of Consecration. Centralized planning and the Church’s control of production would supplant individualistic methods.

Initially, Smith’s doctrine served as a recruiting tool in the 1830s as his newly formed Mormon sect set out to expand its membership. In order to bring more believers into the fold, Smith assigned his trusted followers to missionary duty, especially focusing on the European countries of England, Scandanavia and Switzerland. Converts were encouraged to immigrate to the United States and upon arrival these mostly poor immigrants were greeted with not only an enthusiastic community of fellow Latter-day Saints but the newcomers were provided a financial stake in the form of food stuffs, clothing, tools, and the essentials for creating a homestead. Under the Law of Consecration, no Mormon follower was going to become rich because of the requirement to divest surplus property. Thus, Joseph’s Smith vision was for a religious system with a built in procedure for caring for the material as well as spiritual needs of the congregation. Smith’s economic redistribution strategy was successful in raising the membership from only a handful of followers when the LDS began in 1830 to 26,000 at the time of his death in 1844. ((Ostling, 40.))

The Law of Consecration served a dual purpose in the early theological development of the LDS. The doctrine’s general purpose firstly was to tend to the needs of the poor. Joseph Smith discloses the direct scriptural command for the Law of Consecration in the following passage of Doctrine and Covenants 42:30: “And behold thou wilt remember the poor and consecrate of thy properties for their support that which thou hast to impart untothem, with a covenant and a deed which cannot be broken.” Interestingly, the Book of Mormon provides a rebuke to those who might follow the current trend to blame the poor for their condition. In Mosiah 4:17 it says “perhaps thou shalt say: The [poor] man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just–.” Joseph Smith’s revealed rejoinder in Mosiah 4:19 asks “for behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment…” Thus the dictum to care for the poor is unconditional. Just as good Saints beg God for the fruits of the Earth, so too do the poor seek these fruits from those in their spiritual community.

A second purpose of this Law of Consecration was to constrain the rich. Thus, the divine regard for the poor is also tempered, and this speaks loudly to modern times, with divine disdain for those of unconstrained wealth. Underemphasized by modern Mormon leaders, but prominent at the time of the prophet Joseph Smith, is the stern message in D&C 56:16: “Woe unto you rich men, that will not give your substance to the poor, for your riches will canker your souls; and this shall be your lamentation in the day of visitation, and of judgment, and of indignation: The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and my soul is not saved!” With this explicit command to limit the accumulation of wealth, a procedure was set in place by Joseph Smith and his earliest believers to not only divest surplus goods for common benefit but to restrict the accumulation of excessive wealth which can serve to create a socially divisive assembly of unequal followers. In essence, Joseph Smith hoped to avoid the class divisions that we experience in the U.S. today.

However, history shows that there was a disconnection between the revealed doctrine of the Law of Consecration and the temporal practice by the Latter-day Saints. The program, despite Joseph Smith’s strong advocacy, received only lukewarm support from the Saints and went through two iterations. The first phase of the United Order that took place during Smith’s lifetime lasted roughly from 1831-1841. After some initial success by Smith to convince affluent Mormon members to part with excess possessions for others, the effectiveness of the program began to wane. At the heart of the problem was determining what exactly is surplus property? Many LDS members would presume that their cattle, grains, foodstuffs, fields and farmlands were either essential to family support or stood as a hedge against the eventuality in capitalist economy that bad times will occur in the future. If Joseph Smith or the local bishop requests Saints to donate their surplus, often the followers would abide by the letter of the law but not necessarily its spirit by donating older horses or cattle, worn tools and clothing, and maybe some fruits or vegetables that were not especially tasty that year. Thus, bishop’s storehouses began to look like contemporary thrift stores and the poor came away from their bishop with less than prime quality possessions. Not only that, some converts (including Mitt Romney’s ancestors) often were not fully sold on the “share the wealth” ideology of Smith owing to their political socialization under Yankee capitalism.

In order to remove the ambiguity from the concept “surplus” in property donations, Joseph Smith hit upon the time-honored method of the “tithe,” the longstanding religious requirement that ten percent of gross annual income be paid to the Church. In 1841, Smith’s explanation of the tithe as a replacement of the Law of Consecration was that it resulted in a lesser law replacing a higher law. In essence, Smith was telling the Mormon faithful that ideally surplus property should be enthusiastically donated with no attempt to cut corners or reduce quality. But in practice, the tithe was settled on for its simplicity and exactness. Initially the Saints fulfilled this requirement by in-kind donations of goods and materials. By 1908 the in-kind payment process was eliminated and currency payments were required. Even today the tithe has to be paid by members for them to enter Mormon temples and partake in key rituals. In a biography of former Michigan Governor George Romney, Mitt Romney’s father, there is a segment where the senior Romney describes his summer job as a college student lathing at construction sites in which he managed to earn $700 and immediately he removed $70 for his tithe. ((T. George Harris, Romney’s Way: A Man and an Idea, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, Inc. 1967, 65.)) What’s more, it is interesting to note that if the original United Order had not given way to the tithe, it would not be possible for someone like Mitt Romney to amass a personal fortune of roughly a quarter of a billion dollars. Instead, under Joseph Smith, Romney’s Bain Investment millions and his subsequent personal portfolio earnings would have gone to Mormon storehouses, welfare programs, and missions.

If Romney Were a Mormon Socialist

There is evidence that outside the United States, especially on blogs and discussions from Great Britain and Central America, Mormons are beginning to question the blind allegiance of their church leaders to the free market in light of growing income inequality. What would a Romney administration be like if it followed the politics of Joseph Smith? Certainly a tax on the wealthy for income redistribution would follow Joseph Smith’s ideology. Likewise a massive “work relief” program for the unemployed would be consistent with early Mormon social philosophy. Perhaps a re-energized Occupy Wall Street movement will sway the consciences of the current U.S. Mormon faithful and precipitate a return to earlier LDS values. In any case, while Mitt Romney is on the campaign trail radical Mormons and non-Mormons alike may meet him with posters citing Doctrine & Covenants (D&C 56:16) “Woe unto you rich men!”

Bill Serban is Program Manager for the Humanities and teaches History and Government at New Mexico State University in Grants. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Bill.