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Mitt, Moochers, and Mormonism’s Other Legacy

Mormonism may have fueled Romney's disdain for those who use the safety net, but there's a progressive theology that lurks within the Mormon texts.

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Mormon Utah is arguably the most conservative state in the Union, being the only one in which the third-party candidate for president in the 1992 election, Ross Perot, finished second, beating Bill Clinton. Mormon narratives borrowed from Calvinism favor the job-creating elite (heroes among the Mormon “elect”) and speak words of tough love to the unregenerate poor. Others borrowed from John Nelson Darby and the Dispensationalists place us at the end of the world in a Manichean showdown with evil. These narratives foster a “ severely conservative” politics.

Yet neither exhausts the plethora of Mormon narratives, and the minority of Mormon Democrats finds plenty of sustenance in their religious tradition as well. Take my father, for instance. Despite his words and ballots cast, my Republican dad acted with the noblesse oblige of a Roosevelt. As the police commissioner for Salt Lake City, he donated a pay raise to buy sports equipment for the Central City Community Center, and when the Republicans tried to block the police from forming a union, my dad not only defended their right to it, but also helped them to set it up.

My mom was surprised one morning by a Native American gentleman at the doorstep who handed her an envelope full of cash. It turns out that, years before, my dad, a lawyer, had defended the tribe’s water rights and never sent a bill. Now that it had the money, the tribe wanted to pay.

The Democrats of Utah loved him. A professor of mine once congratulated me in the hallway—for my dad’s great work, he said. The last fifteen years of my dad’s career were spent in the consumer protection division at the Attorney General’s office, mostly fighting Utah Power & Light. So while my dad may have followed Calvinist and End Times political imperatives at the ballot box, he was a “King Benjamin” at heart.

The temporal and spiritual leader of  Zarahemla (a Book of Mormon people), King Benjamin gave a long discourse that Mormons quote much like other Christians do the Sermon on the Mount. It includes plenty of hellfire and damnation, but also this: “I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.” It goes on to warn against denying the petition of anyone for sustenance or aid by claiming, for instance, that the petitioner deserves his fate:  

Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I… will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance… But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent… For behold, are we not all beggars?

If End Times talk is closed and divisive, King Benjamin talk is open and charitable, releasing some of the puffed up air of the “elect.” Kindness; compassion, service; they are so much the currency of religion that it’s sometimes easy to overlook them, but Mormons spend more of their time thinking about how to help the neighbors than they do worrying about communist teachers in the schools. Utah breathes volunteerism just as it does Tea Party platitudes, and the two are not unrelated; for the best of conservatism isn’t about astringent Calvinism, but rather the efficacy of private action.

Even critics of Mormonism attest to this spirit of King Benjamin in their characterization of them as “ unceasingly kind.” Matt Stone, co-creator with Trey Parker of South Park, whose episode on the Joseph Smith story is punctuated with the musical refrain “dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb,”  has stated that “[e]very Mormon we’ve met is a nice person. And even when they know who Trey and I are from our work—work that some Mormons don’t really like—they’re totally nice to us.”

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