Last week’s by-now-infamous comment by Mitt Romney—“I’m not concerned about the very poor”—has led the media to ask just how much personal sympathy he has for those less fortunate than himself. But in a sense, that’s the wrong question: Romney has spent a significant amount time and energy as both a politician and a lay leader in his church seeking to better the lot of poor Americans. That probably says more about his personal levels of compassion than an awkward off-the-cuff statement. The pertinent question is not whether Mitt Romney thinks about the poor, it’s how he thinks about their plight.
Of course, it’s one of the more awkward tactics of the media this political cycle to go prospecting for Mormonism in Romney’s every policy suggestion and offhand comment. But to understand his attitude towards the poor, it may be necessary to look at the interesting—though unsystematized—tradition of Mormon economics. Romney is certainly aware of the tradition—in fact, as a local leader of congregations, he helped administer it—and there’s little doubt that it has informed the way he thinks about poverty, wealth, and the dynamics of government assistance.
Mormonism has from the beginning thought of itself as less a church than a community, a place where, as Mormon scripture states: "They had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free,” and “there were no poor among them.” The Book of Mormon states quite flatly that there is no such thing as undeserving poor: It is the obligation of any Christian to offer aid whenever it is requested, no questions asked. And so it’s not surprising that, during the nineteenth century, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young repeatedly tried to implement a form of Christian socialism, asking their followers to deed all their property to the church and redistributing it as need might demand.
These attempts rarely worked: Joseph Smith complained that greed sabotaged what he called “the law of consecration.” Still, the church went on to establish a rather extensive internal welfare system. Members are regularly asked to contribute money to assist the poor of their own congregation, and the Church Welfare Program, run largely by volunteers, produces food and clothing in farms, canneries, and factories for distribution—both to those inside and outside the church.
As much as these social service programs express Mormon scriptural teachings, they also reflect the Church’s historical skepticism towards the government. In the 1830s, the governor of Missouri sent the state militia to drive the Mormons out of the state, and Martin van Buren, then the president, declined to intervene. For nearly the entire decade of the 1880s, federal marshals systematically worked their way through Utah in pursuit of polygamists. This history has left the Mormons with a persistent distrust of the federal government. Church leaders during the Great Depression warned their co-religionists against becoming dependent on the government, believing that it was far better to confront problems of poverty in their community internally. The Mormon Welfare Program was erected at that time as an explicit alternative to government aid programs.
Embedded in all this activity was an implicit critique of state assistance. Indeed, Mormons thought of their own systems not only as an alternative to government programs, but an improvement on them: They believed that they were not merely alleviating poverty, but also encouraging the cultivation of character and moral fiber among the poor—by requiring, for example, people who receive food from church pantries to contribute volunteer hours canning vegetables.
These ideas were further bolstered in the mid-twentieth century with the rise of a particularly Mormon, moralistic form of libertarianism, which intensified the Church’s historically-grounded suspicion of government. Vocal leaders, like the apostle Ezra Taft Benson (who later became president of the church) and the BYU professor Cleon Skousen enunciated the ideology most clearly. They vigorously rejected the application of words like “socialism” or “communalism” to Joseph Smith’s nineteenth-century economic experiments, and warned that government programs robbed human beings of their God-given free agency. Rather, all aid to the poor must be voluntarily given, which made legally mandated systems, like Social Security or other government programs, morally suspect.
The Romneys have never seemed much sympathetic to this libertarian form of Mormon political thought. (Other well-known Mormons, most prominently Glenn Beck, have been vocal advocates.) But a combination of intense communalism, suspicion of government, and a certainty that aid must not merely alleviate poverty but encourage virtue rests deep in the Mormon tradition. We can see a bit of that influence in Romney’s actions as governor of Massachusetts: While working to revamp the state’s welfare system by promoting easier access, he asked recipients to offer a bit of volunteer work. In that way, the state could discourage welfare recipients—not unlike the Mormon poor who volunteer in church canneries—from acquiring an enfeebling “dependence” on the government.
Mormons are great givers of charity—as is Romney—but it’s no accident that much of their generosity falls within the boundaries of their faith. The competence and reach of Mormon welfare has left many Mormons convinced that problems of poverty are best confronted through community institutions like their church. Of course, this does not mean that a President Romney would try to dismantle Social Security; it just means he may worry as much about the poor's virtue as their empty stomachs.
Matthew Bowman teaches the history of American religion at Hampden-Sydney College. He is the author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.