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Brother Romney, Can You Spare a Dime?

[Guest post by Jarad Vary]

Matthew Bowman has a thoughtful analysis on the homepage that sketches the surprising ways that Mormonism may shape the social welfare policies of a potential Romney administration. But if Mitt Romney is, indeed, obliged by his faith to show general concern for poor people, I thought I’d ask a more specific follow-up: Mr. Romney, what about panhandlers?

For some conservatives, it’s an easy question to answer. See the following recommendation, from a newsletter published by (Mormon convert) Glenn Beck on November 24, 2008:

“‘Can you spare some change?’ Have you ever been asked this by some random panhandler? A good response is ‘Sorry, I only carry hundreds.’ It gets ‘em every time.”

But as Bowman discussed yesterday, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints preaches solicitude and compassion towards the poor. As for panhandlers, Mormonism is even more explicit: Mormon scripture mandates generosity towards those who beg for help.

The relevant passage is found in the Book of Mosiah, in which the Mormon leader King Benjamin orders his followers to lend aid to all those who ask: “…ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.”

Benjamin continues: “Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—But I say unto you [...]are we not all beggars?” According to the Mormon author John Gustav-Wrathall “devout Mormons are among the only people I know who as a matter of principle cannot refuse direct requests for money from panhandlers.”

Of course, scripture is one thing, and practice another. The business community in Salt Lake City, home to the headquarters of Mormonism, has been trying to chase out the city’s panhandlers for more than two decades. In 1995, a marketing campaign urged the people of Salt Lake to “Say YES to the Homeless . . . Say NO to Panhandling.” In 2003, business groups distributed brochures warning of panhandlers with drug addictions. And since 2009, businesses have pushed for a formal city ordinance to limit “aggressive panhandling”. But the efforts haven’t succeeded: the panhandlers still gather every day, outside the city’s Temple Square and elsewhere.

So what does Mormon generosity tell us about the potential policies of a President Romney? To be sure, Romney’s platform as a GOP candidate offers the best prediction we have of how he would govern. Candidate Romney pledges to repeal the Affordable Care Act, supports Paul Ryan’s entitlement-busting budget, and has called for tax giveaways to the one percent—hardly a brief to repair the social safety net. In fact, to quote Jon Cohn, “the policies he has proposed would have the very opposite effect.”

Still, it does seem that Romney is someone who can’t easily refuse direct requests for money from people in need. Two weeks ago, at a campaign event in South Carolina, a woman named Ruth Williams told Romney about her financial difficulties—and the candidate gave her all of the cash he had on him, between fifty and sixty dollars.

Now, that’s spare change we can believe in.