Never mind the brouhaha over Medicare, as Romney and Ryan assure the 55-and-older crowd that they’ll never be subjected to vouchers while spinning $700 billion in savings to Medicare under the Affordable Health Care Act as a $700 billion cut to Medicare ordered by Barack Obama himself.
And never mind the outrage over the alleged ugliness of this campaign. Remember California’s anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and anti-marriage equality Proposition 8? It’s one thing when powerful men backed by multi-billion dollar corporate political funds hurl insults at each other; it’s another when everyday citizens vote away the rights of their minority neighbors.
Setting aside this week’s distractions, the ideological centerpiece of campaign 2012 remains government: whether it might not be worth raising revenues to fulfill existing government obligations and leave a functioning infrastructure to our children, or whether the capacity of government should be substantially contracted.
This was also the issue this time last year, during the fake debt ceiling crisis, during which Sarah Posner and I tracked “the emergence of an anti-state state,” a term created by geographer Ruth Gilmore to describe what happens when government officers feel their responsibility is to dismantle government.
Last summer, faith leaders gathered in the capitol to form a Circle of Protection around the nation’s poor and vulnerable, made more vulnerable even by deficit-triggered cuts to social programs.
But aside from this focus on the poor and vulnerable, we have yet to see religious arguments widely mobilized in defense of government itself. The Old Testament especially provides scriptural pretexts for “setting your house in order” (2 Kings 20:1) and for thinking carefully about the distribution of public resources across generations (Malachi 4:6).
But the only religious arguments one hears about the state these days come from conservative groups who depict government as an enemy of religious freedom.
Among American Mormons, opposition to government-funded health and social programs is often linked with an opposition to socialism—deeply held among American Mormons since the 1950s, despite the fact that happy and faithful Mormons elsewhere around the globe live in countries where governments do in fact provide health care for their citizens.
The most oft-cited theological rationale for Mormon anti-state conservatism is the idea that these programs mitigate freedom of choice. Mormon theology holds that the purpose of human existence is the free exercise of human agency—the ability to choose—so that men and women can learn by experience and prepare themselves to share in the glory of God.
Of course, this emphasis on agency never hindered the nineteenth-century Mormon practices of economic communitarianism. But early twentieth-century Church leaders like Heber J. Grant vocally opposed Soviet-style communism, and Grant went so far as to link Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to socialism. As LDS Church president, Grant personally crusaded against FDR—but Utah Mormons voted overwhelmingly for him, four times.
During the 1950s and 1960s, LDS Church leader Ezra Taft Benson, a John Birch Society supporter,* led a rightward shift among rank-and-file Mormons from which the LDS Church has never recovered. In 1961, Benson said over the pulpit at a church General Conference, “No true Latter-day Saint and no true American can be a socialist or a communist or support programs leading in that direction.” (Benson served as the LDS Church president from 1985–1994.) That quote is still in heavy rotation among LDS conservatives, including Romney supporters, and it’s certainly gotten a great deal of play during the debate over health care.
But I wonder where in the scriptures God comes out against the federally-funded building of bridges, or dams, or highways, or state-funded public schools, or even health care. I wonder where God says it’s wrong for people who share the same borders to pool their resources to blunt the human costs of structural economic adjustments. Where is this taught?
Moderate religious voices have a role to play this campaign season in reminding voters across the spectrum that somewhere between the kingdom of God and the principles-neutral free market is a common place where we actually live, and somebody’s got to pay for it.
*Correction: This post originally noted that Ezra Taft Benson was a member of the John Birch Society. In fact, he merely spoke in favor of its work, as the video link indicates.