09 10

02 October 2012

Reid, Romney, and My Church

Harry Reid recently made headlines by bashing Mitt Romney, saying that Romney has "sullied" Mormonism with him comments about the 47%. Reid's got a pretty good history of bashing Romney; it's nothing new at all. But this time, he's brought the faith that I share with the two of them into the fray, which kind of boggles my mind. One expects religious barbs from outside, rather than inside, the faith.

But what about the comments? Is there any basis to what Reid says? I don't think so. I'll tell you why. But, before I start, I think that when forming an opinion of something, looking at original sources is critical. Commentary is often useful and thought-provoking (I hope including this post!) but it's best to start with the original stuff whenever possible. To that end:

First, it's useful to look at the video of Romney's comments. You will likely find a transcript  of the whole meeting useful; I did. The 47% comments -and their complete context- are approximately a quarter of the way down the page.

Next, for the other side of the story,  read the whole blog post by one Gergory Prince, that Reid  is agreeing with. I haven't been able to find a complete transcript of Mr. Reid's comments, so a news article summarizing them will have to do. I'll wait. It's a bit of reading and watching to get to this point, but it's best to have both sides of the story when trying to find the truth of any matter, and without the truth of what both sides are saying its impossible to come to a well-informed opinion.

Finally, I'll share my thoughts on the matter with you. Right up front, I'll say that I don't have a problem with Romney's comment.

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what.

Yeah. That's true. Mr. Obama has quite a few supporters, and many of them are simply not going to be persuaded to vote for anybody else. It's not going to happen.

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.

Now, I don't know that the whole 47% are actually dependent, but I do know there are a number of people of my acquaintance who, if they are not dependent themselves, feel that others are and that not only is that OK, but it's their Christian duty to support those folks who are less fortunate.  And, between the two groups, yep, I think they are going to vote for this president, no matter what. (I believe that government is the wrong place to be doing charitable work, which I have blogged about here and here.)

Now here's the part that's got a lot of people up in arms:

And so my job is not to worry about those people—I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

According to Mr. Prince and Mr. Reid, this is absolutely terrible. But if you look at the context Mr. Romney is speaking in, he's talking about potential voters to be persuaded to his cause. If you look at that transcript, he's been talking about persuadable voters for quite some time prior to the "offensive" comment. The audience asks him what they can do to help his campaign, and that's what he's talking about. They address the persuadablilty of women voters, and how to reach out to Hispanic voters. He asks them for money, so that he can fight back against the anticipated character assassination attempts by Mr. Obama's team. (It is, after all, a fundraiser.) They talk about college students, and how they might reach them, and persuade them to vote for Mr. Romney. And that is the context of the comments: which voters are persuadable. Mr. Romney's assessment of the dependent voters is that they're never in a million years going to vote for him, and recognizing that, he's not going to put effort and funds into trying to reach them.

It has nothing whatsoever to do with charitable work in the first place!  What they have done here is called a "Straw Man Fallacy." That is, Mr. Prince and Mr. Reid have set up something that is similar to but not actually what Mr. Romney was talking about, and then, rather than attacking what he actually said (47%  of voters will never vote for me) they attack the "straw man" (Romney hates the poor). It's flawed reasoning, but American schools don't teach reasoning or logic any more, so the public falls for this sort of thing all the time. If Mr. Reid actually believes what he's saying, then we have a Senate Majority Leader who does not understand basic logic. If he is aware that this is flawed logic, and I'd like to give him that credit if for no other reason that I hate to think of a man in such an influential position being so vulnerable to bad arguments, then to make the argument that he's making is disingenuous at best and at worst, dishonest.

But, let's pretend for a minute, for the sake of argument, that it does mean that Mr. Romney is unconcerned about the poor. Then, we can give some critical attention to the comments made in Mr. Prince's post, and to the claims that Mr. Romney is out of step with Mormon theology.

At the outset, Mr. Prince is clear: this is a religious beef, not a political one that he's got with Mr. Romney's comments.

When the news of Mitt Romney's Florida video broke on Monday evening, I was incensed -- but not for its political implications. His arrogant and out-of-hand dismissal of half the population of this country struck me at a visceral level, for it sullied the religion that he and I share...

My guess is, that if he's responding that quickly, he didn't have the full transcript. And the comments, out of context, are easily to interpret in ways that Mr. Romney clearly didn't mean when you look at the larger context. And this clip isn't the only one that the Mother Jones YouTube folks have either removed from context or given sensationalist titles. But there are still things about his analysis of the situation that bother me, even if you assume that Mr. Romney is dismissing half the country out of hand.

That face of Mormonism is the one that calls on some of its members, particularly bishops and stake presidents, to devote as many hours gratis to their church jobs as they do to their professional jobs. It is the one that summons up extraordinary acts of love, compassion and generosity, often in response to the deepest tragedies of life -- and death.

But it is not the one that dismisses out-of-hand half the population of the United States by saying, "My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." As a bishop and stake president, Romney worried about those very people. Indeed, he worried far more about them, and spent far more time and means in assisting them, than the others in his flock who were more fortunate.

This section bothers me because Mr. Prince doesn't seem to be able to distinguish between the duties of a Bishop  - a position that Mr. Romney is not currently serving in - and the duties of the President of the United States. The duties of those two positions are widely disparate, and it seems to me they have really very little overlap. Bishops duties are laid out in scripture, and include: to be "common judges in Israel" - which I understand to mean they assist repentant sinners in their repentance process and they deal with church discipline in the cases of unrepentant sinners. He is to use the Holy Spirit to discern spiritual gifts and prevent counterfeits leading his flock in the wrong direction. He is to "administer in all temporal things" which does, indeed, mean that he spends a great deal of time and effort in administering to needs of the poor.  On the other hand, the President of the United States holds a secular position, and his duties are laid out in Article II Section 2, and include: being the Commander in Chief of the nation's military. He, with the advice of the Senate, makes treaties, appoints people to various national positions including in the judiciary and our ambassadors, he fills vacancies in the Senate, he periodically informs Congress as to the State of the Union, he may propose laws for Congress to consider, he receives ambassadors, oversees the execution of federal law, and commissions officers in our military.

I'm really not seeing any overlap in the duties of the two offices, and it makes perfect sense to me that there should be a sharp contrast between Bishop Romney and Candidate Romney. In fact, I submit that undue attention to the charitable efforts that Christian faith requires from its adherents would actually violate the Mormon faith's tenants. Let me explain:

First, we have scripture dealing with the Constitution:

That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.

 Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.

 And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood.

For those readers not familiar with the LDS concept of "agency," it is basically freedom. We believe that the ability to choose, to determine our own fate, to live, to prosper, to fail, and so on, on the strength of our own choices is God's greatest gift to man, next to life itself. Thus, in the Mormon belief, to attack agency is a crime of similar magnitude to attacking a life.

We also have strong beliefs about the Constitution, and about the importance of the freedoms that it codifies, and the importance of upholding them. There is also quite a bit of commentary by the leaders of the Church on this topic. Here are a few representative quotes:

To every Latter-day Saint, we have a tremendous obligation to be good citizens, to uphold the Constitution of this land, to adhere to its basic concepts, to do all in our power to protect the freedoms and the liberties and the basic rights  which are associated with citizenship. The Lord has said even in our day, through the Prophet Joseph Smith, that we have an obligation. He has not only spoken about the Constitution being inspired, He has said that if we are to be good Latter-day Saints, we also have to take an interest in this country in which we live and we are to see to it that good men are upheld and sustained in public office.
-Ezra Taft Benson, quoted in A Glorious Standard, page 96

We urge members of the Church and all Americans to begin now to reflect more intently on the meaning and importance of the Constitution, and of adherence to its principles. 
-Harold B. Lee, IBID p. 93

Teachings and ideologies subversive to the fundamental principles of this great Republic, which are contrary to the Constitution of the United States... will be condemned, whether advocated by Republicans or Democrats.
-David O. McKay, IBID p. 82

Our wonderful Republic. May we revere our heaven-inspired Constitution and keep it foursquare with the plan of its inspired architects...
-Charles A. Callis, IBID p.90

So, what do those "inspired architects" say about charity in the federal government? They say it is unconstitutional.

"I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents."
"Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government."
-James Madison

Thomas Jefferson commented on the practice of "redistributing" as well:

“To take from one, because it is thought his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.”
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Joseph Milligan, April 6, 1816

While he was not a founder, President Franklin Pierce agreed that charity is outside the role of the federal government as described by the Constitution:

"I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for public charity. [To approve the measure] would be contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution and subversive to the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded."
-- President Franklin Pierce's 1854 veto of a measure to help the mentally ill.

Though there are all sorts of "charitable" programs run by the government in our day, the Constitution has never been altered to allow it. The enumerated powers of Congress (Article I Section 8) do not include the power to take what one man has earned and give it to another who has not earned it. Just because it is done, and has been allowed, does not make it lawful or just. And, given the position of the Church on adhering to the Constitution, is not Mr. Romney required to acknowledge as well that these things belong, until We The People alter our Constitution, to the private sector? It is absolutely critical also to realize that saying, "Charity is the exclusive domain of the private sector," is not at all the same thing as, "Charity is unimportant." Far from it! Charitable acts are, as many have noted, critical to the Christian way of life. The Lord called upon individuals to care for those less fortunate many times during His ministry as recorded in the New Testament, but I cannot think of a single time where He called upon the government of Rome to perform that labor. It is the same in our day. When Mr. Romney was serving as a Bishop, coordinating his congregation's charitable acts in order to match service to needs was a very important part of his duties. But the office of the President of the United States is a whole different ball of wax, and to make charitable efforts part of his public work would be a violation of our Church's teachings. Which is not at all to say that he could not do for the poor on his own time, or that Mrs. Romney, acting as First Lady, would be out of line to continue in the tradition of service that is well established in our nation. Far from it!

Mr. Prince is correct when he says:

The very basis of Mormon community, stretching back to the earliest years of Mormonism nearly two centuries ago, is that the more able have a sacred obligation to assist the less able. That sense of physical community was institutionalized in the Church's Welfare Program, which sprang out of the Great Depression ... not only to give to those in need, but also to help them to help themselves. Any who have visited Welfare Square in Salt Lake City, as did the producers of a recent "Rock Center" documentary on MSNBC, cannot help but be impressed with what we have attempted, for over seven decades, to accomplish through what is now an international network of church facilities and volunteers.

Unfortunately, Mr. Prince and Mr. Reid both seem to have missed the differences between the services rendered by a Bishop and by the President of our nation. To everything there is a season, and not all of the Lord's servants serve in the same way at the same time; that would cause chaos! In my opinion, even if Mr. Romney had been dismissing out of hand the situation of those in need (and he was not), then for the position he is seeking, that would be an appropriate action. Not because their needs are not legitimate, but because federal assistance is not legitimate under our Constitution. And that is perfectly consistent with Mormon theology, so long as his personal efforts to assist the poor remain in place.


Jeannetta said...

Darn good! The only "criticism" I can render is that Agency is the greatest gift next to the Atonement and life. :)

I love the way you think! <3

Jenny said...

Very well said!


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