Now that the political campaigns are in full swing, American Mormons are having their quadrennial debate on whether or not social programs like Pell Grants, food stamps, and subsidized housing are tools of the devil. According to one common philosophy (which has been kind of dominant on my Facebook feed recently), this kind of income redistribution FORCES us to give to the poor, thus TAKING AWAY OUR AGENCY and denying us the blessings that would come if we CHOSE to give to the poor like God wants us to. You can use persuasion to convince people to be charitable, but don’t use compulsion, BECAUSE THAT’S SATAN’S PLAN!!!!!
This is poppycock and piffle! The argument assumes that the purpose of social programs is to benefit the soul of the giver—to compel us to do righteous things like feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. It is not. The purpose of food-assistance programs is to give people food; it has nothing to do with the condition of your soul.
If you live in a society where the majority of the people don’t want to see others starving to death in the streets—and have worked through the mechanisms of participatory government to create such a society—then you contribute to social programs because that’s how participatory government works. Nobody cares if you give righteously or unrighteously. Nobody cares whether you return to live with God. Nobody wants to compel you to do anything beyond taking part in a society with a functioning government, and the fact that you are obligated to pay taxes in such a society has nothing to do with your moral agency. This is simply not about you.
When it comes to publicly funded education, it is even less about you. Just about every country in the world has decided that some level of universal education should be treated as a public good—something that raises everybody’s quality of life. In the United States, guaranteed universal education currently extends through high school. At least one presidential candidate thinks that it should extend through college, as it does in most of the other developed countries. Maybe this is a good idea, and maybe it isn’t. It is a proposal that we can have legitimate debates and discussions about—none of which need ever involve Satan.
None of this means that our religious views have nothing to do with our political opinions. A democratic political process is simply a mechanism to turn millions of social visions into a single social reality. Religion informs many of these social visions, as it should. As Christians and as Latter-day Saints, we have some specific ideas about what makes a good society. If these views include feeding the hungry and educating the population as a society—and I strongly believe that they should—then we should use our political processes to advocate for that vision. That’s why we have political processes.
And lest anyone think me a mere shill for the liberal nanny state, let me point out that I pay for a whole lot of things through my tax dollars that I don’t like or agree with: an over-sized military that starts wars of economic conquest, an invasive worldwide intelligence network, a police force and court system that spends far too much money prosecuting victimless drug crimes—to name just a few. I don’t like paying for these things. I actively work and vote against them, as is my right. But I understand that I have to pay for them because the majority of the people in my society (or at least their elected representatives) support them.
Living in a democracy means that you don’t get to win every political battle. It means you will always have to pay for things that you don’t think you should have to pay for. It means that you will be always be required to help fund social visions not your own. For some people, this is true of food stamps and public education. For others, it is true of foreign wars and Daylight Savings Time. If you want to blame someone for this plan, blame James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Or maybe the Greeks. It has nothing to do with Satan.