Sunday, March 14, 2010

Social Justice, the Latter-Day Saints, and Glenn Beck

An article by Laurie Goodstein in The New York Times of Friday, March 12, 2010, informs us of the following:
Last week, the conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck called on Christians to leave their churches if they hear preaching about social or economic justice, saying they were code words for Communism and Nazism. …

Mr. Beck said on his radio show on March 2, “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.” …

“If you have a priest that is pushing social justice, go find another parish.”
Despite the fact that Glenn Beck is a Latter-day Saint, what he has to say on this subject is entirely his own opinion, and does not reflect Latter-day Saint teaching. I am writing this blog post to inform the world at large of two simple facts:
  1. 1. Latter-day Saint (LDS) teaching, doctrine, and scriptures clearly demonstrate an LDS commitment to social justice.
  2. 2. The reason that the term “social justice” is not a prominent part of LDS teaching is due to an accident of history.
What Is Social Justice?

At its heart, the term social justice means that individuals and governments should support the idea that all people should be treated equally before the law; that the rights of all people should be protected regardless of considerations like race, religious affiliation, and so forth; and, that everyone deserves equality of opportunity within society.

Social justice is a general concept that allows for varying interpretations and methods of implementation, some of them quite heinous. In the 1940s, the Roman Catholic priest, Father Charles Coughlin used the term in his radio programs, in which he issued antisemitic commentaries and defended the policies of Adolf Hitler and Mussolini. At the opposite end of the political spectrum, Communist policies of forced property redistribution have been justified on the grounds of social justice. However, neither of these extremes are inherent in the concept of social justice itself. We must not judge concepts on the basis of their worst implementations—a principle which has general application. For example, the destructive teachings of self-proclaimed ‘prophets’ like the late David Koresh must not be used to sully the legitimate concepts of prophecy and revelation; however, many militant atheists do just that, to make a case against revealed religion.

For some readers, the ideal of social justice will seem to be a given. However, the reality is that social justice is the exception in the world, not the rule. In many places, different social classes get preferential treatment under the law, and special opportunities for education and economic advancement. There are such forms of prejudice as classism, racism, sexism, faithism, and other forms of discrimination. Special forms of privilege are afforded to members of certain political parties, or religious or ethnic groups—while members of other parties or groups are discriminated against.

No, social justice is not the global norm at all. It is, however, an important aspect of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ (shown above, preaching the Sermon on the Mount), to which I now turn.
The LDS Gospel is Highly Focused on Social Justice

LDS teaching, doctrine, scripture, and many aspects of LDS practice are highly focused on social justice. Below are a few examples, focusing especially on material from the LDS canonized scriptures or Standard Works, which include—in addition to the Bible—the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.
The Book of Mormon and Social Justice

That quintessential LDS document, the Book of Mormon, has as one of its central themes the matter of social justice. As quoted in Ms. Goodstein’s article, Philip Barlow, a history professor at Utah State University, put it well: “One way to read the Book of Mormon is that it’s a vast tract on social justice.” Some instances of the Book of Mormon’s focus on social justice include the following:

  • The Book of Mormon constantly condemns the tendency of the Nephites to divide into social classes defined by wealth and luxury goods, with ‘higher’ classes withholding wealth from ‘lower’ classes. The prophet Helaman blamed a whole war on this tendency: “And it was because of the pride of their hearts, because of their exceeding riches, yea, it was because of their oppression to the poor, withholding their food from the hungry, withholding their clothing from the naked …” (Helaman 4:12).
  • The Book of Mormon commands people not to withhold their substance from those in need: “… ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. … For behold, are we not all beggars?” (Mosiah 4:16, 19; see Mosiah 4: 16-26 in its entirety).
LDS Economics: Consecration, The United Order, Tithing, Fast Offerings

The LDS ideal standard is expressed in the Law of Consecration, which has been expressed in different ways at different times. In the 19th century, under the United Order, Church members voluntarily consecrated all of their properties to the Church, which then deeded to each member what they needed according to their circumstances. At the present time, the United Order is suspended, but faithful members voluntarily pay 10% of their increase, or a tithe, to the Church, to support its programs, many of which benefit the poor. Members also fast for two meals monthly, and contribute an amount of money at least equal to the purchase of those meals, explicitly for the support of the poor.

Part of the point of all of these programs has been to further spiritual purposes by means of economic principles. An important aspect of this is the elimination of poverty, and power distinctions by economic class. Latter-day Saints believe that the Lord revealed this to the LDS prophet Joseph Smith in 1832: “For if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things” (D&C 78:6). In LDS scripture, an ancient city and people who embodied these principles are described in these terms: “And the Lord called his people ZION, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:18). All of this expresses the heart of a social justice perspective.
LDS Aid to People in Need, in the Church, and in Developing Nations

For many years, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter “LDS Church”) has worked to improve the lot of its own poor, not just by giving a dole, but by helping people be self-sufficient. Back in the days of the Great Depression of the 1930s and 1940s, this effort became institutionalized in the Church Welfare Program. For several years, another aspect of this effort, the Perpetual Education Fund, has served to provide funds for education of Latter-day Saints in the Developing World, to help them to find economic self-sufficiency and career advancement; recently, this program reached the milestone of helping 40,000 people with their education.

However, LDS aid is by no means confined to helping Latter-day Saints alone. For several decades, the LDS Church has made it a priority to help to provide humanitarian outreach services on an ongoing basis to the developing world, through nonproselytizing service missionaries who work to improve literacy, sanitation, health, and nutrition—the vast majority of this aid going to those who are not Latter-day Saints. Much of this is supported by Latter-day Saint Charities, an official effort based at LDS Church headquarters.

These efforts of the LDS Church—efforts that have been conducted, in one way or another, for almost two centuries—are so important that, recently, the official statement of the purpose of the Church was altered so as to emphasize that one central aspect of the purpose of the Church is to “care for the poor and the needy.” This, too, is part of the essence of social justice.
LDS Stance on Basic Human Rights
The leadership of the LDS Church recently made a public statement supporting a proposed Salt Lake City ordinance supporting nondiscrimination in housing and employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. This is also an aspect of social justice.

It was in this public statement that an LDS Church spokesperson made a statement on which I would like to conclude this section:
I represent a church that believes in human dignity, in treating others with respect even when we disagree – in fact, especially when we disagree. (Statement made through Michael Otterson)
If there is a better statement of the essence of social justice, I am not aware of it.

Why Don’t We Hear the Term “Social Justice” Preached from LDS Pulpits?

The question may be raised, why don’t we hear the term “social justice” from the LDS pulpit? As it happens, this is due to an accident of history.

The term “social justice” was apparently coined by the Italian Jesuit scholar Luigi Taparelli sometime in the 1840s. During this decade, the Latter-day Saints were heavily persecuted; indeed, the LDS prophet Joseph Smith himself was assassinated by an anti-Mormon mob in 1844. Subsequently, the Latter-day Saints were driven from their city of Nauvoo, Illinois, out to the valley of the Great Salt Lake. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, the Saints were preoccupied with various threats to their physical and political survival (such as the imposition of Johnson’s Army). (The interested reader may find it helpful to consider this webpage about LDS Church history.)

By the time LDS survival in the Intermountain West was assured, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Latter-day Saints had already developed their own distinctive religious and theological vocabulary. In the same way that other Christian churches do not use the term “exaltation” in the way that the Latter-day Saints do, so the Latter-day Saints use different terms and phrases to reflect the concept of social justice, such as “there shall be no poor among you,” “consecration,” “United Order,” “charity,” “humanitarian aid,” “respect,” and so forth.

The Latter-day Saint Gospel—what the LDS believe is the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ—is strongly focused on social justice. LDS doctrine and scripture focus on the obligations, not only to relieve the plight of the poor, but to eliminate poverty altogether. Various LDS programs focus on the improvement of the lives of the poor around the world.

Like any concept, social justice can be implemented in a variety of ways, some of which would be abhorrent to Latter-day Saints. However, the heart of social justice is highly consistent with the heart of the LDS Gospel.

Goodstein, L. (2010, March 12). Outraged by Glenn Beck’s salvo, Christians fire back. The New York Times [late edition], p. A12.
Copyright 2010 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.

[The image of the painting, “Sermon on the Mount,” by Carl Heinrich Bloch (d. 1890), is in the public domain, and was obtained from Wikipedia.]


  1. OK Is Glenn Beck (fellow Mormon) Crazy ! Glenn Beck said, “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes.”
    On In November 2006, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was presented with an award named in her honor, recognizing “the achievements of those who beautify the world, especially in the fields of religion, "social justice" , and the arts.”
    AND James E. Faust "It is unfortunate that it is taking so long to bring full "economic justice" to women"
    I usually like what Glenn says !? But Brother Beck.... read the church web sight before you say Leave the church if those terms are on the sight because they are on our churches site ! Ron

    1. Look up the Communist Manifesto...that is what the ACLU is here to you pay any attention to their lawsuits; or to the CM or the Communist Chinese, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil and many other Latin American nations or the history of Communism--we have a communist party in the USA...READ

    2. I am of more than half a mind to simply delete Anonymous' comment, given that this focus on the ACLU and the Communist Manifesto is completely off-target. Having decided to leave the comment in place, I have little choice but to go full-scale political here. Anonymous, you have a deeply confused sense of American civil liberties and Communism.

      I have read the Communist Manifesto several times. (And I agree with you on one thing: people should read it.) The CM has nothing whatsoever to do with the activity of the ACLU, whose sole mission is to see to it that the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights is enforced.

      As it happens, it is more often the extreme political Right that would trample on civil rights, rather than the Left, which is why one often sees the ACLU defending positions against the political Right.

      You'll need to make an actual case that the ACLU furthers Communism, not just make the statement. Blogger is free; go gather your evidence, start a blog, put it online, then come back here and tell us where to find it. Just throwing some slogans at us is worthless, and I shall delete further sloganeering, or off-topic comments.


Remember the rules, please: no profanity, and no personal attacks, especially on those who have made Comments.