Considerable commentary has been given regarding the release of Mitt Romney’s secret video in which the Republican candidate informed a room full of wealthy campaign donors that his “job is not to worry about” those receiving government assistance due to their poverty.
If the Republican candidate we all know affectionately as “Mitt” had simply stopped there, it might have been possible to interpret his lack of worry in the sense of merely gaining their vote, rather than a true lack of concern for their welfare. Unfortunately, however, Romney followed his “my job is not to worry about those people” remark with the statement, “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
As has been noted, the 47% that do not pay income tax in the United States, whom Romney declared will never take personal responsibility for their own lives, is made up of 17 percent who are either students, people with disabilities, or illnesses, and the long-term unemployed, 22 percent who are 65 or older living on Social Security, and 61 percent who are in fact working people paying payroll taxes, but not making enough money to contribute an income tax due to Ronald Regan and George Bush implemented programs.
Whether the criticism Romney has received over his originally private remarks is fair or accurate, his expressed lack of “worry” has rightfully received considerable attention. What is sometimes forgotten in this “war of words, and tumult of opinions” is the way in which Romney’s secret declaration directly paralleled the presidential candidate’s infamous public comments spoken months earlier following his victory in the Republican Florida primary: “I’m not concerned about the very poor,” Romney told CNN reporters, “we have a safety net there.”
These widely discussed statements by Mormonism’s most famous son provide an opportunity for Latter-day Saints to reconsider the question to what extent they should in fact feel “worried/concerned” about poverty in their respective countries, together with whether or not Mormons hold a moral responsibility to help implement government sponsored programs designed to equalize wealth.
After all, these type of social programs are certainly an important part of our communal theology and history. Moreover, the Church itself has recently added the line “to care for the poor and needy” to its threefold mission statement. Should Latter-day Saints, therefore, work together with government-sponsored programs in their respective countries to accomplish this mission?
Should Mormons and their political candidates of choice “worry” about the poor?
As a disclaimer, let me first state that I certainly don’t pretend to have all of the answers to the world’s political problems. Speaking personally, I’m officially registered as an independent and I move back and forth in my support of candidates in our two-party political system.
Moreover, when it comes to these types of complex issues, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wisely maintains strict political neutrality. However, I would like to share some of the theological reasons I believe that the issue of poverty and government responsibility should constitute one of the primary political issues Latter-day Saints consider when selecting public officials. In sum, LDS scripture seems to dictate that Mormons should support political candidates who are deeply concerned about the poor and needy.
Politics is no doubt a tricky business. I don’t believe that Romney doesn’t “care” about the poor. I’ve sat on the same church pew as the man, and have sung with him LDS hymns such as, “Because I Have Been Given Much, I Too Must Give.” I believe that Romney is a good, sincere person who truly does “care.” I know he does.
In a world in which an ever increasingly cynical public has immediate access to almost every single word spoken by a political candidate, there’s no question in my mind that Romney’s true altruistic feelings towards the poor were not correctly reflected in these brief politically charged remarks.
In his defense, Romney was simply using political rhetoric intended to inspire his supporters. The problem, however, at least from a Latter-day Saint scriptural perspective, is that the type of rhetoric that the Republican party wants to hear their candidate spout is spiritually destructive.
Compare the following sentiments:
(1) My job is not to worry about the poor not paying income tax. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
(2) 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. 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, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God (Mosiah 4:16-18)
Latter-day Saint readers will immediately recognize that the second quote, i.e., the one that stands in direct opposition to the sentiment expressed in the first, derives from their scriptural Book of Mormon.
Make no mistake about it. According to the Book of Mormon, those who adopt the perspective that the poor should not receive help and instead take personal responsibility for their lives have no “interest in the kingdom of God.” From an LDS scriptural perspective, this “kingdom” concept that appears in Mosiah 4:18 is itself a highly charged political term. The New Testament has much to say regarding the subject.
“Blessed be ye poor,” proclaims the Jesus of Luke’s Gospel account, “for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Jesus’ statement stands as a witness of the New Testament Christ’s messianic promise that through the kingdom of God, the poor would be makarioi, a Greek adjective that the King James translators rendered as “blessed,” but which means more precisely “happy.” The same assurance of “happiness” for the poor appears expressed in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” proclaims Matthew’s Christ, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
Unfortunately, Matthew’s addition of the phrase “in spirit” in relationship to the poor has been the cause of considerable confusion. Traditionally, some Latter-day Saint interpreters have read the expression “poor in spirit” as a moral qualification for celestial glory. This reading, however, fails to consider the first beatitude in the context of Jesus’ views regarding the kingdom of God and the crucial role Christ declares that kingdom fulfills in the eradication of all poverty.
As New Testament scholar N.T. Wright succinctly expressed regarding the beatitudes (including Matthew 5:2), “if we think of Jesus simply sitting there telling people how to behave properly, we will miss what was really going on.”
The kingdom of God that the New Testament Christ established was not an otherworldly location where the righteous will go after death to enjoy celestial bliss. The author of Matthew makes this point clear through his introduction to Jesus’ public ministry: “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).
For the New Testament Christ, the kingdom of heaven that would eradicate poverty and mourning, that would feed the hungry and clothe the naked was not simply a celestial place removed from the world. According to Jesus’ sermon, the righteous meek would in fact inherit the earth, where the will of God will be done, just as it is in heaven.
Through Jesus Christ, the kingdom of Heaven had in fact come to earth, and was then carried forth with great power through his disciples. In this kingdom, Jesus promised that the poor would experience happiness and justice, i.e. “righteousness,” since their poverty would be completely eradicated. Interpreted this way, the kingdom Jesus proclaims shares much in common with the concept of “Zion” defined in LDS scripture: “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).
Read through this lens, the initial New Testament beatitude regarding the kingdom presents a promise of eschatological happiness and reassurance to the literal poor, rather than a description of a spiritual quality. Matthew’s phrase “poor in spirit” simply refers “to the frame of mind characteristic of the literally poor,” writes New Testament scholar, Donald A. Habner:
“Thus, by the added ‘in spirit,’ Matthew or the tradition before him has not ‘spiritualized” the Lukan (and probably original) form of the beatitude. He too means the literally poor, but he focuses on their psychological condition or frame of mind. The poor are almost always poor in spirit; the poor in spirit are almost always the poor.”
In their assessment of the Sermon on the Mount, biblical scholars have long noted the manner in which the Beatitudes professed by Christ reflect the Messianic mission identified with the Lord’s anointed in the book of Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn” (Isaiah 61:1-2)
The Gospel of Luke goes so far as to specifically inform readers that Jesus publicly identified himself and his mission with the fulfillment of this Old Testament passage (Luke 4:16-21). As Messiah, Jesus’ mission was to establish a kingdom that would literally open the prison doors to those bound in debt slavery. His disciples would then carry forth this mission into the world.
In his New Testament writings, Paul seems to indicate that Jesus took this Messianic charge to liberate the captive poor quite seriously. As a wealthy man, Jesus may have literally given away all of his riches to the needy:
“For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor. 8:9)
Providing commentary on this intriguing Pauline passage, New Testament scholar George Wesley Buchanan once observed:
“It was not unusual for a wealthy person in Jesus’ time to give his wealth to a community that called itself ‘the poor’… and to which he would at that time have been accepted as a full member. This was a requirement for admission into the Essene sect (Philo, Apologia pro ludaeis, IX, 4-5) or the Community at Qumran (IQS i 11-12; iii 2; v 2-3, 13, 18-23; ix 8-10… There is no way of knowing how many sects there were at the time of Christ that made requirements similar to those of the Essenes, but Jesus would not have been out of character with Judaism of his time if he had given his wealth to some sect that had either existed previously or to one that he founded, and accepted the voluntary role of poverty.”
So the New Testament Jesus may have been a wealthy man who gave up all of his riches to care for the poor and needy. An interesting idea. Either way, Jesus’ first sermon presented in the Gospel of Matthew makes clear that from his perspective, a person could never serve both God and wealth, i.e. Aramaic “mammon,” and that true Christian disciples will seek to eradicate poverty by making the poor “blessed.”
As a final note on this theological vision, a scriptural passage for Latter-day Saints found in the Book of Mormon seems to have been designed to provide direct exegetical commentary on the specific motifs found in Jesus’ New Testament Sermon:
“Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you. But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.” (Jacob 17-19)
The concept of thinking about others like unto yourself appears in Matthew 7:12; the idea of seeking first the kingdom of God appears in Matthew 6:33; the notion of feeding the hungry appears in Matthew 5:6; and the concept of the merciful liberating the captive appears in Matthew 5:7, and Isaiah 61:1, the text that seems to have directly inspired the Beatitudes. Read this way, Jacob 5:17-19 in the Book of Mormon indicates that Christians have a moral responsibility to fulfill the eschatological expectations regarding poverty proclaimed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
We are to do everything we can to make the poor “blessed.”
It would appear that Latter-day Saints who view these scriptural statements as inspired declarations have a religious obligation to “worry” about the poor and to equalize wealth. This is what their prophet Joseph Smith did in instituting such political/communal organizations as the United Order.
Recognizing that a secular government is not the same thing as the kingdom of God, the question still remains, to what extent (if at all), Latter-day Saints should seek to implement this scripturally mandated assignment into their respective secular societies. Returning to the issue of Mitt Romney and his political rhetoric on this topic, I know that when push comes to shove, Mitt cares about the poor.
From a scriptural perspective, this concern constitutes a political matter all of us, including secular governments, have a moral responsibility to address. So perhaps it’s time to drop the rhetoric.
 N.T. Wright, Matthew For Everyone; pt. 1, 36.
 “This kingdom of heaven does not refer to the place people go when they die. Rather, it refers to God’s presence on earth, a kingdom that he will bring at the end of this age by overthrowing the forces of evil. When God does this, the weak and oppressed will be exalted, and the high and mighty will be abased.” Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction, 110
 Donald A. Habner, Matthew 1-13: Word Biblical Commentary, 91.
 George Wesley Buchanan, “Jesus and the Upper Class,” Novum Testamentum; 7 (1964): 206-207.