Over at BCC Taryn has an interesting post on the Book of Mormon and socialism. Her basic claim is that the Book of Mormon endorses socialism. At one level, I think that she is absolutely correct, on another level I think that the claim is vacuous. I am skeptical that the reference to socialism has a great deal of traction because it is not entirely clear what we mean when we say “socialism” and the devil, as they say, is in the philosophical details.
The Book of Mormon’s attitude toward poverty is actually conflicted. We have very strong denunciations of indifference to the poor through out the book that largely track the sort of thing that one reads in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament. On the other hand, we have instances, such as Alma’s ministry to the Zoramites, where poverty is presented as an affirmative spiritual good. I think that a fair reading of the Bible is that it denounces the mistreatment of the poor, but basically operates on the assumption that poverty itself is ineradicable. In contrast, as Taryn points out, Restoration scriptures — notably the Enoch stories of the Pearl of Great Price and 4 Nephi — take the elimination of poverty as being a real possibility. This is part of the reason why the Book of Mormon’s conflicted stance toward poverty is so much more interesting than the Bible’s stance. The Biblical discussions of poverty can — I believe — ultimately be read as a condemnation of the mistreatment of the poor. This allows one to simultaneously exalt the virtues of poverty. The Book of Mormon, in contrast, sets forth poverty as a virtue while also advocating its eradication.
The second issue has to do with the nature of the Book of Mormon’s objection to poverty. I recently read a very interesting book by Samuel Fleischacker entitled A Short History of Distributive Justice. While Fleischacker fudges the argument in places, I think that on the whole he makes a very good case for the proposition that our current understanding of distributive justice — namely that people have a right not to be poor — is very recent, finding its beginnings in the French Revolution and not really getting fully philosophically articulated until John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Fleischacker is not, of course, making the claim that concern for the condition of the poor is new, or even that the language of justice in reference to the poor is new. For example, one can believe that the mistreatment of the poor is unjust without thinking that justice requires the elimination of poverty. Likewise, one can make arguments for the amelioration of poverty that have nothing to do with justice.
Fleischacker’s point illustrates the basically muddled way in which Mormons of both the political left and political right discuss the Book of Mormon. Good children of the liberal enlightenment that we are, our political thinking almost inevitably hinges on the distinction between the right and the good, state and society. There are certain things that are required by justice and these are the concerns of the state. There are other things that, while good and even morally obligatory, are not required by justice and hence are not the concern of the state. Arguments over poverty and the redistribution of wealth then get couched in these terms. We have disputes about whether the presence of poverty is unjust or whether the forcible redistribution of wealth is unjust. We are all, however, arguing about the demands of justice, and drafting the Book of Mormon into the service of our arguments.
I suspect, however, that the Book of Mormon is rather more radical than this. Following Fleischacker, I think that one cannot find within the Book of Mormon an argument about distributive justice. There is — to be sure — a very strong polemic against social inequality and a call for the amelioration of poverty. This call, however, is not made in terms of distributive justice. Rather, it is made in terms of sinfulness and righteousness, charity and forgetfulness of God. The great mistake of politically liberal Mormons is to ignore this fact. The great mistake of conservative Mormons is to think that this means that such things are not the concern of the government. Both of them are in the thrall of enlightenment distinctions that the Book of Mormon simply does not share.
What does this mean? It means that if you are going to take the Book of Mormon seriously as a political document you will likely have to abandon enlightenment categories. This means that neat distinctions between state and society, public and private are going to fall away to the consternation of both left and right. Conservatives will no longer be able to take refuge behind absolutist conceptions of property rights. At the same time, liberals will not longer be able to raise notions of privacy and personal choice as arguments in favor of government abstention from “personal” decisions. This is not a matter of saying simply that the Book of Mormon is fiscally liberal and socially conservative. That characterization assumes that the Book of Mormon is properly understood using the terms popular among political pollsters. Rather, the Book of Mormon inhabits a different political universe, and entry into that universe will require repudiating most of the ways that we currently think about politics. Without a willingness to do so (and most Mormons most of the time — myself certainly included — simply lack that willingness), we are just proof-texting for a favored ideology basically unconnected to the scriptures.