Some prominent Mormon intellectuals are having a hard time with Mitt Romney's write-down of that 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income tax.
Over at Huffpost, Gregory Prince--a highly successful inventor as well as co-author of an important biography of the great LDS president David O. McKay--writes that because "a sacred obligation to assist the less able" is "the very basis of Mormon community," non-Mormons should not take Mitt Romney as "the face of Mormonism."
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt University theology professor Kathleen Flake--author of important works on Mormon doctrine and history--told WaPo's Lisa Miller that what Romney had to say to his fatcat donors was not Mormonism but Republicanism. In fact, she said, the message from Mormon pulpits is always, "if you judge the poor, you have no place in the kingdom of God.”
Are the critics right? Once upon a time, few Mormons would have had any doubts that accepting government help was not against their religion. When the Great Depression pushed the unemployment rate in Utah to 36 percent, the Utah state government gladly accepted public funds supplied under the New Deal; in 1933, a quarter of the Utah population received some form of public assistance.
Yet although, as historian Jan Shipps points out, government aid to Utahns during the Depression was 10 times greater than funds provided by the new LDS Welfare Program, church leaders began urging the rank-and-file to avoid "the dole" if at all possible. Indeed, in 1936, church president Heber Grant publicly instructed all Latter-day Saints to vote against FDR. (A majority didn't heed him.) Over the years, hostility to government assistance, in word if not always in deed, has only strengthened within the LDS leadership.
So with all respect to my friends Greg and Kathleen, it seems to me that Gov. Romney was expressing, doubtless more boldly than he now wishes, a point of view that is not alien within the Mormon community. In the LDS Church as in most other sizable religious organizations, substantial differences of opinion are to be encountered--over time, over place, and over person. Mitt's does appear to be at least one face of Mormonism.