The Spiritual Roots of the Democratic Party: Why I Am a Mormon Democrat

by Todd Compton

This screen: Introduction; Rich and Poor
next screen Rich and Poor, continued; Civil Rights
next screen The Environment; Education; Word of Wisdom; Grace
final screen Abortion; The Politics of Personal Destruction; The Two Party System; Prominent Mormon Democrats

[This paper, originally given as a talk at Sunstone Symposium, Summer 2001, is not definitive; I have much to learn on politics, so would be interested in hearing responses from both Democrat and Republican readers. Part of the reason I am placing a preliminary version of this paper on the internet is to allow interested readers to help me refine it (in preparation for eventual publication, hopefully). If Republicans have arguments or information that counter the opinions expressed here, I would be very interested in having such readers contact me with their perspectives.]

I began writing this paper as a result of a number of stimuli. First of all, I should state that I am not an expert in politics, economics or political history. I have become seriously interested, to the extent of reading about politics, only in the last few years. The impeachment drama, the Florida electoral struggle, the resulting Supreme Court decision, and George W. Bush's administration, have all tended to mobilize and liberalize me. Also, after the Florida standoff, I had some talks with my sister-in-law, during which she stated that the church and gospel, as she viewed it, caused her to vote Republican. I thought it would be interesting to try to explain to her why my view of the gospel causes me to vote Democrat.

Finally, one of my sisters told me that a Representative of Utah County in the State Senate, named Bill Wright, who also had been a stake president, had been making statements to the effect that a person could not be a good Mormon and also a member of the Democratic party.[1] I think it is strange that so many Mormons agree with Wright, when to me, at least, the Democratic party holds many positions that are central to the gospel, and many Republican principles, if taken to extremes, are opposed by the gospel. Hence I began to think about and write this essay.

Before we start, some preliminaries.

First, all politicians are imperfect, both Democrat and Republicans. While I heartily support democratic, elected government, there are some aspects of that process (campaigning, for instance) that reward severe bending of the truth, or elaborate efforts to avoid the truth, in politicians. So I am the first to admit that you can find specific instances of Democratic politicians who have been profoundly flawed. However, I believe politicians on both sides of the aisle tell untruths -- ranging from subtle spinning of the truth, distortion of truth, all the way to the big lie. In the dramatic recent administrations, Republicans have repeatedly accused Clinton and Gore of being dishonest, while casting a blind eye on less than truthful statements by their own politicians. As Democrats and Republicans, we need to seek a nonpartisan spirit in recognizing the lack of integrity in political figures and calling them to account for it.

Second, no political party, Democrat or Republican, is perfect; and no political party, Democrat or Republican, is the church. Both parties contain typical elements that are at odds with the church; both parties contain typical elements that are aligned with the church in some ways. So one major mistake Bill Wright made, in my opinion, was in equating a political party completely with the church and gospel, and characterizing the other as completely anti-church, anti-gospel. He may feel that one political party is a better fit with the church on the whole, but he should see that even his own political party has elements that are not directly equivalent to the church.

Therefore, I am not arguing that the Democratic party is always correct; but I will argue that, in my view of the gospel, the national Democratic party, as it exists today, is closer to the core elements of the gospel in many of its base principles than is the national Republican party, as it exists today (which is leaning increasingly to the far right).

Third, the Republican party and the Democratic party have changed over the years, and will continue to change. On certain issues (civil rights is the obvious example), they have seemingly traded places. I will generally refer to the parties as they stand now, but I will also look at some patterns in the parties that have held true over time.

Fourth, even now, neither the Republican party nor the Democratic parties are monolithic, cohesive entities. You have Republicans on the far right, and you have moderate New England Republicans. You have southern Democrats who are more conservative than many Republicans. To a certain extent, both parties are at war within their own ranks, and both parties are always changing. Most people are mixtures of conservative and liberal elements, including myself.

Fifth, individual Mormons view the gospel differently; some of them will emphasize certain issues, while others will focus on other issues; and depending on your view of the gospel and the scriptures, you will respond to characteristic Democratic or Republican issues in different ways.

Finally, there are many Republicans I admire; as I stated, some moderate Republicans share some key philosophies with typical Democrats. I have Republican friends who describe themselves as fiscally conservative, socially liberal. I admire their authentic concern for the less fortunate in our society, and I salute them for their generosity, which I've sometimes seen firsthand.

So following is a brief, horribly oversimplified overview of Democratic and Republican philosophies, which I wrote after talking to a number of Democrats and Republicans. My brother- in-law, a Republican who has been in the Utah state legislature, was especially helpful. Republicans stand for as little government as possible. Therefore, they tend to want to cut taxes. Republicans typically want to protect capitalism, as defined by the owners and management of companies, and they typically want to minimize federal regulations that affect business. Republicans emphasize states' rights, rather than the power of central government. They emphasize self-motivation to solve problems, rather than giving people financial help. Republicans typically support a strong military, and are against gun control (but tend to want to be tough on crime). They support education, but have not made it a signature issue. Republicans generally are not ardent environmentalists, partially because that means more federal regulations applied to states and corporate entities. The Republicans are often allied with the religious right, and therefore Republicans sometimes seek to legislate religious values. This element of the Republican party somewhat conflicts with the libertarian tendencies of the Republicans (as for instance, in the religious right's support for the drug war). In recent years, the South and West (except for California) have moved toward the Republican party. Because of the Republican party's support for management and against labor in business, it has benefitted from massive corporate donations, and not surprisingly is typically against campaign finance reform. (But once again, it is worth noting that a "moderate" Republican, McCain, has crusaded for campaign finance reform, and deserves full credit for that. But to do this, he has bucked the leadership of his own party.)

Democrats, on the other hand, typically feel that one of the federal government's primary responsibilities is to help with social problems, such as poverty, bad education, pollution. Therefore, they often ask for more taxes. Though the Democrats support capitalism, they generally side with labor, rather than with the company management, with the people, not with the financial elite. Education is a signature issue for the Democrats, and they most often ask for more education money than do Republicans. Democrats support the military, but other issues also have great priority. Democrats are typically strong on environmental issues. They are also the party most concerned about civil rights, at the present time, so minorities, blacks, and Latinos typically support the Democratic party. Though the Democratic party certainly has raised large amounts of money from corporate donors, it has characteristically been on the side of campaign finance reform.

These are all complex issues. One could demonize both sides on these trademark issues. For instance, you could demonize the Republicans for siding with the rich and turning their backs on the poor and minorities. On the other hand, you could demonize the Democrats as wanting to set up a socialist, communist state where people are paid for not working. But I think on both sides of this philosophical divide, there are extremist positions that should be rejected. (For instance, while Republicans typically want tax cuts, they typically do not want to abolish taxes completely. And they do not want to do away with the federal government, as do some extremists.)

Before beginning work on this paper, I read an essay in which the author argued that both the Republican and Democratic tendencies are necessary in the American political life. In his view, Republicans provide the motivation for self-improvement, self-motivation; Democrats provide the tendency to help those who are less fortunate. Both are valid poles in a continuum.

For instance, I agree with the Democratic tendency to help the disadvantaged; however, I fully agree with Republicans who object to programs that are wasteful and do not really help the recipients of the program. Sometimes poverty can be a cultural problem; simply pouring money into the problem does not help, and can even make matters worse. Welfare programs that reward people for not working are actually harmful to the recipients.

Another example: while I see the Republican's emphasis on smaller government sometimes to be a ploy for supporting questionable policies (for instance, states' rights have been repeatedly invoked by conservatives on the Supreme Court to oppose civil rights), I fully agree that a centralized bureaucracy can be an inhumane thing -- wasteful, arrogant, unworkably complex, unresponsive to local concerns.

So, I will not argue that either party is completely right or completely wrong, in terms of the gospel. I will argue that either party, when it goes to extremes, can be dangerous. So this talk is in some ways merely an argument against extremism in either party. And when I criticize Republican attitudes below, I am usually criticizing extreme Republicanism. I will often praise moderate Republicans.

However, I do believe the typical, present-day Democratic party, in its typical present character, is closer to the gospel on the most central gospel issues than is the typical, present-day Republican party, in its typical present character. I believe we're living at a time when Republican leadership is moving toward extremes, both in the White House and in party leadership in Congress. Bush, I believed, campaigned in the center; but as soon as he and his advisors came to the White House, their far right colors showed quickly. Bush and his allies opposed legislation promoting workplace safety for workers,[2] struck down summarily many laws protecting the environment, and have favored positions advocated by wealthy special interest lobbyists who contributed to the Republican campaign. They have opposed meaningful campaign finance reform, and a meaningful patients' bill of rights, developing a foreign policy that many have interpreted as isolationist and unilateral (until September 11th). Bush has thus moved aggressively away from the center in a way that has raised questions about his basic integrity, given his centrist, bipartisan rhetoric while campaigning.[3]

However, some moderate Republicans in Congress have resisted Bush's anti-environment, isolationist, pro-corporate positions. I think one of the most interesting questions in politics today is whether the Republican party will continue to move to the far right, or if it will be able to take an authentic centrist position. But in my view, the leadership of the Republican party -- Bush, Cheney, DeLay, Hastert, Lott, Rehnquist -- are all on the far right. McCain is a moral leader, but has been shut out of any actual party standing. If you disagree that the present leadership is quite far to the right, the case of Jim Jeffords shows how moderate Republicans have felt marginalized under the present Republican party leadership.[4]

Rich and Poor
The first theme is compassion for the poor, which I think is a core gospel principle. Hugh B. Brown wrote that when he came to the United States from Canada in 1927, there was "a question in [his] mind" as to "whether I should be a Democrat or a Republican. I spoke to several people about it. President Grant at the time was an ardent Democrat, as was his counselor and cousin, Anthony W. Ivins, and B. H. Roberts. Each of these men told me at different times and separately that if I wanted to belong to a party that represented the common people I should become a Democrat but that if I wanted to be popular and have the adulation of others and be in touch with the wealth of the nation, I should become a Republican." Brown, of course, became a Democrat.[5]

Nevertheless, there are valid aspects to the Republican argument for supporting capital -- the argument that healthy business sector benefits the whole fabric of society, including poor and middle class, providing jobs, helping people help themselves, that healthy business keeps the economy running. One can easily admit that many Democrats are wealthy, and that Democratic politicians also accept donations from corporate sponsors. In addition, rich and poor are relative terms (compared with mountain peasants in the Andes, I am rich). I also agree that money thrown at people in poorly administered programs can develop unhealthy dependence and stifle initiative. There are many wealthy people who have unselfishly used their resources to help others. Some of the finest people I know are wealthy.

I recently read an autobiography by Zadok Knapp Judd, Jr., about early attempts to implement the United Order in Kanab.[6] According to Judd, the less industrious members, instead of going to work, would lounge around their homes, keeping a sharp eye on the bishop's storehouse, and when the bishop received goods, they would be there first to get their share. When the hard workers came home from the fields at night, they would find that the goods were already gone. Though I still believe in the United Order ideal, in many ways it does not work with flawed humans.

Granted all this, the scriptures are full of cautions about the dangers of being rich.[7] Sometimes riches come to the righteous, but wealth is dangerous even to the righteous. We know Jesus's statement: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."[8] There is a folk interpretation popular in Mormon circles that the eye of the needle is merely the name of a gate (which means the camel would have to stoop a little to get through), but there is no reliable evidence for this interpretation. Scholars instead have indicated that this is a proverb for impossibility, like a similar proverb of a elephant going through the eye of a needle.[9] Jesus goes on to say that God can enable a rich man to enter heaven, but it is not an easy thing.

Jesus made this statement after his interview with the wealthy young man, who asked Jesus what must he do to have eternal life, and Jesus questioned him about the ten commandments. The young man said he had kept them from youth. "And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, 'You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.' At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions." Analyzing that interchange by the standard of modern politics, Jesus is not advising doctrinaire Republican programs. Sometimes the rich need to give to the poor, and the poor need to receive. This concern for the poor and warning that the rich are often the unrighteous can be found in other teachings of Jesus: the parable of Lazarus and rich man (Luke 16:19ff.), in which the sore-ridden Lazarus does not receive even cast-off food from the rich, and receives no health care. Also, in the Lucan version of the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:20-26), Jesus does not spiritualize the beatitude on poverty. Instead, he says: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." And in the woes, he says bluntly, "Woe to you that are rich."

Yet in orthodox Republican philosophy, there is almost a tendency to view wealth as a moral good, while poverty is a result of lack of morality. For the Republicans, the rich can say, I earned this wealth through my efforts, my risks, my hard work, my moral worth; I deserve it; no one should take it away from me. Yet the emphasis in the beatitudes of Jesus was just the opposite of that. The doctrinaire Republican philosophy does not recognize that sometimes people gain wealth in ways that are unrelated to moral virtues. Sometimes people inherit wealth. Sometimes people inherit the opportunity for wealth. Sometimes people gain wealth through luck, not through any great moral insight, or even through hard work. Sometimes people even gain wealth through unethical practices, by taking advantage of more ethical people. Often, the playing field is not level -- in fact, there is never a completely level playing field, even in America. Republicans have a tendency to ignore that fact. Theologically, the Bible often emphasizes that wealth is given to us from God, as a trust; we should not think that it is entirely due to our efforts. (Deut. 8:17.)

The scriptures sometimes portray the wealthy as gaining riches by taking advantage of the poor. For instance, in Psalms 10, the wicked "hotly persecute" the poor. This wicked man is "greedy for gain." He lurks like an animal of prey "that he may seize the poor." "The hapless is crushed, sinks down, and falls by his might."[10] Again in the New Testament, James uses language more extreme even than I would use, but I quote him as an example of how dangerous wealth can be, and how we often find the perspective in the scriptures that wealth is not a positive good, but often leads to moral failings. James addresses the rich: "Your riches have rotted and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire . . . Behold the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts." "You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure . . . You have killed the righteous man." (James 5.) This is not a pro-management position -- James's sympathy is entirely with the laborers, unless you employ a bizarrely contorted interpretation. Financial selfishness is not just a private failing; it hurts others, and it corrupts the social fabric. This scripture speaks of the wealthy killing the poor, which may seem melodramatic. But what if an employer withdraws health insurance from an employee? What if an insurance company denies coverage? What if the poor cannot turn to their government for insurance? A person without resources can die in misery.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can think of no milder term to apply to . . . the general prey of the rich on the poor."[11] Nibley, in his classes, used to tell us stories of wealthy industrialists using child labor in mines in England and Scotland in the nineteenth century. I quote from a British Parliamentary Report published in 1842, and cited in Nibley's book, Approaching Zion: "Children [male and female] are taken into these mines to work as early as four years of age . . . often from seven to eight, while from eight to nine is the ordinary age . . . The employment . . . assigned to the youngest Children . . . requires that they should be in the pit as soon as the work of the day commences, and . . . not leave the pit before the work of the day is at an end . . ." The children worked completely in the dark, and often would not see the sun for weeks at a time. The common task was for the children to carry coal up shafts on their backs. I quote again: "The regular hours of work for Children . . . are rarely less than eleven; more often they are twelve . . . and in one district they are generally fourteen and upwards." Safety conditions were, naturally, almost nonexistent, and accidents were frequent, but mine owners and managers refused to install safety features. Wealthy mine owners knew about the children workers, but looked the other way and pocketed their profits. The extreme Republican argues: but these workers were getting paid. The wages were arranged beforehand. Their jobs were better than starving in unemployment. Yes, and the miners died young. Their growth was literally stunted, and their limbs became distorted and crippled.[12] We should note: this was all legal, by the laws of the state. But by the laws of God, these capitalists, who admittedly were helping the economy and providing jobs for those who were desperately poor, should have been in jail for multiple life sentences.

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