Matt Lewis

Bishop Romney and Mormon welfare

The Daily Beast’s McKay Coppins penned a thoughtful column recently on why Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are the only two GOP presidential candidates to acknowledge climate change and evolution. In making his case, Coppins turned to past Mormon church teachings — and even quoted Bringham Young (who, in 1871, declared, “our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular…”)

Climate change and evolution are, of course, just two of the many hot-button issues modern leaders must confront. As such, I can’t help wondering if Mormon politicians are more likely to support other social policies, too.

Take, for example, the practice of Mormon welfare (this isn’t my term, the practice is literally called “welfare” by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). The practice is deeply ingrained in modern LDS theology. According to Presiding Bishop of the LDS Church, H. David Burton, “… on April 6, 1936, that President Heber J. Grant and his counselors, J. Reuben Clark and David O. McKay, announced what would later become known as the welfare program of the Church.”

On the surface, the notion that private communities of faith — not the federal government — ought to fulfill such a mission, is well within the mainstream of conservative thought. “It is neighbor helping neighbor — not a faceless bureaucracy doling out entitlements,” says former Salt Lake County councilman Russell C. Skousen.”

Yet unless a Republican candidate has served as a pastor to a congregation, it would be hard to compare the background of most modern GOP politicians to Mitt Romney’s experience. To understand Mitt Romney (and because he’s the front runner, he warrants more attention that Huntsman), is to understand that for three years, he served as a Mormon bishop (similar to a pastor) while living in Belmont, Mass.

In this volunteer capacity, Romney oversaw all parishioners assigned to his geographical region, and one of his important responsibilities was to meet with congregants who were struggling financially, to determine how (or if) to help. Romney might, for example, decide the church would pay a family’s mortgage for six months — providing they found a job in three.

In short, it was Romney’s job to dispense Mormon welfare.

This was a heady job. As former bishop and stake president (presiding over several local congregations) Darren Richards recalls, “I have experienced the anguish of sitting with families in real distress [but] I have also experienced great joy in helping them sustain life by providing resources for food, shelter, medical care and other necessities.”

Despite Romney’s protestations that he would keep his faith separate from his politics, we are all (to one degree or another) a product of our experiences. As such, it’s probably fair to assume serving as a Mormon bishop for three years might well have impacted Romney’s worldview, with respect to providing aid. This makes Romney unique.

He was, by most a accounts, a good listener. And unlike most politicians, Romney clearly has real-life experience at looking struggling people in the eye, and making the kinds of tough decisions that few elected leaders ever make on such a personal level. It is a tremendous responsibility,” ex-bishop Grant Monson says of the position.

Of course, there is also a potential negative side. Liberals might recall that Bishop Romney visited a female congregant who was preparing for an abortion at a hospital and “forcefully counseled her against the procedure.”

It is entirely possible for religious politicians to be personally generous, yet staunchly frugal when it comes to dispensing taxpayer dollars. Still, some conservatives might conclude that this background of dispensing church welfare encourages a kind of “compassionate conservative” streak that went out of vogue after George W. Bush.

In paraphrasing LDS founder Joseph Smith, H. David Burton writes that bishops “can ‘fly to the relief of the stranger; … pour in oil and wine to the wounded heart of the distressed; … [and] dry up the tears of the orphan and make the widow’s heart to rejoice.'”

Could Romneycare have been an outgrowth of this worldview?