Lip Service to Poverty? Also Sprach Obama…
On 12 May 2015, a panel discussion on poverty was held at Georgetown University, at which President Obama strongly criticized churches for engaging in “politically divisive issues” such as protecting the life of the unborn and preserving the traditional definition of marriage, when what they “should” be focusing on is ending poverty. Said the President,
“When it comes to what are you really going to the mat for, what’s the defining issue, when you’re talking in your congregations, what’s the thing that is really going to capture the essence of who we are as Christians, or as Catholics, or what have you, [poverty] is oftentimes viewed as a ‘nice to have’ relative to an issue like abortion.”A “nice to have.” Mr. Obama clearly believes that the Church cannot chew gum and walk at the same time. There are many issues that can and have been addressed from a pulpit in the long history of our country. Perhaps in the church Mr. Obama attended for so many years, all he heard was sermons on the evils of America, and white Americans in particular, but in reality most churches in America address a plethora of issues, poverty and helping the poor among them.
Apparently, Mr. Obama is unacquainted with various ministries church’s engage in having to do with the poor. I can’t speak for all of them, and I certainly am unable to list them all in this short missive here, so I will instead comment on what my church’s commitment to the poor and poverty looks like.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is unequivocal in its stance in protecting the sanctity of the traditional definition of marriage, and in protecting the life of the unborn. We also are very strong when it comes to helping those in need, and are frequently among the first on the scene when disaster strikes, typically well before government aid arrives.
The LDS Church is very well organized, exceptionally so when it comes to dealing with emergencies. LDS Philanthropies is a department under the Office of the Presiding Bishopric, which is responsible for philanthropic donations to the church and its various charities. On its webpage you can find numerous articles on humanitarian work the church has done and is doing around the world. 100% of all donations to LDS Philanthropies go to help those in need. There are no administrative costs deducted. As it states on the website, the monies are used to “help feed the hungry, heal the sick, and clothe the naked.”
So how much “help” are we really talking about here? In 2013, Humanitarian Services, a branch of LDS Philanthropies, provided help to nearly 2 million people in 132 countries. Major initiatives include wheelchairs, clean water, food, vision care, maternal and newborn care, and immunizations.
LDS Charities, since 1985, has provided assistance to millions of people in 185 countries. When disaster strikes, such as the earthquake in Nepal, victims of Cyclone Pam in the Pacific, the Ebola Crisis in Africa, and the earthquake in Haiti, LDS Charities is always in the forefront.
The Church also maintains a welfare program, which is “primarily designed to care for the needy within the stewardship of the Church,” but which can, at the discretion of bishops, assist others not of our faith who are in need. The objective of the welfare program is to “care for the needy while teaching principles that will allow needy persons to become self-reliant and retain their self-respect.” The idea is to help people with their needs while also helping them to get back on their feet and become self-sufficient, not life-long dependents. I have personally worked in support of the Church welfare program – at our local peanut farm, and at the Bishop’s storehouse, where food is distributed to those in need. Many individuals at the local level participate in voluntary service in these areas. The church also calls missionaries to serve in welfare services. Areas of service include managing employment centers, teaching English as a second language, teaching marriage and parenting skills, improving agriculture and medical practices and distributing clothing. The Church welfare program is funded by faithful members who give a special fast offering on Fast Sunday, the first Sunday of each month.
Then there is LDS Family Services, which offers counseling services related to addiction recovery, familial conflict resolution, abuse and other issues. They also help fund complete adoption services for members and provide services to birth parents and families, regardless of faith. There are members of my ward who serve as volunteer missionaries with the addiction recovery service.
Perhaps you have seen groups of people in yellow shirts helping out around town, especially in conjunction with disaster relief. Those are LDS members helping out through the Mormon Helping Hands program. My oldest son and I were part of a Mormon Helping Hands group helping people whose houses were destroyed during Hurricane Rita.
This is just a brief thumbnail sketch. But I am sure you get the idea. And yet, the President would say that our charitable giving as individuals and as a Church is a “nice to have” afterthought, kind of “bolted on” to our “primary” focus of making life miserable for those compassionate individuals championing abortion on demand and redefining marriage. Just so you know, Mr. President, life and marriage are defining issues of our Church and Christianity in general, as is concern for the needy.
In 1995, the Church issued what is known as “The Proclamation on the Family” (properly titled “The Family: A Proclamation to the World”). At the time, few outside the Church took notice. The idea that “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God,” that “…children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother…,” and other verbiage contained within were not controversial back in the day when legislation such as the Defense of Marriage Act were passed by the US Congress and signed into law by none other than William Jefferson Clinton.
Today they are. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find the Proclamation labeled as “hate speech” in the not too distant future. Be that as it may, I present it here as an illustration that the defense of marriage isn’t something that the LDS Church has recently latched onto as a “politically divisive issue” to discomfort Progressives in general, and himself personally. The Church didn’t just start this in 1995 either; that is when the assault on the family was starting to become great enough that the First Presidency of the Church was moved to make an official statement concerning the matter. The family is central to LDS beliefs, the cornerstone of which rests on faith in Jesus Christ.
Please note also, that the Proclamation is “to the world,” not simply “to the Church.”
Protecting the life of the unborn is another “politically divisive issue” that our President feels churches should simply get over. Apparently in his universe, the government has the ultimate authority to say who lives and who dies and churches should simply butt out. I will admit that throughout most of history, and in many nations on earth today, his view has been the defining one. In North Korea, for example, Kim Jong-un pretty much has say over who lives and dies. The same could be said for Bashar al-Assad in his country and for other despotic leaders in other countries around the world.
In the USSR, Stalin held that power for years, followed by other leaders of his ilk until that regime was finally overthrown. The same was true for Hitler in Germany, Mao in China, and Pol Pot in Cambodia. Of course, here in the United States, we are far more gentile than that. We don’t have a single despotic leader who wields supreme power. We do things here by voting. And when the vote is in, and the “science is settled,” it is time for others to shut up and color and let the government handle what it handles best; your temporal affairs while you live within its borders.
Many churches have taken a firm stand on the non-existent rights of the unborn. Our church has not fielded a proclamation on the subject such as it has on the family; however there have been statements made by our general authorities. For the most part, the church leaves the decision on whether or not to have an abortion up to the individual. However, elective abortion for personal or social convenience is not looked upon favorably by the Church, and members who “submit to, perform, encourage, pay for, or arrange for such abortions may lose their membership in the Church.” Here is the church’s official position on the subject, from the church website, lds.org.
This too is not a new position. Back in 1973, the first Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released the following statement, which you will note, is part of the official position I cited on the lds.org website:
“The Church opposes abortion and counsels its members not to submit to or perform an abortion except in the rare cases where, in the opinion of competent medical counsel, the life or good health of the mother is seriously endangered or where the pregnancy was caused by rape and produces serious emotional trauma in the mother. Even then it should be done only after counseling with the local presiding priesthood authority and after receiving divine confirmation through prayer.” Also, from the Church newsroom. As you can see, the Church does have a pretty firm stance on the subject, and has had such a stance pretty much at least ever since it first became a political issue after Roe v Wade in 1973.
At least it seems so to me. Not necessarily to other Christians however, some who see “inconsistency” between what past prophets of the Church have said concerning the subject, and the current stated Church policy. This is due in no small part to the “exceptions” noted in the statement; “rape and Incest”, “life and health of the mother,” and “birth defects.” It should be noted that these are the most common exceptions listed in the many bills that have gone before state legislators in efforts to at least limit abortion on demand; they are not new. The life and health of the mother exception is the one upon which the most calumny is heaped by many pro-life Christian groups, no doubt because it is the most elastic. All one need do is find a sympathetic doctor and voila! Instant abortion on demand, “sanctified” by competent medical authority that the act must be performed to preserve the “health of the mother.”
Of course, that leaves off entirely the part where the individual is supposed to receive “divine confirmation through prayer.” Either they do not believe that the Lord will hear the prayer and give an answer, in which case they must not believe in prayer themselves, or else they see this as carte blanche for the individual to claim they prayed and received the official “okey dokey” when in fact they did not. In that case, would not the individual stand condemned before God? And what if they prayed and did receive the go ahead in that particular instance, for whatever reason that Heavenly Father might have, who are they to say that didn’t occur just because they believe it not to be the case?
Part of the problem here is that the Church has no official position on exactly when human life begins. We don’t know; it is not a piece of information that Heavenly Father has seen fit, as of yet, to pass on to us. Christendom itself is all over the map on the issue. Some believe it begins at conception. Some, when the child physically takes its first breath. We all have our opinions. But the fact remains that as we have not been specifically told, it remains something that we must ask about on an individual basis, keeping in mind that frequently, what the Lord tells us is not what we really want to hear.
But back to President Obama’s statement that churches should stay out of “politically divisive issues” and stick to things like “ending poverty.” It isn’t the churches that have made these issues politically divisive; it is the government. Churches didn’t make respect for life “political.” Churches didn’t make marriage “political.” Government made these issues political.
As for poverty, the U.S. Government has been waging a “war on poverty” since the 1960’s. According to a report put out by the House Budget Committee in 2012, in that year alone the US Government spent $799 billion in 92 programs designed to help lower-income Americans. According to the Heritage Foundation, we have spent over $22 trillion in the past 50 years combatting poverty, to little avail. At the start of the “war”, around 17.3% of Americans were judged as “poor” vs 15% today. In terms of real numbers however, the number of poor has increased. Perhaps the government should take a look at the job it is doing here and stop blaming churches for what it has failed to accomplish.
It isn’t as if churches have been sitting around doing nothing all this time either, despite interference from the government which apparently, despite the president’s message, sees churches attempts at charity as infringing on their “turf.”
Mr. President, the LDS Church has been doing, and continues to do its part. In this effort, it is joined by a plethora of churches across the country and around the world aiding the poor on a daily basis. God is not defined by a single issue. He can walk and chew gum at the same time, as can his churches.
In a country where freedom of religion is a right of all Americans, it is not the place of the government to tell churches what they can and cannot say, comment on, or preach for or against from their pulpits. That “separation of Church and State” that you are so fond of bringing up (and which appears nowhere in the actual text of the Constitution) cuts both ways. You may not like what the churches have to say on these matters, but so what? We don’t particularly like what you have to say either, but we both have a right to say it if we please.
Mr. President, helping the poor is more than just a “nice to have;” but so is defending the definition of marriage and defending the right of the unborn to life. We will continue to do all three and more, to the best of our ability, your criticism notwithstanding.
 “What is the Church’s position on abortion?”, Mormon.org