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Voting for Charity is Not Charity

I believe some of the conversation at the judgment bar between many Christians (and some Mormons) and their God could go something like this:

God: “Did you care for the poor and the needy while you were on earth?”
Charitable Person: “Yes Father. I didn’t make much money, or give a lot to the poor, but I voted for politicians who created programs to take care of the needy.”

God: “Why didn’t you do it yourself?”
Charitable Person: “I didn’t have a lot of time or money. I knew the rich had a lot more though, so I wanted to make sure they paid their fair share to give to the poor.”

God: “Did you learn from the Bible, or from my son’s gospel that other people’s charitable giving was part of your responsibility to care for the poor?”
Charitable Person: (uncomfortable silence) “No.”

God: “How did you know that the rich weren’t giving their fair share?”
Charitable Person: (uncomfortable silence, then stammering) “Um, I heard from others about very stingy rich people who gave nothing to charity.”

God: “So where did you learn the idea that taking from others to give to the poor was the same as giving of yourself?
Charitable Person: (uncomfortable silence) “…I don’t really know…I guess from people around me, the media, the story of Robin Hood maybe?”

God: “It fills my heart with pain that you didn’t ponder or pray upon this duty I sent you to earth to learn of. More than anything I wanted you to know the joy that comes from giving wholly of yourself.”
Charitable Person: “But the poor and the needy were taken care of and fed by the government…doesn’t that count for anything?”

God: “No my child. I sent you to earth to learn about the love that comes from giving of yourself according to the talents I blessed you with. Caring for the poor and the needy was the outcome of learning that love, not the prime cause or purpose.”
Charitable Person: “But I did learn about love…it was out of love and kindness for the the poor that I voted for those programs.”

God: “But instead of watching less television, or spending more time involved with voluntary charity, you took the less time-consuming path of voting to force charity on others. In heaven, where I live, the end does not justify the means. My purposes are carried out by love, not by force.”
Charitable Person: “But, I thought…uhm… I thought it wasn’t fair that the rich were stingy while others gave.”

God: “Did you really think about it? When was fairness on earth ever promised to you? And even if it had been, what ever made you think that you were charged with making sure things were fair?”
Charitable Person: “Uhmm…”

God: “I am the benevolent and all powerful God you believed in. In all your thinking did you ever consider that if forcing others to give was the correct path to love and fairness that I would have just done it myself instead of leaving it to my imperfect children?”

Charitable Person: “But what about my reward in heaven?”

God: “It will not be what you expected…heaven is not inhabited by those who outsource their charity.”

I wrote this colloquy because I hear often from Mormon liberals that they make their voting decisions based on their belief in kindness and charity. I respond by asking: “Do you think charity is a collective government responsibility or a personal one?”

My point is that Jesus Christ’s many spiritual teachings are inseparably connected with His one great political teaching: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In this one statement the Savior makes plain that there are things best handled by government and others that belong to God.

I cannot recall one single instance in our standard works where forced charity is taught yet it never ceases to amaze me how many believe that somehow charity is associated with government programs. George Washington eloquently stated: “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force.” The father of our country knew what Caesar was like and I believe it behooves us to remember that force and charity are not synonymous

What amazes me even more is the thought that some latter-day saints honestly believe that other people’s charitable giving is any of their responsibility to begin with.

When Christ stood at the temple treasury and discoursed on the contributions that were being made, he spoke about the sacrifice involved. The rich gave much more than the poor, yet he taught about the principle of charitable giving by observing:
“…this poor widow hath cast in more than they all. For all these have of their abundance cast in unto the offerings of God: but she of her penury (poverty) hath cast in all the living that she had.” (Luke 21: 3–4)

Notice also that He didn’t say a word about those who gave nothing at all.

Jesus also never told anyone to go to the rich and make them give of their wealth, yet somehow there are those who think being a liberal makes them charitable disciples of Christ.

I would posit that the belief some hold that it is somehow their responsibility to make sure others give to the poor by voting for those who promise to redistribute wealth are deceiving themselves into a false piety.

Mormons should know better since we have more information about what went on in the pre-existence. We know that forcing others is a Satan-backed technique and we rejected it. (I think it endlessly ironic that Mormon liberals who voted differently in the pre-existence when it was their own freedom on the line now seem to think it’s OK, even spiritually laudable to force others to make charitable contributions.)

If the Savior were to comment on liberals who piously tell us about how they take care of the poor and the needy with their government programs I think he would urge them to stop spending their time worrying about other people’s charity and spend more time on their own.

{ 21 comments… add one }
  • Casey November 2, 2012, 5:05 pm

    If any Mormon liberal genuinely believes that voting for government aid is an adequate substitute for personal charity then they deserve all the scorn you heap upon them. Thankfully, I find that such attitudes are fairly rare and that it’s not helpful to conflate religious and political beliefs to bash strawmen. As I proud liberal Mormon, I hold myself responsible for my own acts of charity and hope others do likewise. However, as far as public policy goes, I believe that ensuring certain baseline standards of living through mildly redistributive means within a broadly capitalist framework is a worthwhile temporal endeavor in its own right because it ultimately benefits everybody in society. And it has nothing to do with how charitable I think anybody else ought to be. Unfortunately, some liberals like to attack conservatives by suggesting they’re uncharitable or heartless, which I imagine is what sparks posts like this. I suspect you don’t like to be accused of being uncharitable any more than a liberal mormon likes to be accused, say, of being against agency, which you veer dangerously close to. So maybe we should start discussing these things in terms of what outcomes we’d like to see and how to best achieve those outcomes, and stop implying that the other side are unrighteous for believing differently.
    Casey recently posted…In Fairness: A Post About ObamaMy Profile

  • Jettboy November 2, 2012, 8:05 pm


    Judas tried to pull something like that with Jesus Christ by asking why all this money wasn’t given to the poor instead of used to buy some things for religious ritual. Judas was most likely going to take it for himself and claim it was given away like liberal government charity enforcers taking from the rich. Jesus told him there would always be the p00r with us and there were other considerations. Modern liberals would be enraged Jesus basically poo-pooed the poor for religious reasons.

  • Left Field November 2, 2012, 9:24 pm

    But what if charity really isn’t about me and whether I do or don’t get credit for being charitable? What if charity really is more about actually feeding the hungry rather than seeing to it that I get my brownie points in heaven? Perhaps voting against charity isn’t really very charitable either. Perhaps it’s okay if we as a community–rich and poor–use the democratic process to to enact such laws as in our own judgments are best calculated to secure the public interest in ensuring that the poor and vulnerable don’t starve. Perhaps the Lord is okay with the poor being exalted in that the rich are made low.

  • Andrew November 3, 2012, 8:00 am

    I agree with the general sentiment of the OP as it represents at least a part of my personal views. I could suggest adding King Benjamin’s warning that only those poor who “give not because [they] have not, but if [they] had [they] would give” are absolved from error. (Mosiah 4:24-25)

    That said, if personal initiative in matters of caring for the poor rules the day (as it seemingly does) then that places an enormous amount of responsibility upon us to use those means as the Lord would want. Without question, my views on this topic are shaped by the abundance of scripture that reproves the unwise stewardship and pride of the rich as opposed to the occasional scripture admonishing the unwise actions of the poor. As long as decrying government required charity is matched with equally vigorous action against inequality (as defined in D&C 49:20, D&C 51:3, and D&C 82:17-19) and materialism (Luke 12:15 and 1 Timothy 6:6-8) and as long as we remind ourselves that the riches of the Earth belong to the Lord and are to be disposed of according to His desires (D&C 104:13-18) then I think the sentiment of this post is good and should be applied. Otherwise, we are holding one virtuous principle so close to our eyes that we block the full picture of what the gospel requires.

  • Alison Moore Smith November 3, 2012, 12:48 pm

    What if charity really is more about actually feeding the hungry rather than seeing to it that I get my brownie points in heaven?

    Then God would just turn the five loaves and two fish into plenty for all of us to eat and get rid of that whole “sweat of the brow” thing.

    And note that government charity seems ill-equipped at bringing about long-term feeding of the poor. The church has a much better system set up for doing so. I’m going to be writing about that fairly soon.

    See also: Government Guilt Assuagement
    Alison Moore Smith recently posted…Finish 2012 StrongMy Profile

  • Michael J. Snider November 3, 2012, 1:44 pm

    I really thought I was going to take more heat for this one and have really appreciated the comments so far. A friend of mine read it and got on my case for the tone – I told him that many time colloquies are written that way to drive the point home as opposed to using subtlety as some stories are more likely to do.
    Casey: Loved your response. especially: “I suspect you don’t like to be accused of being uncharitable any more than a liberal mormon likes to be accused, say, of being against agency, which you veer dangerously close to.” (except I would disagree that I veer close to being against agency. I’m against some people forcing others peoples’ agency, but as far as agency in and of itself, my vote is just as “pro-agency” as it was in the pre-existence when I voted for it the first time.)
    Jettboy: Thank you
    Left Field: You completely missed the point with your “What if charity really is more about actually feeding the hungry rather than seeing to it that I get my brownie points in heaven?”
    I was pretty clear that it was not about brownie points but about what you’re supposed to BECOME (caps because i don’t know how to do bold or italics) I urge you to read Dallin Oaks’ seminal: “The Challenge to Become ” where he talks about the difference between to know and to declare, vs. to do and to become. We’re not talking about brownie points…we’re talking about becoming the kind of being comfortable in the presence of other celestial beings.
    Andrew: It seems as though this point is some sort of pendulum which carries some sort of required balance: “As long as decrying government required charity is matched with equally vigorous action against inequality.” The requirements for both sides are what they are no matter what the other side does. This column was strictly about what charity is and is not and how forcing others’ agency relates to that definition.
    Alison: ThankyouThankyouThankyouThankyou for: “government charity seems ill-equipped at bringing about long-term feeding of the poor. The church has a much better system set up for doing so.” I look forward to your reading your thoughts.
    We’ve spent around $5 trillion or so on the war on poverty and our poverty rate (such as it is) is higher than when we started the war on poverty. Somehow left-leaning-entitlement-welfare proponents never seem to want to talk about their results and how ill-equipped their methods really are.

  • Casey November 3, 2012, 5:43 pm

    Michael, after writing my comment I was inspired to expand my thoughts into a post on my blog:


    It’s as much a broad response to similar arguments I’ve read elsewhere as it is to you, so I hope I don’t misrepresent your position, but basically I think wherever we stand on government welfare it’s best to keep it strictly in the realm of the temporal — in essence, to leave God out of it.

  • DCL November 4, 2012, 7:00 pm

    Agreeing generally with Casey here, but I support government welfare programs on grounds completely unrelated to charity. In fact it is only through reading the many libertarian arguments along the lines presented here that it even occurred to me to think of these programs as primarily charitable.

    The fact is the “free market” system doesn’t exist for very long without strong government support. It quickly becomes wildly unbalanced like it did in the 1890’s and like it almost is today. Transfer payments to the poorest are one way of stabilizing markets by providing an even and predictable level of demand for basic commodities. They also create a buffer zone for the middle class to effectively participate in markets (i.e. by providing relatively healthy, educated, cheap labor, by lowering the crime rate for everyone, increasing public health, etc.) Both of these supports, in turn, are necessary conditions for the rich to be as rich as they are with as much security in their riches as they have in our system. If the bottom was constantly falling out of the markets because we let the poorest people rot in the streets we would quickly be in the libertarian paradise where a few haves live behind high walls while the rest toil in servitude.

    I support some level of government programs for these reasons – not because of any charity.

  • Juliathepoet November 4, 2012, 8:32 pm


    There is one part of your post that bothers me, simply because it isn’t true. You say, “The church has a much better system set up for doing so.” The church has a supplement to the government assistance programs, but in no way is it a replacement for government program.

    I have been in need of church welfare assistance several times. Each time, before the bishop decides which ways the ward would help, he made sure that we had already applied for all forms of government assistance we might be eligible for. When my husband was laid off he wanted to know what unemployment benefits we had, and he had information on how to apply for them if we hasn’t already applied. He wanted to know if we had applied for Medicaid, food stamps, energy assistance, housing assistance, and financial aid. (One of those times I was a full-time college student, and we were expected to take out the maximum amount of student assistance, including the maximum amount of subsidized loans.)

    Each bishop we sat down with, (including the bishop in Utah when I was fired from being a nanny because my son was a patient at Primary Children’s Hospital, and our housing was with the family I was nannying for, so everything got moved out of their house while I was with my son at the hospital) wanted to make a budget with us, and the amounts we were or should be getting from government assistance programs were definitely part of it. Most of the time, the major help we received from the church was a stop gap to help us until we had our applications for unemployment and Medicaud were approved, or when I was in school, until the next time that financial aid was able to be increased to include the maximum amount of loans.

    So, if you mean “teaching” a fishing lesson to be how to apply for government assistance and to help members not be evicted before that aid is received, then yes, the church does teach members how to be efficient in obtaining help from government programs. Most of the help I have had or I have seen provided for friends, is the church providing food and some short term help if you make too much to qualify for food stamps. If you mean that the church has a good system for helping members access all of the government programs in their area, that they might not know about, then I agree that the church does a good job helping its members. If you mean that the church has a program that replaces government programs, or that it keeps church members from using government programs, then you are not dealing with the reality of how poor church members cobble together church and government help.

  • Alison Moore Smith November 5, 2012, 11:07 am

    Juliathepoet, I haven’t ever received church welfare, but had distributed it as a RS president. I disagree with your position and here’s why.

    Yes, the church’s program is a supplemental program. But not in design, but in practical application. The REASON the bishop makes sure you first apply for all government programs BEFORE getting church assistance is because those members who provide the means by which church welfare exists, already forcibly contribute to government welfare programs. This is the reality. Their resources are already significantly reduced by the state for such programs.

    If there WERE no government programs to provide, the church would work on that basis. (Look at models where the government hasn’t socialized such care.) And, frankly, members would have much more to offer.

    The church, unlike the government, is very careful with welfare spending, accountability, etc.

  • Michael J. Snider November 5, 2012, 12:40 pm

    To DCL, re: your ” I support government welfare programs on grounds completely unrelated to charity.”
    I’m not quite sure how this relates since my comments were directed at those who justify their votes on charitable grounds. But since you’ve put it out there, maybe you could post something that tells us what the other grounds are that you believe do justify govt. welfare?
    I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d be interested in some kind of history or list/commentary of all the prosperous nations, (who also possess the financial ability to defend themselves), that engage in large govt. welfare programs.
    I’d also be interested in some well-reasoned analysis of how making welfare really easy to get helps to eventually reduce the numbers of those on welfare rolls, contrasted with how the 1996 welfare reform legislation actually did reduce the numbers of those on welfare by strengthening work requirements.
    – – – – –
    Allison, this is a wonderfully concise sentence that I’m sure I will be citing in the future (but not without crediting you!):
    “The REASON the bishop makes sure you first apply for all government programs BEFORE getting church assistance is because those members who provide the means by which church welfare exists, already forcibly contribute to government welfare programs.”

  • Alison Moore Smith November 6, 2012, 12:01 am
  • DCL November 6, 2012, 9:58 am

    Michael, I’m not sure how you define prosperity, but every country that enjoys a higher standard of living than the US has a more generous social safety net. Of course I would also support reasonable efficiency-related reforms.

    I think that I adequately described my non-charitable grounds for supporting government transfer payments as essential to the stability of the free market system itself in my prior comment.

  • Michael J. Snider November 6, 2012, 10:28 am

    DCL: Yes, there are countries with more generous safety nets, but you didn’t cite any “who also possess the financial ability to defend themselves.” The reason I included that clause is to make it an apples-to-apples comparison. When a nation doesn’t have to maintain a military that will hold off a major invasion, or maintain geopolitical stability in the rest of the world, it’s much easier to use larger budget amounts for welfare…the U.S.A. does not have that option at the moment.

    Re: your free-market stability argument, I don’t see how it holds up under scrutiny. Citing market ups and downs in the 1890’s, (that compared to the Great Depression, or to today, are tiny blips that the market corrected quickly), is not justification for a welfare state that didn’t start until 1964.
    The U.S. went from being a debtor nation when the revolutionary war ended in to a post WWII world economic super-power – a period of about 150 years of free market economics with no welfare state/transfer payments – I don’t see how that jibes with your ““free market” system doesn’t exist for very long without strong government support” reasoning.
    If our economy had any real propensity to “quickly become wildly unbalanced” this nation wouldn’t have lasted 20 years, let alone come to dominate the world economy.

  • Alison Moore Smith November 12, 2012, 10:01 am

    If any Mormon liberal genuinely believes that voting for government aid is an adequate substitute for personal charity then they deserve all the scorn you heap upon them.

    Generally speaking, liberals do believe this. Either that or they just don’t care about personal charity at all.

    Who Really Cares?

    Just look at Obama and Biden, THE supposed proponents of leveling the playing field. Until, what, the past year or two? Obama gave just a few percents of his income to charity. Biden did and still does give a fraction of one percent.

    When the people who claim to want economic justice don’t PERSONALLY live the principle they are espousing, you can bet the farm the principle is an agenda.

    Do you REALLY think that Obama intends for his own family to live on the same playing field with everyone else? If so, what evidence do you have? If not, why not?
    Alison Moore Smith recently posted…A Sad and Tragic Day for Our Nation – A Response to Jo AshlineMy Profile

  • Tracy Keeney November 17, 2012, 2:51 pm

    Michael, something that I’ve noticed as I’ve been studying the scriptures specifically relating to charity, caring for the poor and needy and anything associated with government, is that NO where (unless I’ve somehow missed a passage– but I’ve scoured pretty intensely) does Christ ever chastize the GOVERNMENT for not taking care of the poor. He never calls the Romans to repentence, never chastizes government officials for not taking care of the poor and needy, the widows, etc. He chastizes the PRIESTS, the Pharisees, the scribes, etc. He teaches those listening to his preachings that they should care for the sick, the widow, the orphan, the poor, etc, but NEVER chastizes the government. He never says that they should pay higher taxes to create welfare programs, he simply tells the CHURCH and the INDIVIDUAL to care for those who need help and to give OFFERINGS. Seems pretty clear to me.

  • Michael J. Snider November 17, 2012, 5:33 pm

    LOVED your observation regarding to whom the Savior’s counsel on charitable giving.
    I plan on using it as I regularly cite Jesus’ statement: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” but also recognize that He never cited which functions belong where.
    Your deductive reasoning on the things which He does and does NOT direct toward government/religious authorities is, as you say, pretty clear as to which one has the responsibility for charitable giving.
    Thank you so much!
    every good thing…

  • Juliathepoet November 30, 2012, 6:25 am

    I still honestly don’t see much more than back patting here. First it is said that the church does a much better job taking care of people, I point out that the church does not encourage members to rely on church programs and won’t even help if bets aren’t actively seeking help, and the answer is, “If we didn’t have to pay taxes we could take care of everyone?” Seriously? That is enough to take away the social safety net for millions of Americans?

    So, we cut social programs completely, we ask everyone to pay more in fast offering. What happens next for members that need help? What happens to nonmembers who need help? How many people are you willing to have be homeless in your communities? How many families are you going to invite into your home for a year or two while they deal with a major health problem of the primary wage earner? Will you leave your children in public schools where over half of their classmates don’t have health care, and so diseases spread rapidly? Will you attend wards where 10-15% of the people have no regular place to sleep, shower or regular meals?

    At what point do you want to share the burden of caring for those among us who have needs and no way to fill them? If you got rid of section 8, Medicaid, TANIF, food stamps, CHIP, community health clinics, homeless shelters that rely on government funding, drug and alcohol treatment programs and public transportation, how would YOU take care of the needs of all the members and nonmembers in your ward boundaries? (Or would you simply create wards that required a minimum ability to have a permanent address so that as soon as someone was destitute you could send their records back to Salt Lake because they no longer “live” in your ward boundaries?)

    This may be a little sarcastic, but it is also very serious. I don’t expect paying my taxes and tithing to be the end of the charitable contributions or work that I do. In fact I see them as the most minimum amount of what Heavenly Father requires. He wants everything I have, all that I can give, to those who can not take care of themselves. Somehow, I think that Christ would not tell you to stop taking care of people, no matter what form that care comes from. I realize it feels good to justify your desire to pay less in taxes, but to take your original conversation with Christ:
    “When you had the chance to make sure that every one of my children had food to eat, clothing to cover their nakedness, a shelter over their heads, and the medical treatments to help them live longer and happier lives, why did you vote away the chance to join with all of your brothers and sisters to share the burden and provide for all?”

  • Michael J. Snider November 30, 2012, 8:58 am

    Juliathepoet – so many unjustified conclusions… No one is saying here that tithing should be the end of one’s charity. All anyone is saying that forcing charity is not a celestial virtue.
    Your question at the end is worthy of MSNBC’s spin room and is completely specious. God would never ask “why did you vote away the chance to join with all of your brothers and sisters” because only a 100% vote makes it a valid assumption, and only Satan labored under the impression that 100% votes in his favor were possible. God knew Jesus’ plan of voluntary compliance with God’s will would get 66%, not 100% .

    Viewing reality in terms of your own vision of how people should behave is a dream-world house-of-cards that will only be destroyed by reality. Truth is “knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come” it is not “things as Juliathepoet wishes them to be.”

    The end does not justify the means. If that were true, then the judgement bar would be an endless string of: “well, you’re not worthy of the celestial kingdom, but hey, it would be a tragedy for you to end up in the telestial, so come on in.”

  • MB December 3, 2012, 8:03 am

    Though it is good, paying your tithes and a generous fast offering and being a compassionate, hard working visiting teacher or home teacher are not enough.

    Though it is good, getting involved in your ward or branch’s diligent compassionate service work is not enough.

    Though it is good, devoting years of your life to welfare service missionary work or community service work is not enough.

    And certainly, everyone, dismissing the works of others who chose to express their compassion in ways different than yours will only set you back.

    Every time I read through the New Testament I stumble over the story of Jesus and the rich young ruler.

    We all fall short.

    Voting for funding for every social service organization in the country is not enough.

  • MB December 3, 2012, 8:05 am


    That last line should have been somewhere in the middle.

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