A Few Stories of Faith

Image

In relating how or why they believe, people sometimes recount stories of God’s direct intervention in their lives. Perhaps they witnessed a miraculous healing. Perhaps they saw a light and heard a voice. I have never experienced any such things, as my testimony of God and Jesus Christ has come through more subtle and gradual experiences. However, I have been a first-hand witness to other people’s sudden conversions a number of times. These are very sacred memories for me, and I would like to share a few of them here.

Joe

In February 2004, I reported to the MTC (Missionary Training Center) in Provo, Utah to prepare for my mission to Taiwan. The MTC campus is similar to that of a small college, with the offices, dormitories, and classrooms that you might expect. While many missionaries stay there for three weeks or less, because I needed to learn Mandarin, I was there for 11 weeks.

In addition to the time we spent in classrooms learning the language and studying Gospel topics, we also frequently went to a call center to talk to people responding to various media campaigns the Church runs. Some of the people calling in were members of the Church, but most were not. Some had some idea of what the Church was all about, while some did not. Some called in to argue, while others just desperately needed someone to talk to.

Joe’s Northeastern accent was apparent immediately. He related to me the story of his experiences with religion from childhood. Raised a Catholic, he had become somewhat disaffected with the faith as a young man. This had sent him looking for truth in a number of different places, from “high-church” Protestant denominations to more obscure and unorthodox groups, including bona fide snake handlers. He explained how, while his relationship with God was important to him, and while his search for truth had been enlightening, he was still in a state of struggle and doubt. Not finding what he had been looking for in Protestantism, he had recently been considering a return to Catholicism. He was even thinking of becoming a priest, but he still had significant doubts.

Unexpectedly, life had taken him away from the Northeast to Nevada. Soon after Joe arrived there, a girl outside Walmart had given him a pass-along card. Intrigued, he had called the number on the card and gotten me. “So, I never heard of Mormons before I came to Nevada,” he said. “What’s this all about?” I gave him a brief rundown of the Restoration of the Gospel through Joseph Smith. As it had been a Book of Mormon pass-along card that had initiated this discussion, I explained what the Book of Mormon was.

“Now,” I asked, “if the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be, don’t you think that would be important?”

“Oh, yeah, definitely,” he replied. “If there’s another book out there like the Bible…yeah, that would be really important to know.”

“Well, it is. And you can know that it is by reading it and asking God.”

I entered his information so the local missionaries could go see him, and I was about to end the call.

“Hey,” he said, “could you pray for me?”

“Of course!” Pause. “What, now?”

“Yeah, right now.”

So I did. We prayed together over the telephone. I do not remember what I said in any detail; I only remember that I could feel him listening intently, and I remember asking God to guide him in his search for truth.

When I said “Amen,” there was a long pause. And then, suddenly, I heard this:

“WOOOOOO-HOOOOOOOO!”

His neighbors probably heard it too.

“What is this FEELING? I feel like I just got out of the shower!”

“That’s the Holy Spirit,” I said.

“I love Jesus! I love Jesus!”

He had searched for years and attended many different churches, but he had never really felt the influence of the Holy Spirit until that day. I do not know what happened to him after that, but I imagine that he is doing well.

Ami

Months later, I was riding around on my bicycle in the Hengchun/Kending area, at the southern tip of Taiwan. Outside of the city, rice paddies were common, and we would ride the roads that cut through them to talk to people in the small groups of houses that dotted the countryside.

As Taiwan’s economy is considerably stronger than those of most East Asian countries, it is quite common to find people who have gone there from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, mainland China, and other places to find work. Many of the Filipinos I met were actually university graduates who had come to Taiwan to work as domestic servants because that still paid better than any opportunities they had back home.

In one of the small hamlets outside of Hengchun, we met a disabled grandmother and the Filipina who took care of her. This young woman’s name was Ami. She spent all of her time with the old woman, paying her constant attention. As we began to talk, she told me of how her mother had basically forced her to come to Taiwan in an attempt to separate her from her husband – and how her husband, not quite heartbroken, had already moved on and found another woman. Unlike most people I met in Taiwan, people from the Philippines generally had a solid grounding in Christian doctrine. Such was the case with Ami: her religious belief was very real to her, such that she glowed at any mention of Jesus Christ and became visibly uncomfortable at any mention of the Devil.

Months before, I had made a flipchart of images important to our message. As most Taiwanese people did not grasp the gravity of our claim that modern-day prophets exist, I rarely showed anyone my picture of Gordon B. Hinckley on first encounter. However, I almost immediately showed Ami my painting of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, followed by President Hinckley and a statement of my belief that this man was a prophet of God like Moses.

Her eyes became wide.

“A prophet like Moses?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “If that’s true, don’t you think it’s important?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Ami, how can we know whether or not this man really is a prophet?”

“Pray to God and ask Him,” she said.

“Are you willing to do that?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

We returned several days later, and Ami greeted us with a smile.

“I prayed like you said, and I know he is a prophet. I want to join your church.”

I did not get to see Ami get baptized because she was not allowed to leave the old woman’s side even for a short time. However, she was heading back to the Philippines soon, and I am confident that she did get baptized there.

Joyce

My last area in Taiwan was called Guiren, a suburb of Tainan. There, I met a cheerful and energetic woman named Joyce. She was in her thirties, and she was living with her parents, which is quite normal in Taiwan. At the time I came into the area, Joyce was the kind of person who missionaries often refer to as an “eternal investigator”. This is someone who remains happy and willing to continue talking to the missionaries, but who, for whatever reason, does not join the Church. Part of the reason for her indecisiveness was her father’s disapproval of the Church, but he had gradually warmed up to the missionaries in recent months. As for her personally, there was definitely something that she liked about the Church, but she described her experiences of actually attending Sunday meetings as dull and boring. She was still willing to pray and read scriptures, though, so we continued talking to her and her family.

And then, Taiwan was hit by a typhoon. Our mission office called us and told us that we should stay at home throughout the typhoon unless we had someone to visit nearby. Since Joyce’s house was just down the street, we called her and set up a time to come over. A little while later, with the storm blowing outside, we were sitting down in the living room with Joyce, her father, her brother, and her brother’s wife. Her brother was particularly talkative, asking many questions about what we believed. Opening the Book of Mormon, we read the story of Alma the Younger’s miraculous conversion – of how he, while going about persecuting the Lord’s people, beheld an angel, who chastised him and his companions.

And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.

Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death. (Alma 36:17-18)

As we read this story and discussed it, Joyce’s family continued to talk with us, but Joyce was uncharacteristically silent.

After we arrived home that night, Joyce called us.

“Do you know why I was acting like a good little child and listening intently the whole time? It’s because God was in the room.”

“Well yes, Joyce,” I said, “I think God was in the room too.”

“No, no,” she said. “I know where he was standing. Can you guess where?”

Pause. “Um…where was He standing?”

“He was standing between the two of you.” I absorbed that for a moment. “I couldn’t exactly see Him, but I knew He was there.”

Joyce was soon baptized. After her baptism, she emphatically told us how much she loved coming to church meetings. She said that she now felt a sense of cleanliness, purity, and joy that she had never felt before. She told us that, every day, merely waking up to look upon the world had become a thing of immense gladness. She is still an active member of the Church.

Jodi

I used to be a member of a Facebook group called “Ask a Mormon”. It was created for the purpose of facilitating communication between members of the Church and those who are curious about our faith. Between posts made by the token “haters” who were only there to stir up trouble and obsess over semantics and obscurities, I saw a post made by someone named Jodi who had some sincere, poignant questions. I did my best to answer her questions, and this led to more in-depth discussions online.

Coming from a Christian background, Jodi had been exposed to a number of Protestant faiths. Her cultural connections had also exposed her to Buddhism, though she never really believed in it. At the time we started talking, she was studying law and attending a Methodist church in her community, in which she was a member of the choir. Jodi had come in contact with our church because her ex-boyfriend and dance partner was a member. (And, to a small degree, because her school’s dance team was regularly trounced by BYU’s.)

A student of law at the time, Jodi had an insightful and exacting mind. While she ardently sought for truth, she resisted any desire to simply accept things as truth out of convenience. After we had talked for a few weeks, she told me of how she had been driving home the day before and had felt this sudden need to get out – to go somewhere. She had looked online for weekend deals for a flight, a hotel, and a rental car, and the only city that was within her budget and to which she had never gone was Salt Lake City.

“So I’m coming to see you,” she said.

We saw some of the sights, and we went to watch Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration in the Legacy Theater on Temple Square. The movie had intrigued her, but the numerous arguments people make against Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling were still swimming around in her mind. We had enjoyed the weekend, but no earth-shattering developments had occurred in her search for truth.

And then, weeks later, she called me again. She had been reading the Book of Mormon and praying about it. One night, while she was praying alone in her room, a light had appeared. It was a brilliant light without a discernible source, and it filled the place. Being someone with a very critical mind, Jodi immediately thought: “Am I hallucinating?” If so, it was the only time she had ever hallucinated. No, she knew this was real.

A few weeks later, I had the privilege to go on a road trip with one of the missionaries who had taught her previously to see her baptized. Not long after that, she and her ex-boyfriend got back together. I then had the privilege to go on a road trip with the same guy to attend their wedding.

……………..

I spent much of my free time as a high school student on the Internet refuting the arguments people make against my church, against the idea of modern revelation and prophecy, and against Joseph Smith in particular. I got pretty good at it, but I am by no means a scripture scholar, and I certainly do not have easy answers for absolutely every concern. But that does not concern me much. I find that people obsess over obscurities of doctrine and history only because they are unwilling to go to the source of truth and settle the matter once-and-for-all. I do not claim to know a lot, but I do know that God exists and that He loves us. Because of this, I know that the heavens are open – and that revelation comes to those who seek it in humility. Even when we have authoritative revelation from ancient and modern sources, the blessings connected to such revelation can only come into our lives so far as we are willing to seek revelation on a personal level, from the God who created us and who has promised never to forsake us.

Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee. (Isaiah 49:15)

We Are All Religious People – Because We Are People

On its website, the Freedom from Religion Foundation makes a bold statement: “The history of Western civilization shows us that most social and moral progress has been brought about by persons free from religion.” Along with the patently false claim that abolitionism was championed by atheists (rather than by the Christians like Lincoln and Wilberforce who actually championed it*), this claim comes as perhaps the most glaring example of a common piece of contradictory religious ideology in current political and social discourse in the United States today: the idea that some people are enslaved by religion, while others are somehow “free” from it. While it must be recognized that some religious belief systems are inherently oppressive, the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s statement is inherently flawed in that it fails to recognize the fact that all humans – all humans – are religious beings.

Upon hearing this claim, the rabid anti-theists immediately exclaim: “I am not religious!” As is usually the case, it is important for us to clearly define what we are talking about. The first definition for “religion” that shows up on Dictionary.com is: “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” The second definition: “a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.” There is not one aspect of these definitions from which anyone belonging to the Freedom from Religion Foundation – or any atheist or secularist – can escape. Each member of this group has his or her personal religion, regardless of whether or not it includes a belief in God or whether or not it can be quickly categorized as an “ism”.

Do atheists not have a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe? All do. It is true that some would say that the cause was accidental, the nature is strictly materialist, and the purpose is strictly relative, but they certainly have views concerning these things, and they have just as much of a tendency of passionately advocating those views as theists do. Do atheists never exhibit devotional and ritual observances? Certainly, they do. Many of them actually worship themselves, such as Anton LaVey’s “Satanists”, Ayn Rand’s Objectivists (“The sacred word: EGO.”), and the blessed (or cursed) few who manage to understand Nietzsche and take him seriously. Others, such as Karl Marx, advocate a more egalitarian and collectivist mode of human-worship. In less overt examples, many people worship various political ideologies, social philosophies, dietary principles, athletic teams, celebrities, recreational drugs, pornography, etc., evincing their devotion through the wearing of symbols, joining of movements, payment of donations to the cause, etc. Do atheists live their lives according to moral codes? Indeed, they tend to proudly remind theists of this fact whenever they get the chance. Even those who are hedonists and radical moral relativists still live by religious codes – it is just that those codes are not very socially acceptable. And of course, once atheists start forming groups to advocate their beliefs – outlining those beliefs in bold, authoritative statements – what they practice becomes not just religion, but the much-dreaded organized religion. (With the deadliest and most destructive organized religion of all time being that atheist religion set forth by the false prophet Karl Marx.)

The indignant atheist cries: “I believe in science!” This exclamation, however, only shows that he or she lacks a basic understanding of the definitions of both religion and science, as science is not something that someone believes in at all. While scientific arguments and evidence can certainly be used in religious discourse, they cannot form its core. This is because science is descriptive, while religion is prescriptive. As soon as one tries to wholly supplant religion with science, one turns science into something other than science, committing a fundamental mistake inverse and equal to that which is perpetrated by Christian Scientists when they attempt to tell us that Biblical Christianity is an exact science. For instance, biology helps us understand living organisms, but it cannot direct life. I once had a friend tell me that the meaning of life can be derived from science: that the pattern of evolution and growth that we see from human history and the fossil record can serve as a guide for our future. However, this is plainly wrong. We cannot look at the fact that biological evolution has occurred in the past and take that as evidence that there is something right, good, or of sublime value in continuing evolution. Any advocacy of continuing human evolution – whether biological, social, or technological – must come not just from an observation that evolution has occurred previously, but from a belief that such evolution is ultimately desirable. Any such belief exists entirely outside of science. Indeed, various scientifically minded environmentalists, luddites, and humanists might actually argue to the opposite effect – with their arguments arising from a reservoir of fervent religious belief that is no more or less scientific in nature than my friend’s.

In current political debate in the United States, the “freedom from religion” crowd would have us believe that one can take a non-religious stance in a fundamentally religious issue. On the question of officially sanctioned homosexual marriage, for instance, these activists vociferously argue that religious conceptions about the sanctity of marriage and the divine institution of marriage are irrelevant specifically because they are religious – even while they call for “equal love” and wave signs with symbols and pronunciations that are nothing if not religious. The concept of equal rights is intrinsically religious, whether it stems from a sense of divine parentage or a more materialist ideal. As is the idea of love.

Confronted with the claim that love is a religious concept, atheists commonly argue that this claim is ridiculous because it would necessitate that animals are religious, as they too experience love. However, this is not the case: it is not the experience of love that is a matter of religion, but rather, it is the conception, explanation, and idealization of love that makes one religious. A dog experiences biochemistry, but that does not make it a scientist. A dog experiences love, but that does not make it a priest. Experiencing love does not make humans religious, but elevating it such that it is meant to become a guide for our personal decisions and public policy does make us religious.

A friend once confided in me regarding her frustration stemming from her involvement with a man who did not believe in God. Their difference in belief had become a barrier in the relationship. She intimated to me that he had insisted that he could not believe in a being who he felt was essentially no more than an abstract concept, and probably a mere figment of people’s imaginations. However, he had also repeatedly insisted that, despite their differences, he truly and completely loved her, and that this love was the most important thing in his life. I voiced to her my wonder at the fact that her boyfriend could so readily accept the reality of love but not the reality of God. It is true that there is usually no communicable evidence that a believer can give to a nonbeliever when it comes to the existence of God, but could not the same be said of love? Where is love in the periodic table? What is its composition? When someone says that she does not believe in love, how should you go about convincing her of its existence and value – and why would it be important to do so? A strictly materialist view of the universe would dictate that love is nothing more than a certain pattern of synapses firing in the brain – with no greater intrinsic value than any other possible pattern of synaptic activity. Any meaning we may place on that pattern is no more or less ridiculous than the meaning a theist sees in the great pattern of order in the universe.

Thus, the protestor objects to Christians bringing their religious beliefs into the political arena – all the while defending himself with volley upon volley of religious arguments. Again, the fact that these ideas about love are not tied to a belief in God or the doctrines of any clearly defined sect does not make them any less religious.

“Perhaps love is a religious concept,” they may say. “We will give you that. But today’s social issues are actually about so much more than that. In the end, what matters the most is rights. The most important function of government is the protection of human rights, and that has nothing to do with religion.” Actually, though, there is hardly anything more religious than the concept of basic human rights. Let us look again at these timeless words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The idea that humans have fundamental rights that must be protected, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, is based upon a number of religious beliefs, such as the following:

  • We were created. Statements about human equality presuppose an intrinsic value in humans: equality means nothing if we are all equally without value. By extension, our equal intrinsic value must arise from a common intrinsic purpose, as value is inextricably connected to purpose, and nothing arising as a result of an accident can have a purpose. It is therefore necessary to believe that we were created in order to believe that we have a purpose and an equal intrinsic value. This does not prove that we were created, but it illustrates the necessity of that belief for anyone who would champion egalitarian ideals.
  • The human soul is a real thing. As humans exhibit stark inequality in all ways measurable by science, any indelible equality that exists among us must come as a measurement of something beyond our immediate physical experience. That is, we must have souls. Some would say that we have imaginary souls, but this is insufficient, as an imaginary soul would be no more meaningful and no more useful than an imaginary deity.
  • Truth can be self-evident. Some things are simply true, and we should – must – feel the truth of them in our bones, regardless of whether or not we are presented with communicable evidence. For the establishment of fact, science requires communicable external evidence: to say that something is “self-evident” is to make an essentially unscientific – though still possibly true – statement. What scientist ever published his findings and, rather than detailing the evidence, stated simply that they were “self-evident”? Religion teaches that there are things that are true because they are true – and that the truth of them simply seeps into the soul. Science determines fact through trial and error, quantifiable data, and empirical reasoning. What great experiment did Thomas Jefferson perform to produce evidence that attests to any of the items mentioned in the Declaration of Independence? No such experiment was performed, and no such evidence exists. Therefore, the origins of the key ideals upon which the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are based are more religious than scientific in nature.

Thanks to the proliferation of egalitarian values throughout the world, largely stemming from the rise of the United States of America against colonialism and monarchical rule, many of us take an assumption of basic human rights and equality among people as a given. However, this was a (literally) revolutionary idea when Jefferson penned these words, and there are many other competing worldviews out there. Nihilists would argue that nothing can have any intrinsic value, and so the equality discussion is moot to begin with. Fascists would argue that some humans are inherently superior to others, and that the further progression of the human race requires the neutralization of any genetic taints, whether they be individuals or entire nations. Monarchists would have us believe that there is something fundamentally wicked about rebelling against one’s ruler. Many people feel that their ethnicity or gender makes them superior. The reason for which such beliefs persist is that they can neither be proven nor disproven by science: they are religious concepts. There is no piece of unequivocal evidence that I or anyone else can hand to such people to “prove” that egalitarian values are “true”. Those of us who believe in egalitarianism can make a number of points through empirical reasoning, but on a fundamental level, we believe because it feels right, and for no other reason.

One might think that the assertion that all humans are religious is also an assertion that all humans are necessarily irrational, believing in things that cannot be proven. However, this is not true. Certainly, people do come to believe in falsehoods after having sought the truth through religious channels, but this is only because they use religious channels incorrectly, just like any scientist who incorrectly employs the scientific method. Religion, correctly applied, is not characterized by the random acceptance of ideas as truth without evidence. Rather, it is characterized by the pursuit of truth by means of experiencing objective evidence that cannot be directly communicated from one person to another in the form of data, such that said truth could be described as self-evident. Imagine an extreme and frightful circumstance in which either a confluence of coincidences or an ill-intentioned conspiracy has resulted in you being suspected of a murder you did not commit. You have no alibi. There is physical evidence that seems to suggest that you did it. A plausible motive has been found. Witnesses attest that they saw you commit the crime. However, you know that you did not commit the crime, and so you know that all of this evidence is somehow being misconstrued. Does the fact that you cannot prove what you know to be true make you a fool? Certainly not. The prosecution may say that you have no evidence, but the truth is that you actually have the most reliable evidence there is – you simply cannot communicate that evidence to others in a reliable manner.

In a similar way, I know that there is a God, that humans have souls, that we have a clear and meaningful purpose in life, and that God speaks to us. The evidence of these realities has been made clearly manifest to me. However, like the poor soul in the previous example, I lack evidence that is directly communicable – that can be simply handed over. Unlike the previous example, though, in this case, everyone is capable of directly experiencing the truth of these matters themselves. They simply have to be willing to go through the necessary process to do it. In this way, true science and true religion are the same, as they both rely upon evidence. It is simply that said evidence comes in different ways and for different purposes.

Naturally, faced with the reality of the unavoidable involvement of religion in politics, one might wonder how this fact can be reconciled with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Does this not mean that religion has no place in government, but in private life alone? Yes and no. What it means is that the government cannot force you to belong or not belong to any particular religious group. It also means that the United States is not a theocracy: there is not supposed to be any single religious organization that commands a preferred position in government. (Legislation does not have to be approved by Joel Osteen.) However, this does not mean that religious values and religious concepts can never be applied to law. Indeed, as previously stated, even though our laws are not tied to a particular religious order, organization, or establishment, they are based upon essentially religious ideals. Also, it does not mean that religious people must act as if they are not religious: one cannot expect a Catholic to take office and suddenly stop acting and thinking like a Catholic. Making any requirement to that effect would amount to a direct violation of the very clauses that are supposedly being respected. Additionally, having any unofficial expectation to that effect would be contradictory for many anti-theists, as one of their principal complaints against theists is that we often do not live according to our stated beliefs. Why criticize people by accusing them of not living according to their stated beliefs if you are also going to tell them that they are not allowed to live according to their stated beliefs?

Your religion is whatever guides your life, whatever you gladly give your time to. Your religion is whatever is most important to you, and that for which you would shed blood and tears. Your religion is whatever keeps you up at night. Your religion is whatever you love or hate. We all have our religious views – all of us. Some of these religions include a belief in God, and some do not. A supposedly “non-religious” humanist may feel that my belief in God is irrational because it does not come as a result of communicable evidence, but I would say that his belief in and valuation of humanity is irrational because it directly contradicts his random and materialist conception of the universe. I once had a coworker tell me that all religions were evil. And yet, he exhibited a level of devotion to alcohol, cigarettes, noncommittal sex, and conspiracy theories that is far beyond the fervor shown by most churchgoers.

When people such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation say that they are opposed to the interference of religion in government, what they are actually doing is attempting to obtain institutional primacy for their own religion over others by dressing it in drag and saying that it is not a religion. As our government – and indeed, any government – is founded upon religious principles dealing with things like humans’ place in the world, humans’ responsibilities for themselves and for each other, and the basic rights that humans have, the idea that religion should or even can be removed from government and politics is preposterous. I believe what I believe. You believe what you believe. Some beliefs are true, and some beliefs are not true. False beliefs can often be proven false, but not always, and even when they can be, people often still believe what they want anyway. Such behavior is not limited to those who believe in Deity. What we have to do is sit down together and work out our conflicts in belief civilly, without appealing to legal loopholes or inconsistent interpretations to gain an unfair institutional advantage. It is hypocritical to tell your opponents that they are not allowed to frame policy based on moral values even as you attempt to do the same. (Anyway, what policy is not based on moral values?) It is immoral to force one’s religion on others under the thin claim that its specific positions on various religious issues make it something other than a religion. There is a place in the human psyche where religion goes. No conscious, functioning person has a vacuum there: it is just a matter of what you allow to inhabit that space. To be human is to be religious. I have never met a human who was not.

(*One might point out the fact that the Bible was used both in opposition and support of the institution of slavery, but then again, so was science: Charles Darwin was a favorite figure for those who sought to uphold the institution of slavery.)

Marxism, Social Christianity, and the United Order

loavesfish

A Fusion of Theistic and Atheistic Religion

The fundamental value of human beings and the feeling of communal mission and purpose – often so strong that it is characterized by martial metaphors – are basic tenets of the Christian faith. These values become most clearly manifest in the general injunctions that Christ and the apostles gave us to be charitable to others and in more structured commandments regarding charitable donations, such as the law of tithing.

For anyone who believes the teachings of Jesus Christ, the inequity that exists between the rich and poor in virtually every country in the world is something that cannot be ignored or excused. To address the situation, a number of Christian leaders, especially in modern times, have come to identify what they see to be a number of Christian principles in the tenets of Marxism, moving to create states of Christian-based economic collectivism. The product is essentially a syncretic faith, selectively mixing Christian doctrines with the precepts of an economic philosophy that has developed into a religion of its own. Some of the leaders of said movements, such as Jim Jones of the People’s Temple, have gone so far as to identify Marx as a prophet or sanctified being, despite his adamant atheism. Specifically in my faith, a number of Latter-day Saints – either knowingly or not – have come to essentially be Marxists in the political sphere, and they have done so under the claim that it is their very faith that demands it. They do so by referencing accounts from both scripture and modern Church history, especially from the time of Joseph Smith. However, it is my view that such political ideologies not only consist of a collection of contradictory concepts, but actually tend to result in the exact opposite of the desired effect.

The Doctrinal Basis

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” This basic tenet of Marxism is indeed something that can be generally connected to Christian doctrine. As we read in the New Testament:

And all that believed were together, and had all things common; (Acts 2:44)

And again:

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.

And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.

Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,

And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

This doctrine is emphasized with the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), who are struck down by God as a result of lying and holding back that which they had covenanted to share.

In the Latter-day Saint tradition, we read of the Nephites and Lamanites coming together after the miraculous visitation of Jesus Christ and forming a society in which ethnic and social distinctions were virtually non-existent:

And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift. (4 Nephi 1:3)

And again:

And they taught, and did minister one to another; and they had all things common among them, every man dealing justly, one with another. (3 Nephi 26:19)

The end outcome of a society that successfully follows such an economic model can be seen in the following verse:

And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them. (Moses 7:18)

Among Latter-day Saints, this heavenly mandate for economic communalism is referred to as the Law of Consecration. The organizational structure that once executed it was called the United Order. While the Law of Consecration is still something that those attending our temples covenant to follow personally, the United Order no longer exists. This is because, despite a period of success with the economic model during Joseph Smith’s time, the United Order was ultimately unsuccessful. It has been replaced with the Biblical Law of Tithing, which we believe to be a lower law. (Instead of giving everything you own to God, you give 10% of your increase.) Even though we yearn for a higher economic communalism, though, it would be a mistake to label the modern Latter-day Saint movement as semi- or proto-Marxist and use that as an excuse to pursue Marxist economic policies.

Differences between Marxism and the United Order

Individual Worth

Whether Marxists admit it or not, Marxism as a movement denies the value of the human being. With all the palaver about proletariat versus bourgeoisie, fighting for the working masses, and humanism, in the end, what Marxism does is ask every person to completely deny his or her own worth for the good of the Party. A million people who are all worth nothing, taken together, somehow embody a thing of ultimate importance. It is this denial of the value of the individual that has enabled so many Marxist overlords to rise to power on a wave of empowering rhetoric while simultaneously throwing their subjects into the meat grinder whenever it becomes convenient to do so. This fact has made Marxism the deadliest religion in the history of the world. The United Order, on the other hand, teaches that the value of the group is derived from its individuals: humans are not just pieces of meat or uppity, delusional primates, but children of God who can at some point become like God.

Personal Property

In the ideal Marxist state, personal property does not exist. The fact that one does not even own one’s own body contributes to the strength of the previous point. The United Order, on the other hand, does not go so far. Upon entering the covenant, members of the United Order give all of their property to the Church, and they are then given back whatever they need to live. Whatever they receive is their personal property: one man cannot enter another man’s house uninvited on the grounds that it is communal property.

Ideological Motivation

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that Soviet Communism was “pure propaganda.” This fact can be understood when we first come to understand the intrinsic weaknesses of various economic models. Under a capitalist model, “from each according to his ability” is relatively easy, but “to each according to his need” is relatively difficult. Under a Marxist model, the reverse is true: although even distribution of wealth occurs quite readily (exempting those who enjoy high government positions), it becomes difficult to motivate people to work according to their ability specifically because of this ensured even distribution. In a capitalist society, people are motivated by direct economic benefit. In a Marxist society, their motivation to work, improve, and innovate must come from somewhere else. In order to get people to contribute effectively, the state must give them some ideological motivation for doing so – and Marxist economies have always failed miserably at this. While Marxism is based on certain egalitarian humanist values, it is difficult to cause people to maintain these values when the philosophy’s stark atheism instills them with a belief that no ultimate justice will hold them accountable for their sins of excess or sloth and that humans are all ultimately nothing but a collection of organic compounds. The United Order, on the other hand, is based on a common sense of eternal purpose, ultimate justice, and shared primordial origin. Capitalist societies tend to work better than Marxist societies because a simple change in economic model does not result in any fundamental change in people: they are still human, and they will still act like humans. There is no hope of building a successful communalist society except by building it on common faith that imbues its members with a real ambition and ability to become better than human.

Liberty

The Bible teaches us that “…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17). There are also numerous instances in which the Bible describes the human struggle as being a struggle to obtain freedom from the bonds of sin. Liberty is a fundamental principle of Christian faith. The Book of Mormon teaches the same principles, but it goes even farther by detailing the struggles of the Nephite Republic against both internal and external forces that would seek to overthrow its liberal government and subject its people to abusive monarchical rule. In the chapters relating the details of many battles fought on this principle, it becomes clear that Latter-day Saints believe that God expects us to kill and die in the name of liberty.

Despite the lip service that various Marxist movements have given to things like free speech, in reality, as a movement that crushes the individual for the good of the group, Marxism cannot brook real freedom. This can be seen most obviously in the fact that the formation of a Marxist state always results in coercive inclusion. On the pretext that anyone who has amassed more wealth than what the average person has is a thief, Marxism calls for the redistribution of wealth with or without the consent of those who hold it. Escape is rarely an option: it is a difficult thing to relocate one’s entire life to another country, and even then, Marxist states tend to erect barriers to keep that from happening – many of those being actual, physical barriers.

In the United Order, people enter the economic framework because they are believers, and they do so willingly. Even if one lives in the vicinity – in the very town – of a United Order community, he or she is not forced to take part in it. Also, even if one decides to withdraw from the United Order after having joined, he or she is returned the value of whatever was brought into the Order originally. In this way, as an undertaking of faith, the United Order can never be compared to Marxism, which uses the power of the state to compel individuals to become members of a religion they may not believe in. Indeed, Marxism has put many people to death for refusing to join its ranks.

The War of the Ages

As a Latter-day Saint, I believe that the war between liberty and tyranny is the very war of the ages – extending even beyond the mortal life in which we are currently engaged. In the beginning, before this world was created, all of us – you, I, your neighbor, your grandparents, Washington, Stalin – were gathered together in a great council and presented with two plans. One of these plans was championed by our Father and by Jehovah, who would later come to be known as Jesus Christ. In this plan, we would be placed in a mortal existence and given the ability to make choices for ourselves, with the hope that, through the process of growth that would come with this, we would be able to return to our Father and at some point become like Him – as is the natural journey of a child. The second plan, offered by one who fancied himself the equivalent of an opposition party leader, similarly consisted of entering a mortal existence, but it came with no freedom and no risk: we would all be kept under our leader’s tight control, to such a point that it would be impossible to sin. This leader was our brother Lucifer. Two-thirds of us chose the first plan and eventually came to Earth to carry it out. The other third rebelled, choosing Lucifer’s plan. A “war” ensued, and Lucifer and those who followed him were cast out.

That war between liberty and tyranny continues today, and the forces of tyranny promote their purposes by twisting labels and definitions to suit their needs.