Only someone living on the moon could have missed the controversy that erupted after Glenn Beck admonished his listeners of his March 2nd show to “look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can.” Evidently, Beck believes these terms are code for communism and Nazism and that religious leaders who use these terms are subliminally persuading congregants to accept an evil ideology. Commentators and bloggers have raged against Beck’s seemingly heartless attack on the poor, his ignorance of Christian theology (the term “social justice” dates back to nineteenth century Catholic thought, has been codified in Papal encyclicals, and is used widely in Protestant and Catholic churches to the present), and his lack of understanding of how Catholic diocese function (Catholics, like Mormons, do not shop for a congregation but are assigned one based on geographic region).
The chief critic of Beck’s views was the progressive theologian Jim Wallis, who called for Christians to leave Glenn Beck: “what he has said attacks the very heart of our Christian faith, and Christians should no longer watch his show.” Beck later clarified that he is not against helping the poor; rather he is against churches that use their podiums to promote government programs that would redistribute wealth. He seemed to call for a separation of church and state—at least within churches, not necessarily in the state; or at least in liberal churches where social justice might be taught. Pointing to Jeremiah Wright’s church, Beck stated that, “it’s a problem when your preacher stands up and starts telling you who to vote for, how to vote, and what the government should look like.” I would like to think Beck would feel this same way about a preacher who urged congregants to vote for conservative candidates or advocate a conservative government agenda. But somehow I doubt it.
Regardless, Beck has started a debate about religion and social justice which is long overdue in our nation. Unfortunately, the debate has been clumsy, ugly and, at times, downright silly. The issue that has been lost here is, I believe, the proper role of government in alleviating poverty and its effects. Jim Wallis and most other commentators attacking Beck have noted correctly that religion is all about social justice, but they have missed the obvious debate about how social justice should be brought about. I will concede that when academics and theologians speak of “social justice” and “economic justice” they often are seeking more than simply care for the poor and more generous donations to charitable organizations. They are more often advocating structural changes to our society that might end poverty—better access to health care, stronger educational systems, more effective job training programs, pay equity, etc. Nevertheless, I doubt many of these reformers advocate communism or Nazism as the cure. (The slippery slope fallacy seems to be Beck’s forte.)
What I don’t understand is why conservatives like Beck feel threatened by such reforms. I understand the libertarian position that government should do less. Indeed for Mormons like Beck and me, personal agency is eternal and sacred. Mormon theology postulates a radical individual agency that is eternal, central to God’s purpose, and opposed only by evil forces. For Mormons, free agency is not something to mess with. Nevertheless, most Mormons would see no affront to agency in government taking a strong stand against such moral issues as abortion. In fact, a Pew survey revealed that over 70 percent of Mormons in the U.S. say abortion should be illegal in most, if not all, cases. Conservative though they often are, most Mormons are not pure libertarians who long for government to stay out of economic and moral issues. Rather, they believe that abortion is an evil that government cannot tolerate. They would not see laws that outlawed abortion as forcing people to do good or as taking away free agency. They would expect government to reflect the community values of honoring the sanctity of human life.
I agree. In 2005—the most recent statistics we have on the issue—over 1.2 million abortions took place in the United States, with slightly more than one in five pregnancies ending in abortion. Despite a downward trend over the past 30 years, abortion rates are too high, and, I believe, we must do more to fight this tragedy. Those who want to end abortion need to know, however, that there is a direct link between abortion and poverty; women living below the federal poverty level ($9,570 for a single woman with no children) are more than four times more likely to have an abortion than women above who live at 300% of the poverty level (44 vs. 10 abortions per 1,000 women). What conservatives seem to ignore is that there is any connection between abortion and poverty, and that ending poverty might be one of the best ways to fight abortion.
Many conservatives will argue that abortion is a moral issue. Unfortunately, we all too frequently view morality in very narrow terms, focusing most often on sexuality and excluding broader issues of right and wrong. Historically morality has had to do with right conduct, of living a life of honesty, responsibility, and charity. Theorizing a working system of morality has been a chief concern of theologians and philosophers for millennia; however, a basic principle of most of these theories is an acceptance that we should minimize the harm and suffering of others. The conservative argument about abortion has been that it causes the death of over a million lives each year and therefore the government must intervene. This argument may hide a deeper desire to control sexuality; however, it is, nevertheless, a consistent moral argument for banning abortion.
However, if we define morality in the same way as pro-life advocates situate their argument—as the need to preserve human life—poverty must also be seen as a moral issue. Poverty is, like abortion, a tragedy that kills. For example, studies have shown a direct relationship between poverty and higher rates of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, mortality from breast cancer, and childhood disease. Lower income families have twice the mortality rate of those in the mid- to high-income levels, and the income-associated burdens of disease appear to be the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in the United States. Despite declines in morbidity and mortality in the U.S. throughout the twentieth century, the same decline for the poor was only modest (if at all). A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health concludes that over 45,000 people die annually due to lack of health insurance. The study determined that “uninsured, working-age Americans have a 40 percent higher risk of death than their privately insured counterparts, up from a 25 percent excess death rate found in 1993.”  Poverty, even in the United States, kills. In developing nations the deaths from malnutrition and disease are often catastrophic.
Education was intended to be the great equalizer in our nation to prevent generational poverty; however, it has become less and less effective in achieving this end. The gap between poor and middle-class children starts early and increases as they move through the system. Children living in poverty will enter fourth grade two to three grades behind their higher-income peers; only half will graduate from high school; and those that do will perform at only an eighth-grade level. Only one in ten will graduate from college. With these kinds of results, it’s perhaps not surprising that according to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development the U.S. now lags behind OECD nations of Denmark, Australia, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany and Spain in intergenerational socio-economic mobility, the ease with which citizens move up or down the social ladder. The American Dream is becoming the Northern European and Canadian Dream.
I cannot help but see poverty as a moral issue, one that God has called all his children to address. The Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Qur’an, all call their disciples to care for the needy, clothe the naked, and give aid to the sick and weary. Mormon scripture is no different. As Elder Marion G. Romney once wrote, “A Latter-day Saint should abhor poverty and do all in his power to alleviate it. He should remember the Lord’s statement, ‘it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another’ (D&C 49:20), and that in the Lord’s plan ‘every man’ is to be ‘equal according to his family, according to his circumstances and his wants and needs’ (D&C 51:3).3.” How we achieve this goal is a point to be debated, and scripture is less clear in this area. The question is whether the call to action is personal or public, whether the end goal is best achieved through private contributions and private enterprise or through government-led social changes. But the call to honor the sanctity of life is also one that can be either personal or public; a consistent libertarian view would advocate the same hands-off governmental approach to abortion as to poverty. If we are going to call on government to reflect the moral values of our people, as I believe it should, we need first to define “morality.” And if we are going to fight a systemic problem, like abortion and poverty, perhaps a systemic answer is in order. Such an approach is not a call to socialism, communism, or Nazism. It is a call for a government that mirrors the Kingdom of God on earth.
 Wilper, Andrew P, et al. “Health Insurance and Mortality in US Adults.” American Journal of Public Health 99.12 (2009): 2289-95. MEDLINE. Web. 20 Mar. 2010. See also Dowd, Jennifer Beam, Anna Zajacova, and Allison Aiello. “Early Origins of Health Disparities: Burden of Infection, Health, and Socioeconomic Status in U.S. Children.” Social Science & Medicine 68.4 (2009): 699-707. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. Malloy, Michael H., and Karl Eschbach. “Association of Poverty with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in Metropolitan Counties of the United States in the Years 1990 and 2000.” Southern Medical Journal 100.11 (2007): 1107-13. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. Muennig, Peter, et al. “The Income-Associated Burden of Disease in the United States.” Social Science & Medicine 61.9 (2005): 2018-26. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. Steenland, K, S Hu, and J Walker. “All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality by Socioeconomic Status among Employed Persons in 27 US States, 1984-1997.” American Journal of Public Health 94.6 (2004): 1037-42. CINAHL Plus with Full Text. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. Vona-Davis, Linda, and David P. Rose. “The Influence of Socioeconomic Disparities on Breast Cancer Tumor Biology and Prognosis: A Review.” Journal of Women’s Health 18.6 (2009): 883-93. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 Mar. 2010. Warren, John Robert, and Elaine M. Hernandez. “Did Socioeconomic Inequalities in Morbidity and Mortality Change in the United States over the Course of the Twentieth Century?” Journal of Health & Social Behavior 48.4 (2007): 335-51. Academic Search Premier. Web. 13 Mar. 2010.
 Marion G. Romney, “Gospel Forum,” Ensign (Jan. 1971): 16.