I’ve been reading some Grant Hardy lately. His book Understanding the Book of Mormon is excellent, so far. I’ve also noticed some articles he’s written for Meridian Magazine recently. Meridian is a very conservative site, and Hardy seems to lean more to the left, but his work fits in there surprisingly well.
One article in particular piqued my interest. In “The Book of Mormon and Social Justice,” Hardy discussed our primary text’s take on a then-controversial buzz term. His analysis, like most explications of scriptural statements about public obligations from a liberal perspective, takes teachings about charity for individuals and church organizations and applies them to secular governments, which may or may not be warranted. I’ve long wondered if anyone would ever find their holy grail here: a convincing scriptural story where a righteous civic leader institutes something akin to modern welfare.
Hardy did it. Though everything else in his article–which does make the valid point that all disciples need to be more generous and involved with those who have less–sits solidly in that murky private/public charity gray area, he does cite one Book of Mormon verse that undeniably makes his case, Mosiah 21:17:
Now there was a great number of women, more than there was of men; therefore king Limhi commanded that every man should impart to the support of the widows and their children, that they might not perish with hunger; and this they did because of the greatness of their number that had been slain.
I can’t argue this away. Here, a righteous leader in a civil office orders a redistribution of wealth for the relief of a suffering population.
This is not, however, a carte blanche for social engineering, public works, or any possible program that would, ostensibly, “help people.” Notice that this was a new program with a limited, specific goal, not an ongoing way of life which would endure endlessly. Indeed, soon after the program is put in place, this group migrates to a richer, more friendly environment (Mosiah 22), where it’s uncertain if this program was necessary, modified, discontinued, or kept in place, as we don’t know if the widows were able to remarry or be supported by any other relatives, or what.
Also, this welfare was instituted during a time of crisis–they were a religious minority made to suffer in an unfriendly land (perhaps we could draw some pioneer parallels here)–not to pander to the demands of a group, or to enfranchise or give entitlements to anyone, but only to sustain the lives of widows and orphans, who were clearly left without support because of a huge loss in battle (Mosiah 21:7-10).
So what we have here is a presumably temporary program solely meant to provide food for war widows and their children.
I think we could all get behind that.
Isn’t the Church’s welfare program a great model, here? Like what this verse describes, it’s limited in scope, defined in results, and ideally temporary in duration. I think here of President Clinton’s restructuring of welfare with “workfare” reforms, as reviewed in liberal journalist David Shipler’s well-written but flawed The Working Poor. Nobody wants waste, abuse, or infantalization from such programs, and I think that’s some common ground we could build from. I think those focused values underlie not only the Church’s current welfare programs, but the one King Limhi instituted in Mosiah 21:17.
None of this is meant to gainsay Hardy’s main point, though, which, as I said, is undeniably sound. Though we may quibble about its exact application today, there is a scriptural precedent for government redistribution of wealth to the needy. Period. Bravo, Brother Hardy.