Elder Holland’s October 2014 General Conference address titled “Are We Not All Beggars?” was a masterpiece. In it, Elder Holland exhorted Mormons to serve and help others, even if those others seem to “deserve” their plight.[1] His sermon was a Christlike reminder that the poor are the Savior’s “foremost messianic duty.” The Bible and the Book of Mormon are full of commandments, pleadings, and admonitions to help the poor.[2] There is little disagreement about that fact. The LDS Church does a significant amount of humanitarian work across the world and Mormon people are charitable on an individual level in a variety of ways.[3]

While Elder Holland’s talk was not really “liberal”–the ethic of helping poor people is shared by conservatives and liberals alike–it was a welcome message for this liberal. I desperately listen for messages in General Conference that are even remotely liberal to balance out the ever present and less-than-remotely politically conservative messages in these and similar meetings. But regardless of this particular sermon’s political neutrality, Elder Holland’s topic was particularly timely considering a common criticism of liberal or leftist policy: the government shouldn’t be in the business of charity.

This criticism says that charities do charity and that government should get out of the way. I’m not going to disagree with that: in many cases, the government should just let charities do their thing. But I suggest that a Mormon examination of government programs might find that such programs are not actually about charity. In order to make this case, I will outline two types of social ills and their associated solutions.

Individual Harm

Some people do terrible things to other people. They are despots, and you can find them in business, in politics, and occasionally in your neighborhood. They’re also in the scriptures: in the Book of Mormon we read of Alma and the sons of Mosiah who actively went around trying to subvert the equality so carefully established by King Mosiah. These activities weren’t illegal, but they were harmful. The law does an increasingly better job dealing with the illegal stuff (looking at you Madoff and Blagojevich), but as in the days of Alma and the sons of Mosiah there will always be individuals who legally harm other people.[4]

Solution? Charity.

Relying on government to fix individual harm will only go so far. You do what you can, but you just can’t (and shouldn’t!) make everything that is immoral also be illegal, so when people do bad stuff there’s not much you can do but reach out to help the victims. Joseph Smith’s classic strategy of “teach[ing] people correct principles and let[ting] them govern themselves” works very well here.  The best charities are incredibly experienced at this sort of thing–acute short term relief from the results of individual harm. In this case, the charity was undertaken by Alma and the sons of Mosiah themselves who, rather than lobby for a law or government intervention to alleviate the suffering they’d caused, worked to alleviate it themselves.

Systemic Harm (aka Injustice)

Sometimes institutions and organizations have policies or behaviors that harm large groups of people. For example, the Book of Mormon gives us a look at the dangers of systemic inequality:

12 And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches.

This wasn’t a case where a few bad people were oppressing their brothers and sisters. Rather, it was a case where the entire system had reached a point of injustice in which the poor would be oppressed whether or not individual people were to blame. This is key: you couldn’t very well point a finger at any particular rich person or people in this situation (those who had greater chances for learning) and blame them for the problem. Individual people weren’t to blame, nor was any subset or group of people. It was simply an unjust and systemic weakness.

Solution? Justice.

Just like problems stemming from individual harm are best handled with individual solutions, problems stemming from systemic harm are best handled with systemic solutions. It wouldn’t be appropriate to expect individual charity to overcome systemic injustice. And any economic system, every economic system, will have blind spots. Ours included.[5] So, what do we do?

We liberals are often blamed for wanting the government to get in the business of charity. Maybe some do, I don’t know. But this is what I do know: the government is in the business of justice. And this is important business: as Saint Augustine said,

Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.

Charity isn’t Justice

Elizabeth Stoker drive the point home in contemporary terms: “But here’s what conservative Christians miss: Welfare programs aren’t about charity; they’re about justice.” When liberals talk about the importance of government safety nets and strategic wealth or income redistribution, we are simply trying to fix systemic failures with systemic solutions. And I’ll be the first to say we don’t always succeed. But this is our motivation. And trying to treat charity and justice as interchangeable leads to some problems for those we’re trying to serve, as Chris Henrichsen points out:

The change you put into the red kettle outside of WalMart this holiday season was more about the warm fuzzy it gave you or the sense of guilt it delayed than it was about those it will help. It will only help a small few and only for a short period of time.

Charity isn’t, and can’t be, a substitution for justice. Fighting injustice with charity is like fixing an electrical wiring problem by changing a light bulb. It is all but abusive to the ones most affected by the injustice:

Fiscal stability that relies on gifts is not stability. It is a guarantee of insecurity: income based not on work but on whim. Capricious generosity is not a replacement for a living wage, nor is it a basis for a functioning society. Charity is no substitute for justice.

“Taking what you can get” is also the path pursued by corporations and people who prefer cheap acts of charity to long-term investments in justice. It is a path that encourages citizens to depend on arbitrary generosity while decrying stable [programs] that help people through tough times.

William Sloane Coffin adds his words of inspired wisdom to the issue, summing it up as only this Christian giant can:

Had I but one wish for the churches of America I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice. Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice, a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to alleviate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice leads inevitably to political confrontation.

To use another light metaphor: charity enters a dark room and starts handing out flashlights, while justice installs overhead lighting.

Now, how public policy addresses injustice is another matter and another blog post. But it seems to me that charity and justice are separate issues, that charity can’t even begin to address systemic injustice, and that the lefty view of a safety net and redistributive government seems both moral and Mormon.


  1. Elder Holland: “Perhaps some have created their own difficulties, but don’t the rest of us do exactly the same thing? Isn’t that why this compassionate ruler asks, “Are we not all beggars?”
  2. For example: Warner Woodworth on the Mormon ethic of treating workers well , this huge collection of scriptures preaching the value of economic equality and this description of the overlapping sensibilities of Occupy Wall Street and Mormon doctrine and teachings
  3. A quick disclaimer: the word “charity” is used in two very different ways by Mormons. The first is a religious and highly powerful sense of compassion, the pure love of Christ that we are told to seek. See, for example, 1 Cor. 13:13 and Moroni 7:44. In contrast to this type of charity, which we try to have, is the type of charity that we give. Donating to nonprofits, giving to the poor person on the street, establishing a foundation–all these are examples of this second kind of charity. Of course, there are significant connections between the two different kinds of charity, but it is important to acknowledge that the two are different. In this post I’m discussing the second, the donation of time/goods to help the poor.
  4. We can also add to this category things like natural disasters and accidents that harm individuals in a given time/place.
  5. Fast Food CEOs, for example, are paid over 1,000 times more than their workers. That’s not because Fast Food CEOs are evil people, nor is it because they are dishonest or hateful. It’s because our system is designed for this to happen. You’re supposed to seek for personal gain as well as whatever will maximize the corporate bottom line. The Supreme Court has established precedent:if you don’t seek to absolutely maximize your bottom line, you are in trouble.

This post was originally posted at MormonLiberals.org and was updated and republished with permission.

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