Ezra Taft Benson, the 13th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church) and Secretary of Agriculture under Eisenhower, was a good and well-intentioned man who had an almost preternatural gift for getting things wrong. He did do a few exceptionally good things, including reviving Latter-day Saint interest in the Book of Mormon (unintentionally bringing grace back to Mormonism) and delivering a memorable and thoughtful talk about pride. However, he was wrong when he claimed that women could not be trusted with positions of responsibility, wrong when he asserted that US institutions were pervaded by communists, wrong when he claimed that the Civil Rights movement was a communist plot, wrong when he claimed that Martin Luther King Jr. was a communist agent, wrong when he argued that racial segregation was divinely appointed, wrong when he assumed that interracial marriage was unacceptable to God, wrong when he claimed it was God's will that people of African descent not receive the same priesthood authority and religious blessings as people from Europe, Asia, and the Americas, and wrong when he promoted New World Order conspiracy theories.
Nevertheless, one statement from Ezra Taft Benson continues to be more damaging than these earlier missteps, both because it is still accepted by many Mormons and because it reflects an ideology that is widespread in American society. In a talk full of many unproblematic, and even helpful, assertions from ETB, the following passage appears:
The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums.
On one level, this might seem simply to be an observation that internal transformation is essential to personal development and salvation, which I find basically problem-free. The difficulty lies in the assumption that people who live in slums have “slums” in them. Of course, everybody has—in their way—some inner slums: what Christians would call a “fallen nature.” We all behave, at times, in a fashion that is unkind, unethical, and unjust. However, why would someone believe that slum-dwellers have any more fallen a nature than those who are not so unfortunate? And why would redemption from their fallen nature inevitably lead people out of poverty? The answer lies in a notion that is not integral to Mormonism but which is essential to “Americanism,” what I like to call “vulgar Calvinism.” Vulgar Calvinism is not John Calvin's Calvinism, but it originates from the Calvinist, Puritan worldview that was so important in the development of early America. In a way, vulgar Calvinism inverts historical Calvinism. While Calvinism, in some later forms, teaches that the election of those God has predestined for heaven is manifest in their industry and wealth, vulgar Calvinism teaches that people “achieve” election by their industry and prosperity. In both systems, the correlation between industry, wealth, and salvation is prominent, but the direction of causation is reversed. One important difference is that, in vulgar Calvinism, one can change one's standing before God by abandoning a life of sloth and taking up a life of work. In both cases, poverty is a sign of alienation from God, but in historical Calvinism a human can do nothing about this since it is simply a reflection of their divinely appointed state. The condemnation of the poor is, in a way, more severe in vulgar Calvinism since it is within the power of the poor to change their state.
There is no basis for this kind of teaching in Mormon scripture, and therefore no basis for it in Christian scripture (a subset of Mormon scripture). It is also contradicts my experience with people who are relatively disadvantaged. I grew up in a household that could best be characterized as land-rich but money-poor. My father often worked three jobs just to keep our household above water. My family was far from perfect, but I as far as I can tell, we had no more slums in our hearts than our better-off acquaintances (granted, these acquaintances were not particularly numerous since the community in which I grew up was solidly lower middle class).
Starting at nineteen, I served a mission for the LDS Church, working primarily in a Hmong community in California (but also gaining some experience with local African America neighborhoods). The Hmong families with whom I worked were devastatingly poor and many of them lived in filthy, dangerous neighborhoods. While I didn't meet any angels among them, I have never yet meant people who were more generous, diligent, honest, or dedicated to their families. As anyone who has been extensively exposed to Hmong culture comes to understand, mobilized Hmong are a force of nature. However, I could see why they were poor, and it was not because they had slums in them. It was because they had been abruptly transplanted from a largely preliterate, quasi-sedentary, agrarian society in the highlands of Laos to a completely foreign country which was as developed as Laos was impoverished. They arrived with nothing and struggled to make of this nothing, something. Certainly, many of them received welfare, but often not the kind of social support that would be necessary for them to transition into the middle class. When Hmong people accepted my faith, they did not leave the slums. Some were able to improve their lives, but this was largely because of environmental changes: they gained an enriched social network that put them in touch with resources that would have otherwise been inaccessible. In other words, they benefited from exactly the kind of changes that Ezra Taft Benson denigrated as “of the world” rather than “of the Lord.”
My first encounter with poverty in the African American community was equally enlightening. In another poor and sketchy neighborhood, I and my fellow missionaries came into contact with many black households struggling to keep body and soul together. Years of listening to right wing talk radio was, for me, an unhelpful preparation for this experience. Instead of meeting “welfare queens” indulging in lives of indolence, I met families balanced precariously on the edge of solvency and households of several single women fighting tooth and nail to support themselves and their children. I encountered the epidemic of incarceration that put black men in jail for offenses that would have been ignored had I committed them. I realized, for the first time, that racism was real—not because California or American are full of racist individuals, but because the whole social system is structured so that members of racial minorities often have a more difficult time obtaining quality education, housing, and employment. Certainly, one can dicker over the degree to which dysfunctional cultural patterns reinforce generational poverty. Any individual can improve and every culture wants mending in some way. However, it was clear to me that the primary problem was not that these individuals we had come to know had any extraordinary slums in their hearts. Their problem was that they lived in a slum society, where a few exalted slumlords reigned over a mass of suppressed tenants.
Now I live in Pittsburgh, a lovely city but also a highly segregated city. For good or ill, this segregation has kept me separated from the experiences of poor and black Pittsburghers. However, contacts who should (by all rights) know tell me that it is a city were black citizens are not treated the same by law enforcement and other officials of local government as white citizens are. By living in Pittsburgh, I also live near West Virginia, where (as is widely known) rural white poverty is endemic. I cannot accept that the difficult lives faced by these poor people is primarily a product of their moral state, or that religious repentance (or even hard work) will rescue these people from the “slums” in which they dwell.
When I see recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and around the country, I cannot help but think the same thing: while commentators are eager to blame poverty on the poor (so they can invalidate their anger) this is not what my experience tells me to do. This is also not what most of the social science research suggests. One of the best predictors, if not the best predictor, of the income of an individual is the income of that individual's parents. While we all love rags-to-riches stories, they are not representative of the population as a whole; they are statistical aberrations. While I will be the last person to deny that religious conversion helps many people find meaning, direction, and moral guidance, it is not adequate to remedy the problem of extreme poverty. Simply throwing money at inequality is also unlikely to help. However, if we, the citizens of America and the world, use our creativity to its fullest and our skills in empirical analysis to the fullest degree, I believe that we can take the people out of the slums. And I believe that Jesus would want us to do it.