law, LDS, religion, social welfare

“Get baptized, get help…” The despicable practice of forcing people to submit to religious indoctrination to get welfare assistance…

I was going to write about this topic yesterday, before I got sidetracked by Josh Duggar and the awful revelations that are being discovered at his ongoing trial. Thankfully, I don’t feel compelled to focus on Josh today, so I’m going to tackle another issue I read about a couple of days ago, concerning the state of Utah and its practice of referring needy people to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for welfare assistance.

I first became aware of this issue after I read a thread on the Recovery from Mormonism messageboard. Someone titled a thread “Forced to join the mormon church to get welfare help!!” Since I have master’s degrees in social work and public health, and have witnessed firsthand how politicians like to foist social welfare and public health issues on churches and charities to solve, I knew I would be interested in this topic. So off I went to the Salt Lake Tribune to read.

The article was written by Eli Hager of Pro Publica, “a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.” I’ve got to hand it to Eli Hager. This report was very compelling reading about women who needed help securing housing or food. But the state of Utah has made getting welfare assistance so convoluted and difficult that they were forced to turn to the Mormon church for much needed and life sustaining assistance. According to the article in the Salt Lake Tribune:

Although maintaining a safety net for the poor is the government’s job, welfare in Utah has become so entangled with the state’s dominant religion that the agency in charge of public assistance here counts a percentage of the welfare provided by the LDS Church toward the state’s own welfare spending, according to a memorandum of understanding between the church and the state obtained by ProPublica.

That means the state, which should have an interest in caring for its citizens, is fobbing off a large amount of the responsibility to the state’s dominant religion– The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And that often means that people who need help have to approach religious leaders instead of secular government officials. Often, the poor people who need help wind up being pressured to be baptized into the LDS church.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Mormons, are well known for sending missionaries all over the world in order to spread their belief system. Utah is heavily populated with members of the LDS church, although ever since the Internet became widely available, a lot of people have decided to leave the religion. Missionaries seem to have the most success in baptizing people who need help of some sort. They aren’t as successful in places were people are well fed, healthy, and basically happy with their lives. But if people need food or shelter or help with their bills, the case for joining the religion becomes more attractive, even if the people in need don’t believe in the doctrine or don’t want to subscribe to a highly demanding faith like Mormonism.

Regular readers of my blog probably know that I’m not a fan of the LDS church. I have never been a member myself, but Bill was a convert for awhile, and his daughter is a devout member. I used to have a pretty negative opinion of the church, but I’ve since softened my stance somewhat. After all, younger daughter was able to depend on church members when she needed to escape her mother’s abuse. Of course it would have been much better if she had been able to contact her father, who would have happily helped her. But she was effectively alienated from him for years, and was too afraid to reach out to him. So, when younger daughter turned 18 and no longer wanted to live under her mother’s rules, she left. And it was members of the LDS church– the same organization Ex used to help alienate Bill from his daughters– that helped her succeed in her bid for “freedom”.

The LDS church does have a powerful, impressive, and rather extensive welfare system for helping its members. Bishops have “storehouses” where they keep food and other supplies. Church members who fall on hard times, particularly if they are tithe payers, can go to their bishop and ask for help. There is money available for temporary help with rent and utility bills. Typically, the member is expected to “pay” back that help somehow, perhaps by doing free work for the church, like cleaning the restrooms or some other “calling”.

According to the article:

The church’s extensive, highly regarded welfare program is centered at a place called Welfare Square, ensconced among warehouses on Salt Lake City’s west side. There, poor people — provided they obtain approval of their grocery list from a lay bishop, who oversees a congregation — can get orders of food for free from the Bishops’ Storehouse, as well as buy low-priced clothes and furniture from a church-owned Deseret Industries thrift store. (Bishops can also authorize temporary cash assistance for rent, car payments and the like; recipients often have to volunteer for the church to obtain the aid.)

Welfare Square was built in 1938 amid the Great Depression, an intentional repudiation by church leaders of government welfare as epitomized by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. We “take care of our own,” they famously said.

I don’t necessarily begrudge the church leadership for asking people who need help to give back. However, I do think it’s wrong for the church to serve as a de-facto welfare system that serves people who don’t want to be involved in the religion. Joining the LDS church is not a minor thing. It requires a lot of lifestyle commitments and a willingness to give up some privacy. Members in good standing also must tithe ten percent of their income in order to get all of the “benefits” of being a member. They will be visited by church members who will teach them lessons and see if they are maintaining the lifestyle standards imposed by the church, such as abstaining from tobacco and illegal drugs, not drinking coffee, tea, or alcohol, and regularly attending church. And if the person takes out their “endowments”, they will literally be expected to change their underwear.

Moreover, some of the church’s beliefs are, quite simply, hard to swallow. Plus, anyone who researches the church’s history, and reads up about the actions taken by “heroes” such as founder Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, particularly if they happen to be a person of color, may not appreciate the doctrine very much. For more information about that, read up on Lamanites, and “white and delightsome“. From an article from The Atlantic titled “When Mormons Aspired to Be a ‘White and Delightsome’ People”:

Like other religious groups, Mormons have a complicated history around race. Until a few decades ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints taught that they “shall be a white and a delightsome people,” a phrase taken from the Book of Mormon. Until the 1970s, the LDS Church also restricted black members’ participation in important rituals and prohibited black men from becoming priests, despite evidence that they had participated more fully in the earliest years of the Church.*

Granted, the church has evolved a bit since 1978, when Black men were finally allowed to have “the priesthood”, but I can see why some non-white people would prefer not to be LDS. And even without the complicated racist history of the LDS church, I just don’t think it’s right to try to force people into a religion just so they can have shelter and eat food every day. I don’t think taxpayers who need assistance should be forced to listen to a sales spiel from religion peddlers. Anyone who is a citizen and has ever had a job in which they paid taxes, which would be most Americans, should have the right to dignified and respectful assistance when the need arises. State governments should not be allowed to shift that responsibility to private groups or religious organizations.

Jeez…

According to the Eli Hager’s informative article, “over the past decade, the Utah Legislature has been able to get out of spending at least $75 million on fighting poverty that it otherwise would have had to spend under federal law, a review of budget documents shows.” Meanwhile the church gets new members, some of whom might decide to stick around beyond baptism and contribute tithe money. It’s a win/win for the state and the church, but maybe not so much for the people who are being compelled to join a religion they might not believe in just so they have enough to eat and a roof over their heads. It doesn’t seem like a very “Christlike” policy, in any case.

One of the women profiled in Hager’s article is Black. She has significant health issues, and her daughter had to drop out of school to help her with basic things like getting up, hygiene, and wound care. She clearly needs assistance and isn’t able to work. However, she was not able to get welfare assistance from the state, because her income was too high to qualify. She was explicitly advised to approach LDS church officials for help instead.

According to the article:

The bishop of her local congregation, called a ward, decided that as a precondition of receiving welfare, she would have to read, understand and embrace Latter-day Saint scripture… Church representatives came by her apartment to decide what individual food items she did and did not need while pressuring her to attend Sunday services.

The woman initially cooperated with the church’s demands, but later balked. She realized that while she knew many people had been blessed by Mormon welfare, she just plain didn’t believe in the doctrine. It was important to her to stay true to her own beliefs. And for that, she says she was denied further assistance. What a terrible insult to her dignity and self-determination!

In another case outlined in the article, a woman needed assistance with food and warm clothes. She was raised LDS, but has serious problems with the church’s doctrines. She doesn’t want to apply for help from the state because of the strict lifetime limit on receiving assistance. She thinks it’s better to save the chance to request assistance for when she’s older. When she asked for assistance from the LDS church, she was told by the bishop that she had to marry her child’s father and live with him. He then said he could perform the ceremony right there in his office. The woman didn’t want to marry her child’s father, and didn’t want to be married in an office. So she declined, and she’s still cold due to lack of clothing and adequate shelter. How very Christlike, right?

The LDS church’s welfare system is a great benefit for those who are happy to be church members. But it’s not so great to be someone who has to conform to the demands of a bishop in order to get that assistance, particularly if they aren’t members, and have no desire to be members. The church is allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion; the state isn’t. And the state should be providing basic welfare assistance for its needy citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. My guess is that if the “shoe was on the other foot”, so to speak, and LDS church members were suddenly required to change or denounce their beliefs for financial or food assistance, they would be crying foul.

Hager’s article is pretty long, and details the circumstances of several people who felt like they were forced to explore Mormonism so they could get much needed welfare assistance. I’m not going to go deep into the stories of the people in the article because, at this point, the article isn’t behind a paywall if you haven’t used up your “freebie” articles. Suffice to say that I think this practice is despicable, underhanded, and wrong. It should be outlawed.

And… lest anyone think I am just picking on the Mormons, I will state that when I was studying for my social work master’s degree, I encountered an evangelical charity in Columbia, South Carolina that ran a homeless shelter. In order for people to get help, they had to attend a church service held at the mission.

Naturally, many Republicans felt okay with this practice, since many of them are church going Christians. A lot of them would rather see churches and charities take care of the poor and hate to see their tax dollars going toward helping those who are down on their luck. But churches are not always staffed with people who are trained to assist people trapped in poverty and understand the complex and different reasons why they are impoverished. And some churches are just plain corrupt and toxic, which is plain to see if you’ve been reading my other blog posts this week.

It’s not a crime to be poor, nor is poverty necessarily a sign of moral failing. Poor people don’t need to be made into “church projects” or “do gooding”. Some people are poor due to bad luck or bad circumstances. They don’t need to be “shown another way.” They need what all people need in order to survive. And they shouldn’t be expected to change their beliefs or adopt new beliefs in order to get basic things they need, especially in a very wealthy country like the United States.

I realize that not all bishops are jerks. Some are wise and kind, and don’t try to coerce the disenfranchised into getting dunked into the LDS church to boost their membership rolls. But Utah’s practice of pressuring people to become Mormon, and submit to church rules in order to receive help that should be provided through taxes paid to the state, must end. It’s not fair, and it’s not right, even if many Mormons do believe their church is “the one true church.”

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