February 15, 2009 by Jason Brown
This post may be about 50 years too late, but it is an idea that has been knocking around in my mind for some time and I want to get it out, even if it’s in a rough and unreferenced form. A theme that frequently comes up in my analysis of LDS culture is the messy overlap between LDS doctrines, Americanism, and the Political Right. For example, in a previous edition of the Book of Mormon seminary manual, Ezra Taft Benson cites examples of contemporary “Secret Combinations.” It seems strange that the ones he mentions were all associated with left-of-center organizations such as labor unions or dissident elements of society such as gangs and the mafia. No mention was made of corporations, the KKK, or any other right-wing organization (My assessment of Contemporary Secret Combinations is forthcoming). This short article is a rebuttal to the oft cited but rarely thought through Mormon folk-belief that Communism is Satan’s Counterfeit for the United Order. Enjoy!
In a 1966 Improvement Era article, Marion G. Romney wrote an article entitled “Socialism and the United Order Compared.” The article is illustrative of the red-scare paranoia that frequently passed as LDS doctrine during that time. This line of thinking led to the pervasive Mormon folk-belief that: Communism is Satan’s Counterfeit for the United Order. I have always been fascinated by this idea, and have marveled at the consistency with which Mormons can recite the narrative. It goes something like this: Communism is Satan’s corrupted version of the United Order. On the surface it may look like God’s plan because it seeks a world of equality and social justice, but just like Satan’s plan in the pre-existence it forces people to be equal and deprives them of their God-given rights of private property and free agency. This doctrinal generalization is then used as a convenient mode of dismissal of all things left of center. It would seem more likely that the Satan’s Counterfeit Dogma is a product of the John Birch Society, not the LDS cannon. For example, this argument was routinely used my church leaders to denounce the redistribution of wealth by the “welfare state” and as further evidence of a communist takeover of the American government. It is a strange irony and convenient tactic for these cold worriers to renounce the role of government in the redistribution of wealth and social equality and in the same breath to uphold our government as the highest good in cases of legislated morality and patriotic loyalty. If the Constitution is an inspired document, then it would seem that the state is an appropriate vehicle for the transformation of society. In addition, whose agency is being violated by the redistribution of wealth by a democratically controlled government?
Now, please do not assume that this article is a defense of Russian Communism. IT IS NOT! Russian Communism was arguably not even Communism, but fascist, totalitarian state capitalism. What I want to suggest, staying within the LDS notion of Satan as a real agent in earthly spiritual politics is that perhaps Satan did not simply “inspire” Communism as a means of destroying people’s agency, but to poison the hope of a world based on solidarity and cooperation by equating the Soviet experiment with Communism. If by tainting the principles of cooperation, unity, equality, and justice with the coercive nature of Soviet Communism Capitalism seems that much more appealing, liberating, and just; then the deception is deeper than we had thought. Opposing Communism and anything that even remotely resembles it then becomes a moral imperative and defending the virtues of the capitalist system an equally laudable virtue.
Hugh Nibley once wrote that Satan was a master manipulator of symbols, and that once one had control of the symbology you controlled everything. If you wave the flag of Christianity you are a Christian, even if you do not live up to its principles. The same goes with Communism. The Russian symbology of a workers utopia was crushed under the tentacles of Moscow.
Now, here are the words of an American Socialist named Eugene Debs; it would seem that this form of Socialism is far from the tyrannical, and borders on the saintly. This quote comes from a court transcript in which he is being accused of Sedition. To the judge, Debs said,
“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence. Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind then that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free” (My emphasis, Sept. 18th 1918).
So, in his defense of the United Order, I would applaud Brother Romney’s renunciation of Russian Communism , but I would add any economic or social system which denies people of their agency might qualify as “Satan’s Counterfeit.” As Brother Debs points out above, Capitalism is just as guilty as Communism for depriving people of their agency and the opportunity to live a full and productive life. Once again, it is important to disentangle the political persuasions of past Church leaders in order to discover the true principles of the Gospel, namely that as Latter-day Saints it is our Christian duty to uphold not only personal freedom and agency, but also equality, justice and cooperation.