Can Mormons be socialists? The case of El Salvador

21

July 25, 2010 by The Mormon Worker

I am visiting El Salvador for a few weeks, and was able to have an interesting conversation today with a young Mormon from San Salvador named Pedro. He is going on a mission to England this October, and just finished his first semester at university.

I asked him about the political attitudes of the Mormons here. In particular I asked him about the attitudes of the Salvadoran Mormons toward socialism.

Before I mention what he told me, let me provide an extremely brief overview of recent Salvadoran history to give some background. El Salvador was ruled by US-backed right-wing dictatorships for most of the twentieth century.

Because most Salvadorans were extremely poor and landless, a communist movement called the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) took to the mountains and began an insurgency against the government. This led to a civil war from 1980 to 1993 in which 75,000 Salvadorans were killed. The civil war was marked by government backed death squads who assassinated many Catholic priests, including the Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, and four nuns from the USA. The Salvadoran Army committed many massacres, and tried to kill anyone that they felt might be sympathetic to the FMLN guerillas. Many of these Army units were trained by US military advisers.

When the civil war ended, the FMLN became a political party. The current president of El Salvador is from the FMLN. He was elected in 2009. Some members of the FMLN are orthodox Marxists wishing to follow the path of Cuba, while others (probably the majority) are socialists but would be better described as Democratic Socialists of the sort you would see in Germany or Sweden, or western Europe in general.

Anyway, back to Pedro. He said that in his ward (Mormonn congregation) in San Salvador, most people support the FMLN. He said there are two or three families in the ward that support the right-wing ARENA party, but that’s it. He did not know if that is the case amongst members of the other wards in San Salvador. He could only comment on the situation in his ward, because that’s where he grew up.

He said that most poor people in El Salvador support the FMLN because they are known to be concerned about the poor, while the wealthier Salvadorans typically support ARENA, whose founders had links to the death squads from the civil war period. He also mentioned that most Salvadorans do not support communism, for example as practiced in Cuba, because it is not very democratic.

I told Pedro that most Mormons in the USA support capitalism and are very right wing. He seemed pretty surprised by this. And disappointed.

I’ve had hunch for a while that most Mormons outside of the US (or even outside of Utah, California and Arizona) are pretty leftist politically. I don’t have any data to back up this assumption, so can’t say for sure that that is the case.

At any rate, the case of Pedro’s ward in San Salvador shows that we Mormons in the USA who are leftist, socialist, or liberal have a lot more company in the Mormon Church as a whole than our meager numbers here domestically would suggest.

If anyone has similar stories, it would be great if you can submit them as a comment. Thanks, William Van Wagenen

21 thoughts on “Can Mormons be socialists? The case of El Salvador

  1. tariq says:

    When I was in Thailand (during the Bush administration) I found that in general, most Thai Mormons I ever dealt with were not nearly as far right as U.S. Mormons tend to be. I don’t think many of the Thais I knew would consider themselves socialists or radicals, (In fact, most Thais I knew didn’t seem all that interested in politics in general.), but they were very critical of the post-9-11 Bush administration and of war-mongering in general, and would often smile approvingly whenever I said that “I’m against Bush!” (Phom KhadKhaan Bush!). One Thai missionary told me that his opinion of U.S. foreign policy was that, “you [the United States]only use brute force, and nothing else!”

    To give you an example of how different the church culture is there, let me tell you about one priesthood meeting I attended in one branch. A member of the branch presidency gave a lesson about love, and how in order to be a true Christian you have to love everyone. He asked the elders quorum, “Who here hates queer people?” Before letting anyone answer, he strongly and surely stated, “If you hate queer people, then you are not a true Christian! True Christians love everyone!” At the end of the lesson, one man from the elders quorum, who was kind of a prejudiced guy concerning gender and sexuality, stood up and admitted that he was prejudiced and said that he needed to repent of his own prejudice because “true Christians love everyone”. I was very surprised and impressed because never in my life growing up in the United States had I ever been in any LDS Church meeting like that. The most striking thing about it, as I look back on it, is that to the members of the elders quorum there, there was nothing out of the ordinary about that lesson. For them, it was just another normal Sunday church meeting.

    There is a common expression that I’ve heard many Mormons in the U.S. say which is, “The Church is the same everywhere.” I disagree. While yes, the lesson manuals and the scriptures, and the official orthodox doctrine passed down from the central authority in Salt Lake is the same everywhere, I think that there is much more diversity of thought in the Church than white, conservative, U.S. Mormons realize.

    My experience with Mormons outside of the United States is very limited, but I suspect that these ultra-right wing FOX News hate/fear-based politics typical of Utah Mormon culture are not a “Mormon thing” so much as they are a “White U.S. Mormon thing”.

  2. Joseph says:

    My experience with members of the LDS Faith outside of the inter-mountain west has revealed more diversity than conformity.

    I was sent for my two-year full-time missionary experience all the way to Provo, Utah (guess I failed the interview with the bishop, though I don’t think I ever admitted to being a socialist to any church leaders, I think I remember my hair being a little long). While I was from the U.S., a large number of the other missionaries were not. In fact, I think most were from Canada. Of the large number of missionaries from Canada I met, at least two were outright socialists, most were moderate (though left of the American mainstream), and only one was conservative, and I don’t mean Birch Society conservative, just conservative. All except the one were either supportive of, or not concerned with, unions and socialized medicine.

    And missionaries from other parts of the world revealed even more diversity. I saw a lot of eye-rolling at Utah Mormon provinciality during those two years. Needless to say, sending me to Utah failed to pull me back in line (though my hair is shorter now).

    So I do feel that William and Tariq are on to something important here. The culture of inter-mountain west “Mormonism” does exert a powerful influence on the rest of LDS culture in the U.S. (especially other western states like California, Oregon, Idaho, etc.), but it seems to diminish and even disappear once the U.S. border is crossed (guess it doesn’t have its papers). Interestingly enough, that is where the most growth is happening for the LDS Church.

    So in answer to the question “Can Mormons be socialists” the obvious answer to me is “yes,” since there are a number of them. We just need to hide out if we are living in the U.S. “’till we outnumber ’em” as Woody Guthrie said.

    • I liked what Tariq said about the “member of the branch presidency gave a lesson about love, and how in order to be a true Christian you have to love everyone. He asked the elders quorum, “Who here hates queer people?” Before letting anyone answer, he strongly and surely stated, “If you hate queer people, then you are not a true Christian!”

      I agree. I also know that if you are a socialist or even land aid, encouragement or sympathy to that “false political ism” that you “can not be true to the faith.” I know this because the prophets have repeatedly said so. http://www.lds.org/pa/display/0,17884,4889-1,00.html

      I have a dozen more such comments and “official statements”

      The simple fact is that the apostles and prophets have repeatedly stated that socialism and other such false political isms are the counterfeit religion of Satan. They are the plans of Gadianton or of the king-men.

      You certainly have the right to make the choice to support Satan’s plans but you are risking basically the same judgment that the followers of Satan got in heaven following the war in heaven.

      In other words, the simple fact is this: If you reject Christ’s plan by lending aid, encouragement or sympathy to Satan’s counterfeit religion then you are not a follower of Christ but of Satan.

      President Marion G. Romney in: SOCIALISM AND THE UNITED ORDER COMPARED was very clear that it is our duty to eschew socialism:

      The “communist manifesto” drafted by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, for the Communist League . . . in . . . 1848 is generally regarded as the starting point of modern socialism (Ibid.).

      No, socialism is not the United Order. Distinguishing between these two systems need be no more difficult than solving the problem of the farmer who could not tell one of his horses from the other. They weighed the same, pulled the same load, ran at the same speed; from the looks of their teeth they were the same age. Finally, as a last resort, he measured them, and, sure enough, the white horse was six hands higher than the black one.

      Now, not forgetting our duty to eschew socialism and support the just and holy principles of the Constitution, as directed by the Lord, I shall conclude these remarks with a few comments concerning what we should do about the United Order.

      “If you hate queer people, then you are not a true Christian!”
      “If you are a socialist, then you are not a true Christian!”

      John 14:15 ¶If ye love me, keep my commandments.

      Simple.

  3. Tristan says:

    My impression here in Guatemala has usually been that most members are fairly conservative, and tend to do a lot of preaching against traditional indigenous practices, spend a lot of time touting that they are the true church and others will be punished for rejecting the church, and praising the United States (though quite seldom agreeing with US foreign policy, which everyone here knows shafted them for the last 55 years). This is, though (unlike El Salvador) a pretty conservative country, and Mormons are far from unique in preaching against indigenous religion and for exclusive claims to salvation.

    On the other hand, I have had local Mormons tell me that they supported the leftist guerrilla during the civil war, and last night the Mormon father I live with told me he thinks he would have joined the guerrillas during the war if he had been old enough at the time. Then we had a conversation for the next hour about Zapatistas and Subcomandante Marcos, speculating whether there were any Mormon Zapatistas (and hoping so, though I haven’t found any proof yet).

    This is parly impressive because, in general, the Mormon Church in this area is thought to be extremely imperial, and that only members who are abandoning their kin and community would join. The most common word for Mormon missionaries here is “bochinel”, which, in Kiche, means either a “seducer” or a “conqueror”, and is the same word that is used to refer to the Spanish conquistadors of the 16th century, as well as young men who seduce young girls and leave them pregnant by making them promises. To say the least, this is not a town in which the Church has a reputation of being community- or socially-minded. And yet, at least among some Mormons here, they are fairly open to leftist projects.

    I’ve always heard that a lot of members in Chile are straight-up Marxists, but I don’t know how true that is.

    Tristan

  4. elchupacabras says:

    I’ve lived in 2 different Latin American countries and have found that for the most part, LDS people tend to be quite conservative, but there is always room for diversity of thought. In Argentina, most tend to be members of the center-right UCR, but I found many supportive of the center-left “Peronist” or Justicialista Party, who were ardent campaigners of Peronist philosophy. Peronism has morphed from outright populism mixed with facism, to more of a main-stream leftist ideology under Kirchener and Fernandez de Kirchener.

    As for Chile, most of the people I’ve known from there unfortunately were HUGE Pinochet supporters. I knew two who worked in his offices, and were nearly NAZI-like in their political stances. I have one current FB friend who lives in Chile and is an announced socialist, and a returned missionary.

    As for Mexico, most LDS members are either PANistas and PRIistas. I was in a ward where the Bishop and most of the leadership were PTistas (Worker’s Party) members. Unfortunately in my last ward, when I once made the mistake of mentioning that I respected the Zapatistas, and that certain ideas of AMLO’s (Lopez Obrador)appealed to me, I was booed and a former Bishop stood up and told me that I was going to hell because these political “actors” supported legalizing drugs, and were “immoral.” I thought I was back in the U.S. again, flanked with ultraconservatives.

  5. Joseph says:

    I guess my hope for political diversity in the LDS Church outside the U.S. was misplaced. It seems to be mainly in Europe and Canada. Of course, since the U.S. has been so supportive of right-wing regimes in Central and South America, it’s not surprising that converts to a religion largely associated with the U.S. would also lean to the right.

    That interview with the Chilean socialist would be pretty cool if it were to happen.

    I am still baffled that a religion founded by one of the most radical religious thinkers of the 19th Century has turned into one of the most conservative religions of the 20th and 21st Centuries. I have yet to read a good explanation for that.

    I’m still holding on to the hope of “’till we outnumber ’em.” Miracles can still happen, can’t they?

    • Joseph says:

      Another thing I wonder about are members of the LDS Faith outside the U.S. (or in) who are just disenfranchised without any political affiliation. It seems there could be a number of those in countries where there is a lot of poverty.

  6. jean c chanonat says:

    to all those who questioned themseves about relious opinions and political affiliation remember Wayne Holley a great mormon and a faithfull man but also a man of socialist views I believe tha our culture is christian and our eyes cannot be blind JESUS OF nAZARETH WAS A wITNESS OF REALITY IN AS MUCH AS WE CANNOT STAY SITTING FACING THE DICTAT IF POVERTY the mormons are hiding behind the boundaries of utah but the needy are coming the church could gain so much in understanding by opening the mind of it s cute missionnaries and reach truly the saints of the international agyography like WAYNE DALLAS HOLLEY
    Jean C Chanonat in France

  7. Jason Schildt says:

    I just recently came across your blog after fallowing a link here regarding Howard Zinn and his “Three Holy Wars” talk a few years back. From what I’ve seen and read on your site so far, it’s refreshing to know that there are alternative views among LDS members and that you don’t start each post with “Well Glenn Beck says…”.
    But I digress…
    After 15 years in Utah, we moved to an area approximately 50 miles south and east of Seattle, Washington. We’ve lived here for 3 years and the overwhelming sentiment here is hardcore right wing. This surprised me at first in two ways, 1) Seattle has always been, at least in my mind, a fairly liberal leaning city, and 2) most of the members of our ward are what I would consider working class or blue collar. I’ve come to make sense of this by understanding that while there is a liberal leaning majority within Seattle and surrounding pocket communities, that’s doesn’t represent the majority of the state. The part that continues to confuse me is #2. I would have guessed that a blue collar community would be in favor of social welfare, healthcare reform, etc. Instead, the complete opposite is true and there’s open hostility towards anything that doesn’t come from Fox news, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, or the Tea Party, and is considered (quite literally) the voice of Beelzebub.
    Needless to say, it’s a lonely place for people like me and my wife.

  8. Forest Simmons says:

    We live in a predominantly blue collar member ward in liberal Portland, but our active ward members are predominantly Republicans. I think in large part it’s because most active members use the wedge issues as their party afiliation guide. Also the ward and stake leadership are less likely to be blue collar, and the members tend to follow the leaders.

    This effect is strong enough to turn blue collar members against unions. In a recent over night activity for the young women in our ward our daughters were regaled by their leaders about what is wrong with teachers belonging to unions; “The unions don’t care about the students. They only care about themselves.”

    They know that my wife and I are both teachers by profession. The Republicans are trying to destroy the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System the same way that they are trying to destroy Social Security at the national level. How can these blue collar workers support this? Because Republicans are vocally anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage.

  9. Forest Simmons says:

    When our daughters are subjected to this kind of propaganda, they say, “Yeah, I have heard people say that before, but it has never made any sense to me. I wonder why they believe that.”

  10. Forest Simmons says:

    I am on the email list of one of my sisters and her husband who have a large LDS extended family. They recently forwarded an email from Newt Gingrich calculated to stir us up to indignation against Muslims because they propose to build a mosque near the site of the destroyed twin towers.

    My reply (cc’d to everybody on the mailing list):

    “It seems to me that blaming Islam for the 9/11 tragedy is a lot like blaming Mormonism for the Mountain Meadows Massacre.”

    It might be more accurate to say …

    Blaming Islam for the 9/11 tragedy is a lot like blaming Christianity for the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

    Osam Ben Laden’s claim of feality to Allah is no more valid than was John D. Lee’s claim of feality to Jesus Christ.

  11. Oscar Aguilar says:

    Hi, I am from Central America, and a convert to the Church since I was younger. I used to be a leftist leader since high school. I was getting indoctrinated by one the Marxist parties in my homeland. I used to have this idealism of a better society where all people are the same, etc. Until I discover that nothing like that really does exist, that “socialism”. Satan promised to save everyone, and no soul would be lost, all the collective world would be saved, equatily, etc. etc., are you with me now?. Well, sounds familiar? That is what socialism preaches…and personally I don’t care if you criticisme (sp) for what I am writing, because I do know that alike my former situation, you may be an idealist. Coming back to my experience, I used to think and fight in the streets for the world of equality, and justice, etc. I was helping to get food for the salvadorian people and it happened that all the money was actually going to the other pockets. The leftist made of a cousing of mine a martir, but guess what, a few years later he has been forgotten. In the meantime, the leaders of the leftist, were getting richer, traveling extensively for international forums, created a modus vivendi, and even crying and shooting loudy Down with the Imperialists! They became richer, got newer cars, corruption at their best. In the meantime, the socialism was proving being a falacy in countries like Russia, the old Stalinist Block, the Chinese block, etc. In Cuba, Castro and his people are the most priviled people, all the mansions of Batista became their own homes. It is common to say there that no one knows where Castro can be found, because his dozens of homes. The same happened in Nicaragua, the elitte sandinistas took over the nicest homes of the Somozistas. That is what Socialism is really about…it is the capitalism for the few. An Utophy (sp?). Now, where am I standing now? Not happy of the restraints of the collectivism against the individualism, the prejudice that accompany it. Satan wanted to control the masses, that is the best way to do it, Socialism, communism, marxism or whatever is called.

    We should have the freedom to have choices, and socialism doesn’t do that.

    Now, I am a registered democrat, I am not a ring wing guy, I have live in Utah, California, Hawaii and Washington. Now living in Montana. But I do believe that a system where we can have the freedom to act in our own, instead of collectivism, is the most close to what we believe, a place where we have our freedom to choose. And socialism, is not. There is not even equality in there either.

    Best regards,

    Oscar Aguilar

    • Boris says:

      I am a democratic socialist from Russia, and I am LDS.

      Oscar, it seems like you have been indoctrinated in your youth. Socialism has many definitions. Apparently only one of them got stuck in your mind. It is Stalinism that you’re talking about, not socialism.

      Boris

  12. astrallds says:

    I just found this blog. I found it cause I was wondering if there where other LDS socialists out there like my wife and I. I’m In Australia. Most members here identify strongly with the American Republican party. The church leaders are how ever tolerant of different views.

  13. pro-gun LDS, Wales says:

    Just to clarify, ‘right wing’ refers to another flavour of socialism, namely national socialism. This is outlined in a book called None Dare Call it Conspiracy – a book that Ezra Taft Benson told LDS to read at the 1972 Semi-Annual Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of LDS.

    Most British LDS proclaim to be conservative, but in actual fact they don’t know what they are. Most ‘conservative’ LDS cling to socialist agendas, such as the NHS (socialised medicine). British people are extremely sensitive when it comes to criticism of the NHS, and British LDS are no different.

  14. Miguel says:

    You had “a hunch” that most Mormons outside the US are pretty leftist politically…? Maybe that’s because most countries outside the US are, in fact, more leftist politically than the United States. A citizenry (Mormon or otherwise) is going to be a product of the educational, economic, linguistic, familial, political and social environment they are raised in – It’s called culture! Mormons are representative of the populations which they come from. Maybe Pedro was disappointed because he thinks that all Mormons should be left-leaning socialists like him; this makes him no better than US Mormons that think we should all be Glenn Beck watching right-wingers.

    A few socialist countries have done fairly well, among them, Sweden, Norway, and Canada. El Salvador is not one of them. And right now, neither is the rest of Western Europe. Here are some unemployment numbers from Western Europe:

    Greece – 26%
    Spain – 26%
    Portugal – 17%
    Ireland – 15%
    Italy – 12%
    France – 11%

    Did you ask Pedro if he’s ever been to a supermarket in the United States to observe first-hand the effects of capitalism? By the way, the American Capitalist Running Dog underwear company, Hanes, is the single largest employer in El Salvador. They have recently introduced measures to improve the quality of life for many Salvadorans by refurbishing schools, restoring running water, and providing fertilizer and seeds for crops. Your welcome Pedro.

  15. Miguel says:

    because most countries outside the US are, in fact, more leftist politically than the United States. A citizenry (Mormon or otherwise) is going to be a product of the educational, economic, linguistic, familial, political and social environment they are raised in – It’s called culture! Mormons are representative of the populations which they come from. Maybe Pedro was disappointed because he thinks that all Mormons should be left-leaning socialists like him; this makes him no better than US Mormons that think we should all be Glenn Beck watching right-wingers.

    A few socialist countries have done fairly well, among them, Sweden, Norway, and Canada. El Salvador is not one of them. And right now, neither is the rest of Western Europe. Here are some unemployment numbers from Western Europe:

    Greece – 26%
    Spain – 26%
    Portugal – 17%
    Ireland – 15%
    Italy – 12%
    France – 11%

    Did you ask Pedro if he’s ever been to a supermarket in the United States to observe first-hand the effects of capitalism? By the way, the American Capitalist Running Dog underwear company, Hanes, is the single largest employer in El Salvador. They have recently introduced measures to improve the quality of life for many Salvadorans by refurbishing schools, restoring running water, and providing fertilizer and seeds for crops. Your welcome Pedro.

  16. Miguel says:

    Of course my last comment has not been posted yet. Probably because it was reasonable, logical, and represented something very rare in radical politics – truth.

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