Free Agency

September 12, 2012



Post by Eric R –

In recent weeks I have been part of several discussions with conservative Mormons about how the proper role of government should intersect with Christ’s commandment to take care of one another. A common point that keeps coming up is “free agency”. More precisely, my friends object to the federal government requiring citizens to contribute to social programs, as they feel that it is a violation of their free agency to choose how they will (or will not) contribute to the temporal wellbeing of their brothers and sisters in need. Yes, we need to help take care of the sick and afflicted, they agree, but the government shouldn’t force us to do it, rather it should be a matter of individual initiative and obligation.

What I found most frustrating was the fact that I knew these people support the government restricting our individual agency in hundreds of other ways each and every day, because they recognize that it is for the public good, and often in support of a larger moral imperative. Speed limits, bans on indoor smoking, age limits for alcohol consumption, mandatory education for minors, and the list goes on and on (much to Ron Paul’s dismay, I’m sure). Most Republicans support these types of common-sense regulations that all have one thing in common: they restrict individuals’ free agency in the name of the common greater good.

And then there are more controversial restrictions of individual free agency that many conservative Mormons support: a ban on same-sex marriage; public decency laws limiting the display of pornography; keeping personal drug use illegal; and changing current law to make abortion illegal even in the case of “legitimate” rape. ‘Yes, these are restrictions to free agency,’ conservatives would agree, ‘but they are necessary on moral grounds!’  

I understand the ‘moral imperative’ argument, and unlike many other liberals, I do believe that it is appropriate to acknowledge the role of personal morals when discussing public policy. What I cannot understand, however, is why so many conservative Mormons fail to see poverty, hunger and homelessness as being worthy of morally-anchored government action. For some reason many conservatives believe that it is appropriate to arrest an individual for using drugs in their own home (requiring tax payers to pay for their incarceration), but it is not appropriate to require citizens to contribute to poverty alleviation programs that address hunger and homelessness.

This selective defense of free agency by conservative Mormons is particularly baffling given what I know of our common faith. The scriptures commanding us to take care of one another are too numerous to mention. So why is taking care of each other less worthy of a government mandate than, say, not allowing two men to get married? Both are issues with a moral component, both are relevant to our larger society, both include an element of the government deciding what individuals may or may not do. It seems like many conservatives are only concerned about the government limiting our freedom to choose when it has to do with their wallets.

Do the freedoms that Republicans hold so dear include the freedom to pursue an education if you were brought to this country by your parents illegally as a child? Not so much. The freedom to have safe drinking water if you live in coal mining or natural gas country? Well, maybe not that. The freedom to worship in a mosque without being spied on by law enforcement, when no illegal behavior was ever detected, or even alleged? Now that is going too far!

The hypocrisy and selective nature of the freedoms and rights that Conservatives choose to idealize is mystifying. But alas, none of this is new, as the GOP has been at it for decades. It is just disheartening to see Romney and other conservative Mormons, with whom I share a common gospel centered on loving your neighbor, buying into it so wholeheartedly.

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26 Comments on “Free Agency”

  1. cascadepeaks Says:


  2. Allan Says:

    As an Economist I wold like to pose the argument that Foodstapms and Unemployment are not the problem but rather it is the way these programs are administered. It is easy for Mormons who are known to be exceptionaly frugal with spending to see people on Foodstamps buying junk foor at Circle K and think “this just isn’t right”. At the same time, these same people will devoutly pay fast offerings to support the poor and needy so that they can have food anf other basic necessities. I bet you could go back to these same mormon friends who have opposed your ideas for welfare and ask them if they would support a change from the current “buy what you want and put it all on the card” program we have now to a food rationing system where people get staples like rice, beans, oats, dry milk and cheese (like what people get from the bishops store house) and they would be all for it. The current system unintentionally incentivizes poverty such that many people on it struggle to see how they would be better off getting off of it. When and only when we manage to change these incentives can we expect to see a change in this behavior.
    This is a fascinating topic to me. Thanks for addressing it from the Christ centered perspective of giving freely to those in need. I wish you luck as you continue to tackle this issue in your ward/stake and community.

    • Sharon Says:

      This goes right back to Free Agency. Not everyone and I would dare say most people on welfare are not at Cirkle K buying junk food with their foodstamps and even if they are that is there choice. Most of the people that I have known on food stamps try hard to make those stamps last until the end of the month, so it is not fair to paint everyone on welfare with the same broad brush.
      We don’t stop people buying with cash what ever food they choose even if it is going to lead to obesity, heart attacks, strokes and many other health problems that is going to clog the health systems and send insurance rate sky rocketing,.
      It is all Free Agency.
      It is my Free Agency to hand money to someone asking for money in the street but it is not my right to tell them how they may spend the money that is their Free Agency.
      I cherish my Free agency and I would hope no one would take that away from me even if I ended up on welfare.

      • Allan Says:

        I really apprecialte the spirit of giving that you express. You obviously want good things for everyone and I appreciate that in you. Agency is the first gift of heaven and we must cherish it and defend it. You are right that no one can tell you how to spend your money and that when you give someone some money you don’t get to decide how they spend it. Once your money has become theirs your agency concerning it does cease. I did not mean to be making a blanket statement for all people on welfare wioth my post. I just wanted to point out where the distain for government programs may come from and that adjustments to these programs could be mutually benificial – both to the country and those on programs. I personally do not view the funds people are now given as their property but rather as the property of the state. That is why I see no problem with regulating what the finds can be used for.
        Aside from this, I have come to the conclusion that a a program that only provided bulk raw staples, while being much more cost effective and would techically provide plenty of nutrition and food to the poor, would be ultimately un-effective in helping people. I now fear that if we were to do this that too many parents would let children go hungry rather than have to do all the work of cooking meals. I also wonder how many people in these circumstances may not even know how to produce bread for example if given the proper ingredients. It works in the church due to the vast support system (the relief society) behind it but I just don’t think it would work for America right now. Too many people would struggle simply because they were never taught how to properly sustain themselves.
        I have a lot more I could say about this subject but think I have shared enough for now. I wish you the best of luck in all you do.

  3. Joseph Says:

    I had a conversation with my dad about why Mormons vote conservative – and I was expecting him to name off the social issues, but he really feels that it is more due to the Mormon ethic of self-reliance. There is a perception (which goes against my experience) that the government is wasteful and ineffective in how it carries out its social programs, and so many conservatives feel that this is best left to the private individual, churches, and non-profits to administer. But I feel that conservatives are being way too critical of the government – and way too hopeful of the private sector in these matters.

    • rcm Says:

      “And that, my friend, is why the state of Utah is on of the largest gobblers of federal tax dollars in the country.”……the facade of “self-reliance.”

  4. Paul Justham Says:

    Have you read these comments by Dallin H Oaks?

    • Frank Stark Says:

      Thank you, Paul. Particularly important is the quote from Elder Oaks’ talk:

      “Because it requires changing deeply held assumptions and fundamental constitutional interpretations, this third major problem will be the most difficult to resolve. But it is also the most important. In the pantheon of ideas in our divinely-inspired constitution, the idea that the government is limited to the powers expressly and impliedly conferred by the Constitution is second only to the principle that the people are sovereign.

      I have advocated greater citizen participation to resolve three major problems: (1) our massive and increasing national deficits, (2) the need for states to reacquire powers and initiatives taken away by the federal government, and (3) the need to reestablish the principle that the federal government is a government of limited powers.”

      • JSG Says:

        Amen Brother, Government that governs closest governs best. I would be thrilled with the diversity of approaches that would develop if the states had the latitude and ability to work out their own programs to address in particular items 2 and 3 above. We would see people get involved and make the world a better place rather locally rather than place their faith in the gov.

  5. shelly Says:

    Have you seen the movie 2016? I really have no patients for you anymore. I am starting to think you are an imposter, not really a christian! Any Christian that is supporting Obama has been sadly mislead, or still drinking the Koolaid!

    • Convert for Obama Says:

      Really? “2016” the movie? The pseudo-documentary made by the ultra conservative president of King’s college, Dinesh D’Souza? This just in: a couple of days ago he had to resign from his post at that evangelical college amid questions of infidelity. What goes around comes around!

  6. Mallory DeMotte Says:

    I just don’t like knowing that I have to give away a large portion of my money that I busted my butt for to support people who aren’t held accountable for the choices they make. I once overheard someone asking their boss, and I quote, “Can you make sure I’m not working 30 hours a week? If I work more than that, I won’t get my check from the government”. And then they started laughing about how they were able to work the system.

    Sorry, but I’m just not cool with that. If we have to give money away to help others, fine. I’m all cool with helping those who truly, TRULY need help. But the government has pretty much always sucked at deciding who those people are.

  7. Jolene Ward Says:

    The arguments used do not support the conclusion. The use of Free Agency in the examples given is mostly restrictions, speed limits, gay marriage, limiting smoking indoors. These restrict behavior; mandating giving money for social programs is not a restriction. Using these types of restrictions to Free Agency to question why a mandate to give does not follow logically.
    Now the moral component argument is different. The problem with the moral argument is that the method the government uses to combat issues such poverty is that they are morally lacking. The government’s methods have not proven to assist the majority of people/families in poverty. Therefore, morally speaking, giving to the government to help poverty does not fit with my definition of morality. To mandate people give to the government to “help” the poor feels good but in practice does not help-over time. We see generations of families in poverty, having more children so they can get more government money, not marry, or not taking part-time or low paying jobs because that could negatively affects their income from the government etc. The government’s solution gives incentives for immoral behavior and does not improve lives. I do not find the theory behind the argument persuasive.

  8. Convert for Obama Says:

    “It seems like many conservatives are only concerned about the government limiting our freedom to choose when it has to do with their wallets.”
    Am I wrong in thinking that perhaps that’s also the reason why the Law of Consecration has never been properly established/practiced? It’s disheartening to me!

  9. Rob T. Says:

    Government’s role is to protect equal rights, not to provide equal things. Why is this? Because people cannot delegate to the government any powers except those which they lawful have the right to exercise themselves. Though I have the right to impart my substance to the poor, I do not have the right to take YOUR substance and impart it to the poor. Compulsory benevolence is not charity. The function of government is to protect life, liberty, and property. Anything more or less than this is usurpation and oppression. Liberals would have government overstep their role with powers that it does not have the right to exercise as afforded by the constitution or by the individual. Hence, poverty, hunger and homelessness ARE “worthy of morally-anchored action” (see D&C 104:14-18), but not government actions.
    How inappropriate it is when roles get exceeded or reversed. Here is an illustration: If my neighbor slaps me in the face, what is my role? As a Christian I should turn the other cheek and forgive. What is the government’s role?: To arrest the individual for assault. What would society be like if roles were inappropriately reversed: I might take the law in to my own hands (resulting in chaos); the government might rename the Department of Justice perhaps calling it the Department of Mercy or Forgiveness thereby imposing my Christian morality on one who may not want to forgive.
    Liberals who reject the idea of corporate personhood would eagerly convert the government in to a loving caring “person” who shows charity rather than the emotionless institution protecting basic freedoms and blindly executing justice which God and the constitution intended it to be.
    This robinhood-ish seemingly charitable desire of wanting the government to do more for the less fortunate places the second commandment (Love thy Neighbor) above the first commandment (Love God); as His command “Thou Shalt Not Steal” is violated and governments are implored to do what God never intended for them to do.
    The “basic” rights delineated by the constitution are “PASSIVE” in nature requiring no action on the part of the government until one violates or endangers the rights of another. Liberals would changes the meaning of “rights” in two fundamental ways:
    1- Expanding them from the “basic” freedoms such as to “PURSUE” to the outright entitlement to “HAVE” forcing the government to take an ACTIVE role and ensure that it provides that which is conducive to happiness.
    2- Extend the definition of rights to unnatural meanings (right to education, right to free health care, etc.) which open-ended meaning has no boundary in sight leading limitless future “rights” (to own an iphone, right to marry a lamb, right to cosmetic surgery, etc.)
    Mormons resist laws which “restrict agency” for the “common good” because it reeks of an experience which we had in the pre-existence. As a conservative, I only concede to agency restricting laws which are necessary to protect other’s “basic” freedoms such as life. The “one thing in common” which these laws have (smoking, alcohol, decency, pornography, etc.) is their nature. Vice requires regulation where it infringes on the rights of others. Virtue needs no regulation! One can be as honest, charitable, and kind as he or she chooses to be. Virtue is an INDIVIDUAL’s stewardship “without compulsory means.”

    • Betsy Says:

      It seems every child born has the reasonable expectation that there will be fo od enough, and shelter. If our economic system actually worked, there would be no need for programs trust so many find, oddly, so distasteful. Generational poverty, institutionalized racism – just two examples of intractable problems no government, political party our church has seen fit to solve – contribute mightily to the condition in which free agency can hardly be practiced.. The cost of maintaining welfa re programs is miniscule in comparison to the cost of permanently solving the social and cultural problems poverty represents. In truth, welfare is an insult, considering the need; and its recipients must accept it anyway, while trying to hold their heads up, because to do otherwise is intolerable.

  10. Convert for Obama Says:

    “This robinhood-ish seemingly charitable desire of wanting the government to do more for the less fortunate places the second commandment (Love thy Neighbor) above the first commandment (Love God); as His command “Thou Shalt Not Steal” is violated and governments are implored to do what God never intended for them to do.” What? God never intended for society to help the needy through government programs? Having a safety net for the needy goes against the first commandment? If helping the poor with my tax dollars is ‘restricting my agency’, what should I call using by tax dollars for war-mongering? I rather have my money feed the poor than kill thousands in a place like Iraq.

    I find it strange to commingle free agency with government policy, specially when one considers the fact that the system benefits the wealthy way more than the needy. The rich would not be able to achieve their status without the judicial/financial system, and welfare for the poor is pocket change compared to corporate welfare.

    “Extend the definition of rights to unnatural meanings (right to education, right to free health care, etc.) which open-ended meaning has no boundary in sight leading limitless future “rights” (to own an iphone, right to marry a lamb, right to cosmetic surgery, etc.)”
    So, is public education considered charity? Should we do away with it? How about the children who depend on school lunches? Shouldn’t we, as a civilized society, strive to have an educated population? Having health care is an unnatural right? Should we continue providing health care to the uninsured in the emergency room (the most expensive way to do so), or should we just let them die?

    The truth is, making sure people (and specially children) have food, education and health care is one of the obligations of a civilized society and best handled by the government. WE are the government, working together to ensure we all get our basic needs covered in an effective manner. I don’t see how that hinders our free-agency. It is surprising to me how so many of my fellow church members are always complaining about the programs for the poor, but don’s seem to care about the welfare for the wealthy (farm subsidies, government contracts, tax preferences, etc. etc.).

    About the right to marry the person one loves, I am reluctant to open that can of worms, but it seems odd for us Mormons to oppose that right given the church’s history.

    • Rob T Says:

      When one bases his/her views on the Constitution, government’s role is limited and individual’s rights are clearly defined.

      When one bases his/her views on anything else, government’s role and individual’s rights grow like weeds to levels which will bankrupt the nation.

      Today government is being transformed from an institution that protects basic rights to a bureaucracy that provides for a growing list of wants. The way things are going, expect future “basic needs” and rights to include the right to . . . health care, dental care, vision care, child care, pet care, hair care, orthodontics, life insurance, pet insurance, credit insurance, travel insurance, investment insurance, counseling, right to cell phone service, employment insurance, mortgage insurance, self-esteem assurance, pre-paid legal, tuition insurance, healthy relationship guarantees, sexual satisfaction, etc.

      • Convert for Obama Says:

        If we are going to invoke the Constitution, then one could argue that welfare IS constitutional as stated in Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 of the Constitution, which reads:

        “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;”

        Essentially, it is legal and constitutional for the federal government to impose a tax and spend it for the common good (Justice Roberts -a conservative- thought so, regarding Obamacare). Therefore, those who have a problem with welfare for the poor need to find a better reason to oppose it other than mislabeling it ‘unconstitutional’.

  11. Rob T Says:

    Let me cite one example of how the expansion of “basic rights” and government’s efforts to provide for “basic needs” run amok jeopardizes the whole.

    After learning from hundreds of years of brutal human history, the United States was established with the fundamental right of presumption of innocence; essentially that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

    The “Affordable Care Act” (Obamacare) which requires the purchase of a commercial product fundamentally changes an individual’s status such that he or she is now automatically presumed guilty of violating the law (and subject to punishment) until he or she proves his or her innocence.

  12. Convert for Obama Says:

    Dear brother Stark: One of the things I was re-assured about while investigating the church was that I didn’t have to change my political views in order to become a member. I will continue to be a liberal -like Christ- and will continue to listen to the prophets, ponder and pray about the things they say and then follow the promptings of the Spirit. I’ve never being one to follow blindly, and the day that is required of me I will probably leave the church. Heavenly Father and The Savior know our minds and hearts and I am sure they approve of my “bleeding heart-ness”.

    We attend church as a family every week, but my husband is not a member; he doesn’t see himself belonging to any church where the majority of the members side with the republican party. And to be honest, I don’t blame him. I often find myself wondering what am I doing listening to some of the political non-sense I have to listen to at church (during classes, and sometimes during talks at sacrament meetings).

    I am so thankful for groups like this one, where people like me can express their views and see that I am not the only one in the church who feels this way about politics and the gospel. I also feel better when I read that the church used to be mainly democrat up until the second half of the 20th century, when the prophet told the members that God wanted them to vote republican. I believe all of that will change soon enough, specially when one considers that most of the church’s membership overseas is pretty liberal (I am a foreigner myself).

    Additionally, I believe that people like me will aid the church in attracting new membership; a lot of my friends, knowing my political views, have gotten curious enough to attend church with me to see why I decided become a member. All of my liberals friends have been very respectful and supportive of my decision…but some of the nastiest comments I have heard about the church have come from conservatives. That’s another reason why I don’t understand the church members fascination with the republican party; they hate Mormons!

    So, brother Stark, if by saying “Just as you changed some things in your life on joining the true Church of Jesus Christ, so you may find that some other things must change too”, you meant changing my political views, I am afraid that’s not going to happen. I hope I will never be asked to give up my membership, but if it does come to that, I am prepared to stand by my principles and exercise my free agency.

    Thank you and kind regards!

  13. THM Says:

    Here is some food for thought for all Mormons.

    President Benson said, “In the war in heaven the devil advocated absolute eternal security at the sacrifice of our freedom. . . yet the very God of heaven, who has more mercy than us all, still decreed no guaranteed security except by a man’s own freedom of choice and individual initiative. Today the devil as a wolf in a supposedly new suit of sheep’s clothing is enticing some men, both in and out of the church, to parrot his line by advocating planned government guaranteed security programs at the expense of our liberties. Latter-day saints should be reminded how and why they voted as they did in heaven. If some have decided to change their vote they should repent – throw their support on the side of freedom – and cease promoting this subversion.”

    President Clark said, “Money paid out by governmental agencies is taken from the general taxpayers under compulsory levy, or is borrowed on the public credit. It is a governmental exaction with all the ill-will on both sides – giver and receiver – which is always incident to such operations. The giver and the receiver are strangers each to each. The whole history of the world is cluttered with the wreckage that has followed this system. Government doles have always, sooner or later, brought oppression, ruin and even chaos in their wake. They destroy the very fabric of good citizenship, even to the last thread. Whether they be Roman corn laws, or baronial largesses, or princely beneficiaries, or the modern doles, they have always been, and by nature must be, distributed by politicians whose motives, of equal necessity, must be either mediately or immediatley, political control. In simple English, this system results in, and frequently aims at, buying the electorate. Such civic villiany always wears the cloak of helping suffering humanity, and that poor, ignorant, hungry humanity eats the loaf which is the deadly poison of its liberty. The worst despotisms that exist in the world today were notoriously built by the simple process of supplying first one desire or need of the people, and then another and still another, the people always giving in return some bit of their freedom, until, when the giving was finished, their liberties were gone. This is the actual demonstration of the existing political laboratories of Europe today. Yet, either ignoring or ignorant thereof, we travel exultingly along the same way. Whoever builds his power on these foundations is an enemy of all that God intended man to be.”

  14. Chad Says:

    Ok people are stupid us as Mormons do we pay tithing and fast offering ? Yes ok so that is my contribution to the poor and I know the church puts it where it is supposed to go. The small amount of money that us Mormons would give to the gov would never see the poor so continue paying your tithing and screw gov progams .and if you feel you owe more than pay high fast offering and tithing . You guys really need to under stand the rich make this country run so keep biting the hand that feeds you . My uncle is not the richest man in the world but he makes 6 figures and I know caused was the ward clerk for a time and I know he paid like 50% of his income and I know that most the rich do just the same .

  15. Tracey Flewelling Says:

    What you say is correct and very insightful. However, you left out a few things. We are already forced to pay for the programs you are talking about through taxes. No one has an issue helping people in need.the issue is when we go to work everyday daddy and work our butts off so we can be forced to pay for those that choose not to work. Regardless of what you say, there are more people on public assistance programs that don’t need it than those that do. I work in healthcare and see it everyday. I would do everything in my power to help someone that is truly in need. But there is a big difference between need and want. The biggest issue is, what will happen when you run out of other peoples money. You cannot keep paying for atoll of these programs but take away the jobs of the people funding them. How long do you think that will last? When you remove the incentive to get ahead in life and better yourself, who will want to continue to try? Government has already removed pride and personal responsibility from individuals. Now they want to remove incentive as


  1. Why I’m a Mormon and Support President Obama, Part 4/6: Economics | Mormons for Obama - October 28, 2012

    […] programs I disagree with is a violation of my agency (and I wish I didn’t have to agree with Eric R.’s earlier assessment that so many conservatives are only interested in agency when it concerns their pocketbook, not […]

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