Latter Day nod to anarchy

New publication echoes 'radical elements' in effort to promote justice

Salt Lake Tribune/October 24, 2007

William Van Wagenen is too modest to compare himself to the famed activist and journalist Dorothy Day, who launched the Catholic worker movement in the 1930s. But his ambitions are no less audacious.

Just as Day did for Catholics, Van Wagenen would like to awaken Mormons to the "virtually forgotten radical elements" of their doctrine and history - namely, the mandate to "have no poor among you."

To that end, the 29-year-old Salt Lake City stockbroker and several friends have just published the first edition of The Mormon Worker, a bimonthly newspaper devoted to "promoting Mormonism, anarchism and pacifism."

The editors, all active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will not criticize the LDS hierarchy or institution but plan to provide "radical religious commentary on current political and economic events."

Those behind The Mormon Worker are among a small, but growing number of Latter-day Saints bucking the stereotype of church members as Republican, hawkish on the war and devoted to capitalism.

Mormons for Equality and Social Justice (MESJ), for example, is made up of Latter-day Saints who are "anxiously engaged" in "furthering the cause of Zion by working for the gospel values of peace, equality, justice and wise stewardship of the Earth in a spirit of Christlike charity and concern."

These and other members have protested the Iraq war, promoted the alleviation of poverty and sponsored speakers on progressive themes.

The Mormon Worker hopes to give voice to all these efforts in a single publication.

Its first printing of 2,000 copies was distributed free at several Salt Lake City bookstores, including Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore and Ken Sanders Rare Books. The issue features a history of the Catholic workers, a look at "revolutionary charity" and an exploration of Mormon approaches to the environment. In a separate piece, Van Wagenen critiques presidential candidate Mitt Romney's support for the Iraq War and the buildup of the U.S. military.

Though Mormons believe in obeying the law and respecting elected officials, they should see capitalism as a necessary evil rather than a system God endorses, he writes. If they were really following LDS principles, Mormons would all be anarchists.

"Every Mormon should look forward to the abolition of government," Van Wagenen writes, "and the building of a socialist society based on free association and mutual cooperation."

What's in a word?

Kate Holbrook shares Van Wagenen's enthusiasm for worker justice.

"Dorothy Day is one of my heroes and the topic is close to my heart," says Holbrook, who helped compile a list of LDS scriptures, leaders' statements and historical precedence for a pamphlet called "Latter-day Saints and Justice for Workers," published by the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice in Chicago.

While serving an LDS mission to Russia in 1993, Holbrook saw firsthand the effects of severe poverty. After graduating from Brigham Young University, she went to Harvard to study the connection among faith, politics and justice. During the summer of 2001, she worked in Boston at a union for health-care aides in nursing homes. She found herself drawing on Mormonism to develop her politics.

"I want my faith community to be better at addressing justice issues," Holbrook says. "I don't think all businesspeople are bad, but I imagine some of their choices make God and Christ weep."

She celebrates the launch of Mormon Worker, but worries some of its language might turn off potential readers.

"The red flag for me is calling themselves 'anarchists' because so few people know what anarchism means. They think it means no government, no rules and free love," says Holbrook, who now lives in Salt Lake City. "He's right on, but how is he going to get Mormons to read his paper?"

Perhaps his passion for the work will be enough. It is, after all, more than words to Van Wagenen.

In 2005, Van Wagenen traveled to Iraq with a Christian Peacemaker Team, where he roomed with Quaker activist Tom Fox. After Van Wagenen returned home in November, Fox was kidnapped and murdered.

The young Mormon returned to Iraq in January 2007, where he, too, was kidnapped with two others and held for nine days. After his release, Van Wagenen promised himself he would continue to work for peace. He published one of Fox's essays on peace in the Mormon Worker. But, for the sake of his parents, Van Wagenen won't go back to Iraq. Birth of an idea?

Van Wagenen grew up in Utah in a close-knit Mormon family, tutored on scriptures that linked economics with spirituality. In the Doctrine and Covenants, believed by Mormons to be divine revelations, LDS founder Joseph Smith outlined notions of "consecration and stewardship" as essential to an ideal society.

The plan was simple: Mormons would "consecrate" their excess goods to the church, which would then distribute that to other members in need. The church tried to implement the system in a few Midwest communities, but the system really took off under Smith's successor, Brigham Young, who first created a network of 150 cooperative mercantile enterprises, including Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI).

Between 1874 and 1891, Young next initiated some 200 "United Orders," or fully cooperative societies, in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona and Nevada. Some functioned successfully for a decade or more, but eventually became too tough to maintain in an increasingly diverse Mormon population.

The communitarian ideal is still enthroned in Mormon scriptures, which Van Wagenen took to heart while on his LDS mission to Frankfurt, Germany, from 1997 to 1999. It was there he met a man who later introduced him to anarchist literature. As the Mormon student furiously pored over the words of Emma Goldman, Mikhail Bakunin and Noam Chomsky, he found himself repeatedly drawing parallels to his religious beliefs.

After earning a degree in German from BYU in 2003, Van Wagenen still felt a hunger to connect Mormon beliefs to the larger world of Christian theology, so he entered Harvard Divinity School to do just that. He also became immersed in peace activism.

After stints with the Christian Peacemakers to Colombia and Iraq, learning Arabic in Palestine and continuing his theological studies, he was more convinced than ever that Mormon teachings could be an important critique of some American politics. He began thinking about publishing a newspaper such as the Catholic Worker, distributed to thousands during the Great Depression at a penny apiece.

The Catholic movement was grounded in a firm belief of the dignity of every human being, as taught in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Catholics asked the question: Why are so many poor and abandoned? What is honest work? What is due workers and the unemployed? What is the relationship between these and the common good? What does it mean to follow Jesus Christ today?

"We hope to address some of these same questions in the context of Mormonism," writes Cory Bushman in the Mormon Worker. "We do not wish to change the doctrines of the church, only to create dialogue and discussion on how those sacred doctrines are being incorporated into our lives."

They want to create a sense of community among like-minded Latter-day Saints.

"I kept meeting Mormons who didn't find anyone else talking about these issues and they were leaving the church," Van Wagenen says. "I wanted them to know they were not alone."

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