Poll: Self-Improvement or Altruism

church  In my graduate school course on nonprofits, the professor explained that churches tend to specialize in one of two areas. Some churches focus on the self-improvement of their members. These churches emphasize adherence to certain moral codes. The other category of churches focuses on altruism—organizing charities and dispensing humanitarian aid.

During this lecture, a Jewish kid in the back raised his hand and asked, “What about the Mormon church? Mormons have a strict moral code—they don’t drink alcohol or smoke or have premarital sex—but they also have a huge welfare and humanitarian aid program.”

The professor agreed. He theorized that the history of settling and governing Utah territory independently had forced the Mormon church to become unusually well-rounded.

I was the only Mormon in the room, but I kept quiet. I was proud that these people of other faiths viewed the Mormon church as well-rounded, but unsure about whether I agreed with them. What do you think?

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at aprilyoungb.com.

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8 Responses

  1. Erin says:

    Some time ago the church published a figure touting how much they’d given to humanitarian aid over something like 35 years. It sounded like a lot of money until you did the math and realized that it was actually something like $2/member/year. (I apologize, I can’t recall where I saw this figure printed – it was probably a couple years ago.) Yes, they talk about service quite a bit, but in my experience most of the service that gets done is either benefiting the church or others in the church community – it’s the rare LDS ward that gets out into the neighborhood community for service. (I’m not saying serving other church members is unneeded or wrong, just that we tend to be insular with our service. I do, however, think “serving” by cleaning the church building is ridiculous – the church has plenty of money to pay for custodial services to do this job properly.)

    So, yeah, I definitely vote for “self-improvement” (how much their strict code really improves a person could be debated) over altruism. They give a lot of talk to altruism, but their actions leave me far from impressed.

    • spunky says:

      I agree; I also think there is a type of A + B = C attitude in regard to self-improvement. That is to say, if you pray hard enough and become righteous enough (A) then add your mortal challenge (B) then you will get an eternal and benevolent blessing/ reward (C). So whilst 0the church steps in to aid with natural disasters and such, when there are personal disasters or challenges on an individual basis, then there is no contingency plan; therefore, the church- or at least the members- seem to step away and become more philosphical, often leaving the individual to flounder, thereby forcing self-improvement.

    • Caroline says:

      Yes, I agree with Erin. I remember reading an article a few years ago about the amount of humanitarian aid money that was distributed around the world by the church, and it was actually a shockingly small percentage of the Church’s net worth or income.

      The service/altruism that individual members get involved in through the church is by and large service for other Mormons. Public Affairs is trying to help the Church become less insular, but I think they have a long way to go.

  2. mb says:

    I think the LDS church’s altruism tends to take a different form than other churches simply because we do not have full-time clergy to head it up on local levels. As a result, it is less obvious to one who listens for it in announcements in sacrament meetings. There’s no one in the congregation doing church work full time and the leadership in most organizations changes every few years. That sabotages our success in local long-term altruistic endeavors. That said, I find that my LDS faith involves the committed women in our ward on a par or beyond that of many of the people of other faiths including some of the hard-working Lutherans and Evangelicals in our community who do some excellent altruistic work here. The exception would be a couple of my friends of other faiths who are involved in altruistic work as part of their profession. They are even more involved.

    Because the work of the church is not done professionally on a local level there is very little long-term, long-history, years-of-networking-with-community-organizations, local humanitarian work that other churches manage to produce on the local level. Most of the local LDS work in my community tends to be disaster relief, caring for the chronically needy, or intermittent support of community social services organizations. And it’s not professionally organized. As a result, the average member finds that if she wishes, she can fail to participate in that altruistic work and still feel like she’s a part of the religious community, responding only to the self-improvement side of the congregation’s religious life. That’s much harder to do in a congregation with professional clergy who maintain a strong tradition of altruism as part of their ministry. In those churches, when you don’t participate in the altruistic side church work you can feel that lack more keenly.

    So, I’d agree that sitting in sacrament meeting I hear self-improvement theology more than altruism practicum. (Although a bunch of that self-improvement theology is the “get off your duff and be more altruistic” sort of self-improvement counsel.) And our frequently released and called lay clergy set-up makes organized altruism harder to establish. But, on the other hand, some of the LDS women I know absolutely floor me with their consistent, hard-working altruistic work in their church and their non-church communities, born of their convictions that are deeply rooted in their LDS beliefs.

    Long and short of it. It’s easy to be LDS and just hear and notice the self-improvement theology and feel that such is the majority of the message, but there is also a noticeable and considerable amount of humanitarian, altruistic work going on just under the surface if you care to see it and aren’t afraid to get involved. At least there is in my ward. And I do think your professor is right. I believe many of the roots of that work were born in the hard-scrabble years of early church history both before and after the trek across the plains, establishing an essential tradition of helping your neighbor.

  3. I think being more charitable is the self-improvement goal most of us need to make. And I think there is a Mormon tendency to think the organization takes care of all the necessary charity–our role is to pay our tithing and fast offering and show up when we’re called to do a service project.

    Adding charity (can’t remember the exact wording) to proclaiming the gospel, strengthening the members, and redeeming the dead was a very small step in the right direction.

  4. Mike says:

    How did April know she was the only Mormon in the room?

    How could I know the answer to the poll question if April herself is unsure?

    • April says:

      Mike, the people in the room were my fellow students, with whom I was completing a 2 1/2 year graduate program. While I am not using their names in my post out of respect for their privacy, these were people I knew well.

      I did not know whether I agreed–in other words, I hadn’t decided on own opinion of this matter.

  5. Jane's Diction says:

    I often feel like the key to helping my husband give credence to my current faith-transition lies in being engaged in more altruistic pursuits instead of just sitting around talking about how to obtain exaltation based on personal righteousness. If he were to see me more actively involved in meaningful service, he might understand some of my current issues with the church and what I often feel is lip-service.

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