Prophets of Anarchy: The Mormon Worker

L-R: Ron Madson, Joshua Madson, Cory Bushman and Tyler Bushman a handful of the contributors behind Utah County publication The Mormon Worker. Photo: Katie Panzer

Everyone knows who the big, capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal, homophobic bully with a history of violence and racism in Utah is—at least that’s the tag that the Mormon church seems to have earned for itself. Although this is the stereotype, for the past five years a group of local philosophically minded, peace-and-radical-politics-loving anarchists with an affinity for independent press has been working to produce The Mormon Worker, an irregularly published newspaper devoted to both Mormonism and radical politics.

The mash-up of Mormonism and anarchism seems like a concept that would make most anarchists, not to mention the majority of mainstream Mormons, recoil. But to publisher William Van Wagenen, the two philosophies couldn’t be more compatible. Despite his convictions, The Mormon Worker  goes against the Mormon mainstream in an age when the church officially financially backs anti-LGBTQ legislation and right-wing, LDS lunatic Glenn Beck pays vicious homage to his conservative Mormon forefathers on his nationally syndicated television show.

“Anarchism advocates decentralized democratic socialism in which property is held in common,” says Van Wagenen. “That kind of thing is advocated in the Book of Mormon. Mormonism also advocates a very egalitarian political system, and in both [philosophies], you see the prevention of letting some people govern over others.”  He adds that both Mormonism and anarchism condemn violence, and the canonical texts of both philosophies denounce engaging in offensive wars, something that he believes governments do by nature.

Van Wagenen has spent a great deal of his life thinking about these ideas. He served a two year Mormon mission in Germany and graduated from Harvard Divinity School. His experience doesn’t stop there. In addition to doing humanitarian work in Iraq, where he survived a kidnapping, he and the rest of the Mormon Worker Collective have been essential in organizing demonstrations and actions that include marches for immigrants’ rights in downtown Salt Lake and protests against Brigham Young University’s decision to pay big-ticket prices in order to bring in speakers such as torture supporting former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The group’s collective experience and devotion runs deep. Katy Savage, an affiliated activist, was arrested during an annual protest of the School of the Americas, a United States Department of Defense facility in Georgia responsible for the training of violently oppressive Latin American military personnel. Tyler Bushman, a founding member of the collective and writer and editor of the newspaper, has devoted much time to travelling through Mexico and Central America building schools and bicycle-powered machines and learning from Zapatistas and other indigenous autonomy groups. His sister Cory Bushman is an expert on pacifist movements within the Soviet Union and has been responsible for peace activism at the University of Utah and around Salt Lake Valley. Many of the contributors have presented essays on Mormonism, pacifism and anarchism at various symposiums and conferences throughout the state and country.

These actions are motivated by the collective’s strong ideals and philosophies. Inspired heavily by the Christian-anarchist writings of Leo Tolstoy and the ideologies of the seminal Catholic Worker newspaper, the voices at The Mormon Worker believe that when it’s boiled down to Jesus’ original teachings, the Christian gospel is really about non-violence and social equality. Rather than point out inconsistencies or hypocrisies within the organization of the Mormon church, the group uses its energy to try and share a positive message. 

“We’re providing this alternative voice,” says Ron Madson, a pacifist writer and attorney living in Alpine. “When the majority [of Mormons] are educated, I think that [they] will gravitate toward this message. I think that time, our texts and the words of Christ are on our side.”

The content of the newspaper centers around a mix of Mormon and anarchist issues including articles on eco-theology, various influential anarchists and activists, immigration issues and liberation theology, which is the interpretation of Jesus’ teachings as seen through the eyes of the working lower class. The Mormon Worker has published articles by heavy hitters such as Noam Chomsky and has also interviewed the English anarchist punk/pop/folk band Chumbawamba (whose lead guitarist, Boff Whalley, coincidentally used to be Mormon). Because the paper deals heavily with immigrants’ rights and social justice, the editors and contributors work to provide Spanish-language content. The most recent issue was released in April, and out of the 28 pages, eight were filled with articles written in or translated to Spanish. Another reader and volunteer has started translating select articles into Dutch.

The Mormon Worker has provoked quite a reaction, drawing attention from KRCL and The Salt Lake Tribune. It was even featured on the On Faith website, which the Washington Post administrates.  In the end of 2010, the publication was mentioned and quoted in Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel a book written by Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, a lecturer at Loughborough University in England.

The most meaningful reaction, however, has been the response from readers, leading the creators of The Mormon Worker to feel as though they have been instrumental in helping to develop a politically radical, faith-based community.

“A lot of people say, ‘Hey this is the kind of thing that I’ve been thinking for a long time, but I’ve never heard anybody else articulate,’” says Van Wagenen.  “Not only socialists and anarchists, but even democrats and liberals reading the paper get that same feeling.”

Cory Bushman adds, “For me, [starting the paper] was mostly a way to reach out to people who felt isolated.”

Joshua Madson, son of Ron Madson and contributor to The Mormon Worker, hopes the newspaper can create interaction and a space for Mormons identifying with the radical left to express themselves.

“What I would like to see happen is that the three, four or five members of every ward or faith community who believes this way would, for once, feel safe expressing their views,” he says.

Of course, the public response to the newspaper hasn’t been entirely positive. According to Van Wagenen, there are plenty of members of the LDS church who consider the parts of the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants (two key books of Mormon scripture) that advocate nonviolence and socialism to be “silly and outdated.”

Members of the collective were confronted with this mindset while protesting military recruitment at a career fair sponsored by Utah Valley University last year in Orem. For a couple of hours, the group was successful in distributing anti war and anti-military literature to potential recruits while simultaneously distracting recruiters by arguing with them. It wasn’t long before an elderly Mormon missionary couple got offended and summoned the boys in blue.

“They didn’t like the fact that we were preaching against war,” says Joshua Madson. “They went and got the campus police there. Because we didn’t have a booth and didn’t pay our way, we weren’t allowed to speak to anyone. They threatened to arrest us if we didn’t leave.”

Joshua Madson adds that the animosity toward The Mormon Worker and its ideals has dwindled lately.

“Not as many people are as pro-Afghanistan or pro-Iraq war as they used to be, because it’s gone on so long,” he says. “At the height of it, people had a ‘the church is behind this, you can’t be against it’ [mentality].”

Few of the minds behind The Mormon Worker self identify as being more Mormon than they are anarchist, or vice versa. To them, the ideas are one and the same.

“If you look at early Christianity, primitive Christianity, it was very radical—it was a real challenge to the institutions and powers that be. It was revolutionary,” says Ron Madson.

Van Wagenen adds that people shouldn’t feel like there’s a contradiction between left-wing ideals and being Mormon.

He says, “Rather than being a socialist, anarchist or democrat in spite of being Mormon, there are a lot of people who are those things because they are Mormon.”

Free copies of The Mormon Worker are available at Ken Sanders Rare Books (268 S. 200 E.) and Coffee Break (430 E. 400 S.) in Salt Lake City. In Utah County, copies can be picked up at 2Bit Computer and Gadget Repair in Provo (355 N. University Avenue). The paper’s articles, plus exclusive online blog content, can be found at Contributions are welcome.

L-R: Ron Madson, Joshua Madson, Cory Bushman and Tyler Bushman a handful of the contributors behind Utah County publication The Mormon Worker. Photo: Katie Panzer