"Inequality and National Survival:
The Scriptural Case for Modern Legislation "
SquareTwo, Vol. 1 No. 1 (Fall 2008)
Members of the LDS Church are known for their strict moral code, and as such are generally considered (in the US) as falling on the conservative side of the political spectrum. For the last several decades, until quite recently, many LDS members were of the opinion that they could not in good conscience support social platforms of the American left. Many conservative Mormons are quick to advocate what has colloquially been called the “legislation of morality” in the public sphere—but, interestingly, only certain elements of the moral code that Mormons embrace are typically promoted for legislation. These certain elements usually concern issues related to the Law of Chastity and the Word of Wisdom.
Many conservative Latter-day Saints are rightfully concerned with the societal implications of moral degradation. Said Mosiah, “if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you” (Mosiah 29:27). This can be used as a defense of legislation against gay marriage, abortion, and other forms of “iniquity.” The survival of nations may depend on such legislation. However, less discussed in conservative Latter-day Saint circles are the societal implications of riches and economic inequality. If justification for the legislation of morality is predicated on staving off “the judgments of God” (and it sometimes is), should legislation addressing economic inequality also be included in conservative Latter-day Saint political platforms? I will argue that it should.
The scriptures include several case studies which provide evidence that economic inequality is just as likely as other forms of immorality to lead to the downfall of society; and in many cases, economic inequality has been the ultimate cause of other immoral practices.
The first scriptural description of societal destruction occurs in Genesis 19. For some, the Genesis account of this event confirms that it occurred because of sexual immorality. But a later account, in Ezekiel, indicates that it was due to inequality. “This was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).
The Book of Mormon provides numerous case studies of the Nephites. The history of the Nephites is a history of cycles. The last two cycles are particularly instructive, since they culminated in the complete destruction of the Nephites.
The first of these final cycles occurs starting in the Book of Helaman. In chapter 6, we find the good people of the Church prospering economically and living in peace. The beginning of their downfall occurs in verse 17: “the Lord had blessed them so long with the riches of the world. . . therefore they began to set their hearts upon their riches; yea, they began to seek to get gain that they might be lifted up one above another.” To secure such economic inequality, the Nephites resorted to “secret murders.” The people were often warned that such activities would lead to their destruction. Said Samuel, five years before the Lord’s visit, the people were and would be “cursed because of [their] riches” (Helaman 13:21). Third Nephi chapter six describes a world frighteningly similar to our own: “there were many merchants in the land, and also many lawyers, and many officers. . . Some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches” (3 Nephi 6:11-12). The culmination of this cycle occurred just prior to the Lord’s arrival, as the civilization was nearly physically destroyed.
The next and final instance of this cycle begins in 4 Nephi. Following the Savior’s visit, the people had rejected materialism and lived the Law of Consecration. The first indicator that this order would collapse was in verse 23: “they had become exceedingly rich.” Not long after, the people ceased living the Law of Consecration and divided themselves into classes. Following this change in society, this American civilization descended into war and, ultimately, the genocide (or suicide?) of the Nephites.
We can learn several key lessons from these instances in Nephite history.
First, during the time of the Law of Consecration, all people were equally righteous. However, as the order deteriorated, some were richer than others: “they began to be divided into classes.” While the Book of Mormon (and Old Testament) contains abundant promises that obedience leads to prosperity, this instance indicates that economic status was not an accurate measure of previous righteousness. All people were righteous before, but only some of them became rich. This should eliminate any speculation that wealthy members of the Church are simply being blessed for what must be exceeding righteousness, and that the poor are poor because of disobedience (not a common claim, but one that does occur).
The second lesson of these anecdotes is that direct disobedience of non-economic commandments—those including commonly feared practices like whoredoms, murders, and lasciviousness (typically associated in the minds of Latter-day Saints with the downfall of societies)—did not occur until after the people began disobeying economic commandments about equality. We learn in following accounts that the people were ultimately reduced to murder, rape, and even cannibalism as the society continued its deterioration. But these sins which violated the Ten Commandments were symptoms of the problem, not ultimate causes. The causal process is confirmed in 3 Nephi: “Now the cause of this iniquity of the people was this—Satan had great power, unto the stirring up of the people to do all manner of iniquity. . . tempting them to seek for power, and authority, and riches.” As Hugh Nibley has remarked, “Behind the dirty work is always money.” 
The third lesson is that simply the existence of inequality can have destructive consequences. There are a few (a very small few) examples of people living with riches without destructive consequences. Alma 62 is one such instance: “notwithstanding their riches, or their strength, or their prosperity, they were not lifted up in the pride of their eyes.” But this condition has never lasted: within five years, the government was corrupt; within 30 years the Nephites were defeated “because of the pride of their hearts, because of their exceeding riches. . . because of their oppression to the poor, withholding their food from the hungry” (Helaman 4:12). The problem for unsuccessful societies was inequality, which in every instance followed the acquisition of wealth. Sometimes this path to inequality occurred quickly; other times it took longer. In Helaman, the actual desire for inequality, meant to feed the people’s pride, led to the downfall. In 3 Nephi, it not only harmed the nation but also the Church itself: “there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch that the church began to be broken up” (3 Nephi 6:14). In 4 Nephi, it was division into classes. But in each case, inequality, and its constant companion pride, led to the undoing of civilization.
The fourth (and most important) lesson is that members of the modern Church are not immune. In a chilling prophesy, Moroni diagnoses the problems facing the modern Church. He predicts a day of “murders, and robbing, and lying, and deceivings, and whoredoms, and all manner of abominations” (Mormon 8:31, 37). How could this occur, after all the warnings God’s people have had in the scriptures? Simple: “ye do love money, and your substance. . . more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted.” The Doctrine and Covenants reveals much about why riches lead to inequality and destruction: “riches will canker your soul” (D&C 56:16). With wealth being such a treacherous possession, it is little wonder that the Lord gives only one justification for its acquisition: to give it away (Jacob 2:19). Financial riches are necessarily measured in relative terms; and the scriptures make it clear that the victims of inequality include both the poor and the rich.
Conservative Latter-day Saints push for legislation against immorality even though they themselves do not participate in such immorality because simply avoiding whoredoms and lasciviousness ourselves will not protect our nation from destruction. Likewise, individual giving by generous Latter-day Saints, unless it succeeds in substantially reducing inequality (which it has not), will not protect our nation from the destructive consequences of inequality. The former possibility is enough to make many Latter-day Saints push for legislation against sexual immorality; should not the latter possibility lead us to ask for more legislation to reduce economic inequality?
Conservatives support social policy legislation for many other reasons; these are topics for a different study. However, if a reason for such legislation is survival (avoidance of societal destruction), carefully considered legislation for the reduction of inequality is merited. The specifics of such legislation will and should be the subject of further debate. It may include a reallocation of government resources, or it may mean higher taxes and redistribution. Whatever the options may be, the survival of nations may depend on more concerted effort from those who are privileged to have the scriptures as a guide to national survival.
 Hugh Nibley (1994) "Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints," in Don E. Norton (ed.) The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol. 13, Salt Lake: Shadow Mountain, p. 506. [Back to manuscript]
Full Citation for This Article: Decker, Ryan (2008) "Inequality and National Survival: The Scriptural Case for Modern Legislation," SquareTwo, Vol. 1 No. 1 (Fall), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleDeckerInequality.html, accessed [give access date].
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