Some years ago a psychologist with whom I was acquainted described a study that was done at Brigham Young University in which Mormon college students were purportedly shown pictures of people or families and asked to rate which were more righteous. The students apparently overwhelmingly identified those people who looked wealthy as righteous and those who looked poor as less righteous.
Keep in mind, I heard this only by word-of-mouth, so appropriate provisos regarding folklore and memory &c. apply. And even if the study as described to me is accurate, I do wonder if there might have been a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy problem with the study itself: if you ask people to judge others based purely upon their appearance in a picture it isn’t entirely surprising that they will be judged by superficial, visual differences, because that is essentially what you have asked for. It would have been interesting, but hardly less problematic I think, had the students judged all of the wealthy looking people as less righteous and all of the poor looking people as righteous.
Much has been written regarding what some have dubbed the “Prosperity Gospel” or the idea that wealth is a sign of God’s favor and that poverty is a sign of sinfulness or sloth. It is an idea that has periodically been popular in many Christian denominations and has sometimes influenced Mormon culture too.
At times we make the mistake of importing worldly notions of success and prosperity into our expectations about the Gospel.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is true that the living prophets and apostles have encouraged members to live in ways that are conducive to provident living and to be good stewards over their property and possessions. And good principles of money management have often been taught alongside prayer, repentance, and charity.
President Kimball in particular was fond of reminding the members to paint their sheds, mend their fences, and keep their homes neat and tidy. But these teachings are about being good stewards over those things that we own, however meager they might be, as a component of righteousness; they are not teaching that the accumulation of material wealth is the inevitable result of righteousness, and certainly not that a lack of material wealth is the result of disobedience or sin.
It is also true that one of the themes of the Book of Mormon is that those who are obedient to God’s commandments will “prosper in the land” and those who are not will be cut off from Him. And yes, the peoples of the Book of Mormon are often blessed with general prosperity, wealth, and peace as a result of righteousness and suffer great loss in consequence of wickedness and pride.
However, right from the get-go, in the first verse of the Book of Mormon, Nephi declares that he has experienced “many afflictions” during his life and simultaneously been “highly favored of the Lord” throughout his life. And other passages invoke the promise of prospering in the land even during protracted, disastrous wars and difficulties. (See, for example Jarom 1:9, Mosiah 2:31, and Alma 48:15.)
So the relationship between righteousness and blessings of prosperity is not as linear as we sometimes might think.
I find it helpful to recognize that actions and consequent blessings are often separated by a gap of time– sometimes a long gap of time. It is a little like turning on hot water at a faucet. There is often a delay between the time you turn the hot water on and when hot water starts to flow. Likewise temporal prosperity in the present may be the consequence of choices far in the past. And the consequences of wickedness may not be realized until much, much later. But it is also more complicated than that, because cause and effect are not necessarily proportional, small causes can have big effects and visa versa. So drawing a simple line to connect the dots is not always possible. Some consequences won’t even be realized until the next life.
The late Elder Boyd K. Packer, of the twelve apostles of the church, taught:
“It is the understanding of almost everyone that success, to be complete, must include a generous portion of both fame and fortune as essential ingredients. The world seems to work on that premise. The premise is false. It is not true. […] You need not be either rich or hold high position to be completely successful and truly happy. In fact, if these things come to you, and they may, true success must be achieved in spite of them, not because of them.”
“We want our children and their children to know that the choice of life is not between fame and obscurity, nor is the choice between wealth and poverty. The choice is between good and evil, and that is a very different matter indeed. When we finally understand this lesson, thereafter our happiness will not be determined by material things. We may be happy without them or successful in spite of them.”
And Elder M. Russell Ballard suggested:
“In some ways, we have gone through a period of great prosperity which may, when history is written, prove to be as devastating as the Great Depression in its effect upon the attitudes of the people.”
In other words, the “Prosperity Gospel” is problematic at best. Righteousness and wickedness cannot be simplistically judged based on material wealth and comfort or poverty. Our righteousness can be tried by either poverty or prosperity.
So instead of wealth and comfort, I like to think of the promise of prosperity to the righteous in terms of being “favored of the Lord.” Nephi was highly favored of the Lord in his afflictions as well as his times of comfort.
John Taylor, who was the third president of the restored church, recounted that before he was baptized a member of the church he was told: “Now, we have nothing particular to promise you, only the favor of God if you will live righteously and keep His commandments. You may be persecuted, afflicted, imprisoned or put to death for the testimony you may have to bear, for the religion you are called upon to obey; but we can promise to you that inasmuch as this is the case you will have eternal life.”
This essay up to this point, though interesting and important in its own right, is really just a lengthy preface to the main thought I want to bring to your attention.
Living prophets and apostles have often warned members of the church of an increasingly wicked and sinful world. And yet, among the members of the church there are some who disagree. On the contrary, they say: the world is not getting worse. It is actually better than it has ever been and is continuing to get better all of the time.
They point to numerous indicators– increased literacy; increased health, nutrition, sanitation, and education; higher standards of living; lower child mortality rates and longer lifespans; improved access to clean water; the spread of democracy and freedom through a global economy; a flood of technological innovations that simplify tasks and improve lives; significant decreases in crime; fewer wars and fewer casualties in war; and on and on.
So how can we say that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket with all of this progress? Sure there are problems, but we’re continually working on them and the world is getting better all of the time. People are living better, safer, more productive lives than ever before.
And in some ways they are right. On the whole, the world is certainly far more prosperous today than ever in its history.
But they are also making a grave mistake: They are confusing prosperity and peace with righteousness. Their argument is simply the prosperity gospel applied on a macroscopic scale instead of an individual one.
Ironically these are sometimes the same people who are quick to decry the false idea that prosperity is a sign of righteousness when it comes to judging individuals, but then they turn around and employ the same reasoning to reject the notion that the world is increasingly wicked.
So, yes, our society is incredibly prosperous, especially compared to past eras. But it is also unbelievably and increasingly wicked. In fact, our prosperity leaves us with more avenues and methods to sin, in ways that weren’t even possible to generations before us. Of course there are cycles and undulations. We can’t draw a neat and tidy line between prior righteousness and current wickedness. And we have substituted some sins for others that were widespread in the past but we have abandoned. But our prosperity does not excuse, justify, or counterbalance our grave wickedness one whit.
We are saturated with an emphasis on material wealth, ease, and enmity and competition with our neighbors. Covetousness is rampant and uncontroversial.
We systematically turn a blind eye to what amounts to the human sacrifice of children to the gods of convenience and selfishness as we kill literally MILLIONS of unborn children worldwide every year through abortion. And we then callously dismember and harvest their body parts to sell. Children are killed in the womb, simply because they have Down Syndrome, or some other supposed deficiency– in some countries simply because of their biological sex.
Our society is so sexualized that a huge number of people, including members of the church, regularly and openly watch television shows and films that involve explicit sex and constant objectification. Pornography is everywhere and widely accepted; streamed into our own homes in volumes never before possible in the history of the world . Even young children are exposed constantly to sexual content in ubiquitous advertisements and marketing– so much so that we hardly notice.
Women are pressured into pornographic entertainment production, prostitution, womb-renting, and egg donation and children are turned into commodities.
What used to be considered shocking profanity is now so common in public entertainment and discourse that even good members of the church hardly notice it anymore. Blasphemous, vulgar, and sexual entertainment is awarded the highest praise and artistic accolades.
Fornication, co-habitation, children born out of wedlock, and sexual incontinence and deviancy are openly and publicly practiced and even encouraged while governments redefine marriage into incoherence.
Cheating in school and work is so commonplace it is hardly even considered wrong unless you are caught.
However, there is a more important point I want to emphasize. The righteousness or wickedness of our society is not measured only by the level of sin that is publicly embraced. We are judged by both publicly acceptable sins and by our private, secret wickedness and depravity. And our private, secret sins are usually several degrees more depraved than what is publicly tolerated.
Last week, hackers released the data for a website dedicated to helping individuals commit adultery. The site had 38 MILLION accounts. Sure, some people had multiple accounts, and some accounts were fake, some were for people who were not married &c., but that is still somewhere in the range of 35 MILLION people who signed up to systematically violate their oaths and obligations to spouse, children, and society. That is TWICE the number of members of the church. TWICE! Some of them may even be members of the church.
Secret physical, sexual, and other abuse of spouses, children, and relatives, as well as the elderly and the disabled are rampant. Huge numbers of people have secretly and quietly suffered at the hands of abusive family and friends, neighbors and teachers. And for every abuse that becomes publicly known there are unimaginable others that are never revealed.
There is a thriving underground market of kidnapping and sexual slavery, child pornography, and sexual exploitation.
And there are many other secret atrocities and sordid perversions I will not enumerate.
Some of this wickedness is only possible because of our great prosperity. Some of our prosperity is made possible by our iniquity.
Are we really that different from the refined gentlemen and ladies of the antebellum south, who openly practiced the wickedness of slavery and privately indulged in even greater secret depravity– including sexual exploitation and rape of slaves, and selling the children resulting from their actions (selling their own children!) as slaves to hide their wickedness? They too enjoyed great prosperity, wealth, and comfort.
There are some members of the church who speak of building Zion, and they put a great deal of emphasis on the idea that in a Zion society the people should have “all things in common” and that there should be “no poor among them.” They seem to think that if we could only create a society in which their was universal prosperity, we would have Zion. However, the scripture in the book of Moses reads:
“And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.”
We can’t gloss over the requirement to live in righteousness and jump instead strait to “no poor among them”. Even if we were somehow able produce a society of essentially universal material prosperity, with no poor, it would not be Zion unless the people are publicly and privately righteous as well.