Sitting in Sunday School this week and rereading 1 Ne 1-7, I couldn’t help but wonder if we as Mormons really believed the central theological message of the Book of Mormon that the righteous will prosper in the land, or whether we were forced to read the Book of Mormon’s prophetic stance allegorically in order for it to make sense. We all know that the righteous don’t always prosper. Then, I remembered that I had guest posted on this topic here at FPR more than a year and a half ago. This is what I wrote:
The two principal authors of the Book of Mormon, Nephi and Mormon, for the most part share a particular world-view. Both subscribe to the idea that the wicked are punished and the righteous prosper. This idea is so ingrained in the thinking of these two authors, that it forms the entire narrative framework of the Book of Mormon. Nephi’s description of the responsibilities his people bear in the Promised Land stand as a prophetic announcement, while Mormon chronicles the history of his people as the explicit fulfillment of Nephi’s warning.
All of the stories in the stories in the Book of Mormon are fed through this framework. Jerusalem falls because of its wickedness. Nephi’s people remain white and delightsome because of their righteousness. However, the Nephites are constantly at risk of destruction as they flirt with iniquity. The “Pride Cycle” is Mormon’s narrative outline, and every example of Nephite defeat or conquest is a direct expression of their righteousness. Consider all of Mormon’s “And thus we see…” interjections. We must resist the move to “spiritualize” these accounts, since Nephi and Mormon have in mind specifically the temporal success of the Lord’s people.
This narrative structure and explanation of the world is not unique to the Book of Mormon. Indeed, it is most prevalent in the book of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua to 2 Kings, excluding Ruth). Jeremiah’s connection with this literature is widely accepted as well. The production of this literature occurs in the exact same milieu as Lehi, which may be more than a coincidence. (However, this shared world-view is not enough to definitively locate the Book of Mormon in antiquity. This Deuteronomistic account of nations has proven incredibly influential, appearing most famously in modern times in Gibbons, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire).
The question that one faces with the Pride-Cycle view of history is that it is incredibly problematic both historically and theologically. From a historian’s standpoint, one can no longer attribute the rise and fall of civilizations to some standard of “wickedness.” At the very least, this view completely ignores power and economics. Theologically, the notion of the wicked failing and the righteous prospering has also become highly suspect. It is simply one of the worst explanations for the problem of evil.
For the most part, I am not really sure that many members of the church subscribe to this world-view anymore, at least as regards to individuals. Indeed, we actually spend quite a bit of time worrying about the opposite problem, namely, why the righteous have to face so many trials. Though the sentiment does still exist in the Church, I think that most members would not attribute a great tragedy in the life of an individual to that person’s wickedness. (However, we do still seem to attribute great successes in life to righteousness. I call this the Abraham-syndrome…the idea that our flocks will be multiplied if we are obedient to the Lord).
At the corporate level, however, I would say that many members of the church do still subscribe to this world-view. I think that a lot of the rhetoric about SSM, for instance, can be traced to Nephi’s warning that those who inhabit the Promised Land will only prosper insofar as the nation is righteous. The justification for much of LDS politico-theological reflection is ultimately rooted in the idea that the nation’s righteousness is the key to its success. However, I think that the LDS community is still more reluctant when it comes to attributing national tragedies to our wickedness. I don’t think that many LDS would support the kind of comments that Pat Robertson gave after 9/11 when he blamed the feminists and homosexuals for the terrorist attacks.
The point of this post is not to determine how many LDS subscribe to this particular world-view at either the individual or corporate level. Suffice it to say that I think that it is declining, especially if General Conference-level explanations of the problem of evil are an indication. Rather, my point is to say that this world-view is deeply problematic and even harmful in some cases and perhaps we should consider rejecting it more explicitly at both the individual and corporate level. There are many ways of trying to salvage aspects of this world-view. In fact, I would argue that some elements of this view are worth saving. But what happens if members of the Church reject perhaps the central theological message of the Book of Mormon? Can members believe in the Book of Mormon without believing the Book of Mormon (on this issue)? Hasn’t this already happened in much of the church?