In Mosiah 24, Mormon characterizes the Lamanites in a negative cultural light, but it’s a different light than before. Earlier references to Lamanites describe them negatively as mostly hunter-gatherers, unsettled and uncivilized. However, their urbanization seems to have proceeded independently of Nephite prejudice. In the later timeframe of the events in Mosiah, the Lamanites present a monarchial-feudal social structure and the ability to project force in ways more organized than simple raiding parties.
But the Lamanites still don’t catch a break. It is the Nephite dissenting group, the followers of Amulon, who provide administrative innovations for the Lamanites and who also teach them in the language of the Nephites. After that cultural exchange, the Lamanites are now described as “… a cunning and a wise people, as to the wisdom of the world, yea a very cunning people, delighting in all manner of wickedness and plunder, except it were among their own brethren.”
There are two threads of denigration, one expressed and one implied. The expressed one is that the Lamanites are still a demonized “other” in the ways they delight in wickedness and plunder. The implied one is that the Amulonites had something significant to do with the Lamanites no longer running around in loincloths and getting some civilization.
That implication that the Lamanites need to be improved and that the improving involves them becoming more like the Nephites, even the wicked Nephites, is a dangerous idea. While it seems to open a door for equality, it typically results in a situation where the one group is never truly good enough for the other. The Lamanites, in this implication, can become better than they are, but never as good as the Nephites, when all is said and done.
In a more modern view – and we see something of this later in the Book of Mormon – it is better to say that we are all imperfect and that to better ourselves, we all draw closer to God. That path does not mean becoming more like some other culture here on earth. It means becoming closer to God by leaving behind the things of the world. While I may feel more comfortable around people who speak the same language as I do and who do things in ways similar to how I do them, that is not Heaven. Heaven is made up of a widely diverse group of people, none of whom I was told to copy and none of whom were told to copy me. All who are in Heaven are those who leave the world behind and follow after God.
I want to go back to the bit about wickedness and plunder, except among their own people: before we think such traits to be unique to the Lamanites at that point in time, or unique solely to peoples in either faraway lands or long-ago times, let us consider the experience of nations that faced down the wickedness and plunder of Portugal, Spain, France, England, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States of America. There are others that can be added to the list – these are the chief examples of nations that plundered other parts of the world for their own benefit.
While there is a strong temptation for an American to read the Book of Mormon and equate the Nephites with the USA, and everything right and good along with that, we have to remember certain things. One, the Nephites were a people that dealt with some massive problems of their own, stemming from major economic and social inequalities. The equation of “Nephite equals good guys” is entirely one of our own imagining. There are Nephites that we root for, but even those people have their flaws that need shedding before they make the final approach to God.
Next, the undesirable characteristics of governments described in the Book of Mormon are available to one and all. History does not care where its rhymes or repetitions occur. And when you look at the history of a nation built on the backs of slaves, that demanded an extension of the slave trade to recover the manpower losses of slaves that bolted for freedom in the American War of Independence, well, we are looking at the history of “… a cunning and a wise people, as to the wisdom of the world, yea a very cunning people, delighting in all manner of wickedness and plunder, except it were among their own brethren.”