A common theme among instructors covering The Book of Mormon is that the Nephites, the main social group discussed in the book’s narrative, pass through cycles of repentance, prosperity, increasing wickedness, and then calamity that leads to repentance. But the nature of that increasing wickedness is typically left unsaid. It’s just general wickedness in most pedagogical narratives, and the instructors pass over it.
But Mormon does not: in Helaman 6, he cites the source of all the Nephite woes to those among them who seek power and wealth. The external forces of their tribal opponents can be managed, due to the defensive nature of their lands. It’s the internal threat brought on by a love of power and riches that destroys the Nephites from within. In Helaman 6:38-39, Mormon describes the Nephite state, brought under the influence of philosophies contrary to those of humility and communal sharing: “… the Nephites did build them up and support them, beginning at the more wicked part of them, until they had overspread all the land of the Nephites, and had seduced the more part of the righteous until they had come down to believe in their works and partake of their spoils, and to join with them in their secret murders and combinations. And thus they did obtain the sole management of the government, insomuch that they did trample under their feet and smite and rend and turn their backs upon the poor and the meek, and the humble followers of God.”
The last line is most telling, as it connects the Nephites to the people of ancient Jerusalem, who were denounced by Jeremiah for how they oppressed the poor and the meek. Indeed, in verse 40, Mormon says, “… they were in an awful state, and ripening for an everlasting destruction.”
In the United States, there is an increasingly disturbing trend that arises from ultra-conservative social groups towards glossing over inequalities in American history, government, and economics. These ultra-conservatives are in a group that benefits from a historical narrative that glosses over their ideological ancestors’ faults. Namely, discussions of slavery, indentured servitude, denial of civil rights, racial discrimination, and institutionalized stratification of society along racial and class lies are topics that they do not want to see discussed in schools, even though their policy agenda promotes many of those very things.
These ultra-conservative groups are no longer fringe elements in the US polity. They have been able to gain control over a major political party and continue to preach their falsehoods from multiple media channels, winning over more adherents to their philosophies that “trample under their feet and smite and rend and turn their backs upon the poor and the meek.” We see this in resistance to police reform, support of monuments to the Confederacy, refusal to engage in discussion with proponents of civil rights, mass “voter cleanup” efforts that strip huge tranches of minority voters of their rights, and further manipulation of the electoral process, from district mapping on down to polling locations, to minimize the voting impact of minorities and thereby seal their electoral victories.
I see such efforts as parallel to those that Mormon decried, and see these contributing to the USA’s “ripening for an everlasting destruction.”
In a world of increasingly technological complexity, the anti-intellectualism prominent in much of the ultra-conservative movement leaves the USA less able to compete successfully with hostile actors from outside our nation. Cybersecurity in particular is a deep and profound weakness that the USA cannot address through outsourcing or even robotic automation. It’s an area that requires more extensive technological training among home-grown resources, who are paid well enough to remain in their positions over time in order to provide adequate defense against constant attacks from abroad. That, in turn, requires an educational system that is properly funded, and that, in turn, would lead to the undermining of ultra-conservative power that depends upon a weak educational system for the twofold purpose of keeping minority populations disorganized through a lack of education and that, for their paradoxical ideologies to survive, rational thinking among the broader population must be kept to a minimum.
The lack of full civil rights for all Americans further undermines the position of the USA as a leader among democratic nations. As we take hypocritical stances towards other nations that oppress their populations, they need only point to the USA’s own oppressed peoples as giving the lie to our position. They carry on with their oppressions and we are left as hypocrites, unable to clean our own house because doing so would result in the ultra-conservative faction losing its pathways to power.
Economically, within my lifetime I have seen how home prices have gone from dear but affordable to impossible for most to finance. I have seen wages remain stagnant over the years as the nation’s rich have reaped the benefits that should have been shared with all participants in their enterprises more equitably. I say “more equitably”, as that used to be a thing in the USA – as a business profited, so did its employees, once upon a time. Now, in the name of “shareholder value”, those profits are denied the rank-and-file and sent upwards, to those who really don’t need all of them. Should someone bring up a “small businessman” shibboleth, let me assure one and all that the “small businessman” does not benefit from the economic structures that ensure the wealth of those who are rich enough to have the ears of the legislatures at their beck and call. My own children do not have the same hoped-for life trajectory that I was able to take advantage of. Wages are simply too low and house prices are simply too high. As we become a nation of renters, the economic inequality makes the USA increasingly more rigid along class and racial lines. Upward social mobility, it would seem, was an aberration of another age and not the general long-term pattern in the USA. It is an exception, not at all the rule.
For the overwhelming majority of African-Americans, it wasn’t even an exception. Slavery, black codes, Jim Crow laws, segregation, discriminatory lending practices, whites-only provisions in The New Deal and GI Bill laws, states using the 10th Amendment to fight federal civil rights provisions, and conservative manipulation of the federal court system, up to and including the Supreme Court, to vacate anti-segregation legal provisions have all served to prevent that demographic group from participating on an equal standing with Anglo-Americans. While several other European immigrant groups have been able to merge into the general Anglo-American elites in the USA, not so for immigrants from Latin America, Asia, or modern Africa. To be sure, the only non-immigrant group in the USA, Native Americans, is also kept out of the benefits enjoyed by the Anglo-American elite.
I firmly believe that while history never precisely repeats itself, it rhymes time and time again. Modern US society parallels what I see in Helaman 6 in The Book of Mormon. As such, I have to brace myself for the horrors to come, courtesy of the ultra-conservatives who forgot that the very person they claim to follow, Jesus Christ, warned strongly about allowing social and economic divisions to fester.