There is nothing so skillful in its own defense as imperious pride.
-Helen Hunt Jackson
This post is Part 2 in a series regarding the message and the challenge that the Restored Gospel raises against the contemporary political establishment of the United States of America.
The first prophet whose words we read in the Book of Mormon is Nephi. Born and raised in Jerusalem, he, his father Lehi, their family, and some friends were led out of that city by the Lord just before it fell to the Babylonians. Guided by the Lord, they eventually voyaged to the New World, where their descendants would become the Nephite and Lamanite nations mentioned in the previous post in this series. Before making that ocean voyage, however, Nephi and his people wandered for years in the Arabian Desert. During this time, the Lord communicated with them, tested them, and taught them important lessons. One of these lessons came in the form of a vision – the vision of the Tree of Life. This vision includes many deeply symbolic images that stand as a summation of the most important things to know about this mortal existence of ours. This post will discuss only two of the images in this vision. The first is the Tree of Life, which bears fruit that is “desirable above all other fruit.” Those who managed to find their way to this tree and partake of its fruit became truly happy. It is a symbol of Jesus Christ and the eternal life found through Him.
In their visions, Nephi and Lehi saw people searching for this tree and its fruit. However, they also saw other forces – forces of darkness. These forces sought to draw people away from the Tree of Life and lead them down other paths. As Lehi describes:
And it came to pass that I beheld others pressing forward […] even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree.
And after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed.
And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld […] a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.
And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.
And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost. (1 Nephi 8:24-28)
There are various Biblical symbols that could be compared to the Great and Spacious Building. Two important examples are the scarlet-clad harlot in the Book of Revelation and the great image of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in the Book of Daniel. All three of these symbols similarly deal with the pride and powers of the world – both the social evils brought on by general human vice and the institutionalized evils that characterize our political systems. One aspect of the Great and Spacious Building that is sometimes glossed over is the fact that it “stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.” This is meaningful in at least two ways. First, its loftiness comes as a symbol of the malignant hubris held by the building itself and by those who inhabit it. Second, the fact that it has no foundation conveys the feeling that its greatness, founded on nothing, is only an illusion. Once the lie has been realized, the “spell” will be broken, and the entire structure will come crumbling down. As Nephi later describes:
And it came to pass that I saw and bear record, that the great and spacious building was the pride of the world; and it fell, and the fall thereof was exceedingly great.
The Great and Spacious Building represents all of the human forces in this world that seek to shame, control, and destroy those who are attempting to live righteous lives, and it has existed for all of human history. It symbolizes the hollow pomp that has always characterized various aspects of human societies. In the time of Lehi, Nephi, and Jeremiah, it could be seen in the wickedness – cataloged by Jeremiah – of Jewish society, specifically that of the court of King Zedekiah. In the time of Christ and the Apostles, it was manifested by the sanctimony and hypocrisy of the Sadducees and Pharisees and by the corrupt, ruthless rule of the Romans. Today, the presence and influence of the Great and Spacious Building is evident in the United States of America in various ways. It hovers over – or is often even embodied by – Capitol Hill, Wall Street, Hollywood, our industrial centers, our schools, our churches, and our very homes.
A stately Palace built of squared Brick,
Which cunningly was without Mortar laid,
Whose Walls were high, but nothing strong, nor thick;
And golden Foil all over them displaid;
That purest Sky with Brightness they dismaid:
High lifted up were many lofty Towers,
And goodly Galleries far overlaid,
Full of fair Windows, and delightful Bowers;
And on the top a Dial told the timely Hours
It was a goodly Heap for to behold,
And spake the Praises of me Workman’s Wit;
But full great Pity, that so fair a Mold
Did on so weak Foundation ever fit:
For on a sandy Hill, that still did flit,
And fall away, it mounted was full high,
That every Breath of Heaven shaked it;
And all the hinder parts, that few could spy,
Were ruinous and old, but painted cunningly.
-Edmund Spenser (from The Faerie Queene)
Our Great and Spacious Building
Approval ratings for Congress are at record lows – recently descending below 10%. And yet, out of 395 Representatives running for reelection in 2012, only 13 were fired by voters. The outcome probably will not be much different in 2014. How does this happen? How is it that we only throw out our Representatives 3.3% of the time when over 90% of us disapprove of the representation we are afforded? It is because these career politicians, with their monumental party organizations, have constructed a political paradigm akin to an oligopoly or a consortium of cartels.
However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.
The power of our political cartels is most clearly seen in our election processes. For independent and third-party candidates, it is difficult to get ballot access. Even when they manage to do so, they can almost never match the Democrats and Republicans dollar-for-dollar in campaign contributions. Those who seek to bring about change within the major parties still find themselves pressured to use the very frameworks that have become infested with corruption, infected with hypocrisy, and impeded by internal bureaucracy. And once they become immersed in the party’s microcosm, they begin to lose any external perspective they once may have had, gradually becoming friendly to the groupthink and conflicted allegiances characteristic of the major political parties. They make promises to donors – promises they will need to keep in order to get reelected. At the national conventions, they meet with small groups of influential people on private yachts to discuss the future of the nation beyond the eyes of the public. They establish close ties with lobbyists, who make more than doctors, lawyers, and members of Congress for good reason. Many of them profess religion, but only because they perceive their respective electorates as being religious, and the religion they profess is usually a caricature that focuses on a few aspects of their supposed faith, at the expense of the other aspects. Thus, some proclaim belief in a hatefully judgmental Deity, while others proclaim belief in a Deity for whom all is permissible – depending upon the vices and prejudices characteristic to their electorates. Either way, many of these people do not actually believe in God at all, but simply invoke Him whenever it becomes politically convenient to do so.
Thus, we see the great edifice of contemporary American political culture: a massive structure hovering above the meek and lowly of the world, its inhabitants meting out judgments and ridicule without even a hint of understanding of how weak its position actually is. Unfortunately for us, though, it is not just the political establishment that faces such peril. Led on by such parties and the pride they emit, our entire nation has become like the Great and Spacious Building in many ways. In economic and financial terms, the fact that we command an illusory prowess but have no substantiating foundation can be illustrated quantitatively. The clearest way of making this illustration is by showing the ridiculous extent to which we, both as individuals and as a nation, think that we can finance what we want now on borrowed money forever. As an example, consider these stats as of the writing of this post:
- Personal debt per citizen: $51,741
- National debt per citizen: $55,184
- National debt per taxpayer: $151,611
- Liabilities per citizen: $1,113,055 (Assets per citizen: $357,592)
By the time you read this article, if you go to the source cited above, you will probably see even more horrific numbers. As one might imagine by looking at these numbers, the most frightening item is the last. In a country with a per-capita GDP of approximately $53,000, how is it that we have over $1 million in liabilities per citizen? How did we get to this point? How did we not see this coming? Alexander Hamilton once said: “A national debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing.” It is true: if we were to use our ability to borrow as a means of paying for defensive wars to ensure our survival and for infrastructure that will bring exponential returns, this ability could surely be termed a blessing. However, that is not how we use debt in this country.
And I sincerely believe…that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies; and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.
The ability to borrow when necessary brings a higher level of freedom and security. However, as with every other misuse of power, our freedom itself becomes the very thing that brings us under a yoke of bondage. We are already past the point of excess, both individually and as a nation. Instead of using debt to finance growth and investment, we use debt to finance profligate spending and more debt. We have not been in any serious fear of having an armed conflict with another major world power since the Cold War, but you would not think so by looking at our national debt. Our economy continues on a general trend of growth, but it is not growing quickly enough to catch up with our unfunded liabilities. One can only imagine what kind of debt we would accrue in a hypothetical WW4 scenario. (WW3 being the Cold War and related conflicts.)
The inconvenient truth is that, even if we were to completely cut everything from the federal budget except Social Security and defense, we would still be in trouble. And yet, virtually everyone in Washington seems oblivious to this fact: both major parties are full of people who will not even consider cutting these programs, instead demanding that we actually increase funding for one or both. Some say that we need to raise taxes in order to account for this budget disparity, and this can surely result in higher tax revenue in some cases (depending on where current rates lie on the Laffer curve), but we cannot hope to cover all or most of this gap with tax hikes. The unavoidable truth is that we cannot render this country solvent without cutting federal expenses significantly. And no matter what we cut, someone will always shout: “Not that! Anything but that!” We must cut everything: military, Social Security, funding for science and art…everything. Like chemotherapy, it will be painful, difficult, and necessary.
Washington continues to ignore the need to cut Social Security payouts in particular because those receiving it have more of a tendency of voting than the young do. Baby boomers have paid for Social Security, and they intend to get what they were promised. They even fight to increase payouts. On the whole, they do not understand what current policy is doing to the system. For this reason, the only hope for the young is the young. The young must become politically active. As Thomas Friedman wrote in November 2013:
Short of an economic meltdown, there is only one thing that might produce meaningful change: a mass movement for tax, spending and entitlement reform led by the cohort that is the least organized but will be the most affected if we don’t think long term — today’s young people.
The harsh reality is that, whether they realize it or not, Baby Boomers are eating my generation for breakfast. This will have consequences. As one writer put it:
Impoverished by our incessant demands for free government services, our children will most likely get revenge by not providing us with any grandchildren. Even if they wanted kids, how will they afford them if half their paycheck is confiscated to take care of us? As the most self-absorbed generation in American history, I suppose Baby Boomers will find it easy to live out their days bereft of grandchildren, much as the French and Italians have. Can this really be the Great Society we’ve been promising to bequeath to posterity?
This writer, like many others, has compared Social Security to a Ponzi scheme. I cannot think of a modern incarnation of the Great and Spacious Building that is more accurate than the Ponzi scheme structure, with its pretentiousness, imagined sustainability, lack of real foundation, and unavoidable collapse. Some challenge the Social Security-Ponzi scheme comparison, however. One writer for CNNMoney has given three reasons for which he thinks this is a false comparison:
- “[N]o one is being misled.” Is it worse to trick people into making a poor investment or to use law to force them into making an investment that they know is a poor one?
- “Social Security isn’t automatically doomed to fail.” No, we can still save it through reform. However, so long as those receiving payments have more political clout than those making payments, no such reform will occur. Even if we were to manage to do so, those currently receiving payments would feel cheated – and rightly so. An investment scheme that does not deliver on its promises is a failed investment scheme. The fact that it is still able to pay something is good, but not sufficient. Social Security may not face an impending collapse like what the organizations of Ponzi and Madoff experienced, but diminished returns are unavoidable. We cannot use the fact that Social Security can be fixed as an excuse for not fixing it.
- “Social Security is morally the polar opposite of a Ponzi scheme and fundamentally different from what Madoff allegedly did.” Current Social Security liabilities are funded not with returns on smart investments made with funds previously contributed, but with funds extracted from new payers. Regardless of the intent of this system, it is doing exactly what a Ponzi scheme does. The fact that current beneficiaries do not mean to rob their grandchildren does not change the fact that they are doing so.
Before the anti-government crowd starts pointing at the excess and foolishness of the public sector, however, it is important to emphasize the excess and foolishness of the private sector. For instance, the average household credit card debt for the United States is $15,191. This figure can be attributed to the fact that so many people in this country lack a basic understanding of finances, incessantly spending money they do not have for things they do not need. Credit truly is a financial wonder: it allows one to enjoy riches without being rich and to be prideful without being great.
One might think that such foolishness can only be attributed to “lay people”. Those who actually understand finance and economics surely would never be so foolish as to construct their lives upon a foundation of financial sand. However, it appears that even those whose business it is to know finance have at times proven woefully inept at seeing impending systemic problems – and have therefore contributed substantially to the causing of said problems. The crisis that began in 2008 is a clear example of this.
Much has been said about the seemingly counter-intuitive nature of our banking system. For example, why is it that banks are able to lend money that they do not have? The explanation is actually very complex – so complex, in fact, that many experts actually say that banks do not really lend money at all. What banks do, put simply, is stand as an intermediary party that channels and facilitates the financial obligations and transactions of other parties. Lay people often criticize our banking system, saying that it is intrinsically insane. “How can you lend money that you do not have?” they ask. This just comes from a lack of understanding of the way the banking system works within the greater financial system and economy. It is really not as crazy or stupid as those given a simplistic explanation may think. However, we do need to remember one very important fact: The banking system, in the end, depends upon a lender of last resort – that is, the federal government. If the federal government were solvent and strong, able to repay its own debts, the seemingly precarious nature of the banking sector would not be a matter of concern, as the federal government could always be relied upon as a bulwark of stability. However, as the federal government is already woefully unable to cover its own liabilities, its position as lender of last resort continues to weaken. The result, again, is a great edifice with no real foundation.
Where can we look for hope, then? For many, the answer is clear: God. Christ. Scripture. Church. Religion. However, as we turn to church and to religion, we must be careful not to merely take our spiritual infections with us where they will be aggravated in yet another Great and Spacious Building. While many leaders belonging to many religious groups lead modest lives of service, all too many are among the greatest of hypocrites, collecting millions from the desperate, impoverished masses even while they preach of the evils of worldliness. And even among the lay people, such problems abound. As Christians, we stand firmly against the institutionalization of homosexual “marriage” because we say it is a sin, but when our children fornicate shamelessly, we shrug at it and tell them that Jesus will forgive them. We preach to young girls about modesty and then get into our Land Rovers and drive home to houses full of empty bedrooms. We complain about the excesses, waste, and corruption of government welfare programs, but we are not willing to give our money to the non-profit organizations that would do the job better. We believe that abortion is sin, but then we fight for our right to abort – and do so when it becomes convenient – because Jesus will forgive us.
Make no mistake: regardless of how much your salvation depends on faith or grace, God expects you to do hard things. God expects you to forsake your favorite sin. Yes, even that. Especially that. Despite your observances, your words, and even your donations, so long as you cling to that thing and make no attempt to free yourself from it, that thing – whatever it is – has the power to destroy you. And empowering snake oil salesmen merely because they stroke your pride and excuse your vices will only bring you a shallow and cheap type of solace.
And now when ye talk, ye say: If our days had been in the days of our fathers of old, we would not have slain the prophets; we would not have stoned them, and cast them out.
Behold ye are worse than they; for as the Lord liveth, if a prophet come among you and declareth unto you the word of the Lord, which testifieth of your sins and iniquities, ye are angry with him, and cast him out and seek all manner of ways to destroy him; yea, you will say that he is a false prophet, and that he is a sinner, and of the devil, because he testifieth that your deeds are evil.
But behold, if a man shall come among you and shall say: Do this, and there is no iniquity; do that and ye shall not suffer; yea, he will say: Walk after the pride of your own hearts; yea, walk after the pride of your eyes, and do whatsoever your heart desireth—and if a man shall come among you and say this, ye will receive him, and say that he is a prophet.
Yea, ye will lift him up, and ye will give unto him of your substance; ye will give unto him of your gold, and of your silver, and ye will clothe him with costly apparel; and because he speaketh flattering words unto you, and he saith that all is well, then ye will not find fault with him. (Helaman 13:25-28)
The pride of the world is and always has been the result of a fundamental lack of understanding of one’s greatest weaknesses. Today, the Great and Spacious Building may stand higher than it ever has, and it is as menacing, supercilious, and doomed as it ever was. The message of the Restored Gospel to the United States of America can therefore be summarized in this way: Either do what you must to bring your institutions, philosophies, and lifestyles back down to firm grounding, or abandon them altogether – because their pomp and pretense have doomed them, and you will be doomed with them.
Our hope does not lie in any particular political ideology or campaign. Such things are cheap and fleeting – and the very source of many of our problems. Rather, our hope lies in goodness, forthrightness, tenacity, and faith – among the people, our elected officials, our bureaucrats…everyone. All too often, social and fiscal reform only amount to a stirring of the nasty bucket: we turn everything upside down and inside out, but the pollution remains. Some systems are certainly better than others, but no system can compensate for that which has died in the heart of an entire people.