The Politics of Editing “The False Gods We Worship”

President Spencer W. Kimball’s most famous sermon recently received a makeover in the June Ensign. Kimball delivered one of the most enduring sermons of his career, “The False Gods We Worship,” in 1976 in the context of the bicentennial celebration of the United States. Kimball was a conservative political thinker, but this talk has endured in part because it appealed to conservatives and liberals alike.

There are two sins that are at the heart of Kimball’s critique of society. First, Kimball warns about the idolatry of wealth. He sees materiality in conflict with spirituality, and the searching for wealth in conflict with service in the gospel. These plentiful resources compete for our time, attention, and allegiance. These resources should be put to use to bless others. He express regret that some have chosen their wealth or possessions over service in the church.

Second, Kimball expresses opposition to war. Preaching in the wake of Vietnam, but also in the context of the Cold War, Kimball condemns the use of resources, the training of soldiers, and the perversion of the Savior’s teaching to “love your enemies.”

Importantly, Kimball offers a conservative, prophetic narrative of national security through righteousness. His framing of defense against enemies is having the Lord fight the battle, drawing on the Deuteronomic Historians’ narrative of Israel’s rise and fall. Seeing wealth as idolatry allows Kimball to put the US into the prophetic narrative of idolatry as the cause of the fall of nations.

The talk is apocalyptic in nature, reflecting on what Kimball sees as a particularly wicked moment in world history where Satan’s power is at its height in the last days. It paints a stark boundary between “the world” and “the Saints,” and regrets where the world has corrupted the Saints. Kimball laments the familiar moral sexual sins, pride, lying, and stealing as the “pollution of mind, body, and surroundings.” In Kimball’s narrative of righteousness as the source of national security, his apocalyptic worldview understands that the immanent threat was not the Soviet Union, but the coming of the Lord. Focusing one’s efforts and resources into the Church is the only preparation needed for the impending crisis.

In the recent excerpt of this talk that appeared in the Ensign under the title, “Worship the True and Living God,” the editors cut entirely the section condemning the pursuit of war. Instead, the talk focuses only on the section condemning the pursuit of wealth.

One way to see this editorial decision is that the Church has abandoned Kimball’s condemnation of war. The talk is no longer a commentary on war and the evils of militarization, but is instead a more neutral talk about prioritizing wealth alone. LDS peace activists may be disturbed by the excision of one of their most important prophetic proof texts that seems so vital today. The new text fails to condemn the present context of the “War on Terror” either because the Church avoids speaking against this issue, or because it supports it.

At the same time, the elimination of the section on war also eliminates the eschatological theme of the talk. The editors also eliminate the entire introduction about a dualism between “the world” and “the Saints,” and the imagery of the coming thunderstorm. The notion that righteousness is a foreign policy platform because the Lord will defends the nation against enemies also goes away.

The reframing of this classic discourse reveals a set of competing interpretations. Does this particular redaction of a famous prophetic speech, which quite clearly alters the overall message, signify a backing away of the condemnation of war? Or, does it signify the problem of the delay of the parousia, and a deemphasis of the apocalyptic imagery of an impending day of the Lord?

Or, perhaps, it reveals that the particular political opposition to war that Kimball exhibited was inseparable from his own apocalyptic worldview.

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  • Russell Arben Fox

    Good set of questions, Ben. I think one possible way of framing these editorial choices is to be careful in how we describe the sermon in the first place. I disagree with your labeling of Kimball as a “conservative political thinker” and of “The False Gods we Worship” as offering “a conservative, prophetic narrative.” Your terminology in the second part of the post is more accurate: Kimball was thinking apocayptically, invoking a dualism which can’t be mapped on to the liberal (which includes the American conservative) political map. He was, in this sermon, being not a conservative, but a reactionary, seeing the turning away from nature, away from peace, away from the safety and seclusion of the saints, and the turning towards the world of war and profit and nationalism, as simply idolatry. The charge of making an idol of the modern world of nation-states (which is what Kimball was essentially doing) requires a rejection of that world, not a reform of it in one or another ideological direction.

    So why was the sermon edited? There could be a hundred reasons, of course. But following your questions, I would take the second option: the modern church today can send “conservative” messages (indeed, arguably it does all the time), but it can’t sent reactionary, apocalyptic, us-against-the-world ones, not really. Warning against greed is something which can be understood as position which can be taken within the liberal order (though many socialist thinkers would dispute that, of course); warning against war almost certainly can’t.

  • David Foster

    Or is it simply, they hope to get at least one thing through our thick skulls, and think that two things is just too optimistic for all at once.

  • Ron_Madson

    Thank you! “all things that have been will be…” We have undergone our own Constantine Shift (thanks Yoder). Our doctrine is completely compatible with individual and collective conscientious objector status (see DC 98 and Mormon 7:4) with the theocratic exception. Instead we have pledged allegiance to the state over our peace covenants. So what is new under the sun other than the BOM, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Pres. Kimball nailed that us gentiles would sell out.

  • Yvonne Stephenson

    As I recall this talk was given by Pres. Kimball shortly after the government in Washington D.C. sent a general to Utah to try and promote the building of some kind of huge missile defense plan that would have needed a lot of water to make it work. The general told Utahans that the general leadership of the church was in favor of this plan. He lied or misspoke. Pres. Kimball said what he did to make it clear where the church leadership actually stood. The project then went away.

    It is my opinion the trying to edit the talk down to 500 words caused the editors to decide to print what they believed was of most value to church members today.

  • davedd233

    The First Presidency did not issue a statement on MX until 1981. And if the editors tried to fit to print only what was of most value to church members today, I’m afraid they got it wrong.

  • Yvonne Stephenson

    President Kimball gave an address on July 4, 1976 for the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence. In this address he spoke of the False Gods We Worship and included anything that takes the first place in hearts and minds. Included was the attitude about war. I regret that I suggested that he had given that address in the later time period. The speech about the MX was about conditions at the time, specifically the plan the US military was working on.

    Today, in my opinion, greed and militarism have both grown since then. I hope that the Editors at the Ensign choose the words they cut out because they think greed is the bigger current problem and because eliminating poverty or at least helping the poor is something they think we can work on.

  • davedd233

    I can certainly agree that eliminating poverty is a massive problem we should be focused on in the Church. Indeed, with a new “fourth mission” stating such, and LDS children malnourished throughout the world, we have a long way to go. I do feel very strongly about the anti-war ethic President Kimball had, and bemoan that this was not mentioned in the article. I do believe the two issues are often interrelated. Thanks for your thoughtful response.