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.
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.