Is material prosperity earned by righteousness?

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In this article, we will contrast four different views on prosperity. First, however, we must note that in this article we will be using the term “prosperity” in a modern, colloquial sense, where it refers largely to material wealth and greater resources for consumption. There are other (and better) ways to think about prosperity, which we will address in a future article.

Imagine four quadrants, designated by two axes:

  • Merited vs. Unmerited. On the merited side, we believe that material success/failure is mostly within our control, and as such, is merited by our superior choices. On the Unmerited side, we assume that financial success/failure is at least partly outside of our control — that there are factors (circumstances, luck, divine favor, heritage) that can advantage or disadvantage us through no merit of our own.
  • Non-theistic vs. Theistic. This axis differentiates our general religious worldview. On the Non-theistic side, we assume that divine beings are not a part of the picture — material wealth has little to do with divine providence. On the Theistic side, we assume that God is involved in the details of our lives, including (perhaps) even our material successes and failures.

Using these two axes, we can identify and label four broad views of prosperity:

  1. The first is Economic Darwinism, which assumes that personal prosperity is a matter of individual choices, and that the wealthy merit their wealth through superior lifestyle and strategy; they are thus entitled to their success.
  2. Another is the Prosperity Gospel, which can be thought of as economic darwinism with God thrown in the mix: the wealthy merit their prosperity because of their righteous living.
  3. Class Envy is an approach that assumes that the wealthy are the beneficiaries of circumstance, luck and birth, and thus should be resented for their good fortune (and their wealth redistributed in more equitable ways).
  4. Finally, Divine Stewardship assumes that prosperity is at least partly outside of our control, and that wealth is a divine stewardship that is neither merited nor earned.

Three of the four resulting sectors (i.e., Class Envy, Economic Darwinism, and the Prosperity Gospel) represent worldly ways of thinking about prosperity. They include assumptions and worldviews that do not hold up in the light of Gospel truth. The fourth (Divine Stewardship) represents a Gospel alternative to the other three. We need to talk about each of these views, but first a warning:  we will be painting with fairly broad brush strokes, and there may be many different camps within each quadrant with unique views not fully represented here.

A Hidden Worldview: Economic Darwinism

In this view, an individual’s financial success or failure is almost entirely under their control. No one denies the possibility of luck or circumstance playing a role, but the emphasis is primarily on personal responsibility, ambition, and skill. In this model, those who succeed are generally thought to be the more meritorious, having bootstrapped their way to success through superior effort, intellect, skill, or strategy in terms of earning, saving, and investing their material resources.

From this view, because it is assumed that God is not part of the picture, we are able to take full credit for our successes. Thus, there is no need to credit divine providence or guidance for success, only one’s own initiative, strength, and skill. Economic Darwinism can be seen in Korihor’s view of the world. Recall that Korihor taught:  “every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength” (Alma 30:17).

In short, this paradigm reflects a sort of economic “survival of the fittest,” in which those with more skill, strength, and strategy prosper over those with less. After all, it is often said, “It’s a dog-eat-dog world and only the best make it to the top!” Those who remain poor, it is held, do so largely because they have yet to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and change their lives for the better. In short, the responsibility for prosperity (and poverty) rests largely on personal choice. Because this view treats poverty as partly the product of vice (or just poor choices generally), this view can breed a callousness from the rich towards the poor.

The fact that this view — voiced through Korihor — is included and condemned in the Book of Mormon signals clearly to us that Latter-day Saints should reject it too. King Benjamin also condemned this worldview. He said:

[Y]e will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just — But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent …

For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?

Here, King Benjamin contradicts both axes of this quadrant:  First, God is involved, and second, our material success is not merited by our own superior skill alone because we all depend on God.

Although many might see the Objectivist philosophy of author Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead) as a paradigmatic example of this moral worldview, it is important to remember that this moral worldview should not be conflated with any particular political worldview. Indeed, a communist or a socialist might also hold this view, and see those who take advantage of and ascend to power in such political systems as among those who prosper according to their own genius and strength.  The ethos of “survival of the fittest” can be adopted as a moral worldview regardless of the political arena in which survival and prosperity are sought.

A Hidden Worldview: The Prosperity Gospel

Like Economic Darwinism, the Prosperity Gospel assumes that wealth and prosperity are essentially under our individual control. It also assumes that prosperity comes to us as a signal of divine favor because of our righteous choices. In short, it is not merely our superior earning, spending, and investing habits that bring us wealth, but also our moral superiority. As we live God’s laws, so the argument goes, He blesses us temporally by ensuring greater wealth and prosperity. This view can easily lead to a sort of self-righteous pride among the rich towards the poor.

This view can manifest in extraordinarily subtle ways. For example, because those living in poverty are much more likely to grow up in broken families with single parents, the prosperous might assume that poverty is as much a symptom of the moral failings of the poor as it is a product of bad employment and spending choices. In this view, living God’s commandments insulates us from many or most of the causes of poverty (broken families, drugs, teen pregnancy, sloth, etc.); poverty, therefore, is thought to be a symptom of disregarding God’s laws.

While it is true that righteousness can insulate us from some of the covariates of poverty, there is danger is adopting an attitude of pride in which we credit our material advantages to superior moral choices. Direct experience can tell us that many of the noblest and most righteous souls on earth are also among the poorest, and many of the wealthiest souls on earth are also the most corrupt at heart. Further, King Benjamin’s counsel above certainly holds true here as well: Are we not all beggars before God, dependent on Him for all that we have?

The prophets of the Book of Mormon frequently condemn just this sort of pride. Alma and Amulek, for example, condemned the pride of the Zoramites, and praised the poor among them, who were “esteemed as filthiness; therefore they were poor; yea, they were esteemed by their brethren as dross” (Alma 32:3). They taught the people that poverty can be God’s way of purifying and sanctifying a people — hardly a symptom, then, of a lack of righteousness among them. Throughout the Book of Mormon, those who “were lifted up unto pride and boastings because of their exceedingly great riches” are condemned for it (3 Nephi 6:10).

Of course, one might wonder:  “But what of the many, many Book of Mormon passages that hinge prosperity on righteous living?” These passages are true, but also require us to rethink what we mean by prosperity. In next week’s article, we will explore a new way of thinking about prosperity, a way of thinking in which prosperity is less about our capacity to consume, and more about our capacities to serve. And, in the latter view, righteousness does lead to prosperity — perhaps even material prosperity. But just not of the kind we think.

A Hidden Worldview: Class Envy

In this perspective, it is assumed that success or failure is in large part outside of individual control. Our family, luck, or other systemic societal factors are thought to be primarily responsible for leading some to be prosperous and others to be poor, results arrived at  through no merit of their own. The rich did nothing special in order to be rich, and therefore did not merit their good fortune, and, likewise, the poor did nothing special in order to be poor so they, too, do not merit their unfortunate circumstances. Whether one is wealthy or impoverished is due more to chance or institutional advantages than anything else.

Without a reverence for a divine power who forbids us to covet, this view risks cultivating a deep-rooted envy and resentment from the poor towards the rich. We might see the rich as no more entitled to their good fortune as anyone else, and so we might see wealth disparities as an injustice towards the poor. In more extreme forms, we might see institutional advantages that favor the rich as a kind of systematized violence against the poor, an invisible and systemic oppression.

Thus, if we are consistent in adopting this view, we would blame the system, not rich people themselves; they are as much a product of the “system” as the poor are (even if, as the Rich, they happen to benefit from it). Regardless, we might come see it as a moral failure to hoard that which is not earned, so long as others experience deprivation through no fault of their own — and this puts those who are poor in a permanent adversarial relationship with those who are rich.

There is a lot of truth to this view. There really are systemic forces that play a role in who prospers and who does not. The traditional assumption that anyone with enough grit and ingenuity can overcome any obstacle may be (partly) true on an individual level — but it is also true that not everyone is equipped with the resources they need to make that journey, including the personal example and teaching often required to help them set off on that journey in first place.

One of the biggest predictors of an individual’s income is parental income. As habits, traditions, worldviews, and resources are passed from one generation to the next, individuals really do have different starting points than others, and thus (metaphorically) have farther to run, higher to climb, and perhaps even less stamina to do so. We really are often on an unequal footing, and some subpopulations really do have advantages over other subpopulations. (And this point doesn’t even touch on the fact that those who come from wealthy families already have access to connections and capital that make it far easier for them to follow in their parents’ footsteps.)

What this view misses, however, is the divine mandate to avoid covetousness. Particular others may not have done much to have merited their prosperity, but this does not give us license to covet their good fortune, to feel aggrieved by their material success, or to wish ill of them for enjoying better economic circumstances than we do ourselves. The Class Envy perspective is the one that rightly says “you didn’t build that [alone],” but wrongly asserts a moral entitlement over the goods and prosperity of others for that reason. We believe God is saddened when we nurse such feelings. President Ezra Taft Benson taught:

Most of us consider pride to be a sin of those on the top, such as the rich and the learned, looking down at the rest of us. (See 2 Ne. 9:42.) There is, however, a far more common ailment among us—and that is pride from the bottom looking up. It is manifest in so many ways, such as fault finding, gossiping, backbiting, murmuring, living beyond our means, envying, coveting, withholding gratitude and praise that might lift another, and being unforgiving and jealous. ((Ezra Taft Benson, “Beware of Pride,” Ensign, May 1989.))

Again, while this moral worldview might incline us towards political worldviews that facilitate redistribution and other compensatory measures to help disadvantaged populations, this is not an inherently political worldview. Those whose political views lean in a more libertarian direction (like us) could separate the morality of redistributive policies from their legality, and conclude that while those who are rich might have no moral entitlement to their good fortune (at least in some cases), they still have every legal right to keep what is theirs. However, we also believe it is possible that a libertarian economic system could still foster resentment towards the more fortunate. Thus, this moral outlook should not be conflated with any particular political philosophy or governing system.

An Alternative: Divine stewardship

All three of the viewpoints we have discussed so far can be contrasted with the perspective that wealth and prosperity are often an unmerited stewardship. Like the Class Envy view we just discussed, this view also assumes that prosperity and poverty can often result from factors beyond our individual control. However, unlike that view, this one takes seriously God’s involvement in the world (and so merely luck or circumstance are not the only possible factors in success), and His commandment to not covet the success of others (merited or not). Further, unlike the Prosperity Gospel, in this view we recognize that all that we have — including what we have ostensibly “earned” — comes to us in part through the grace of God, and should not be thought of as earned through superior moral merit over those who are less fortunate or less successful.

We are convinced that this view encourages increased generosity and charity, especially in regards to our material wealth, because it frames us being only stewards of the temporal blessings we enjoy, rather than possessors or owners. Adopting such a view, then, encourages us to dedicate our prosperity to a cause greater than our own: the welfare of others and the building up of the Kingdom of God. When we treat wealth and resources as a sacred stewardship, not an entitlement, we look upon the poor without pride, and think, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Obviously, we can recognize basic principles of thrift, hard work, and diligence that have helped us, and we can work to cultivate those same virtues in others — but we also recognize that we are the beneficiaries of training, teaching, and upbringing to which not everyone else has access. Because we do not see ourselves as entitled to our own success, we can reach out generously to those less fortunate.

The truth is, despite the role that the rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger have played in shaping the American work ethic and articulating the “American Dream,” not everyone can grunt themselves out of poverty by their own bootstraps. Hard work, though a virtue in its own right, is *not* a guarantee of financial stability and success. Fortune and circumstance — whether you call it “luck” (in a non-theistic world) or “grace” (in a theistic world) can and do play a large role in our lives. Yes, it is a fact that those in poverty are more likely to come from broken homes (and vice versa), but this merely means that they do not always have the same role models, home instruction, and resources in their youth that those with more wealth might enjoy. Some may still work their way up the social ladder through grit and ingenuity, but this does not imply that everyone who did not could have done so if they simply had so chosen. Similarly, others experience financial downturns because of health problems, job loss, family circumstances, and larger (often impersonal) market forces, and their impoverishment may have nothing whatsoever to do with their moral choices or financial habits.

A sense of entitlement — the very opposite of the sense stewardship — can creep into our lives in two ways. One way is manifest when those who are poor feel entitled to the prosperity of those who are rich.  This is a form of classism, or Class Envy. On the other hand, a second way in which a sense of entitlement is manifest is when those who are rich feel entitled to their own earnings, a form of entitlement that shows up in both the Prosperity Gospel and in Economic Darwinism. True humility before God, however, recognizes that we are often the beneficiaries of circumstance (brought about by the choices and actions of others) and divine grace. Thus, those who are poor realize that they are not entitled to the wealth of their neighbors, their brothers and sisters, who are wealthier, and, likewise, those who enjoy wealth understand that they are not the entitled owners of their wealth, but rather only the morally obligated stewards of it. From this view, it simply doesn’t matter if our prosperity is earned or not. The question is not terribly important to us to begin with — indeed, it hardly forms in our minds at all. The only question that matters is what we are to do with our prosperity:  are we prudent, wise, and generous stewards?

Again, this moral worldview does not imply any particular political worldview. Some who adopt this view might see social welfare programs as an important safety net, an institutionalized mechanism by which those with means can help shelter the poor from the perils and soul-crushing anguish of poverty. Others might take a more libertarian or more conservative approach to government. Whatever the case, all parties are much less likely to see existing safety nets as an entitlement (that is, a rightful claim that the poor have upon the rich). Similarly, neither do the wealthy see themselves as entitled to their prosperity; but rather acknowledge the hand of God in their success and see wealth as something that has been entrusted to them by God to advance His Kingdom, either through government programs (in some views) or private charitable endeavors (in other views).


Again, these are moral worldviews and not political worldviews. However, our political views might incline us towards one view over others. An advocate of free markets, for example, might be far more inclined — without even realizing it — towards the left two quadrants. An advocate of redistributionist political systems, on the other hand, might be far more inclined — without even realizing it — towards the right two quadrants, and more particularly towards the top right quadrant. Whatever the case, articulating these various quadrants can help steer us away from some serious moral pitfalls of which we might otherwise not even be aware.

For example, when advocating for social safety nets, and encouraging others to acknowledge the ways in which the poor are systematically disadvantaged, we should be wary of the dangers of covetousness, as well as of inadvertently teaching that these safety nets are moral entitlements, and that the poor are being wronged by the enjoyment of those more fortunate. Likewise, when teaching about free market economics and the virtues of thrift and industry, we should be wary of the dangers of pride, as well as inadvertently teaching that thrift and industry merit prosperity, or morally entitle us to our good fortune. In advocating these virtues, we should also be wary of demeaning and disparaging the poor and the needy.

From a scriptural worldview, nobody is morally entitled to good fortune, either their own or that of others. The poor are not morally entitled to the good fortune of the wealthy, and neither are the rich entitled to their own good fortune. The scriptures condemn both the sense of entitlement manifest in covetousness (on the one hand) and entitlement manifest as pride or greed (on the other). The wealthy are only stewards of their good fortune, and our moral duty if we enjoy the benefits of wealth is to consecrate it to the purposes of God (be that providing for our own family and/or providing for the poor, depending on our various needs and occasions for service).

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