A Voice of Warning: Believing is Seeing

By Brian H. Stuy

A recent talk by Matthew DeVisser, a Sandy, Utah stake president, has resulted in a substantial amount of discussion about the proper role of partisan politics in LDS public discourse. But what struck me most about his remarks was what they revealed about President DeVisser’s worldview. The common thread in his observations and comments is the idea that the world is in a state of decline, that things are getting worse, and that, as a result, his flock should batten down the hatches and prepare for a storm that will engulf the earth.

Never in my life have I witnessed a more stark difference between good and evil than I did in 2012. Never has there been a greater moral, economic, or political decline in society than there was in 2012 and over the last few years. These climates combined, were as bad in 2012 as they have ever been in the history of the world.

Being an armchair reader of world history, I am dumbstruck by DeVisser’s statement. Things have never been morally, economically, or politically worse than in 2012? Are we really living in the worst times in the “history of the world”? I can think of many worse times than 2012. Let’s consider how 2012 fared in the cases of:

Disease. The influenza outbreak of 1918 killed an estimated 50–100 million people, but since then humanity has made amazing strides in understanding disease—the discovery of viruses and bacteria, and the means to effectively combat them. In the SARS scare of 2003, 775 people died. Certainly every death was a tragedy, but the numbers are an eyedropper compared to the ocean of deaths in 1918. We live in good times.

Information and Communications. From our first steps on the moon in 1969 to our upcoming adventures to Mars and beyond, our knowledge of the universe increases daily. Other advances in technology—the Internet, e-mail, global communication—allow my children to access information that would have been impossible for me to find when I was growing up. Certainly we should realize that when it comes to human progress in obtaining and disseminating accurate and reliable knowledge, we live in good times.

Poverty. The industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the modernization of agriculture, and the implementation of global banking systems have resulted in a mass exodus of people from poverty—a reduction by over half a billion people in the past twenty years. Certainly the democratization of wealth over the past two hundred years can be seen as a huge improvement in the human condition. When it comes to the global standard of living, we live in good times.

Equality and freedom. In 1920, women in the world’s largest democracy were given equal access to political power, and the Civil Rights acts of the 1960s made equality across races a reality. We do not need to go too far back in history to find times when women were treated as chattel and slavery was an accepted practice. Without question, when we look at equality and freedom across the “history of the world” we live in good times.

Certain members of the Church might see some of the world’s progress as contrary to God’s will. I am reminded of statements by President Brigham Young indicating that the Civil War was “a visitation from heaven, because they have killed the Prophet Joseph Smith, jun” (Journal of Discourses 10:255). Young also saw the war as the result of the country’s “departure from God and the popular institutions of freedom” (JD 10:249). According to Young, Joseph had said that if they succeeded in taking his life “war and confusion would come upon the nation, and they would destroy each other, and there would be mob upon mob from one end of the country to the other. Have they got through? No, they have only just commenced the work of wasting life and property” (JD 10:255).

These examples help me understand what is being manifested in President DeVisser’s talk: since it has long been prophesied that things will get worse, then many believers will naturally interpret current events accordingly. As one member responding to a commentary on DeVisser’s talk stated about those who see a possible good role for government: “It is prophesied that [perilous] times are here. That the end of the world is at the door. So if that’s the case, how is it that people, including the evil confines of the government, are doing the Lord’s will?”

The fundamental problem of DeVisser’s talk is that things are not by any quantifiable measure worse now than at any time in world history. Abortion rates are down; divorce rates are down; murder, rape, and other violent crime rates are down and have been falling for more than twenty years. The number of people dying from starvation, disease and war has collapsed over the past one hundred years.

Are things great? Certainly not. But because of his interpretation of prophecies by anonymous biblical writers, Joseph Smith, and other latter-day leaders, this stake president looks upon the world through very dark and cynical glasses. If the world gets worse, if our nation declines morally, if mobs tear at each other, it seems that his personal spiritual convictions will be upheld. Though political troubles, moral abuses, and economic stresses abound and will continue, a broad view of human history reveals that today’s world has improved vastly during the past 50 years. The trend is toward better quality of life, greater safety, more economic freedom, and significantly improved gender and racial equality. To allow circumstantial “prophecy” to distort our view of that reality would be a shame. To not support, or to even work against this progress is, in my mind, a sin.