Politics and the Book of Mormon

Cross-posted from Historicisms.

One of the more uncomfortable aspects of the “Mormon Moment” for me was seeing LDS scripture deployed against the candidate on whose behalf I chose to exercise my franchise. Wish though I may that the Book of Mormon could be safely sequestered from the sordid world of politics, I have to acknowledge that the text itself is pretty heavily political. The question of how to deal with that, not to mention in the aftermath of a campaign in which the candidate who happened to be Mormon lost, is quite an interesting one, and I’ll try to keep my partisan rancor sufficiently under wraps to give this question the serious consideration it deserves.

Before I delve into the matter at hand, a statistical digression with exegetical implications: according to a Pew Forum analysis of exit poll data, 21% of Mormons voted for Barack Obama, while 78% voted for Mitt Romney. I take this statistic as nothing more than an indicator that American Mormonism is not ideologically monolithic. The fact of this diversity ought to persuade Mormons of whatever political persuasion to think twice before using scripture to align their candidate or position with The Truth (or to align the other side with, well, the other side). Before doing this, we should all ask ourselves: “Am I prepared to back up an assertion with the implication that a significant percentage of my co-religionists is in apostasy, or at least deceived?” It’s okay to believe this, but charges this serious shouldn’t be made lightly, nor left implicit. If you can’t back it up, keep it to yourself until you can.

What, though, does “back it up” even mean? How do applications of the political content in the Book of Mormon become defensible? In keeping with the name of this blog, I propose that one way of doing this is by treating the Book of Mormon as a historical document. This is to say that it is an artifact of a society markedly different from our own (which is true, incidentally, even if one considers it a product of early 19th-century America). The Book of Mormon is for our time, not about it. Whatever similarities can be found between its political system and ours (e.g., some emphasis on “the voice of the people”) exist in tandem with non-negligible differences (e.g., the frequently hereditary pattern of succession). At minimum, the world it describes is radically different from our 21st-century present.

The major consequence of this historical approach is that there are no clear-cut, one-to-one parallels between the Book of Mormon and us. Rather, we have to do what Nephi said and “liken” the scriptures to ourselves. Nephi himself gives an example of what this looks like in how he uses Isaiah: he takes passages of scripture pertaining to other (again, highly political) circumstances (the downfall of the Northern Kingdom) and interprets them, taking ideas and themes from Isaiah and the deploying them in ways that become relevant to his own, very different, circumstances.

“Likening” in this way is an inexact science: applications of this sort depend on our gathering evidence from broad swaths of scripture (Nephi quotes blocks of chapters, not individual verses) and then making an argument about what it means. Not all arguments are equally successful, but in striving to be persuasive, rather than relying on the authority of scripture to make an assertion, we acknowledge that we belong to a community. Assertions have objects, like hammers have nails; arguments have audiences and interlocutors.

The communal aspect of argument is important, because it invites us to consider how others in the community will respond to our efforts at persuasion. The reality of diversity makes this kind of thinking very difficult. Missteps are practically guaranteed. But that’s actually another benefit of argument over assertion: the stakes in one’s mistakes are lower.

Getting a scripture-based assertion wrong leaves existential egg on one’s face, while getting an argument rooted in scripture wrong simply means, unsurprisingly, that one has not yet figured everything out. Disagreement about an argument does not signal heresy, but is rather the opportunity for further conversation on the subject, from which both parties might learn.

All of us in this wonderfully diverse church are or ought to be engaged in the process of what we like to call “continuing revelation,” or that key faith claim of ours that, although the fulness of the gospel is on the earth, not everything has yet been revealed. Among the things that has not yet been revealed: the answer to the question “How will I live today?”—not to mention its myriad murky sub-questions.

Today has never happened before, and while calling it unprecedented would be going too far, it will turn out to have been markedly different than the many yesterdays. Even if we do not always face new choices, we continually face old choices in new contexts.

If scripture is going to be relevant to this, the most practical of questions, it can become so only through an interpretative process that inevitably yields mistakes some of the time. Thank God we have other people with whom to work through this process, and thank God for tomorrow.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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2 thoughts on “Politics and the Book of Mormon

  1. When you wrote that the Book of Mormon is a historical artifact of a different time, you directly mentioned the possibilities both that it might be a 19th-century text and that it might be an ancient text. Which situation would create a greater feeling of distance for you?

    Would a 19th-century text feel less immediately applicable to modern times than an ancient text co-temporaneous with the Bible? Or would an ancient text feel less immediately applicable than a text of more modern origin, like the Doctrine and Covenants?

    1. Actually, I think that the 19th-century context would be harder to deal with, because we’re more likely to make unwarranted assumptions about its similarity to our current situation. (Witness how ready some people are to assume that the Constitution is a document whose 18th-century origins translate seamlessly to 21st-century circumstances.) The advantage of believing the Book of Mormon to be an ancient document is (or should be) that it becomes easier to encounter its strangeness at face value.

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