Richard Bushman’s commentary on politics and the Book of Mormon

On Friday, February 3rd and Saturday, February 4th of this year, Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture & Public Life (IRCPL) hosted a conference titled “Mormonism and American Politics.”  Yesterday the IRCPL posted ten videos to youtube for the following presentations:

  • Richard Lyman Bushman: “Joseph Smith’s Presidential Campaign
  • Sally Barringer Gordon: “The Laws of God and the Lawyers
  • Jan Shipps: “Ezra Taft Benson and the Conservative Turn of Those Amazing Mormons
  • Max Mueller: “Twice Told Tale – Telling Two Histories of Mormon-Black Relations During the 2012 Presidential Election
  • Philip Barlow: “A Mormon-Inflected Foreign Policy?
  • David Campbell: “A Peculiar People?: The Religious, Social and Political Distinctiveness of Mormons
  • Claudia Bushman: “Mormon Women Talk Politics
  • Joanna Brooks: “On the Underground: What the Mormon Yes on 8 Campaign Reveals about the Future of Mormons in American Political Life
  • Russell Arben Fox: “Canon, Community and Civil Religion: Mormonism and Politics in Post-Establishment America
  • Peggy Fletcher Stack: “Mormonism in the Media: The Inadequacy of Parallels or Why Reporters Can Get It Right and Still Be Wrong

All these presentation videos in this list can be found at this link.

I am still just in the beginning of my personal process of watching these presentations.  However, I was impressed by Richard Bushman’s presentation on “Joseph Smith’s Presidential Campaign” and was (pleasantly) surprised at the inclusion of a lengthy and incisive commentary on the extensive role that politics plays in the Book of Mormon.  I have done my best (any errors are mine) to transcribe an excerpt of his remarks focusing on that subject:

The Book of Mormon was a political book.  Its prophets were deeply involved with the government and its concerns were more national than individual.  If the Book of Mormon represents Smith’s thought in 1830, he had politics and good government on his mind from the beginning.

From the opening pages, authority, rule and power are at the forefront of the Book of Mormon story.  Nephi the first prophet-recorder, presents himself as a mistreated younger son who suffered at the hands of his older brothers.  On one level these brotherly battles seem familial.  They warred as rival siblings.  But the same issue as Laman and Lemuel, the brothers, was authority – who had the right to govern the band of migrants.  Nephi had taken charge when by custom and right, Laman should have succeeded to his father’s headship.

Nephi wrote his record as a political document to demonstrate that he was the rightful leader, despite his status as a younger brother.  The older two, his account insistently argued, had forfeited their rights of leadership by consistently resisting their father, their inspired younger brother, and God.  That division set up a framework for the entire book.  The wars between Nephites and Lamanites always turn on the question of Nephi’s usurpation.  The great plot of the book of Mormon turned on the right to rule. From Nephi on, the narrative was sustained by the interplay of prophecy and politics.

Politics was never far from the action.  Kings, chief judges, generals, successions in power, changes in the form of government, dissenting factions, political assassinations, civil-military relationships and the descent into anarchy when government broke down all figure in the book.  For one span, the recordkeepers omitted politics from their account, to concentrate on the spiritual.  But the separation did not work.  Without politics, the history foundered.  The recorders seemed to feel superfluous and wrote less and less.  The Nephite record revived only when the recordkeepers began to talk again of the nation’s political life and turned the record over to a king to keep.  From then on, the record came back to life.

What can be said of political life in the book of Mormon?  Hypothesizing that the Book had some influence on Joseph Smith’s thinking, what was it?  Over the years, commentators have pointed to the fundamental alteration in the form of government in the middle of the book, around 92 B.C. as a sign of its democratic spirit. At that point the government went from a monarchy to a government by judges, chosen by the voice of the people.

While popular election of the judges certainly has a democratic tone, the results were not something recognizably democratic in form.  To begin with, the monarchy was not overthrown by popular demand or by revolution, as in American history.  The sitting king relinquished the throne, against the wishes of his people.  They wanted a king and he had to persuade them that government by judges was a more secure form of government.  He installed a chief judge with layers of lesser judges below him, who were selected by the voice of the people and then served as checks on one another. Once chosen, however, the voice of the people figured only irregularly.  The chief judge served for life and when he died the office passed on to his son, in kingly fashion.  Moreover, the chief judge made the laws without recourse to a legistlature.  Representation did not figure at all in Nephite government.  There was no Congress.

The transition from monarchy to judges, judgeships, was less a re-enactment of the American revolution than a reversal of ancient Israel’s passage from government by judges to rule by a king.  Israel’s prophets had resisted the popular desire for a king and had only reluctantly agreed to the anointing of Saul.  The Book of Mormon corrected that error.  It abolished kingship and reinstated judges.  Its inspiration appears to be the Hebrew Bible rather than the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

The Book of Mormon went back to the Hebrew Bible on many accounts, in its preoccupation with righteousness for example.  The underlying theme of the book is the promise of prosperity and wellbeing when righteousness prevails and the threat of decline when wickedness arises.

The political fate of the nation hangs on its righteousness.  Mormon, the author of most of the book, was forever taking the moral temperature of the nation.  Were the people religious or wicked?  And organized the story around that perception.  Everything followed from that basic moral condition.  The nation would prevail in battle and prosper economically if the people shed their pride and turned to God.  If they hardened their hearts, ostentatiously displayed their wealth, neglected the poor and built their lives on their riches, punishment surely followed.

The prophets who kept the records are not always kings or judges, but they always considered themselves the monitors of the nation’s goodness.  Like the prophets of the Hebrew bible, they think corporately and focus their attention on the righteousness of the rulers and the people as a whole.  Religion and the state are not separate in their minds.  Religion thoroughly infuses their thinking about the state.  The great issue is the religious condition of the people and their rulers.  If they’re righteous the nation flourishes.  If wicked, they will decline.  That is the way the Hebrew Bible thought and it carries over to the Book of Mormon.

Defeat in battle was one sure measure of the moral state of the nation.  Peace in politics was another.  When wickedness infected society, faction arose and contention followed.  The Book of Mormon values a politics of harmony.  It makes no place for dissent.  More often than not, defeated dissenters fled the country and established themselves as robber bands in the mountains.  Alternatively they sought to overthrow the government to achieve their ends and had to be suppressed.  They resorted to assassination or alliances with the enemy Lamanites to effect change.  There seemed to be no concept of loyal opposition as an ongoing and possibly healthy element of government.  Dissent led to breakdown.  Peace and harmony was the only stable state.  So strong are these themes in the Book of Mormon – they must have figured somehow in Joseph Smith’s thinking when he began to engage the government.


2 thoughts on “Richard Bushman’s commentary on politics and the Book of Mormon

  1. Wise words by Prof. Bushman. How we apply them to our day is a conundrum, however. It is especially difficult to arrive at a completely acceptable definition of “righteous.” Rick Santorum thinks he is being righteous and is saying things that might have been said by prophets of old regarding the role of religion in society. I think he makes some good points and in other areas (he shouldn’t even be addressing birth control) he makes some very, very bad points. Mitt Romney is (apparently) personally righteous in doing what the Church asks him to do, but a lot of people do not see him as righteous at all. I find it very difficult to apply these lessons to modern society.

  2. I thought this was a brilliant analysis, thanks for sharing. I hadn’t thought of Book of Mormon politics as a reversal of the Biblical path from judges to kings. Very enlightening.

    Like Geoff, I don’t see much application for our political situation today, as Bushman’s theory supports the idea that Book of Mormon politics was closer to theocracy than democracy.

    Our pluralistic, secular democracy cannot possiblly be compared to theocratic Biblical model. The lessons of the Book of Mormon apply much more to our church, family, and personal life than they do to our diverse society of Gentile secularists and sectarians.

Comments are closed.