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Thursday, March 10, 2005

American Political Culture: "Surprisingly" Absent in the Book of Mormon

When Richard Bushman was preparing for a speech during the 1976 celebrations of the bicentennial of American independence, he expected that it would be easy to find a few good quotes from the Book of Mormon that resonated with the principles in our Constitution. Instead, he was perplexed to see that when one looks beyond a few superficial issues, the political attitudes and structures in the Book of Mormon are quite different from what we have inherited in this country. Over at FARMS, Ross Geddes discusses this point in his short article, "Patrick Henry, Gideon, and the Book of Mormon." Here is an excerpt:
Historian Richard L. Bushman, responding to accusations that the Book of Mormon contains "evidence of nineteenth-century American political culture," concluded that in fact "most of the principles traditionally associated with the American Constitution are slighted or disregarded altogether" in the book. "So many of the powerful intellectual influences operating on Joseph Smith failed to touch the Book of Mormon."

For example, Bushman noted that patriotic orations and writings in Joseph's time depicted the American Revolution as "a struggle of heroes against oppressors, a brave people versus a tyrant king." The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, consistently describes groups of people being delivered from bondage not through heroic resistance or confrontation but by flight into the wilderness facilitated by the power of God. Whereas 1820s patriotic rhetoric portrayed an enlightened people overthrowing wicked monarchs, Book of Mormon peoples generally clamor for a king; and when the monarchy is abandoned, it is a king (Mosiah2) who instigates the change. Bushman also argued that a careful reading of the Book of Mormon reveals that its seemingly democratic elements bear little resemblance to American ideals: elections are rare, the separation of powers does not exist, there is no written constitution, the concept of "no taxation without representation" is absent, and hereditary succession prevails, even among the "judges."

One of the heroes of the American Revolution is Patrick Henry, revered for the stirring declaration "Give me liberty, or give me death!" The Book of Mormon, however, turns this sentiment on its ear. When the people of King Limhi are threatened by a much stronger Lamanite army, Gideon, the king's captain, counsels, "Let us pacify the king [of the Lamanites] . . . ; for it is better that we should be in bondage than that we should lose our lives" (Mosiah 20:22). King Limhi apparently agrees that there are worse things than bondage, for later he tells Ammon that "it is better that we be slaves to the Nephites than to pay tribute to the king of the Lamanites" (Mosiah 7:15). . . .
This raises a fundamental question for critics of the Book of Mormon: where did it and its ideas come from? Most critics say Joseph made it up, just drawing ideas from his environment (and the vast Joseph Smith Frontier Library, of course). But if that's so, then why is the political culture of the Book of Mormon so unlike anything in Joseph's day - yet so filled with ancient Mesoamerican elements?

1 comment:

clyde forsberg said...

Bushman is being clever here, and it helps his argument to leave out or ignore vital "political" commentary in the Book of Mormon that fits rather well with the antebellum understanding of the Revolutionary period. I should like to know how Bushman sees the story of Captain Moroni, for example and the lifting of a flag to liberty against a "wicked" Indian or Lamanite monarchy. Moreover, the end of monarchy and the installation of judges on the part of the goodly Nephites, the separation of church and state (Nephite judges stepping down from the bench to do missionary work, for example), these are surely meant to underscore the failures of monarchy and can be seen in the spirit of 76.

Not to acknowledge such examples in the Book of Mormon of "things republican," but "commentary" rather than "history"--and not so much on the Revolutionary War but on the War of 1812 and thus more Federalist than Republican perhaps--Bushman's thesis is one of faith not scholarship. Bushman means to defend the Book of Mormon against attack, and that decides the matter well in advance of the evidence.

The Book of Mormon has more to say about politics than what was in the air, for its chief aim, it seems to me, was to fashion a critique of American liberalism and an emergent democratic-republican tradition that was doomed to failure.(In some respects, the Book of Mormon was not wrong on that count, either.)

Bushman does not care to consider that the Book of Mormon can be seen as putting forward a unique religious vision for America that it was all too political. He also fails to appreciate that the Book of Mormon is not historical in the narrow, chronological or historiographical sense either, but fictive, and that it can be seen as a kind of utopian vision that transcended the spirit of 76 while attempting to explain the failures and political rivalries of the War of 1812, and thus all of this part and parcel of a religious-republican synthesis that essentially failed to come to fruition. Not unlike many American "histories" at the time, the Book of Mormon was more fiction than fact, and herein lies the rub.

More importantly, Bushman is not beneath using his considerable academic reputation to do the Lord's work. Indeed, the tyranny of "faithful historians" like Bushman is as "wicked" an intellectual monarchy as anything decried in the Book of Mormon, or in America's history for that matter. Whether or not the Book of Mormon is political, there seems little question that "politics" is not absent from Bushman's discourse.

Dr. Clyde R. Forsberg Jr.
Equal Rites: The Book of Mormon, Masonry, Gender, and American Culture