“Father God, in the name of Jesus, Lord, we’re so thankful for the life of Donald Trump. We’re thankful that you are guiding him, that you are giving him the words to unite this party, this country, that we together can defeat the liberal Democratic Party, to keep us divided and not united. Because we are the United States of America, and we are the conservative party under God.”—Pastor Mark Burns at the Republican National Convention, July 18, 2016
When Pastor Mark Burns gave the closing prayer at the Republican convention last night, he made it clear that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party are enemies of God who must be destroyed. People were shocked by his directness; political parties usually dial down their martial rhetoric at conventions to appeal to swing voters who may still think fondly–or at least non-Satanically–about the other side. But we shouldn’t be that surprised: the good Reverend’s basic message–that God loves our side the best–is something close to a human universal.
Pretty much every human society that has ever worshiped a god has seen themselves as that god’s chosen people. Such beliefs are rooted in the development of our notions of divinity. Monotheism came fairly late in human history. Most early cultures were either polytheistic, like the Greeks and Romans, who believed in and worshiped multiple deities; or henotheistic, like the early Israelites who believed that every people had their own god charged with meeting their needs and fighting their battles.
As Hebrew henotheism evolved into Modern monotheism, a tribal god came to be seen as the only God in the universe, but He didn’t lose all of the characteristics of a tribal deity. Specifically, He still encouraged tribalism–or at least His followers still used Him to further the interests of their tribe. Monotheism was a difficult conceptual shift for the ancient people who made it, and they never really accepted its most important consequence: that God loves all of his children the same. Most people who believe in God still have a hard time accepting that this is true.
I have long believed that the single narrative that unites our Standard Works is the theme of a “chosen people” believing that their relationship to God makes them better than other people and learning—usually the hard way—that they are not. This theme cuts across time periods and continents. It includes the recalcitrant Israelites of the Old Testament, the Pharisees and Sadducees of the New Testament, the prideful Nephites of the Book of Mormon, and the early Latter-day Saints–who imagined that God was going to make their bank solvent and hand them Missouri just because they were his favorite kids. Chosen People Syndrome (CPS) is the common curse of the scriptures.
In Alma 31, Alma and his two younger sons head to Antionum, the land of the Zoramites—and the epicenter of the Chosen People Syndrome in the New World. The Zoramites have the most pronounced class differences of any people we encounter in the Book of Mormon. Only the wealthy are permitted to worship in the synagogue, where they climb a high tower called “Rameumptom,” or “the Holy Stand” (:21) and pray like this:
16 Holy God, we believe that thou hast separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers; but we believe that thou hast elected us to be thy holy children; and also thou hast made it known unto us that there shall be no Christ.
17 But thou art the same yesterday, today, and forever; and thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell; for the which holiness, O God, we thank thee; and we also thank thee that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ, which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God.
18 And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen.
This prayer makes the Zoramites’ belief system pretty clear: They believe that they are God’s favorite people, that he loves them more than the Nephites (and way more than the Lamanites), that they are predestined to salvation, and that they are entitled to the wealth that they possess at the expense of the poor. They are, in other words, firm believers in “Zoramite exceptionalism,” which convinces them they never need to think highly (or much at all) of anybody but themselves.
As readers, we are shocked by the plainness and directness of the Zoramite prayer, but we should not be shocked by the overall message, which pervades the Book of Mormon—and all of the other Standard Works—from beginning to end. The Zoramites say directly what the Nephites, Pharisees, and other CPS sufferers say slightly less directly.
And we say it too. We usually try to avoid the uncouth directness of the Zoramites, or of Pastor Burns. We have masks and code words that allows us to tell ourselves we are not THAT bad. But all of us are at least somewhat afflicted with the human belief that God likes us best. Sometimes, of course, we use other words for “God,” like “reason,” “science,” “hard work,” “fortune,” or “natural ability.” But the basic message is the same: we are better than other people, we deserve to have more stuff than other people, and it is only right that we protect our stuff from our inferiors
The Book of Mormon, like the Bible and all of the other Standard Works, exists to convince us that we are wrong.