Sacred Stories, Political Debate, and the Problem of Disagreement in Zion

In 1680, England had a problem. For a century and a half–since Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy in 1534–the nation’s politics had been driven by religious disputes, with the three major factions–Catholics, Anglican Protestant, and Calvinist Dissenters–taking turn running the country and killing thousands of people in the process.

In 1660, after nearly 20 years of civil war, Oliver Cromwell died, and a diverse coalition of religious interests invited Charles II–whose father had been executed during the revolution–to return to the throne. Having grown up in the French court, Charles was a Catholic. But he kept quiet about it and didn’t act all Catholicky in public. The weary English public pretended not to notice.

But they couldn’t ignore James, Charles’s brother and heir presumptive (since Charles and his wife were childless). James was openly and aggressively Catholic and made no secrets about his desire to favor his co-religionists. Faced with the idea of yet another religious lurch, members of Parliament looked around for a solution and settled on James Scott, Duke of Monmouth and illegitimate son of Charles II (I didn’t say he was a GOOD Catholic, just a secret one). Powerful Lords convinced the young duke to put himself forward as a successor to his father and then drafted a bill to exclude James II from succession on the grounds of his religion.

And that’s when the poets got involved. John Dryden, the alpha-poet of the age, supported Charles and didn’t want to shake the throne. He noticed (as many others did) that the story of Charles II and the Duke of Monmouth bore some similarities to the biblical story of David and Absalom (2 Samuel 13-15). Dryden wrote the poem “Absolom and Achitophel” to cast Charles as a great hero and Monmouth as a usurper seduced by powerful enemies of the King. Dryden was a great poet, and the poem became popular (and remains so long after everybody has forgotten the issues that gave birth to it. Anti-royalist poets responded with different political interpretations of the same biblical narrative, but Elknah Settle (“Absalom Senior”) and Samuel Pordage (“Azaria and Hushei”) were not good poets, and you really have to try hard to find their work.

That is a lot of extra history to support some contemporary points (and you can read more on pp. 17-38 of this book if you really want to), but I am not a good enough writer to make it shorter. What I really want to talk about is Senator Mike Lee’s recent comparison of Donald Trump to Captain Moroni. Like a lot of people, I was bothered by this comparison for reasons that were hard to identify. But the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that Latter-day Saints would do well to leave the Book of Mormon out of our purely partisan denunciations of each other.

Part of this has to do with my own study of English politics in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was a bible-saturated age, and very few people in it would have even understood a phrase like “separation of Church and State.” Being political was the same thing as being religious, and being religious meant reading oneself into the biblical narrative. People saw the Bible as a document that contained the whole of human history–so anybody should be able to find their own life, and that of their country, in its pages. And they did. All. The. Time.

This intense bibliolatry did not produce the Kingdom of God. But it did produce a lot of wars: the Thirty Years’ War, the Eighty Years’ War, the Peasants War, the Bishop’s War, the Hugeunot Rebellions. Al in all, tens of millions of people died in dozens of armed conflict throughout Europe that are known collectively as “The Wars of Religion,” of which the English Civil War was only one small example.

How did Jesus Christ’s religion of peace become the occasion for so much war? Lots of things, really. But one big reason had to do with the way that biblical narratives were used in political debates. The Bible was the one indisputable authority in European culture that could be used to legitimate any political position. This means that anybody who believed anything for any reason had to find a way to justify that belief in biblical terms. Different interpretations of biblical narratives became wholly identified with different sides of political disagreements. The sacred narratives could no longer bring people together when they had been used so frequently, and so successfully, to tear people apart.

This, I think, is why I respond so negatively to a United States Senator, who happens to be a Latter-day Saint, using the sacred narratives of the Book of Mormon in such a baldly partisan manner. The story of Captain Moroni in the Book of Alma is primarily the story of internal dissenters, the “King Men,” who conspired to destroy the liberty of the people but were frustrated by the heroic Moroni, who erected the Title of Liberty and preserved the freedom of the people. 

By comparing Trump to Captain Moroni, Senator Lee narrates Democrats into the role of freedom-destroying dissidents who must be vanquished for the nation to remain free. I have no doubt that Senator Lee believes this sincerely. But that doesn’t make it a good idea to address a group called “Latter-day Saints for Trump”–in the midst of a bitterly partisan contest with Latter-day Saints on both sides–and deploy a sacred narrative in ways that delegitimize his political opponents in scriptural terms. (And yes, before you ask, I would feel the same way about Harry Reid or Jeff Flake calling Trump “King Noah” at a Latter-day Saints for Biden Rally).

The problem of disagreement in Zion is, I think, one of the most difficult issues that we have to work out. If the Kingdom of God is to be built with human beings, there will be disagreement–and not about little things, but about the most important things we can imagine. So we have to find ways to disagree vigorously, about the things that mean the most, and stil be “of one heart and mind.” The easy answer is to just get rid of people who think bad things (however we define “bad things”). But then it stops being Zion. So how we disagree is crucial. Learning to disagree, persuade, and empathize with people we really, really disagree with may be the most important skill set in the Kingdom of God.

My great fear is that, once our unique sacred text has been thoroughly drafted into the service of our political disputes, it will no longer be able to function as a sacred text. Once we start using the Book of Mormon to tear each other apart, it will no longer be able to bring us together. And that is a problem, since, when the election is over and the pandemic fades, we are going to have to figure out how to love each other again. “Latter-day Saints for Trump” and “Latter-day Saints for Biden” will have to go to the same wards, participate in the same ordinances, minister to each other, bear each other’s burdens, and, generally, do our best to build the Kingdom of God on earth. We aren’t going to suddenly agree on everything, or even on most things. But we will have to agree on some things or the whole Zion idea just won’t work. To do this, we will need our stories, and they won’t be able to do their vital work of reconcilliation if we use them to beat each other over the head with every four years.

Comments

  1. In all seriousness, you can love someone and still not put up with their bullcrap. You can recognize that Mike Lee is a disgusting individual and still love him.To the extent anyone reads this post and conflates loving Mike Lee and being nice about the disgusting things Mike Lee does, I want to disabuse them of that thought. I’ve been going to church with the Mike Lees of the world all my life. I’ve literally heard Bill Clinton referred to as King Clinton during the Sunday School lesson about King Noah. And I’m proud to say I told Brother W to shut his mouth because I didn’t want to hear it. To his credit, he did. Love Mike Lee and his ilk all you want, but when they get back on their bullshit–and they will–be prepared to firmly tell them to go jump in a lake. We’ll have peace and love in Zion when Mike Lees get the message that their Christian nationalism isn’t welcome in the building or the community.

  2. “once our unique sacred text has been thoroughly drafted into the service of our political disputes, it will no longer be able to function as a sacred text.”

    And yet sacred texts, by their terms, demand that they be used in all aspects of our lives, perhaps especially our politics. Maybe the issue is that we’re not using them properly; for example, Mike Lee’s comparison is so shocking in part because he is so obviously wrong and he doesn’t care.

  3. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    Thankfully, two thousand years of misuse and contention have not dimmed the Bible’s worth as a sacred text. Flawed and fallen creatures though we may be, none of us (nor all of us together) is potent enough to scrub the divine from the Book of Mormon.

    As someone who deregistered from the Republican Party four years ago, I am not spellbound by Trump and the right-wing media. But the recent slant by the BCC contributors is maddening. Three pro-choice pieces in less than a week, followed by this inflation of Mike Lee to full straw-man status.

    This used to be a relatively thoughtful and reasonable space as I’ve enjoyed it for over a decade. I suppose it is still quite thoughtful, within an increasingly narrow spectrum of voices.

    I should have seen Steve’s Molotov cocktail about evil Trump voters as merely the warmup act.

  4. Point of order: Steve’s Molotov cocktail was about the sin of voting for Trump, not about evil Trump voters. Just because someone commits an obvious sin doesn’t mean they are evil.

    And Lee’s comparison is offensive because it is so extreme in claiming Trump is like the most famously righteous person in LDS scripture, and because it is so clearly and extremely false an analogy. If he had said to think of Trump as equivalent to Brigham Young, it wouldn’t have been particularly shocking or offensive, because that analogy is pretty clean.

  5. The other chad says:

    “And yet sacred texts, by their terms, demand that they be used in all aspects of our lives, perhaps especially our politics.”

    Amen and amen. What makes the text sacred is that it was edited not for us, but at us — by someone who saw our day and whose editorial intent was that we’d use the book’s lessons to inform our conduct, public and private.

    And. … If the past year has taught us anything it’s that loving one another, ministering to each other and bearing burdens does not require us to “go to the same ward.” We’ve been doing just fine not having our ordinances and study interrupted with the increasing spirit of contention that exists in meetings where the masked and maskless glare at one another.

  6. Trump is literally a king man. He talks about being “given” 12 more years, 16 more years etc as being the chief executive. Basically for the rest of his life. In addition there’s never been an American politician who so blatantly gives power and position to his children, setting up a line of succession.
    I grew up wondering about how people could have “eyes but cannot see and hears but cannot hear” but the Age of Trump has shown me how it’s possible. It makes me wonder how many active members will be mad at God at Judgement Day when their blinders are removed and they see how wrong they were.

  7. Larry, said “… followed by this inflation of Mike Lee to full straw-man status.”

    Well I’m not going to argue that bcc isn’t on the liberal side of Latter-Day Saintism, but calling this a straw man… I don’t get it. I’ll tell you why.

    A straw man argument is when one presents the opponent’s argument with intentionally weak support, or maybe negligently weak, specifically, weaker then one’s opponent could present it.

    In this case, I don’t see how one can present a comparison of trump to Moroni with intentionally weaker support then what Mike Lee used. It just isn’t possible.

    Quoting that liberal bastion of the SLC media, even the Deseret News:

    “To my Mormon friends, my Latter-day Saint friends, think of him as Captain Moroni,” Lee said pointing to Trump. “He seeks not power, but to pull it down. He seeks not the praise of the world or the fake news, but he seeks the well-being and the peace of the American people.”

    Puh-lease. Seeks not power? Sure, I do know people who believe that Trump doesn’t seek power, most people, including Trump supporters, recognize that he loves money and power. So much so that I swear I’m hearing a collective face-palm from most of the people reading that quote.

    The OP analysis that Lee may have been referring to comparing democrats to king men is, while still weak, a much stronger case for a comparison to Moroni than what Lee said. He’s actually giving Lee a great deal more credit than is deserved.

    All of which is tangential to the main topic of where religious texts are problematic in political context, something OP addresses quite well, and is not really a partisan issue. Thanks for the historical perspective, OP.

  8. Mike Lee has been quoted as saying that fact checking is censorship. Telling people that you are lying is not on.
    I think the big problem for uniting America, and members, is that the right have there media, the left have theirs, and there is very little common ground. There might have to be some kind of an enquiry that was seen by both sides as either bypartizan, or neutral. And an agreed set of truths.

  9. keepapitchinin says:

    Mike has helped me clarify somewhat my reaction to Lee’s [ab]use of scripture by helping me realize that it involves two different questions:

    1. A debate over how closely Trump does or does not resemble Captain Moroni — a wholly partisan question that doesn’t interest me at all, and to which commenters here immediately flocked; and

    2. A more general consideration of wielding scripture as a weapon against each other. That interests me. Lee’s doing it opens the door for others to do it, with other sacred narratives, in other situations, aimed at other Latter-day Saints. That really does get to what bothered me about Lee’s speech. I can blow off the partisanship as just another instance of overheated and sketchy political speech in a season where partisans will lie about everything else, so why not this? but I have a harder time brushing aside my anticipation of what comes next in a religious setting. How long will it be before referring to Moroni in Sunday School is free of the association with Lee and Trump and hate-filled politics? How long will it be before I can consider anyone in my ward or stake as a brother after that brother makes any approving comment about Lee’s [ab]use of the Book of Mormon? That concerns me, because I know I have a tendency to mistrust those who speak of their own politics as if all Mormons naturally agree, and to hold grudges after they do so.

  10. SGNM: you took the words right out of my mouth…If Mike Lee was really trying to be accurate, he would have compared Donald Trump to Brigham Young. I’m not going to detail what I mean. You can figure it out (it goes way beyond women). And I suspect that some of you really admire both men so my comparison isn’t necessarily negative. Just sayin..

  11. Senator Lee didn’t choose just any sacred story to draft into his political argument: he chose a story about electoral violence. To be sure, in the conventional reading (which I agree with) this violence was justified. Captain Moroni defended the legitimately elected government when the loser of the election gathered an army and threatened to overthrow it.

    But bringing up this story now is throwing gasoline on a fire and Senator Lee knows it. Despite being behind in the polls, Trump has told his followers the only way he will lose is if the voting is rigged. He has done everything in his power to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the upcoming election. So if he loses, as seems likely, there will be those who insist he was in fact the legitimate winner. Some of them may feel justified in responding with violence. It’s hard to believe Senator Lee didn’t realize that by saying Trump is like Captain Moroni he was encouraging exactly that kind of thinking.

    Ironically enough, this is just weeks after President Oaks in General Conference explicitly and categorically rejected violence as a response to the upcoming election. The fact that he had to say that is mind-boggling, but it’s clear why he felt like he did.

    (Yes, losing an election and responding with the threat of violence would put someone in the Amalickiah role, not Moroni, but I don’t think think the whole is like game is at all useful.)

    On the other hand, claiming Trump “seeks not the praise of the world” is such a howler it’s hard to take this as anything but a very bad joke.

  12. Oops, should have known it wouldn’t like brackets:

    …I don’t think think the whole Current Politician is like Book of Mormon Figure game is at all useful.

  13. sgnm, I couldn’t agree more. As I’ve studied the life of Brigham Young and simultaneously watched the Trump Show, I couldn’t help but see the eerie parallels. Of course, Trump doesn’t believe in God (other than himself) and has no moral core, which Brigham did have, but their words and behaviors in many instances are on the same track.

  14. They both certainly had lots of partners

  15. On the subject of scriptures and politics, I would like to see scriptures left out of politics. I agree with Ardis. This is particularly important in a pluralistic, democratic society.

    Besides being inappropriate, scriptures are frequently subject to a variety of interpretations. I love the OT Book of Ecclesiates. One verse encourages us to “cast thy bread upon the waters.” I always took it to mean travel widely and sample different cultures. OT scholars suggest that it means to invest wisely. I prefer my “wrong” interpretation.

    Clearly Mike’s (I can’t call him senator) comparison is a major stretch (and inappropriate). Lee states that he was asked to talk on short notice, and that he didn’t have a chance to think through what he wanted to say. Really, so Captain Moroni just popped into his head.

    Mike tends to follow and worship strange and powerful people. First, it was Ted Cruz, now it is Donald Trump. Once he latches onto to a mentor, he follows him like a puppy, and in the process embarrasses Utah. While I’m not always happy with Mitt, at least he is not a blind follower.

  16. Ariel Wolfer says:

    I was repulsed by Mike Lee extrapolating Trump to Captain Moroni. When you consider Mormon’s take that if all men had been and ever would be like unto Moroni, the powers of hell would be shaken forever more, there is a full stop moment. Trump is many things. In some cases he is extremely effective. However, righteousness and being worthy of spiritual emulation he is not. Trump has much more in common with Satan (pride, desire to rule, craving praise and worship, etc.) than he does with any religious figure in the Book of Mormon.

  17. For what it’s worth, the problem described here is one that we at Latter-day Saints for Biden-Harris has thought about a lot. And Mormon Women for Ethical Government has thought it about perhaps even more. Because so many of us have heard and seen the casual linkages between Book of Mormon figures and contemporary politicians in our church lessons, ministering visits, Daily Universe letters to the editor.

    One of the differences this year is there’s a critical mass of Latter-day Saints who are willing to publicly stand up against casual invocations such as Senator Lee’s, aware that in response we’ll receive plenty of messages accusing us of being apostates. But it’s worth it if more of us are aware that the membership of the Church is politically diverse and that that diversity is okay.

    Here are the guidelines MWEG released over the summer, and that we have pledged to follow: https://library.mormonwomenforethicalgovernment.org/pledge-not-to-leverage-or-weaponize-faith-for-political-gain/

  18. Thanks Michael, confounding to say the least for those of us in the Church who live in the outer rim, upon the isles as it were.

    We can only shake our heads, in wonder, in amazement, indeed bow our heads in sadness, that a holy text, a conduit for the Holy Ghost, is pressed to such an end. I share keepapitchinin’s concerns, and that such action seeks to evoke a universal consensus by association. And here in the land where I live, with its view from a distance, we are cast as consenting to such.

    For from here, as it goes, the perception is rising that ‘…the centre cannot hold … the ceremony of innocence is drowned … the worst are full of passionate intensity’.

    As such, there is a need for a stronger religious articulation which keeps worship and the sacred in the proper place, for as noted above, the secularization of scripture threatens to bring the house down.

    ‘Surely some revelation is at hand (lest we be) vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle’.

    (W B Yeats)

  19. The things Jesus taught says:

    Mathew,
    All seriousness, your namesake did a better job of teaching the Master’s response to those who were wrong that he loved.

    Demonstrate you are a disciple. Love others as he has loved you. Jesus had a response for those he loved who were in error. It didn’t look anything like your comment, nor most of them here.

  20. Remember when Moroni paid 120,000 Onti’s to cover up a marital affair, and then owned Pahoran, the Democratic Governor of Zarahemla? He truly knew how to make the Narrow Neck of Land great again.

  21. Talon gets it done.

  22. ‘cast thy bread upon the waters…’ I had always taken as a scripture about service. Huh. Maybe we live in an age where there is altogether too much chatter, and too little real, heartfelt service. Hope we have all learnt from this interlude in our religious conversation, and that we will value our church community more, and hope that lasting damage has not been done. Hard not to be caught up in the disagreeableness of the age.

  23. I am ashamed that Mike Lee represents my state. Donald Trump compared with Captain Moroni?!!! Not unless Moroni’s real story was his not so secret molestation of vulnerable women and his willingness to push the elderly from their homes in order to build another hotel. Perhaps Mike Lee has access to the sealed part of the plates and these stories are recorded there.

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