Book review: “Voice of the People: Political Rhetoric in the Book of Mormon”

My COVID-19 reading has been David Charles Gore’s Voice of the People: Political Rhetoric in the Book of Mormon. Reading time, however, has been severely limited due to the fact that my commute time is now nil. I read in chunks of time between screaming children. I hope I can paint something semi-coherent in this review, so here it goes.

Voice of the People I believe was a find in the footnotes. Really, heading to the footnotes can uncover a lot of treasures, and this is one of them. To give a general overview of the book, it’s an in-depth analysis of the transition chapters from the book of Mosiah to the book of Alma. Three chapters to be exact: Mosiah 29 (King Mosiah’s letter to the people), Alma 1 (Nehor’s challenge to Alma), and Alma (Amlici tries to make himself king). In my experience in lay Mormonism, these chapters these have a few traditional interpretations. Mosiah’s speech is often interpreted as a defense of modern-day democracy (Gore makes clear in this book: it’s not). Nehor’s wickedness is broken down into five quick and easy ways to identify priestcraft (paid clergy == bad). And, at least for me, Amlici’s rebellion is just a prelude to the long war chapters ahead, for better or for worse.

Gore pulls out a ton here that will help you get beyond the usual ruts you may find yourself in when reading these chapters in your Come Follow Me time. While the book has the title “political” in it and sounds like more scholarly than devotional, I wouldn’t say the book is secular. To the contrary, the book tries to show just how much the Book of Mormon and its spiritual message applies to all areas of life. The Book of Mormon has something to say about how we approach politics, how we engage with communal matters and not just personal repentance. These things are actually inter-related, as Gore suggests.

It’s hard to summarize this book, because there is so much good in it, so I will pick two aspects to stick to here. The first is Gore’s very well-documented account of the inter-textual relationships of Mosiah 20-Alma 2, mostly with the account of King David in the book of Samuel in the Bible and the book of Ether in the Book of Mormon. I must not be an observant reader, because I hadn’t ever made the connection between Samuel and King Mosiah. Gore considers them mirror images of each other. Samuel was a proto-king or king-maker who reluctantly ushered in a reign of kings, while King Mosiah was the last in a line of kings who initiated a reign of judges. I had also not made the connection that King Mosiah’s translation of the record of the Brother of Jared may have influenced his opinion on kings, when that’s what the whole narrative is about– one unrighteous king after another. Have I even ever read the Book of Mormon? These connections aren’t directly spelled out in the text, and do require the reader to be able to connect multiple narratives together. That’s probably not something we are trained to do as Latter-Day Saints, because we tend to sit and read in small chunks, say a chapter a day. This pattern makes it very difficult to make connects, as I have usually forgotten everything from the previous chapter the next day.

The other aspect I’ll focus on here has to do with Gore’s concept of mournfulness. Gore introduces mournfulness so:

I hope to show that the Book of Mormon presents possibilities that rest on a serious-minded, mournful approach to public discourse. The effect, interestingly, is not pessimism or despair… Imagine the possibility of a rhetoric resting in thorough awareness of one’s own shortcomings, speakers fully prepared to answer for their own faults, and citizens ready and willing to accept the burden and responsibility of governing.

This idea of mournfulness is rooted in the idea that there are some things that we can’t fix:

Samuel was constrained to navigate, as everyone must, immediate political exigencies while striving after what is best… The frustration of trying to set right what can never be fully set right persists in all such stories.

We will always run up against the limits of mortality and human nature. In this regard, I couldn’t help but think of Jerry Muller’s introduction in Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present. Muller argues that conservatism isn’t just a reactionary response to the new, but rather has some solid principles on which it is built across time and space. One of those is the acceptance of human imperfection– and imperfectability:

Conservative thought has typically emphasized the imperfection of the individual, an imperfection at once biological, emotional, and cognitive… Conservatives typically contend that human moral imperfection leads men to act badly when they act upon their uncontrolled impulses, and that they require the constraints imposed by institutions as a limit upon subjective impulse.

If this constitutes conservatism, I would say that Gore’s argument would fall under it. Small-c conservatism, mind you, because this by no means matches the contemporary Republican party. There were lines where this perhaps became more obvious. Read this line:

Idolatry is, in rhetorical terms, an oversimplification of problems or an overconfident commitment to failed solutions. Idolatry grows out of and fosters idleness because it is rooted in promises that are simple to make but difficult to fulfill. It shifts the burden of deliverance upon a person, object, or concept that does not have the power to deliver.

I couldn’t help but think that, without saying it, Gore was alluding to socialism and Bernie Sanders. Perhaps he is, perhaps he isn’t. I’m not saying that Gore is endorsing a political platform. He’s not. And Gore also makes clear he isn’t all for accepting the status quo, or just dealing with the injustices of the day. Instead, he is arguing that we have to be ready for failure. Just because there are no perfect answers doesn’t mean we should stop trying to make the world a better place. We need a humbled optimism. It reminds me of the beautiful story from Judaism shared by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:

Shevirat ha-kelim (‘breaking of vessels’) [is a] catastrophe theory of creation. God, in making the world, could not leave it devoid of his presence. He therefore sent rays of light. The light was, however, too intense for its containers, which thereby broke, scattering fragments of light throughout the world. It is our task to gather up these fragments, wherever they are, and restore them to their proper place. Hence, the [final] idea: tikkun, healing a fractured world. Each religious act we do has an effect on the ecology of creation. It restores something of lost harmony to the cosmos.

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