A Bit 'o Random Musings on Politics, Religion, and Anything Else That Passes Through My Crazy Head

Friday, July 3, 2015

(Un) American Heroes

I read an article many years ago (either in the Bloggernacle or maybe BYU's Political Review) which talked about the futility of comparing the society in the Book of Mormon to our modern day politics because of the vast differences in our society. While I didn't agree with all of it, it's certainly a valid point that the largely agrarian and tribal society in the Book of Mormon is vastly different than our industrialized democratic republic here in the U.S.

One example of this is Captain Moroni, who is a hero in the Book of Mormon's war chapters. Mormon, the editor of the Book of Mormon, shows Captain Moroni some serious love when he writes: "Yea, verily, verily I say unto you, if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men" (Alma 48:17). Mormon obviously thought Moroni was a hero, and portrayed him as such. With all that, it's no surprise that Mormon named his son Moroni, and generations of church members have looked to Captain Moroni as the paragon of virtue and righteousness.

But if we look closely at the record, Captain Moroni is in some ways a dangerous example to promote when we talk about current political affairs. He executed people who didn't agree with him (Alma 46:34-35, 51:14-20). He also had a vast impatience with anyone who didn't do exactly what he wanted when he wanted it (see Alma 60). In many ways, Captain Moroni saw the world in very black and white terms, which is useful if you're fighting an enemy that wants to kill you and drink your blood, but isn't very useful if you're trying to take part in a democracy where people will disagree with you.

Looking at modern day politics through Captain Moroni's lenses will cause us to see people as traitors if they disagree with us about political affairs. Captain Moroni threatened to lead an insurrection if the government didn't do what he wanted (Alma 60:27), even if the majority will disagreed with his policies, all the while claiming ironically "... I seek not for power, but to pull it down." (Alma 60:36). By seeking to "pull down" those leaders who didn't agree with his worldview, Captain Moroni was like an ancient version of Douglas MacArthur during the Korean war - critical of government policy and seeking to impose his military views on the political leaders of his time.

In America we believe in a secular society where military power is controlled by the civilian branches of government. We also separate government and religious action in order to allow all mankind to "...worship how, where, or what they may" (11th Article of Faith). These concepts would be foreign to Moroni and many in the Book of Mormon, who viewed government and religion as necessarily intertwined, and would likely not appreciated the checks and balances of the American political system. As I've stated before here, and for the reasons laid out much more eloquently here, I believe it's a good thing that America has religious freedom while also strictly separating church and state.

Ultimately, I believe the Book of Mormon teaches us very valuable principles. These principles can be applied differently by different people, and it's only right that in a society based on freedom we argue and debate the priority of various principles and how they apply to various situations. But to use a military leader from thousands of years ago as a political paragon ignores some of the more troubling aspects of his leadership. Hero worship is never a good thing, because humans are fallible and imperfect beings. And what I love about American government is that it recognizes this, and builds in checks and balances to guard against the imperfections in our temperaments.

We're still building America, as this one supremely idealistic scene from the TV show The West Wing reminds us:

Jeff Breckenridge: You got a dollar?
Josh Lyman: Yeah.
Jeff Breckenridge: Take it out. Look at the back. The seal, the pyramid, it's unfinished, with the eye of God looking over it, and the words annuit coeptis - he, god, favors our undertaking. The seal is meant to be unfinished, because this country's meant to be unfinished. We're meant to keep doing better. We're meant to keep discussing and debating. And, we're meant to read books by great historical scholars and then talk about them...
So, study Captain Moroni - be bold and valiant like he was, that's a good thing. But realize that some of his values were un-American, even if he is a hero, and keep building the America you want to see, with empathy for those who disagree and a respect for our constitutional system which guards your liberties, my liberties, and the liberties of all who live here.

Happy Independence Day!