Mormon Media Observer: Two writers use the Book of Mormon to score political points

Published: Monday, May 7 2012 12:00 p.m. MDT

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It’s been an unexpected season of cherry-picking from the Book of Mormon, one with frustrating but hopeful consequences.

Let’s pretend I said this: “I’m voting for Mitt Romney because he says he’s for lower taxes, and the Book of Mormon says taxes should be low. I follow the Book of Mormon, so I’m voting for Mitt!”

You would likely think what I was saying was simplistic, small-minded and inappropriate.

Yet, I can easily find multiple passages that support my view in the Book of Mormon.

For example, in Ether 10:5, we learn of evil Riplakish who “did lay that upon men’s shoulders which was grievous to be borne; yea, he did tax them with heavy taxes; and with the taxes he did build many spacious buildings.”

There’s a description of King Noah in Mosiah 11 of taxing his people at one-fifth of everything to support his wives and concubines.

I have sometimes amused myself that a 20-percent overall tax rate — when you include sales taxes, state taxes, property taxes, income taxes and other taxes —seems low to me.

Personally, as a fairly conservative person, I do take these Book of Mormon verses as something of a warning against high taxation, and I’d be dishonest if I said these ideas have had no relationship to how I have shaped my views on tax policy.

But honest, intelligent people might read the same verses in a different light. The problem with taxes in the case of Riplakish and Noah, they might say, may be how these evil-doers used taxes for their own glory — not the fact of taxes themselves.

Furthermore, King Benjamin and others clearly talk about our responsibility to care for the poor.

So, an intelligent reader might well see taxes as one manifestation in a republic, not a kingdom, of our collective responsibility to one another — a view such readers could support with the Book of Mormon.

So, using the Book of Mormon to support one dogmatic view of government policy is a misuse of the Book of Mormon, as it is a misuse of the Bible or virtually any book, for that matter.

Two prominent articles and statements in the last month have used the Book of Mormon in this way, and I rebuke the use made of the Book of Mormon.

The first was in the online magazine Salon from Salt Lake blogger Troy Williams about how the Book of Mormon and Mormon history teaches Socialism. The article’s subheadline: “Joseph Smith would be horrified by the religion's present-day materialism — and uber-capitalist candidate.”

In fairness, some of Williams' article was thoughtful and thought-provoking, but exactly why is it Salon’s role to glibly say what would horrify Joseph Smith?

It’s off-putting, to say the least, when someone with an ax to grind cherry-picks elements of the Book of Mormon to bludgeon a political opponent or to score points in a public debate or to even try to further, as it seemed to me, the old trope that Latter-day Saints are hypocrites.

The second recent use of the Book of Mormon was MSNBC’s rather startling rant by Martin Bashir who quoted 2 Nephi 9 saying liars will go down to hell. He said Gov. Mitt Romney is lying in his campaign. "Given what the Book of Mormon is clearly saying, Mr. Romney has but two choices,” Bashir said. “He can either keep lying and potentially win the White House, but bring eternal damnation upon himself or he can start telling the truth. The question for him, I guess, is which is more important."

I join with my colleagues and friends at Mormon Voices in condemning the use of misused quotations that distort the Book of Mormon and the faith. I condemn as they do the assertion that the Book of Mormon suggests Latter-day Saints are racist.

I also condemn the use of scripture to attack any politician.

But don’t get me wrong.

I’m glad these articles and comments made the national press in some ways. I’m glad people are finally opening the Book of Mormon and talking about what it actually says. (Obviously, I take grave exception with Williams’ characterization of the Book of Mormon as “mythic.”) I wish for more people to read it.

Of all the things I’ve been disappointed in my years of study of news of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the thing I have been most disappointed in is the lack of coverage of what is really in the Book of Mormon — of the remarkable, serious, arguments it makes — even to those who aren’t willing to assume it is a true, ancient record.

I marvel that a book that ends in death and decay somehow seems fundamentally about love and hope.

I marvel at its deep, relevant discussions and illustrations of taxes, of wealth, of poverty, of race, of secret combinations, of terrorism, of politics and of atheism — all extremely timely topics today.

Then, when I think I’ve learned what the Book of Mormon says about modern issues, I realize it says so much more than I thought. I find I quietly gain a more nuanced, humble positions on public policy issues directly from my study of The Book of Mormon.

Pondering the Book of Mormon has made me more willing to listen to my political opponents and to try to understand them.

The Book of Mormon deserves a broader place in the public discourse, and it should be used with more care than these journalists have done. But give them credit for at least opening more dialogue about this great book.

Finally, briefly, I couldn’t let pass annual World Press Freedom Day May 3 without a brief mention.

According to the Associated Press and the organization Reporters Without Borders, 67 journalists were killed in 2011 and another 22 have died so far this year. Many were targeted precisely because of the work they do.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists — via the AP —179 journalists were detained in 2011, a 20-percent increase over 2010.

And on World Press Freedom Day, three journalists were found dead in Veracruz, likely killed by the terrible, corrupting drug violence down there.

I will never forget interviewing an editor from Columbia who talked about the sacrifices he and others made there during drug violence. He told me he had a choice — to turn the future of his children over to the criminals or try to stand against them.

He, like so many other brave men and women, chose to stand.

As much as journalists sometimes frustrate us, let us remember with gratitude what sacrifices many of the best make for us every day.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.

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