Think U.S. elections are contentious? Try Nephite elections!
Elections have been on my mind recently, as I'm sure they have been on all of ours. 4 years ago, we experience the most divisive election in my lifetime. But by all available data, it looks like this one is going to make that one look "mostly peaceful" in comparison. Even within the Church, relations between good members with differing political ideologies have been seriously strained. But if you are anxious about the hostility of this election cycle, here's a thought that may shed a tiny sliver of hope and perspective: be glad this election is not a Nephite election.
A look inside the Nephite government
We don't know a ton about how the Nephites ran their system of government, but we do know that in many ways, it mirrored ours: it was a hierarchical structure that divided power between local leaders ("lower judges") and national leaders ("chief judges"). Local issues were settled by local leaders, but apparently could be appealed and brought before the national leadership in case a ruling was contested. Unlike our government, elected leaders seemed to operate with no term limits. Titles could not be inherited: like our government, the children of popular leaders often went into leadership themselves, but they were elected just as their fathers were. However, if a chief judge resigned his position, he apparently had the right to appoint a successor, even if only temporarily.
Like our modern government, the Nephite government enshrined key rights and protections into its founding. Murder, theft, lying, and other crimes were punished, but the law made no requirement on a person's morality or religion. In fact, persecution and discrimination between different sects were strictly prohibited by the law. Each individual was recognized as having certain key rights including some measure of free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, the right to bear arms, and other rights we would find familiar to our own Constitution.
We know that the Nephites had a lot of the same frustrating political concerns we do today. They suffered from a swamp of corrupt career politicians. Many of the officials appointed to national and local leadership hailed from a long line of leaders and nobility. Leaders were discovered accepting bribes in exchange for official action of one sort or another. Aspiring leaders made backroom deals with potential allies by promising them appointments to prominent positions of power in exchange for their support. At several points in the Nephite history, the overall makeup of the government leaders leaned far more wicked than righteous. At one point, the scales tipped completely, the government was overrun by gangsters, lost its legitimacy, and was dissolved by the populace.
A look inside Nephite elections
Even during the years the government wasn't in complete shambles, it was a very tenuous peace. The political climate of the Nephites was adversarial, to say the least. Many decisions put to vote divided voters, sometimes violently, along ideological political lines. We read that "there were many among them who began to be proud, and began to contend warmly with their adversaries, even unto blows; yea, they would smite one another with their fists."
Sound familiar? When we are taught that the Book of Mormon is written for our day, it's uncanny how it sometimes hits the nail right on the head. But while that may sound like a typical news headline from 2020, that verse is from the first year of the reign of the judges. So imagine 2020-style political division with 2020-style riots in the streets… but taking place just after George Washington's first inaugural address.
Say what you want about the past two decades of politics, but so far, the U.S. is pretty dang good at the whole "peaceful transition of power" thing. The Nephites, on the other hand, couldn't seem to go more than two or three decades without some sort of civil war. Why is that? Check out this interesting theme from verses describing people exercising their right to vote:
- Mosiah 29:39: "They assembled themselves together in bodies throughout the land, to cast in their voices concerning who should be their judges."
- Alma 2:5-6: "The people assembled themselves together throughout all the land, every man according to his mind, whether it were for or against Amlici, in separate bodies, having much dispute and wonderful contentions one with another. And thus they did assemble themselves together to cast in their voices concerning the matter.
- Alma 46:1: "And it came to pass that as many as would not hearken to the words of Helaman and his brethren were gathered together against their brethren."
- Alma 46:28-29: Moroni "gathered together all the people who were desirous to maintain their liberty, to stand against Amalickiah and those who had dissented… Amalickiah saw that the people of Moroni were more numerous… therefore, [he feared] that he should not gain the point."
From these verses, it would appear that for the Nephites, there was no such thing as a mail-in or absentee ballot. In fact, it looks like there wasn't really a polling place or balloting system at all. It seems that the voice of the people was decided by literally gathering together into two separate groups according to your vote. Effectively, they divided themselves into two teams.
The importance of political diversity
Imagine for a moment what would happen if we tried that kind of thing this election: "OK, all the Conservatives please gather on the west coast, and all the Liberals please congregate on the east coast." It would be madness. All of a sudden, you are surrounded on every side by millions of people who believe what you believe: one giant mass of like-minded people, all gathered together to raise your voice against "the other side."
In this echo chamber where your views are largely the only views, the opinions and voices start to get more and more radical. The "other side" seems less and less relatable to you because their views get more and more radical, too. Those "others" seem so different, so crazy, even threatening. No longer are they friends, neighbors, coworkers, or family members– to you, they're now the oppressors– a distant, outside force bent on destroying what you know and love. In this mass of like-minded people, a political party quickly becomes an army and civil war is inevitable.
I've heard a lot of talk recently about a civil war or a "national divorce." Some people I know think one is likely in the next 5 years. I don't buy that for the simple reason that we do not hold elections Nephite-style. We are not the same country we were before the Civil War. The country isn't split into two highly localized highly homogenous groups. Sure, there are divisions between rural and urban, between big states and small states, between the coasts and the middle of the country. I get that. But chances are if you want to find a lot of people who disagree with you politically, you don't have to look far– they're your coworkers, your neighbors, and your ward members. Hopefully, they're even your friends. In some cases I know, they're even your spouse.
I believe that we cannot get to the point of civil war or "national divorce" in the foreseeable future because of that diversity in our society. In the online world, we can do what the Nephites did– we can virtually "gather" as like-minded groups. We can put ourselves in an echo chamber. We can listen to millions of voices that sound just like us. We can take positions more extreme than we would take in person. We can get fired up and say things we would never say in real life. Sometimes that even spills out into the "real world," and I acknowledge that is bad and needs to stop. But fiery rhetoric on social media is a far cry from tearing down the houses in your neighborhood if they have a yard sign up. Maybe that changes over time, but for now, I'm pretty confident we're not to the breaking point yet.
There's still danger there, of course. We're not just asked to tolerate our neighbors, coworkers, and ward members. We're asked to love them.
When our brothers and sisters outside our faith are asked in opinion polls how they perceive members of the Church, the word "exclusionary" frequently comes up. And according to President Oaks, it sounds like we actually deserve that label to some extent. We've got repenting to do. We have to break out of the echo chambers of our own ideologies. We have to engage with friends, family members, and acquaintances who do not see eye to eye with us on our moral or political views. We need that diversity of viewpoint. Even in cases where there is a clear right and wrong moral issue at stake, we need empathy and compassion for the other viewpoints that we can only find through interaction with them. We can't get that solely by listening to our favorite political pundits and bloggers– even exceptional bloggers like yours truly ☺