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The Book of Mormon insists that the calamities and warnings it describes are for our day. Moroni is frank, “Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing” (Mormon 8:35).
It might be jarring to think that a prophet who has seen our day delivers a book to us that doesn’t just give us sweet platitudes about the importance of being good, but also spells with such muscle the tactics of demagogues and the smooth talk of tyrants. Let us not mince words. “O be wise; what can I say more?” implores Jacob (Jacob 6:12).
Yes, the Book of Mormon describes to us the prosperity and happiness of people who are united under righteous leaders, but oh, do we also see grinding wars, clashing philosophies, egos inflated by megalomania, secret acts below the radar and ultimately the utter dissolution of a people who were promised so much more if they could have been faithful.
We might wish the book had a happier ending, but since it is a witness and a warning, the Lord paints for us not once, but twice, the attributes of a civilization that is decimated through the people’s heedlessness and covenant breaking. The Book of Mormon repeats insistently and repeatedly that a proud civilization must repent or be destroyed.
At fault are the citizens who have abandoned their religious foundation, are lulled by material well-being, boast in their own strength and are carried away with flattering words. It is in these conditions they become ripe for leaders who make matters even worse, leading the population into babbling, envying, strife and “all manner of wickedness” (Alma 1:32).
This sounds hauntingly familiar in our raucous day of sleazy politics and impossible choices. Mosiah reminds us, “how much iniquity doth one wicked king cause to be committed” (Mosiah 29:17).
Though he says that “it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right,” “if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as has hitherto visited this land” (Mosiah 29: 26, 27).
What Mosiah is talking about here is not just that the people choose iniquity in their personal lives, but that they also unite together to choose iniquitous leaders whose power further destroys their societies. It’s a cautionary tale.
In some ways, you might almost say that the Book of Mormon is a spiritual primer on virtuous and wicked leadership. The scripture smiles upon Nephi, King Benjamin, Mosiah, Alma, Captain Moroni and many others, but is also fearless in denouncing the tactics of Noah, Amlici, Amalickiah and the thought leaders of the day like Nehor and Korihor.
Bad political leaders often arise in sharply divided societies weakened by contention. They arise when societies are fraying or vulnerable. They are less likely to arise in strong, cohesive societies united by shared values and ideals.
Do we want to see with clarity what wickedness looks like in practice? The Book of Mormon delivers.
Noah’s key to power is this. “He put down all the priests that had been consecrated by his father, and consecrated new ones in their stead.” He destroys their religion, but in a most ingenious way—by making it appear that nothing has changed. He can still give lip service to religion, while systematically dissolving it. When they question Abinadi, it is clear these priests know something about the scriptures, but it is all a pretense and deception. It is a fake to fool the people.
Note that Noah, “caused a breastwork to be built before them, that they might rest their bodies and their arms upon while they should speak lying and vain words to the people.”
Noah embraces the philosophies of men with all the power of his office, while he still appears to maintain religious faith through a cadre of priests who are beholden to him. They spout scripture while they plan to burn a prophet alive.
Noah has to maintain the deception that his court is faithful because the people still carry enough of a religious tradition that outright war on religion might be unacceptable. He gives lip service to the gospel with his priestly court, while he leads people to “riotous living,” sporting with “harlots” and drunkenness.
He is the consummate public relations man. He appears perfectly respectable while he places his heart on riches and revels in immorality. He gives lip service to tradition—the moral and religious foundation of Nephite society—while denying and crushing the essence of it.
We are unfortunately reminded of those in the United States who say “God bless America” while they war against religious freedom or those who quote the Constitution while they undo it. There is a pretense of clinging to founding ideas while systematically deconstructing them. It’s all about cutting an image that the people can embrace, while you forward a competing ideology.
Quoting the ideals people believe while you are relentlessly taking them away from that foundation is a time-honored tool of a despicable political leader who ultimately wreaks havoc on a nation. People who follow may not even realize how much things have changed and ideas have become redefined because they have been sold a bill of goods. In America there has been an incremental erosion of our founding, but destruction of a nation’s foundational strength can also happen in a speck of time. It happens when you are busy doing something else.
Noah also knew how heady it was for a people to be “lifted up in the pride of their hearts” and “boast in their own strength.” He built his high towers and lofty building projects to impress the people for his own debauched ends. Everything must be good if we are prosperous enough (or taxed enough) to build towers this big, right? It is difficult to discern inner rot when the exterior is so impressive. (See Mosiah 11).
Smooth Talkers–Nehor and Korihor
Nehor and Korihor were not political leaders, but thought leaders in the Nephite society, and both have a similar aim. While Noah profits from the pretense of religion, Nehor and Korihor seek to destroy the people’s faith altogether.
Nehor was a modern man—a moral relativist. His message “that people need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice” is based squarely on the idea that the Lord will redeem all men. This sounds like an optimistic message, but we are told that this philosophy led ultimately to the demise of the Nephite civilization (Alma 1:4).
His underlying philosophy? There are no consequences for sin, because there is no sin. There is no sin because there is no truth. What we are left with is the reigning philosophy we see today in our secular world–that truth is relative and essentially in the eye of the beholder. Ultimately we should just be true to ourselves and our own notion of things since there is no objective standard.
Korihor adds to this, again with a very modern argument, that to cling to religion is a “foolish and a vain hope.” It is the “effect of a frenzied mind”, a “derangement of your minds” which leads you away “into a belief of things which are not so” (Alma 30: 13,16). To believe in Jesus Christ and the gospel, he claims, is to be in bondage. He is quick to belittle religion as if it is something shameful (which again rings with familiarity.)
When there is no way to measure an idea against the yardstick of truth, what values ultimately dominate in a society? Korihor supplies this answer, “Every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime” (Alma 30:17).
Ultimately in a society that fails to acknowledge that God is the author of truth, some other idea will dominate—and it is the one that has the most political will and power behind it, however unrighteous or unjust it is. Power is enhanced with this idea—that any means whatsoever should be used to justify the ends. The main thing is winning no matter what the cost to your opponents or your society.
Why would Nehor and Korihor seek to erode the spiritual foundation of the people? Probably for the same reason that other power seekers have. Traditional beliefs have to be weakened in order for new ideologies to arise and surpass them. Historically, totalitarian governments maintain power by first destroying the religion of the people because it is easier to manipulate and coerce a people who have lost their moral compass and their faith.
When religion fades, other, more coercive ideologies can arise.
If, for example, today there are those who seek to thrust upon our society a coerced virtue enforced by government and based on the tenets of their ideology, they have to greatly weaken religion first. Many are aggressively about that.
Amalickiah—Lying for Power
Perhaps the worst bad guy of all in the Book of Mormon is Amalickiah whose over-arching desire is power and who stops at nothing to get it. He wants to be king and it doesn’t matter much to him whom he rules. He will do anything for this aim. Murder and duplicity are his tools. His weapons are “flattering words” and an appeal to the pride and lust for power in others.
Just what are “flattering words”? It is good to ask since they apparently have such a persuasive impact. He promises what he has no intention to deliver. He promises much and delivers nothing. He says whatever the people need to hear to advance his aims. The truth has no meaning for him. He lies with style and the cover-up help of his pawns.
He has a gift for stirring up anger while he asks his listeners to take no responsibility. He is subtle and evil and yet in his sheer strength and bluster has the capacity to make others believe him.
Lehonti, who at first had no intention of coming down the mountain to meet Amalickiah was worn down bit by bit and came part way down. Amalickiah, pretending to be an ally, was just as subtle in poisoning Lehonti by degrees.
Oh, how we are cooked by degrees. Amalickiah was a master of this, the perfect deceiver. He was a man with a mask who knew his end game and accomplished it with the patience of an alligator. He worked under the radar in secret.
He “led away the hearts of many people to do wickedly; yea, and to destroy the church of God, and to destroy the foundation of liberty.” He comprehended that to destroy the church is ultimately to destroy the foundation of liberty.
How somehow fitting that we should be warned against a political leader as a perfect liar in the pages of the Book of Mormon. We have entered an era where any lie is excused as long as it forwards a favored agenda.
As Victor Davis Hanson wrote, “’Truth’ for a postmodernist is supposedly what those who control us say it is…Today we assume that lying is simply a narrative, not a window into one’s character.”
Lying is simply a way of grabbing and keeping power.
We hear that there is nothing more impolite these days than to discuss religion and politics, but, in fact, the Book of Mormon does just that, intertwining them freely—because Mormon knew from inspiration just what we would need. It, of course, is not about any specific party, but about the persuasions and attributes of good and bad leaders and what becomes of a society when it is unhinged from religion and its founding values.
It suggests something else—that we must take the state of our nation seriously and prayerfully. Maintaining freedom demands our best energy. As Ezra Taft Benson said, “I’d rather be dead than lose my liberty. I have no fear we will ever lose it because of invasion from the outside, but I do have fear that it may slip away from us because of our own indifference, our own negligence as citizens of this land. And so I plead with you…that you take an active interest in matters pertaining to the future of this country.”
This prophet who loved the Book of Mormon so much and pled with us to make it the center of our study certainly knew what he was talking about.
The Book of Mormon teaches that malignant leaders do not necessarily have to spell the demise of a nation. This is not entirely a bleak tale. Time and time again the Nephites rebounded from bad leadership—but they had to pay the price. Virtuous leaders had to arise. The people had to remember their covenants and rally for their freedom, their homes and their family. A title of liberty had to be raised. They did it and so can we.