Nephite Elections

Posted by Matthew Watkins on January 22, 2017

Elections have been on my mind recently, as I’m sure they have been on all of ours. America’s 45th peaceful transition of power has not been very peaceful. But it could be worse. Let’s look at how the Nephites held their elections.

We know that the Nephites sometimes had the same kind of adversarial politics that we have today. The Book of Mormon records that the Nephites had to deal with corrupt politicians who accepted bribes and promises of appointment to prominent positions in exchange for support (Alma 46:4-5). It relates how at one point, the whole government was overrun by gangsters (see a lot of Helaman and 3 Nephi). And it tells us that the people themselves were often extremely (sometimes even violently) divided against each other along political and theological lines:

Nevertheless, 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.

Alma 1:22

That verse there is a pretty good description of what is going on in cities across the US right now, and what we have faced as a country for many years. 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 I noticed one thing that we differ from the Nephites on in our election process. Here’s the very first Nephite election, where Alma the Younger was chosen to be the chief judge:

They assembled themselves together in bodies throughout the land, to cast in their voices concerning who should be their judges.

Mosiah 29:39

And here is an election just a few years later where the people are deciding if they want to tear down the new republic and re-establish a monarchy again:

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 2:5-6

This is then repeated a few years later when Amalickiah tries to establish himself as king (not explicitly mentioned as a public referendum like Amlici’s, but it sounds like it):

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.

And now it came to pass that [Moroni] went forth, and also sent forth in all the parts of the land where there were dissensions, and gathered together all the people who were desirous to maintain their liberty, to stand against Amalickiah and those who had dissented, who were called Amalickiahites.

And… Amalickiah saw that the people of Moroni were more numerous than the Amalickiahites– and he also saw that his people were doubtful concerning the justice of the cause in which they had undertaken– therefore, [he feared] that he should not gain the point.

Alma 46:1, 28-29

From these verses, it would appear that for the Nephites, elections usually involved meeting together in separate bodies from one another. Imagine if we tried that kind of thing this election: “OK, everyone for Trump to the west coast and everyone for Hilary to the east coast.” It would be madness, and here’s why: Imagine for a moment that we did this west coast/east coast election idea. All of the sudden you are surrounded on every side by miles and miles of people who believe like you do. One giant mass of like-minded people, all gathered together for the purpose of raising your voice against “the other side.”

In this echo chamber where your views are largely the only views, the views get more and more radical. And the “other side” seems less and less relatable because their views get more and more radical, too. “The others” seem so different, so crazy, so just plain wrong. No longer are they friends, neighbors, coworkers, or family members– to you, they’re now the oppressor, a distant, outside force hellbent on destroying what you know and love. A political party quickly becomes an army, and civil war is inevitable. Just look at the riots across the country right now and multiply it by a thousand.

Maybe the Nephites didn’t run all their elections by physically dividing themselves like this. Or maybe they were small enough that dividing like that meant just a few days’ walk and counting votes was impossible without everyone actually being there. I don’t know. But I am grateful that in most places throughout the country, there is at least a modest mix of political opinions in our cities, our states, our workplaces, and even in our Church. That we cannot gather into a homogeneous mass.

When our brothers and sisters outside our faith are asked about their perceptions of us in opinion polls, the word “exclusionary” frequently comes up. If what Elder Oaks reported in the October 2010 General Conference is correct (and he’s an Apostle, so I’m sure it is), we probably deserve that to some extent, and have some repenting to do.

I hope we do not live in an echo chamber of our own ideology. I hope that we have friends, family members, and acquaintances who do not see eye to eye with us on our moral or political views. We need that. Even in cases where there is a clear right and wrong moral issue at stake, we need the empathy and compassion for the other viewpoints that we cannot get solely by listening to our favorite political pundits and LDS bloggers. Even me. :)

This post first appeared on Power in the Book