Machiavelli and Mormonism

The late LDS historian Davis Bitton has always been a bit of an enigma to me. Obviously intelligent and knowledgeable, he sometimes came up with really bizarre stuff that had me scratching my head. My friend Mina pointed out a particularly strange piece in Meridian Magazine (where of course it would be right at home): Welcome to Church, Brother Niccolo.

In this article, Bitton attempts to show that, despite Machiavelli’s reputation as a living “symbol of cruelty and cynicism,” he shared some common beliefs and values with the LDS church. I know what you’re thinking: This ought to be good.

Bitton tells us that Machiavelli’s ideas dovetail with the church in the following areas:

  • His disdain for the corrupt church of his day
  • His understanding of the depravity of “the natural man”
  • His view on the importance of “agency”

Let’s take a look at these in order. As any good Mormon knows, the Catholic church has always been corrupt to one degree or another. Machiavelli denounced the corruption he saw in the dominant religion:

What he saw in practice, exemplified especially by Pope Julius II, was the supposed head of Christendom corrupted by wealth, heavily involved in Italy’s power politics, and willing to use force, even to lead troops in the field.  If this was Christianity, Machiavelli was not impressed.

One wonders if Bitton has read any LDS history at all: what else is Mormonism than a religion “corrupted by wealth, heavily involved in [Utah’s] power politics, and willing to use force” (hello? The Battle of Crooked River? Zion’s Camp?)? This next sentence is particularly ironic: “Power and gain and priestcraft — those marks of a fatally flawed religion, denounced by the prophets — were dominant in the church.” Does Bitton really think that Machiavelli would have found the modern Mormon church any different?

Next, we learn that Machiavelli had a rather dim view of human nature. Machiavelli said that humans by nature were “bad” and so a realist would recognize that “his actions should be governed by the realities of the situation — moral or immoral, as the case required.” Once again Bitton seems to have forgotten about Joseph Smith’s idea that there is nothing that is absolutely immoral: “Whatever God commands is right, whatever it is.” Thus Joseph Smith could lie to his followers and to his wife about his sexual activities, church leaders could publicly renounce polygamy but secretly continue the practice for at least another 14 years, and church leaders could lie to the police during the Hofmann affair; they acted immorally “as the case required.” At least Machiavelli recognizes that morality exists; Mormonism teaches that the only morality is in obedience.

Finally, Bitton finds latent Mormonism in Machiavelli’s view of agency. “Machiavelli did not see life as totally determined, mechanistically predictable.” Of course, not all that many people in history have seen life as predetermined; but, like Machiavelli, most people recognize the importance of sheer luck, or “fortune,” as Machiavelli puts it. Some things are beyond our control, but “You do what you can. You try to protect yourself.  Then you deal with circumstances as they come.  Brigham Young said about the same thing.” Yes, he did, along with thousands of other people. But if you think about it, Mormonism is in a way rather deterministic. In the Doctrine and Covenants we read, “And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things” (59:21). Thus, when something good happens, it was God’s blessing; if something bad happens, God must be trying to teach us something.

Bitton then goes off on a tangent about political checks and balances, which is again ironic since there are no such checks or balances in Mormonism.

He signs off with this paragraph:

But let’s face it, some of his views do not comport readily with gospel understandings.  I can’t really think it quite right for a ruler to pretend to be religious.  The important thing, said our Florentine, is that he seems to be virtuous and seems to be religious.  Although we can well believe that some political consultants think along these same lines, Latter-day Saints cannot subscribe to such manipulation and deception.

Let’s see: a leader who pretends to be religious, but who in fact is manipulative and deceptive. I can’t think of anyone in Mormonism like that, can you?


3 Responses to Machiavelli and Mormonism

  1. Chris says:

    hahahaha! I wonder if Bitton was intentionally subtly lampooning the Church? I mean really, he had to know he was setting himself up for failure with this one!

  2. Mina says:

    I don’t think that Bitton was capable of such subtext by the point that he wrote this, Chris. I’ve not looked at his career enough to have it all plotted, but from what I do know he made a turn toward the ultra-apologist side of things after initially being more Arrington-esque (and working under him). He wrote one of the most contemptible bits of revisionist character assassination I’ve ever run across—and in terms of mormon history, that’s saying a lot!

  3. hkyson says:

    Here is an article on science and Mormonism that I published awhile back in my blog “Interlingua multilingue”:

    Science and the Mormons

    The Mormons are a religious sect that emerged from Christianity in the United States in the Nineteenth Century. They added to the Bible their own scripture, the Book of Mormon, translated by Joseph Smith from an original text in a language he called Reformed Egyptian. According to the mythology of the Mormons, in 1827 the angel Moroni gave Smith these texts, which were engraved on golden tables. Smith could understand them without learning their language through the divine magic of two special lenses that he used to read them while he translated them.

    Smith and his followers were persecuted by traditional Christians, who forced them to travel slowly and with great sacrifices until they reached what is now Utah, where their descendants dominate the religious and social life of this American state.

    According to the Mormons, the Indians of the Americas came from Egypt more than 2,000 (two thousand) years ago. They used this myth to convert many Indians to their religion. “We were taught that all the blessings of our Hebrew ancestors made us a special people,” said Jose a Loyaza, a lawyer in Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah. “And this identity gave us a sense of transcendental affiliation, a special identity with God.” But Loyaza gradually learned that there was another outrageous irony to his faith.

    He rejected his religion after learning that evidence provided by comparative DNA studies between American Indians and Asians conclusively proved that the first humans that migrated to the Americas came not from the Middle East but from Asia.

    For the Mormons this genetic confirmation of the origin of the Indians in the Americas is a fundamental collision of science against religion. It is in direct conflict with the Book of Mormon, which, according to their religion, is a completely error-free historical work that must be interpreted literally.

    The Book of Mormon is also fundamentally racist. It narrates that a tribe of Hebrews from Jeruselem went to the Americas in 600 B.C. and split up into two groups, the Nephites and the Lamanites. The Nephites carried the “true” religion to the new world and were in constant conflict with the Lamanites, who practiced idolatry. The Nephites were white (in 1980 the Mormons changed the word to “pure”), and the Lamanites received from God “The curse of blackness.”

    The Book of Mormon also narrates that in 385 A.D. the Lamanites exterminated all the other Hebrews and became the principal ancestors of the American Indians. But the Mormons insist that if the Lamanites returned to the “true” religion (Mormonism, quite naturally), their skin would eventually become white like the skin of the Nephites that their ancestors had exterminated.

    But despite these outrageous racist insults, many Indians and Polynesians (who also, according to the Mormons, are the descendants of the Lamanites) converted to Mormonism instead of telling the Mormons to go fuck themselves. (Through some perverse mechanism in human psychology, these converts are like homosexual priests who support the Roman catholic church or other gay people who support any type of Christianity.)

    “The fiction that I was a Lamanite,” said Damon Kali, a lawyer in Sunnyvale, California, whose ancestors came from Polynesian islands, “was the principal reason that I converted to Mormonism.” He had been a missionary for the Mormans before he discovered that genetic evidence proved that the Lamanites were only a religious myth, and he could not continue his efforts to convert others to Mormonism.

    Officially the Mormon church insists that nothing in the Book of Mormon is incompatible with the genetic evidence. Some Mormons are now saying that the Levites were a small group of Hebrews that went to Central America and after many generations of marrying with the natives they met, their Hebrew DNA disappeared into the DNA of their neighbors.

    In 2002, officers of the church started a trial to excommunicate Thomas W. Murphy, a professor of anthropology at Edmonds Community College in Washington, an American state at the extreme northwest of the continental United States.

    His trial attracted a lot of attention in the American public communications media, which ridiculed the church and insisted that Murphy was the Galileo of Mormonism. The general contempt provoked by this publicity seriously embarrassed the officers of the church, and they stopped the trial.

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