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?