Twenty years ago, as I was flying home from attending my first-ever academic conference, the Southern States Communication Association Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, USA, I was contemplating what I was going to do with my life and what contribution I could make to the world professionally. On the flight home, as I was pondering this question and reflecting on the conference, I took up the Book of Mormon and the phrase “voice of the people” literally leaped off the page. I began thinking about that phrase and all of its ramifications in light of the broader picture of public affairs that I had glimpsed at the conference. I began to reflect on the meaning of the phrase, “voice of the people,” in the context of contemporary public discourse. I wondered what it would mean to understand it more fully. I remember thinking that the pursuit of that understanding could take a lifetime.
The intervening years of graduate study in rhetoric and public affairs and work as a communication professor have driven home to me the complexity of public discourse. This is so obviously true in our current political ecology, but it also holds true for the political ecologies of the Book of Mormon peoples. Eventually I began the task of reading the Book of Mormon for insight on contemporary political rhetoric. What does the Book of Mormon say about civic engagement? How would the Book of Mormon fare in and what contribution could it make to a discussion of contemporary political theory? What relevance has the Book of Mormon to living a virtuous life now?
My new book The Voice of the People: Political Rhetoric in the Book of Mormon is an attempt to address those questions. By way of introducing it, I wish to say a few things about rhetoric about what you will find in this book.
Rhetoric is an old word with a complicated history. Generally, it refers to public speech, or speech about public things. Studying rhetoric is a way of learning how to produce messages, but also how to critique their production and interpret their effects. Starting with rhetoric means attending to representations of audiences and crowds, of oratory and persuasive messages, to sites of social anxiety and conflict. It means exploring different ways of living along with different ways of reading, which, after all, are not that different. Studying rhetoric can help us be undeceived about the world we inhabit and it can help us see clearly the available ways to improve it. This is done not so much by learning arts of deception, although propagandists and pundits are often skilled users of rhetoric, but by helping us see what we share in common and how we can work together to make better worlds.
One of the aims of The Voice of the People is to search for an implicit theory of rhetoric in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is quite obviously an overtly religious text that aims at producing spiritual understanding. While the Book of Mormon never explicitly uses the word “rhetoric,” it employs variations of the word “persuasion” over twenty times and riffs on teaching, exhorting, stirring up, dissensions, contentions, and persecutions. It offers its spirituality within a specific context and history, and contexts and histories are always rhetorical. They aim at an effect and seek to develop certain outcomes. In more ways than one, the Book of Mormon is about the contemporary world and the demands of cooperation and coordination within that world. It seeks to invite readers toward a way of being that moves beyond the self and selfishness.
Voice of the People
The Voice of the People offers a close reading of just three chapters of the Book of Mormon, Mosiah 29 through Alma 2, a section of the Book of Mormon that, more than any other, wrestles with the meaning of the phrase, “the voice of the people.” These chapters include numerous rhetorical artifacts, including Mosiah’s letter to his people appealing for a new arrangement of public life, the short, ignominious career of Nehor, and a historical summary of two very different ways of life prevailing at Zarahemla. King Mosiah’s chief and explicit aim is to develop a politics that rejects anger, faction, pride, and vanity. Yet within five years, anger, faction, pride, and vanity result in a violent civil war.
This text is an invitation, then, to take up the theme of mourning all that is not possible in politics. At the same time, it serves as an exhortation for how we can learn from this history ways for improving our own communities. Such improvement is never guaranteed or unmitigated, and it comes not only through thinking about the ways we talk and communicate, but also in reflecting on our basic approach to life. Do we stand ready to answer for ourselves, for our words, and our actions? Are we willing to shoulder collective burdens or are we honestly out for ourselves? How ready are we to practice the idea that prosperity is liberality? How willing are we to see public duties as both complex and various?
While each of these questions provoke no easy answers, The Voice of the People seeks to deepen our appreciation for their urgency.
This guest post is by David Charles Gore (PhD, Texas A&M University), author of the forthcoming book The Voice of the People: Political Rhetoric in the Book of Mormon. He is associate professor and department head in the Department of Communication at the University of Minnesota in Duluth.