By Gary C. Lawrence
In the thousand-year span of the Nephite people, that’s the time on stage for a prideful group known as the king-men.
The last fourth of the book of Alma, in which the king-men story is imbedded, is a sharp break from the doctrine-laden chapters of the first three-fourths of the book, as Mormon turns to stories about war strategy and political happenings.
Why did Mormon include this story of arrogance? Is it a parallel for our time, a warning, something we should learn?
I think so. Because Mormon saw our time, what he decided to include in his abridgement was not happenstance.
Doing a bit of reverse engineering on the actions of king-men based in the government town of Zarahemla, and drawing on other scriptures describing Nephite behavior, here are nine characteristics to watch for, if and when king-men pop up in Washington.
1. They Will Be Subtle
The king-men eventually came out in full rebellion against the Nephite system of judges as established by Mosiah, but before a defeat by the voice of the people unmasked their true colors, they had a disguised plan to scam the system — to use the law of the land to overthrow the government of the land. Note this intriguing sentence in Alma 51:
“[The king-men] were desirous that the law should be altered in a manner to overthrow the free government and to establish a king over the land.” [Emphasis added.] 1
Mormon’s choice of verbs and direct objects is instructive. If the king-men had changed the law, Mormon would have said so. Rather, he says they attempted to alter the manner of the law — manner being a method or approach, in this case probably synonymous with implementation. The law itself would remain in place, but how it would be interpreted and implemented would be altered.
These people presented their petition to Pahoran, the chief judge, that “a few particular points of the law should be altered.” 2 (Pretty cheeky: use the right of petition to undermine that and all other rights.) We don’t know what particular points they had in mind. They could have been lower judges, just as those who followed Amalickiah, and maybe they had found a penumbra. Or they might have been appointed officials bent on changing the wording of regulations, not to bring about an immediately detectable consequence, mind you, but to set in motion a series of small hinge-point changes that would eventually cause a major governmental change. In such positions, mischief is limited only by imagination.
Whatever the nub of the issue, we can be sure they postured their petition as no big deal — just a few minor corrections.
No subtle plans to see here, folks; move along, move along.
2. They Will Exploit the Desire for Power
Malickiah achieved power by promising power. This Nephite apostate and would-be king over both Lamanites and Nephites recruited followers with the promise that:
“If they would support him and establish him to be their king that he would make them rulers over the people.” 3
No dictator can survive alone. He gathers, maintains, and projects power through a coterie of followers who are promised authority and power over the people and a share in the extracted goodies.
Once in power, such wannabes are tempted by the misuse of power as bluntly described in D&C 121:
“It is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” 4
Power is a reward to those who have a need to feel superior. In a world of nearly seven billion people, it’s difficult for some to believe they are truly unique, and that God knows and loves each one of them. Far better, so they reason, to affirm their specialness by gaining power.
Toward the end of Willie Sutton’s infamous career, someone asked him why he robbed banks. His “duh” answer: “Because that’s where the money is.” Same with Washington — if you know the way, it’s a power magnet …
Put a hundred down and buy a car
In a week, maybe two, they’ll make you a czar
If you don’t make fame in L.A., you park cars and pump gas. If you can’t wangle a Schedule C appointment in Washington, you bide time in a bureaucratic slot or think-tank cubicle until fortune smiles and you grab that golden ring of high authority and low accountability — czardom.
Our current president has appointed more than 30 czars — drug czar, health reform czar, TARP czar, salary czar, car czar, even a Guantanomo-closing czar — unelected special aides with considerable authority over public policy, and virtually no check-and-balance mechanisms such as senate confirmation. More government intrusion means more opportunities for the unelected to wield power — and abuse it.
Count the many staffers, name them one by one.
3. They Will Consider Themselves the New Nobility
King Mosiah established the reign of judges and gave this guiding principle:
“Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law – to do your business by the voice of the people.” 5
The king-men of Zarahemla rejected this counsel and felt entitled to govern because of who their daddies were:
“Now those who were in favor of kings were those of high birth, and they sought to be kings; and they were supported by those who sought power and authority over the people.” 6
Those with nobility impulses today make less of a case for bloodlines (though some clamor for a royal American family — guess who?) and more of a case for intellectual nobility. They maintain that the smarter ones among us should rule (the philosopher king idea), and consulting the voice of the people is too laborious for solving urgent crises.
Hence the battle of the mind of God versus that of man. When God is acknowledged as the highest power in the universe, the selfish ambitions of men are somewhat constrained. But if the mind of man is deemed the highest power, then mental megahertz, cunning, and the management of the creature determine the winners. Which is why king-men, yesterday or today, will avoid discussing God’s mind and focus only on their own. They want a robust pecking order based on intellectual prowess.
The case for intellectual nobility goes up as belief in God goes down.
4. They Will Look Down on Others
My father-in-law, a county attorney and rancher, told what happened when an expert from the Department of Agriculture in Washington visited southern Idaho determined to help farmers and ranchers improve their lot in life. Commenting on lamb production, this expert told the poor benighted folks, “Your problem is that all the lambs are born in March. You have to get the ewes [he pronounced it EE-wees] to produce lambs uniformly throughout the year.” He was hooted out of the room.
Why did this man think that his college degree, his place of residence, and his title in a government agency gave him superior knowledge to people laboring daily in the trenches? If there’s a major symptom of the Beltway-Nephite disease, it’s the arrogant belief that people can’t run their own lives and must be told by enlightened ones what to do.
This plague of pride — “we are powerful, and our cities great” 7 — is the warp and woof of Nephite history, and shortly before the appearance of the Savior on the American continent, nobility by intellect added to the pretensions of nobility by blood:
“And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches.” 8
Puffed up with pride, those who feel superior soon enough ask, “What’s the use of being a noble if no one cares or notices?” To be sure they do, hello ridicule.
In America today, outright persecution of the poor is rare, but put-downs are not. Elites on both coasts (especially the Beltway and Manhattan) make fun of “fly-over country” and cannot imagine anything of worth coming from the sticks. Comedians call us stupid and congressional leaders say we’re unpatriotic. As a pollster, I am confident that a solid majority of Americans would tell Mr. Maher and Ms. Pelosi that their arrows are half a compass off target.
And talk about geocentric chauvinism. I once conducted focus groups in New York discussing medical clinics and when Mayo Clinic was brought up, one man said, “If they’re so good, why aren’t they in New York?” Similarly, a woman in Washington was reported puzzling over the results of the 1980 election: “I can’t understand how Ronald Reagan was elected; I don’t know one person who voted for him.”
A self-anointed nobility has difficulty understanding those they deem lower on the rungs of society. Some in Washington have become so blind to common sense that they actually thought they could ask American citizens to snitch on friends and families who pass along “fishy” observations about the president’s healthcare agenda.
Fly-over country, indeed.
5. They Will Flatter
Tell someone he is better than someone else and he will likely believe it.
Almost every villain in the Book of Mormon shared two traits: fluency of language and flattery of the people. To name a few:
* Sherem was “learned, that he had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people; wherefore, he could use much flattery” 9
* Korihor demonstrated his power of language in an argument with Alma, who said it is better that Korihor be lost than souls be brought down to destruction “by thy lying and by thy flattering words” 10
* Amalickiah, the villain of choice in king-men days, was “a man of cunning device and a man of many flattering words” 11
* Even Alma the Younger, in his pre-angel-appearance days, “was a man of many words, and did speak much flattery to the people” 12
The essence of flattery is telling someone he or she is better than others, which pride-driven disease plagued the Nephites even before the first scrape of their boat on America’s shores. Flattery requires and builds on class distinctions — a shared sense of us versus them, the “them” being anyone the speaker chooses to demonize, especially those who have supposedly failed them in the past.
Flatterers in the Book of Mormon enlisted others in their fight against church and/or government by telling their listeners that they deserved better. They gave them a sense of purpose, of being important, of participating in a great event — a sense of Kumbaya togetherness and belonging to something bigger than themselves.
But trust them to make their own decisions? Fuhgeddaboutit.
Have things changed? If dissenting Nephites had bumper stickers for their chariots, they could not have done better than…
We are the change we have been waiting for.
6. They Will Deceive
Flatterers and king-men will …
* Rarely speak specifics or directly state their intentions,
* Use vague and nebulous terms that encourage the audience to hear what they want to hear while reserving private definitions that allow for different explanations later,
* Disarm the opposition by appearing to side with them when they really harbor opposite intentions, and
* Speak in frothy, feel-good, cotton-candy platitudes.
The king-men pretended to want to correct only a few details, but knew their plan would overthrow the free government. Amalickiah pledged fealty to Lehonti, the Lamanite king, while secretly having him poisoned. 13 And 50 years later, corrupt judges accused Nephi, great-grandson of Alma, of being un-Nephite, claiming he reviled against the people and the law, while they themselves belonged to Gadianton’s secret band dedicated to usurping the power of government. 14
The sad story is played out repeatedly. The prideful seeking power know they can never show their true agenda because, as Mosiah said, the greater part of the people will choose the right if given a clear choice. Therefore, they cannot and do not trust the people.
As a measure of our culture today, can you think of an adjective that more frequently modifies the word agenda than the word hidden?
7. They Will Strike When Crises Provide Opportunities
The king-men made their move when Amalickiah was running roughshod over the countryside and Captain Moroni and Helaman were out of town:
“For behold, this was a critical time for such contentions to be among the people of Nephi; for behold, Amalickiah had again stirred up the hearts of the people of the Lamanites against the people of the Nephites.” 15
Power expands and freedoms are lost when people face critical threats and are vulnerable to persuasion that their government be granted new powers.
If a situation is or can be manufactured into a crisis, people will allow suspension of some democratic processes (witness especially World War I and the Great Depression). Checks and balances give way to calls for a strong man to make decisions for the common good, however that superior being chooses to define it. Simplification looks enticing.
Never let a good crisis go to waste.
8. They Will Not Trust People’s Freedoms
The Spirit of God is also the spirit of freedom. 16
Power in the secular world is the right to tell people what to do and the policing authority to make them do it. Freedom is the natural enemy to that power. The two vary inversely.
The king-men came out in open rebellion against a free government for at least two reasons:
* They could not very well consider themselves noble and better than others if they were obliged to live under the voice of the people; and
* They wanted power and control, but the more people enjoyed freedom, the less the opportunity to obtain power over them.
The battle for freedom then and now boils down to one question: who gets to decide what? Who has agency — the person for himself, or the government for him?
When people, elected and unelected, show up on the Washington scene, we get dutiful lip service to the cause of freedom, but watch their actions. Do they protect the rights of citizens to make their own decisions, or do they work for bigger government, more intrusion into individual lives, and fewer decisions left to the average citizen?
If the latter, then they’re king-men — thirsty for power with little heed for the agency of man and lulling people into surrendering a few choices here, a few there, in the “interest of the common good.”
Elites do not champion liberties; they protect privileges.
9. They Will Oppose Efforts to Defend the Country
“And it came to pass that when the men who were called king-men had heard that the Lamanites were coming down to battle against them, they were glad in their hearts; and they refused to take up arms, for they were so wroth with the chief judge, and also with the people of liberty, that they would not take up arms to defend their country.” 17
Whether king-men personally pick up a weapon isn’t as important as the attitudes that drive them. The king-men of yore actively hoped for the defeat of the Nephite nation (probably thinking it would provide opportunities for power under the new rulers) and did not lift a finger to help until they were compelled to do so.
Can we spot king-men today by their attitudes? Apply these questions to those in power:
* Are they proud or ashamed of their nation?
* Are they anxious to share American values?
* Do they favor or oppose a robust military?
* Do they support or oppose defense innovations, such as missile defense?
* Do they demonize domestic opponents but apologize to foreign enemies?
* Do they allow interrogators to extract intelligence from sworn enemies to save American lives, or do they prosecute them for their efforts?
* Do they respect debate or do they attempt to intimidate and silence critics?
A would-be dictator stirs people to anger, but upon achieving power wants silent obedience.
* * *
The king-men did tremendous damage to the Nephite nation in six short years. Pride, subtlety, flattery, deceit, nobility, condescension, power ambition, geocentric chauvinism, opportunism, distrust of the voice of the people and disdain for freedom from government intrusions — the only element of king-men-ism absent from Washington today is an outright refusal to take up arms to defend the country. But there are many in power who are hobbling those who try.
If the events of 2009 and the attitudes of those currently in power are not those Mormon saw in our day, such that he included the king-men story in the Book of Mormon, what further parallels must occur before we learn the intended lesson?
Are we so complacent to think that the king-men parallel lies yet in the future, a problem for some other generation? Are we willing to take a chance that 2009 could not possibly be the king-men day that Mormon saw?
Look around, America. The answer is clear — very clear.
* * *
Unlike king-men, Gary Lawrence welcomes opposing as well as supporting comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Alma 51:5
2 Alma 51:2
3 Alma 46:5
4 D&C 121:39
5 Mosiah 29:26
6 Alma 51:8
7 Helaman 8:6
8 3 Nephi 6:12
9 Jacob 7:4
10 Alma 30:47
11 Alma 46:10
12 Mosiah 27:8
13 Alma 47:18
14 Helaman 8:1-5
15 Alma 51:9
16 Alma 61:15
17 Alma 51:13