Most Mormons and non-Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon stands or falls based on its historicity. From the point of view of many Mormons, this historicity is among the foundational truth claims of our Church. I believe that this is a category mistake. Historicity is not truth. Truth is composed of (more or less) verifiable details. Historical authenticity is a tradition.

The Book of Mormon itself points out that its errors do not fundamentally problematize it. Orson Scott Card argues for a very interesting error in his essay, “The Book of Mormon — Artifact or Artifice?” Card proposes that the Mulekites misled the Nephites about the genealogy of their founder, Mulek. The Mulekites were playing power-politics when they claimed that their founder was the heir of the King who ruled over the Nephites’ founder. The Nephites were none-the-wiser, and the Mulekite story became their tradition. Among the Nephites, the account of the Mulekites was historically authentic no matter how much we hypothesize about its truth value.

The relationship between truth and historicity is a nebulous one. When discussing hypotheticals, we can arbitrate between truth and tradition merely by positing a bird’s-eye view of both. But we do not actually experience or differentiate truth and tradition this way; i.e., we don’t believe things that we know to be false or disbelieve things that we know to be true. Parceling out truth vs. tradition in real-time is nearly impossible.

If we remove this first-person truth-privilege and try to express things objectively, we usually end up with traditional relativism. We might say that the Nephites have their tradition about Mulek in the New World, but in our own tradition, all of Zedechiah’s sons died. We’re still here, and the Nephites are not. Hence the need to explain their tradition in terms of our own.

In our own time, Dan Rather has often assumed the role that Card imputes to the Mulekites, pushing made-up stories to advance his own agenda. The most memorable of such stories is the one that brought his career to an end: He offered forged documents as evidence that George W. Bush failed to complete his military service obligation. But let’s leave aside Rather’s ethical problems and the requirements for journalistic accuracy.

It is instructive to pretend for a moment that this incident with the forged documents is a piece of religious history — instructive, because we can make it stack up pretty well against the way that we approach historical issues in our own religion.

So let’s posit a bird’s eye view and examine three possible ways to evaluate the truth and historicity of Dan Rather’s story:

  1. The accusation that the documents were forgeries was part of a smear campaign. The documents were probably everything that they purport to be.
  2. Since it’s obvious that George W. Bush did fail to complete his military service, the story does reflect reality, even if some components of it are problematic.
  3. Since it’s obvious that George W. Bush did fail to complete his military service, it doesn’t matter whether the documents are what they purport to be.

Given what bloggers brought to light about Rather’s documents, position #1 above seems preposterous. But just 10 years ago, many of us would have bought the story lock, stock, and barrel. If Dan Rather, like Card’s Mulekites, had successfully deceived both laymen and professional historians, then historical narratives describing the incident would assume that Rather’s documents were veridical, and they’d have historicity in spite of their inaccuracy.

Position #2 tries to reconcile a tradition concerning Bush’s military record with the truth about the nature of the supporting evidence. This position provides a good analogue for the typical approach to Book of Mormon historicity, the approach that I believe is urged by the Book of Mormon itself. For example, if the Mulekites were not Hebrew, then the Book of Mormon would be false in some respect, but not in any way that bears fundamentally on its historicity. On this view, truth is a factor in shaping our understanding of tradition, but not something that dictates what constitutes that tradition.

Position #3 focusses on the big picture, and dismisses as unimportant the individual truth claims related to the Book of Mormon’s ancient origin, like the question of the Mulekites. This is the position of some intellectuals in the church. The extreme version of this position holds that the Book of Mormon could still be true even if it were altogether the product of Joseph’s imagination.

Throughout history, tribes and nations and peoples have created traditions. Position #3 asks why one would deny Mormons the same privilege? Why can’t our tradition of the origin of the Book of Mormon define its historicity? I am not sympathetic to this view, because it is a kind of Ludditism; it urges us (on some level) to ignore the tools we’ve developed for investigating traditions by refusing to grant truth any veto power over traditions.

In the end, truth is not generally something we have to face. It is something that we manage, and each one of us is in the business of managing truth.

I hold a fairly bold, but doctrinally conservative, variation on position number 2 above, and in my view George W. Bush did not fail to complete his military service. It’s not that I pick and choose; I really believe these things. It’s that truth, as such, is always under-determined. The question of what makes something historical is, on the other hand, treated (more or less) as a given — it’s a tradition that we inherit and that we do very little to change. Thus, the key difference between historicity and truth is that we do not manage historicity.