Sunday, May 25, 2008

Religious freedom in the Book of Mormon

Religious freedom is a concept that evolves considerably through the Book of Mormon. Early on, you sense society is so simple that the religious leaders and social leaders are almost always the same people. We aren't told much about how well this worked, other than that it only took a 4-5 generations for them to be driven out of their homeland and the main body of their people destroyed. In Jacob 7 Sharem is allowed full freedom to preach his views with no socially enforced punishment, so they seem off to an excellent start. Later, when Nehor attempts to enforce his religious opinions Mormon writes that in response that just before his execution for murder...

there he was caused, or rather did acknowledge, between the heavens and the earth, that what he had taught to the people was contrary to the word of God; and there he suffered an ignominious death.

Now, either he was caused to confess or he confessed spontaneously. It doesn't fit for the confession to be required because he wasn't officially executed for his preaching, only for attempting to enforce priestcraft. The linguistic pattern used grants a little light. "Or rather" is a sentence form unique to the Book of Mormon, with only 2 or 3 incidents outside it in scripture. Mormon almost always uses the first half of an "or rather" as a general or non specific and the secondary as clarification. One almost gets the sense that writing on the plates is so difficult that Mormon once in a while prefers leaving a word stand than to scatch them out and start over again. But this is the only case in which the first and the second items don't seem to fit together. My guess is a little bit of both is true. There was probably some controversy over forcing the confession or not and it left Nehor feeling coerced (even though nobody had officially decided he must) so he did anyways... or some other political confusion that wasn't worth recording the messy details on.

It would appear that just like early Christian history, a violent minority led to enforcement of "orthodox" thinking, just not going anywhere near as far as early Catholicism led.

What is more interesting is what happened afterwards. Both the Nehors and the church members persecuted each other so much that the church found it necessary to excommunicate a good number of people who refused to stop themselves and the people didn't settle down to righteousness again until a lot of trouble which cumulated in a war. The Book of Mormon records the Nehor's being very careful not to commit any crimes with any audacity, but as is stated

therefore they pretended to preach according to their belief; and now the law could have no power on any man for his belief.

There is some suggestion by the use of the word "pretended" that even if belief could not be punished by law insincerity was considered punishable.

That point aside, even if things seemed to have settled down some freedom of religion was still not firmly entrenched in their society. Alma being the first chief judge is not one you would expect to not use legal privelege or process to make it easier to preach, but when he reached Ammonihah:

Now when the people had said this, and withstood all his words, and reviled him, and spit upon him, and caused that he should be cast out of their city...

Being forced out of a city based on religious opinion isn't something that happens in a free government, but for some reason instead of going back to the chief judge and saying that mobs were attacking peaceful individuals and having this abuse of his person handled legally so he could preach in peace he just decides to go on to the next city.When he comes back for a second try he meets similar legal opposition that he takes no apparent action against:

32 And also because I said unto them that they were a lost and a fallen people they were angry with me, and sought to lay their hands upon me, that they might cast me into prison.

Later on the city's lawyers get involved:

13 Nevertheless, there were some among them who thought to question them, that by their cunning devices they might catch them in their words, that they might find witness against them, that they might deliver them to their judges that they might be judged according to the law, and that they might be slain or cast into prison, according to the crime which they could make appear or witness against them.

and again later:

16 And it came to pass that they began to question Amulek, that thereby they might make him cross his words, or contradict the words which he should speak.

It appears that under their system of law even though specific beliefs couldn't be legally persecuted, the logical consistency of those beliefs could be. This situation is extraordinary, since almost all religions at some point are based on a level in trust and things that are taken on faith or left to the next world to figure out. There will be a certain point where the logic is just impossible to keep consistent without extending fanciful propositions that are neither essential to the faith nor helpful to it, and the farther you go at it the more likely one is to come up against an absurd improbability. That isn't to say any particular religion is false on this basis, but legal judgments based on logical consistency could be used to attack any religion with success.

Ammonihah gets more disturbing as it goes along. The situation is just crawling with handles for legal disputes to get involved...massacring all the women and children, forced emigration, destruction and seizure of property... And almost all of these actions being sanctioned by the local government. And again, Alma was the first chief judge and should have been very familiar with their law but nothing is done from a legal perspective to right these wrongs. This suggests one of three things: first, that those actions were considered legal enough a even a chief judge could do nothing about it; second, that the newly formed democratic government had not centralized power so the local judges were getting away with murder; third, none of those wronged cared to take any legal action.

No matter what else, the second one was probably true. The first, that it was considered legal enough may very well have been true. Probably under some legal justification such as promoting sedition or what not. I only say that because otherwise why did the lawyers get involved in the first place if not to satisfy some legal requirement? Recorded complaints against them include lying to the people, religious inconsistency, reviling the judges, reviling the law, and saying the people are fallen. Under King Noah, similar legal justifications were required for executing Abinidi.

When Korihor takes to preaching his case also receives unsatisfactory treatment when freedom of religion is concerned. Its ironic because the Book of Mormon pauses to insist on how important freedom of religion was to them at the time:

Alma 30:7
7 Now there was no law against a man's belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds.
8 For thus saith the scripture: Choose ye this day, whom ye will serve.
9 Now if a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege; or rather, if he believed in God it was his privilege to serve him; but if he did not believe in him there was no law to punish him.

Now, if Korihor's belief was not judicable the first thing that should happen each time someone carries him before a judge is the for judge to let him go because the case simply isn't allowed before the law. But, we see a different pattern:

...for they took him, and bound him, and carried him before Ammon, who was a high priest over that people. [Freedom of religion is not well guarded if its first judged by the priests of an official religion] And it came to pass that he caused that he should be carried out of the land. [Government sanctioned banishmen] And he came over into the land of Gideon, and began to preach unto them also; and here he did not have much success, for he was taken and bound [arrested for religious opinions] and carried before the high priest, and also the chief judge over the land [showing that it wasn't just an overenthusiastic priest's quorem doing it, it went up to the very top.]

To make it worse that chief judge refers the case to THE chief judge instead of just rejecting it. Now I have nothing wrong with Alma and this guy having a debate on spiritual matters, but the only thing that goes right about his imprisonment and trial is that he is never sentenced by a government official. He is cursed instead and the government publicly announces that curse may be likely to fall on them too if they don't abandon Korihor's ideas [government favoritism of specific beliefs...]

One gets the sense freedom of religion was important to them but a concept they had a lot of trouble with getting down with much finesse. Its noticeably harder for them to handle after changing from king to popular elections. Instead of just one stupid King Noah there could be local tyrants all over the place. As Toqueville states free speech is easier in a kinship where it only matters if you anger the nobility, as opposed to democracies where public opinion forces you to obey before they vote to destroy you.

This isn't to suggest the Book of Mormon is against freedom of religion or that its material has only lip service. There are simply many examples of how damaging having religion controlled by government can be. If King Noah hadn't been in charge of appointing the priests it could have been much better. The same laws that would allow a crazy Korihor to preach wherever he wanted to would also have protected Alma and Amulek, and several kings in Ether managed to lead their people to repentence by enforcing religious freedom for unpopular preachers. Just before Christ's coming, the agreement to kill all the believers if the sign didn't appear could only have happened in a society with a weak sense of religious freedom.

So the Book of Mormon examples clearly are in favor of religious freedom, but show that through negative examples as much as anything else. It was an evolving and unsteady concept for them, kind of like how it is for us.

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