And it came to pass that Alma was appointed to be the first chief judge, he being also the high priest, his father having conferred the office upon him, and having given him the charge concerning all the affairs of the church.” Mosiah 29:42
There is a big difference between “religious freedom” and “religious tolerance.” Religious freedom derives from a society’s belief that human beings have a natural right to their own belief systems and that, as James Madison puts it, “in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.”
Religious tolerance, on the other hand, derives from the will and pleasure of the state. A society with religious tolerance endorses one set of religious beliefs over all others, but it allows other beliefs to exist on terms that it sets itself (and can revoke at any time). Religious dissent in such a society is seen, not as a natural right of all human beings, but as a civil right protected by the indulgence of the state–which officially disagrees but has a big enough heart to let you be wrong and go to hell in your own way.
The lines between religious liberty and religious tolerance often blur, but here is a quick and infallible test to determine the difference: if the official head of the government is also the official head of a state church, then you don’t have actual religious liberty. The best you can hope for is tolerance–and probably not much of that either.
We should keep this in mind when reading the first few chapters of Alma. At the end of the previous book, both Mosiah the king, and Alma the founder and head of the Church, go the way of all flesh. Alma the Younger becomes BOTH the head of Church and the first Chief Judge of the land. And yet, we are told, that “the law could have no power on any man for his belief” (Alma 1:17). There is something like religious freedom in Zarahemla, though it looks a lot like a weak and tepid religious tolerance.
The events of Alma 1 put this religious toleration—and the narrative that Mormon constructs around it—to a severe test. Alma’s first challenge as prophet/chief judge comes when Nehor, a popular religious dissident, starts his own Church based on the twin pillars of universal salvation and a well-paid clergy. Nehor also commits a murder, making him fairly easy for Alma to dispatch, but the Church of Nehor remains cause problems for Alma on both his religious and his political roles:
Nevertheless, this did not put an end to the spreading of priestcraft through the land; for there were many who loved the vain things of the world, and they went forth preaching false doctrines; and this they did for the sake of riches and honor. Nevertheless, they durst not lie, if it were known, for fear of the law, for liars were punished; therefore they pretended to preach according to their belief; and now the law could have no power on any man for his belief. (Alma 1:16-17)
We need to pay a lot of attention to these words and how they frame religious dissent in the Book of Mormon. And the first thing that we need to realize is that Mormon, the presumed narrator of this passage, is guessing at motivations that no historian working 500 years later could possibly know. Not only does he state that the doctrines of the Nehors are false; he asserts that those preaching the doctrines knew them to be false and only “pretended to preach according to their belief” so that they could not be prosecuted under the law.
Now, one may agree or disagree with having a paid clergy, or believing that God ultimately saves everybody, but these are beliefs that one can hold in good faith. Being wrong is not the same thing as being insincere, and historians never have sufficient access to the hearts and souls of their subjects to make these kinds of sweeping claims about whole categories of people in the past. If I were reading a history of Utah and came across a passage that read, “the first generation of Mormons in Utah pretended to believe that polygamy was necessary for salvation so that they could have sex with multiple women” I would know that I was in the presence of anti-Mormon propaganda.
And the narrative goes even further. Not only did the Nehors lie about what they believed; they also “began to persecute those that did belong to the Church of God, and had taken upon them the name of Christ.” And what did this persecution consist of? They did “afflict them with all manner of words” (Alma 1:19-20).
We’ve really got to apply our context filters here. In the current and previous chapters we learn that that the head of government in Zarahemla is also the chief prophet of the Church. The religious leadership therefore controls all of the coercive apparatuses of the state, and there is a law against persecuting Christians (yet apparently no law against persecuting anybody else). And we know that all of these things have been decided by a vote of the majority of the people. And yet the text asks us to believe that these same Christians are being persecuted when somebody speaks harsh words against them. This is precisely what it looks like when a powerful majority exercises its privileges.
And this should not surprise us at all. This is the difference between a society that recognizes universal human rights and one that begrudgingly accords limited privileges to those outside of the majority. In such societies—and I would certainly count our own here—the privileged majority almost always claims that they are being persecuted when they are being asked to apply the same standards to themselves that they inherently apply to everybody else. In the echo chambers of talk radio and on-line comments sections, no human being has ever been as oppressed as the straight, white, American male in the 21st century—you know, the guys who have all of the money and most of the power in the world.
If we accept the text’s arguments in Alma 1, we must see the Christian Nephites in similar terms: they are the possessors of unique truth who are horribly oppressed by liars and thieves who knowingly teach false doctrines because they hate God and want to destroy the State. If we reject these assumptions, or even bracket them for just a moment, we might see something that looks a lot more like a bunch of highly privileged Nephites being certain that God is on their side and wielding that certainty as a club in order to protect their privileges.
It is certainly no coincidence that this precisely what Alma will find when he gives up his civil power and tours the kingdom as a prophet of God.