Note: This is the second part of a discussion of Alma 1-4–and the Nehor/Amlicite War–that began here.
The story of the Great Amlicite War in Alma 2-3 is a good example of how winners write history. Mormon’s account of the event could not make the Amlicites look worse: they tried to overthrow the new system of judges but were defeated at the polls; they rebelled against the state; they joined the Lamanites and marked their own foreheads; they caused the needless death of thousands of people; and they were ultimately defeated because God was on the side of the Nephites.
Underneath Mormon’s narrative—which has few elements of legitimate history and pretty much all of the marks of historical propaganda—there is a different and more disturbing story that explains the actions of the Amlicites and casts some light on the failure of the United States in one of its most recent military ventures. It is the story of religious majoritarianism.
Consider the following facts, all of which we can derive fairly easily from the text, but which I am going to spin slightly towards the perspective of the traditional bad guys:
- After the death of King Mosiah, the Nephite monarchy is replaced by a system of popularly elected judges. In practice, however, the chief judge functions very much like a king. In many cases, the office is even passed from father to son (or brother to brother) in what amounts to de-facto patrilineal succession.
- The first chief judge is also the head of the Church of Christ—which is founded on the (let’s face it, rather odd) belief that, at some time in the future, a Jewish man with a Latin name will be born to a virgin and will die in a manner that will somehow allow us to repent for our sins. To be saved, we must call upon this Jewish/Roman man’s name as though he had already lived and ask him to forgive us for the bad stuff we have already done.
- The Nephite Christians have a solid electoral majority and can therefore rubber-stamp the will of the Church in the political sphere—which guarantees that the coercive mechanisms of the state will always be at the service of the Church and its agendas.
- In Alma 1, a man named Nehor forms a dissenting religious sect that attracts many followers and creates a viable alternative to the established Church.
- Nehor is accused of killing a beloved Christian hero and forced to recant his beliefs before being executed in a public and deeply humiliating way clearly designed to discourage his followers.
- The official state Church brands the Nehors as heretics and coins the term “priestcraft” to describe their beliefs. They pass a law against non-Christians criticizing Christians, but they do not apply this law equally to themselves. They increase their state-sanctioned criticism of Nehor’s church.
- The followers of Nehor band together under Amlici, who runs against Alma in a public election.
- Amlici loses the election, as he must, because the Christians have an electoral majority and, therefore, a lock on “the voice of the people.”
- Amlici’s followers—the non-Christian population of Zarahemla—reject Alma’s leadership and start a rebellion.
The story as I have told it is a very common one. As appealing as it sounds to take every issue to “the voice of the people,” this approach does not work very well when a single faction controls a permanent majority. This problem—the problem of majoritarianism—is the subject of Madison’s Federalist #10, one of the most important political essays ever written. A permanent majority, Madison argues, undermines the basis of the democratic process by creating a political entity capable of every bit as much oppression as a king or a tyrant. Members of the permanent minority rarely stay committed to a competitive political process in which they can never win. They pull out, secede, or rebel.
Americans saw this dynamic clearly in their country’s recent military adventures in Iraq–a country in which the Shia religious majority controls 55-60% of the vote, guaranteeing that the minority Sunni population will always lose national elections. In such a situation, the representative democracy that we tried to create is a non-starter. The minority population has no reason to invest in a political process that will always work against them. Rather, they flock to those entities that promise them the political power they can never have in a lopsided democracy. Amlici was one such entity. The Islamic State is another.
During the Nephite Reign of the Judges, “the voice of the people” appears to have functioned as the ultimate form of political legitimation. That which was done by the voice of the people was right, and that which went against the voice of the people was wrong. This is an appealing notion to anyone who happens to be in a permanent majority. But it is as scary as hell to those in the minority, whose life and well-being must be constantly in the hands of people who too often perceive them as the enemy.