Imagine that tomorrow, during the twilight of his second term, Barack Obama resigned from office in order to travel through the Red States preaching the virtue of medicare expansion. Imagine further that he decided to start in Utah, the most Republican state in the union, which voted 3-1 for his opponent in 2012. Given Utah’s religious population, Obama might feel that he could convince people that caring for the poor is a Christian duty. He could quote Jesus, and, if he did some advance reading, King Benjamin. How do you think this would go down?
Yeah, a complete train wreck, right?
This is more or less what Alma did when he went to Ammonihah. As the head of both Church and State, Alma was deeply involved in the Amlicite Civil War, which pitted the majority Christians against the minority of the population that did not belong to the Church. We soon discover that Ammonihah is a Nehorite stronghold that would have opposed Alma bitterly during the recent war. When Alma shows up in their town square, then, the people treat him like a political enemy who no longer has the power to hurt them:
Nevertheless, they hardened their hearts, saying unto him: Behold, we know that thou art Alma; and we know that thou art high priest over the church which thou hast established in many parts of the land, according to your tradition; and we are not of thy church, and we do not believe in such foolish traditions. And now we know that because we are not of thy church we know that thou hast no power over us; and thou hast delivered up the judgment-seat unto Nephihah; therefore thou art not the chief judge over us. (Alma 8: 11-12)
We must remember here that this is both a religious and a political dispute. Religious affiliation is the major dividing line of this society, and Alma’s tenure as the combined head of both church and state had disastrous consequences. Alma cannot separate his religious message from its political connotations in a country that is sharply divided along religious lines. What’s more, he doesn’t even try. Rather, he makes it clear that the problems of Ammonihah have more to do with politics than theology:
And now behold, I say unto you, that the foundation of the destruction of this people is beginning to be laid by the unrighteousness of your lawyers and your judges. And now it came to pass that when Amulek had spoken these words the people cried out against him, saying: Now we know that this man is a child of the devil, for he hath lied unto us; for he hath spoken against our law. And now he says that he has not spoken against it. And again, he has reviled against our lawyers, and our judges. (Alma 10:27-29)
Keep in mind that “judges” are executive officials in this context, so Alma is criticizing the political elite and saying that Ammonihah has incurred divine disfavor because of the behavior of its leaders, who (unlike the kings of the Bible) have been elected by the “voice of the people.” He gives very few specifics, other than referring to general wickedness and rehearsing his theological arguments against Nehorian universalism. The Ammonihah section focuses primarily on the theological disputes, but the text makes it clear that it is not Alma’s theology that whips everybody into a frenzy, but his politics.
We have to consider both the theological and the political aspects of Alma’s mission to understand some of the most disturbing aspects of this section. Alma and Amulek dispute in the public square with Zeezrom and the other lawyers, and they make some converts among the women and children. These converts are then burned alive before his eyes (Alma 14: 8). This seems like a horrific punishment for changing religions in a country that supposedly has religious freedom. But it was also the ancient world’s most common penalty for treason against the state.
After seeing their converts burned alive, Alma and Amulek are arrested, imprisoned, and questioned by “many lawyers, and judges, and priests, and teachers, who were of the profession of Nehor” (14: 18). The political elite of Ammonihah ask them derisively, “Will ye stand again and judge this people, and condemn our law” (14:20), making it very clear that they construe Alma’s theological positions as political attacks. They keep Alma and Amulek in prison, naked, bound by strong chords, and deprived of food and water—which would have ensured their gruesome deaths had God not finally stepped in and rent stuff in twain.
This seems like a horrible and gruesome way to treat a couple of sincere missionaries who are only trying to save people’s souls and keep God from smiting their town. It makes much more sense, however when we consider it part of the multi-generational conflict between the Nehors and the Christians that, in one form or another, takes up the entire Book of Alma. We will miss a lot of important stuff if we read this as only a religious division. Like Catholics and Protestants in Reformation Wars, and like Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq today, the Christians and the Nehors were permanent religious factions that divided society in the Book of Alma.
This massive confusion between church and state in Nephiteland should not surprise us one bit. Human societies have always worked this way. Human beings have never drawn clear lines between religious virtue (what I should choose to do) and political virtue (what everybody should be compelled to do). We are not wired to think this way. We see virtue as virtue, good as good, and bad as bad—and we generally think that the laws of the state should see things the same way. Separation of church and state is a very recent innovation in the world, and nobody is very good at it yet.
So let’s go back to Obama arguing in Utah that the Christian imperative to care for the poor should make us want to expand Medicaid. Good conservatives would certainly counter that Jesus never told the government to provide health care, but it would be very unlikely that this would evolve into a polite theological discussion about income redistribution—as opposed to, say, a shouting match between a former president and a population that really, really didn’t like him.
I see no reason that Alma, who spent most of his time in the judgement seat suppressing a minority religion, should have expected anything different from that religion’s followers (and his longtime political enemies) in Ammonihah.