Imagine that a man comes into town and starts preaching a religion that flatly contradicts what most people believe. Nearly everything he says offends religious orthodoxy, and the most powerful members of the community regularly refute him in public. Despite this, he starts to make progress with the people–especially the ones on the margins of society. Enough people convert to his religion to make him a concern to the authorities, who arrest him, detain him, subject him to violent treatment–and then expel from the community. Would you say that this man was treated justly?
In the Book of Mormon, this all depends on who we are talking about. If his name is “Alma” and you are living in Ammonihah, then you would say that he was treated reprehensibly by wicked men who served the Devil. If, on the other hand, his name is “Korihor” and you live in Jershon, you would simply say that the people who bound and exiled him were “more wise than many of the Nephites.” Or at least this is how the narrator answers the question the two times that it occurs in the Book of Alma.
I have long seen Mormon’s praise of Korihor’s arrest as a major lapse of historical judgment–a time that Mormon allowed his sympathy for the Church in his own day (when it was a powerless and persecuted minority on the brink of destruction) to color his historian’s perspective of the Church in Alma’s day (when it was the established state Church and held most of the power in society). I say this mainly because of a jarring discontinuity in Alma 30 about the importance of religious liberty.
In verses 7-11, Mormon goes to great length to convince us that the Nephites had legally enshrined freedom of religion in their society:
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. For thus saith the scripture: Choose ye this day, whom ye will serve. 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. But if he murdered he was punished unto death; and if he robbed he was also punished; and if he stole he was also punished; and if he committed adultery he was also punished; yea, for all this wickedness they were punished. For there was a law that men should be judged according to their crimes. Nevertheless, there was no law against a man’s belief; therefore, a man was punished only for the crimes which he had done; therefore all men were on equal grounds.
This is the strongest statement we get anywhere in the Book of Mormon about the importance of religious freedom. Within just a few verses of making this strong statement, however, he tells us about Korihor’s multiple arrests. While preaching to the converted Lamanites in the Land of Jershon, the people “took him, and bound him, and carried him before Ammon, who was a high priest over the people” (:20). Ammon expels him from the land. When he goes into the Land of Gideon to preach, he was “taken and bound and carried before the high priest, and also the chief judge over the land” (:21). Finally, he is taken to Zarahemla to be judged by Alma, who, at this time, is serving as the head of both Church and State. And rather than acknowledging any conflict between the policy and the practice, Mormon implicitly supports the arrests and says of the people of Jershon, “behold, they were more wise than many of the Nephites” (:20).
The incongruity here is striking. Immediately after telling us that religious liberty is a divine principle and that that the Nephites enshrined in their law, Mormon tells the story of those same Nephites (and the Lamanites living in their land and under their laws) tying up a religious dissident and hauling him before both ecclesiastical AND civil authorities. Mormon mentions no other crime that Korihor might have committed (and I suspect that if there had been one, everybody involved would have trumpeted it from the highest rooftops). Under the terms of the narrative itself, Korihor is arrested only for having and teaching beliefs that contradict the established Church.
This is an area of the Book of Mormon where I think that we have to read the text against the narrator. The deep incongruity between what Mormon says and what he shows makes it nearly impossible to see him as entirely reliable. The narrative’s support for Alma, and simultaneous opposition to Korihor, makes no sense at all from the perspective of religious freedom, which both men were exercising in very similar ways. It makes a great deal of sense, though, from the perspective of religious orthodoxy. Mormon believes that Alma was right and that Korihor was wrong. Alma was leading souls to heaven, while Korihor was dragging them down to hell. Of course Alma’s persecution was unacceptable and Korihor’s was acceptable.
But then why take up so much space emphasizing the importance of religious liberty? Mormon appears to want the rhetorical legitimacy of standing for religious liberty at exactly the same time that he narrates its limits. He tells us, in effect, that Korihor was so bad and so dangerous that even a society with a strong commitment to religious freedom had to punish him. And yet the only dangerous thing about Korihor that Mormon shows us is that he preached the wrong religion.
The only way to make Mormon a reliable narrator in this particular instance is to dramatically redefine what we mean by “freedom of belief” and make it mean something like, “the freedom to believe correctly.” If teaching incorrect principles is enough to justify my arrest, then I don’t actually have religious freedom. This is even true if my principles are really, really, really incorrect. In fact, it is especially true; freedom really only matters in the hard cases. Easy cases tend to take care of themselves because they are, well, easy.
Since I have to choose one of Mormons assertions and discount the other, I choose to accept the statement that it is “strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds.” Korihor was a test of this principle, and both the Nephites of Gideon and the Lamanites of Jershon flunked. Freedom has to include the freedom to be wrong, and it certainly has to include the freedom to say unpopular things. Otherwise–as so many Latter-day Saints would find out a few years after the Book of Mormon was published–it is not freedom at all, just a hollow promise trying to gain a rhetorical advantage by preaching what it does not practice.