It is no secret that Mormon has a massive man-crush on Captain Moroni. We see this both in the name of his son and in his effusive statement that, if everyone were like the good Captain, “the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men” (Alma 48:17). Hero-worship can be a dangerous trait in a historian, though, and Mormon’s unqualified adoration often conflicts with the story he is trying to tell. A close reading of one of these conflicts might help us better understand one of our own.
Captain Moroni’s Freedom Problem
Let’s focus here on what I find to be one of the most problematic passages in the entire Book of Mormon: the beginning of the war with the Amalickiahites, when Moroni raises the “Title of Liberty.” Here, for the second time in the Book of Alma, a strong movement arises to overthrow the Reign of the Judges and restore a monarchy. Because he flatters people and cares only for power, Amalickiah manages to convince a lot of people “to destroy the church of God, and to destroy the foundations of liberty which God had granted them” (46:10).
Moroni, of course, will have none of it, and he springs into action. He rends his coat and writes words of freedom on it and rallies all of the Christians (who, as we have already seen, form a majority) to his side. He leads the majority Christians against the Amalickiahites, chases them from the land, cuts off their retreat, and gives them a stark ultimatum:
And it came to pass that whomsoever of the Amalickiahites that would not enter into a covenant to support the cause of freedom, that they might maintain a free government, he caused to be put to death; and there were but few who denied the covenant of freedom. (46: 35)
From what I can tell, we are actually supposed to read that last bit—“and there were but few who denied the covenant of freedom”—with a straight face. Mormon does not appear to recognize the profound irony of forcing people, at the pain of death, to make a covenant to give up their political beliefs and support “the cause of freedom.”
As readers, however, we cannot fail to recognize this irony—and to consider its implications for the text. It is the same irony that was identified early in the 20th century by the American rhetorician Kenneth Burke as the paradox of substance, which he describes in this passage from A Grammar of Motives:
This is . . . our paradox of substance. In specifically conceptual terms, the featuring of a single motive will quickly require one to grant that its simplicity operates but “in principle. Where it is treated simply as an “ideal” the paradox enters at the point where the ideal turns back upon itself. Thus, were we to feature “freedom” . . . we should eventually have to ask ourselves, as with Mill, weather it would be in the conformity of this ideal to “force freedom” upon those who resist it. (105-06)
Burke is not talking about human motivations here. He is talking about the way that we tell stories about human motivations. People don’t do anything for only one reason. We are motivated by a bizarre mix of altruism, self-interest, desire, duty, ambition, and fear. But when we tell stories about motives, we tend to discuss them in isolation—to pretend that people do things for a single, easy-to-understand reason. And this narrative strategy, Burke insists, will always lead to absurdity when the single motive is forced back upon itself.
This, in effect, is what happens when Moroni, who is motivated solely by freedom, forces people who are motivated by the desire to destroy freedom to swear to support freedom or else die by the sword.
Another Point of View
If we assume that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be, and that Captain Moroni and Amalickiah were real people, then we really have to push back against Mormon’s simplistic account of their motives. As Mormon presents it, the contrast could not be clearer: Moroni wants only to preserve freedom and Amalickiah has no other objective than to destroy it. But human beings don’t work that way. Nobody ever does anything for just one reason. Life is messy that way.
Here is how the story might the story look from the perspective of Amalickiah’s supporters. This perspective is just as limited and just as one-dimensional as the one in the text, but it oversimplifies in a different direction, which may help us get closer to the messy and complicated truth.
We have already seen that the major divide in the Nephite world is both religious and political. The Christians are essentially a permanent majority party. They control the chief judgeship, which has become a lifetime appointment passed down from father to son. To the majority, this looks like democracy, since it is ratified by “the voice of the people.” To the minority, it looks a lot like a monarchy, since their side always loses.
Amalickiah comes from the minority, non-Christian faction that also produced Nehor, Amilici, and Korihor—all of whose lives ended badly at the hands of the majority. For people on this side of the divide, the Reign of the Judges is fundamentally oppressive, as it aligns itself unapologetically with the established church and, while claiming to support religious freedom, has frequently enforced religious orthodoxy with the coercive power of the state. Amalickiah is a charismatic enough leader to make inroads with regional officials (46:4) and moderate Christians (46:7). He forges a coalition with a real chance of winning political power.
With this coalition behind him, Amalickiah agitates to change the system of government to something more sensitive to the beliefs of non-Christians. He initially gains some traction with the people, but then the military steps in to defend the government and the Church. Captain Moroni rallies the people around the flag, and both Church and State tell Christians that they cannot support Amalickiah without rejecting God. Moroni solidifies the Christian majority behind him and goes on the offensive. In the name of “freedom,” he executes anyone who will not swear allegiance to the political-religious status quo. Amazingly (not!) almost all of the Amalickiahites take the oath.
As I acknowledged earlier, this version of events is just as hostile to Captain Moroni as Mormon’s narrative is to Amalickiah. Both narratives reduce their opposition to a single set of clear and easy-to-understand motives—which is a pretty clear indication that neither one gets to what actually happened with the messy and inconsistent human beings involved in the story.
And, perhaps most importantly of all, the two narratives are built around two very different definitions of “freedom.” And they are two definitions that remain with us today.
Likening Unto Us
Religious freedom is as big an issue in the 2016 election as it has ever been in the United States. Both sides claim to champion religious freedom in ways that make perfect sense to their supporters and no sense at all to their opponents. The term itself is even more contested than the concept. Latter-day Saints are lining up on different sides of this question.
For example, when Hillary Clinton wrote an Op-Ed in the Deseret news claiming to support religious freedom, Meridian Magazine fired back with a lengthy editorial denouncing her anti-religious-freedom stances on things like requiring bakers to participate in same-sex marriages, requiring religious individuals to share bathrooms with transgendered people, and mandating that religious employers provide contraception coverage to their employees. I don’t mean to make light of these issues. To many people, they define what it currently means to be permitted to live according to the dictates of one’s conscience.
People on my side of the aisle, however, are just as baffled when some of these Latter-day Saints join prominent Evangelical scholars in declaring that, in order to “protect religious freedom,” Christians are morally obligated to vote for a candidate who has proposed a flat-out, blatantly unconstitutional religious test for residency. To me, the moral calculus involved in such a choice ends up being, “in order to protect the right of the religious majority to never have to bake a cake for someone they disapprove of, we need to deny the rights of a religious minority to exist.”’
And yes, I realize that that is simplistic, reductive, and unfair. There is a lot of that going around this election—largely, I think, because we are all applying our own value assumptions to other people’s definitional arguments. “Religious liberty” has always meant different things from different perspectives, with religious minorities (as Latter-day Saints once were) seeing it very differently than religious majorities (to which, politically speaking at least, we now aspire to belong). And, as pat as it sounds, the answer is probably to start listening to each more before one side or the other ends up being required to adopt the other’s beliefs at the point of a sword.