Well, of course we can. We are free to apply any standards we choose to any text that we read. That’s how judging stuff works.
But should we judge Book of Mormon characters by contemporary standards on things like religious freedom, separation of church and state, the treatment of prisoners of war, and, well, genocide? After all, this was a different culture and a different time. Should we judge them by the same standards we would apply to someone today?
Again, the answer is, “of course we should”—if we want to take the Book of Mormon seriously on its own terms.
The moral judgments we apply to a narrative depend a lot on what we want to accomplish with the evaluation. Sometimes, all we are trying to do is understand how a culture worked. Thus, as horrified as I am by much of what Achilles does in the Iliad, when I teach Homer, I ask students to start with the premise that Achilles represented the ideas of a certain culture and to hold their moral judgments in abeyance and ask, “what does the fact that the Ancient Greeks considered Achilles a hero tell us about the Ancient Greeks?”
But this is not quite how the Book of Mormon asks us to read it. The text goes to great lengths to warn us NOT to read it as a history of a specific culture, but to see it as a document prepared specifically for latter-day readers as a source of spiritual wisdom (see, for example, 1 Ne 9:2-6). When he completed the text, Mormon was one of the only two people in the world (the other being his son) who could even read it. Unlike every other work in the LDS canon, the Book of Mormon had no contemporary audience or rhetorical purpose. We are not merely part of its extended audience; we are part of its only audience.
And I believe that it has a lot of very important things to teach us. It says profound things about faith and repentance, about the urgency of conversion, and about the responsibilities that we have to each other as members of the Church, just to name a few. When we apply these things in our lives, we become better Saints and better people. This is why I see the Book of Mormon as a central pillar of my faith.
This is also why I insist on judging Book of Mormon characters by modern moral standards–as they are the only standards that can be considered part of its rhetorical structure. Sometimes, the result of such judgment is that I re-evaluate contemporary moral standards. Sometimes, though, it means that I re-evaluate the narrative. Like many other texts (Abraham and Isaac, David and Bathsheba, Thomas Marsh and milk) we need to decide whether we are going to read the stories of the Book of Mormon as moral examples or as cautionary tales. Both types of readings can be instructive.
The more I read the latter half of Alma, the more convinced I am that we should read the story of Captain Moroni as a cautionary tale–even though Mormon clearly intended it to be a moral example–as so much of what he does cannot be reconciled with contemporary values that I am not willing to part with. For example:
- He compels people to give up their political beliefs or be executed. (Alma 46:35)
- He arguably engages in ethnic cleansing by driving all of the Lamanites out of the East Wilderness. (Alma 50:9)
- With no clear understanding of the domestic situation, he accuses the elected leader of treason and threatens to lead his army against them. (Alma 60)
- He negotiates a prisoner exchange in bad faith and then uses a stratagem to break his word (Alma 54: 3, 20; 55: 2)
Is Captain Moroni’s behavior in these instances consistent with the rules of ancient warfare? Absolutely. From the standpoint of any ancient culture, Moroni is a generous, enlightened, and humane military leader. He is a teddy bear compared to any Greek or Roman commander, and, as far as scriptures go, his way of dealing with the Lamanites and the Amalickiahites is far superior to, say, Joshua, who launched a patently genocidal campaign against the Canaanites. But there is no spiritual value for us in evaluating Captain Moroni by the ancient world’s rules of war.
To incorporate the lessons of the Book of Mormon in our own lives, we must evaluate it according to our standards. And by contemporary, Moroni was not nearly as admirable as Mormon suggests. The narrative of the Amalickiahite war tells of an established state church proclaiming, but not observing religious freedom and of a commander who frequently suspends the rule of law under the pretense of protecting liberty. When the Governor of Missouri treated Mormons in much the same way that Moroni treated Amalickiahites, we had a thing or two to say about it in the other direction.
Of course everything Captain Moroni did this was consistent with the moral understanding of his culture. That’s why he was a hero. If our only objective in reading the Book of Mormon is to try to figure out what the Nephites were like, this is all we need to know. This works great for the Iliad, but the Book of Mormon should do more. It should teach us how to live in the world today. On this score, I find it highly disturbing that public spokesman for the group that took over the Oregon wildlife refuge last year used the name “Captain Moroni” when talking to reporters, or that and why the people camped out on the Bundy ranch a few years ago waved banners that said, “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children.” The way that we talk about these stories matters.
We can say that the BOM was written for us and contains many lessons that can help us in the world today, or we can say that its people were impossibly alien and saw the world through different cultural lenses so it is unfair to judge them by our standards. But we can’t have it both ways at the same time. To the extent that we want to use Book of Mormon as the basis for anything in our own lives, we have to be willing to evaluate the morality of its characters by the standards of the world that we want to live in today.