This post first appeared on Power in the Book of Mormon.
Pay attention to the discourse of Samuel the Lamanite on the wall of Zarahemla. Take note of the reaction of the people. In the first few verses of Helaman 16, we read that there were two different and completely opposite reactions to his message: One group believed in his words and sought baptism by those who were authorized to administer in the ordinances of the Gospel. The other group was incensed that they couldn’t hit the prophet with their stones and arrows, so they decided it was the devil’s doing and climbed up the wall to kill him up close and personal. Consider these related accounts from the Book of Mormon:
- The preaching of Alma in Ammonihah drove some citizens to belief and conversion but inflamed the rest of the population until they were willing to torture and murder their believing family members.
- The preaching of the sons of Mosiah divided the Lamanite nation along religious lines until the unbelievers rose up to exterminate their Christian brothers and sisters.
- The preaching of Alma and his sons resulted in the conversion of the humble Zoramites while the rest defected to the Lamanites and stirred them up to war.
- The prophecy of Nephi on the tower caused a division among the people about whether he was a god or a prophet, which devolved into civil war.
These and many other accounts all point to a consistent pattern: Every time the Gospel was preached among the Nephites, there were always 2 extreme responses to the word of God: conversion and repulsion. No apathy, no agnostics. Never a third group who said, “Well I don’t believe what he’s saying but he has the right to say it and we can all get along just fine.” Surely as Alma taught, “the preaching of the word… had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them.”
The Gospel is polarizing
We hear a lot about polarization today, don’t we? Masks, BLM, and everything else seems to divide us one way or another (and often get in the way of fighting the “real enemy”). It seems almost tragic that the “good news” and the “glad tidings” of the Gospel would be a similar point of contention, doesn’t it? Well, like it or not, the Gospel is polarizing. When it comes to the Church, there are no fence-sitters. Hearing the Gospel preached forces you to choose a side. Christ warned his disciples about this polarization, saying, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” One brother in this dispensation expressed his frustration over those who had rejected the Gospel and turned against Joseph Smith. He told the Prophet:
If I should leave this Church I would not do as those men have done: I would go to some remote place where Mormonism had never been heard of, settle down, and no one would ever learn that I knew anything about it.
The Prophet Joseph knew better, and he set this brother straight:
You don’t know what you would do. No doubt these men once thought as you do. Before you joined this Church you stood on neutral ground. When the gospel was preached, good and evil were set before you. You could choose either or neither. There were two opposite masters inviting you to serve them. When you joined this Church you enlisted to serve God. When you did that you left the neutral ground, and you never can get back on to it. Should you forsake the Master you enlisted to serve, it will be by the instigation of the evil one, and you will follow his dictation and be his servant.
As a missionary, I learned this lesson early on when knocking doors. If someone expressed an ambivalent opinion of the Church– that we’re “just as good as other churches,” then they obviously hadn’t interacted with it before. Once someone encountered “information” about the Church (either from members or from antagonists), that’s when they develop strong opinions one way or the other. That’s when they become polarized.
Tolerance usually flows only one way
Nephite history also teaches us that for a largely secular society, “tolerance” is a one-way street. Throughout all the Book of Mormon, it was the righteous, believing Nephites who established a government with built-in religious freedom. It was the converted, believing Lamanite king who extended that liberty to all his people later. It was the Christians who taught that “there should be equality among all men,” that “every man should have equal chance,” that there should be “no law against a man’s belief,” that “all men were on equal grounds.” You never read of Nephite Christians assassinating or persecuting unbelievers because of their atheism. The religious were always tolerant of divergent viewpoints. The Nephites, like the saints of our dispensation, desire to worship freely and “allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”
This is not the case with those who scorn religious beliefs. Throughout the Book of Mormon and the headlines today, we see that this tolerance of opinion and thought only flows one way. As Pres. Packer taught, “tolerance is often demanded but seldom returned. Beware of the word tolerance. It is a very unstable virtue.” (See also Pres. Oaks’s fantastic talk on tolerance):
Religious freedom is fragile
This intolerance of religious belief goes beyond disapproving looks or protests. The Book of Mormon demonstrates that wicked unbelievers were not content to let the marketplace of ideas flourish. They not only promulgated their viewpoint in word but also “endeavored to enforce it by the sword.” Every few years, they rose up, “seek[ing] to destroy the church of God, and to destroy the foundation of liberty,” establishing secret combinations, and “condemning the righteous because of their righteousness.” While the believers invited all the learn of the goodness of God and willingly enter into covenants with him, the unbelievers were constantly trying to establish dictatorships.
This week, we read Samuel’s prophecy; next week we’ll read its aftermath. Like our own Constitution, the Nephite government had a freedom of religion clause baked in. But when the unbelievers figured the requisite 5 years prophesied by Samuel had passed, we got a glimpse at how tenuous that religious freedom really was. The unbelievers picked a day on the calendar and told the believers that if Samuel’s prophesied sign did not appear by that date, they would all be exterminated. So much for freedom of religion.
Yes, but this is the United States. That can’t happen here, right? At the present moment, many other Christians and religious believers join their voices and efforts with ours in protecting those religious rights, so we see less murdering and violent attacks on our liberty to worship than the Nephites. But remember that it wasn’t that long ago in our own history that Governor Boggs signed an official government extermination order against the saints of this dispensation. We have enjoyed the freedom to worship, to assemble, and to proselyte for many years, but there is no guarantee we’ll have that same liberty a few years from now. Anyone with eyes can see that this right of belief and expression is starting to fray. Tolerance for beliefs and believers is quickly being replaced by a growing movement to restrict or even extinguish the expression of our beliefs. If history is any indicator, we simply cannot assume that we will be granted the “privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience” in another few years or decades.
I know many who read that previous paragraph are rolling their eyes right now and thinking I’m going on a political rant. This is not a politics blog, and I try very hard to keep politics away from this blog. But the very fact that religious liberty is considered a political concern is the problem. I like to think that the Constitution is robust and that there will always be good and honest people who, as the saying goes, may hate what I say but be willing to die for my right to say it. But the Brethren are not as optimistic as I am. Over the past 7 years or so, the Church has increasingly addressed the need to defend religious freedom from encroaching governmental restrictions. The Church has put together several websites advocating members to fight for increased religious freedom and training us on how to recognize the boundaries of religious freedom in various settings, such as the workplace and school. It’s obvious that the Brethren are concerned about the future of religious freedom, and I may be young, but I’m old enough to know that when the Brethren are concerned about something, we should be concerned about it, too– regardless of politics.
The COVID-19 religious freedom wake up call
We are facing an immediate, major threat today to our right to worship. Throughout the country, we have seen executive branches skirt the democratic process and put the freedom of religious assembly on hold. Casinos, bars, drug dispensaries, racial and political protests, and many other secular industries were granted exemptions from state-mandated lock-downs while religious gatherings were deemed “nonessential” and remain forbidden or at least greatly restricted throughout western civilization to this day. If you think only religious zealots and anti-science extremists are upset about this, think again. Here’s Elder Bednar from just a few weeks ago, expressing his concern on the issue in language so strong that you might think you’d heard it from a talk radio host:
The buzzer on the COVID-19 alarm clock just continues to ring and ring and ring… This present crisis may well be a moment when we too “come to ourselves” and realize, perhaps as never before, just how precious and fragile religious freedom is… The sweeping governmental restrictions that were placed on religious gatherings at the outset of the COVID-19 crisis truly were extraordinary. In what seemed like an instant, most Western governments and many others simply banned communal worship…
Clearly, governments have an affirmative duty to protect public health and safety. And I believe public officials have most often sought to do the right things to protect the public from the virus. Drawing proper lines to protect both public health and religious exercise in a pandemic is very challenging.
But we cannot deny and we should not forget the speed and intensity with which government power was used to shut down fundamental aspects of religious exercise… As we have just experienced, religious freedom can quickly be swept aside in the name of protecting other societal interests. Despite COVID-19 risks, North American jurisdictions declared as essential numerous services related to alcohol, animals, marijuana, and other concerns. But often religious organizations and their services were simply deemed nonessential, even when their activities could be conducted safely…
While believers and their religious organizations must be good citizens in a time of crisis, never again can we allow government officials to treat the exercise of religion as simply nonessential. Never again must the fundamental right to worship God be trivialized below the ability to buy gasoline.
When I first saw clips of Elder Bednar’s talk making the rounds on social media, I was taken aback at the strong language. It was a lot more direct than what we usually hear at General Conference. I wondered if perhaps they were taken out of context or not made in his official capacity as an Apostle. So, last night my wife and I watched his whole talk from the link on the official Church newsroom. We were surprised. There was no mincing of words, no watering down– Elder Bednar was coming out hard against the increased scope of government and telling us that we can never let this happen again. And to make sure he knew that he carried the full weight of his calling, he closed by invoking his authority to represent the Savior and speak in his name.
I know that’s a lot to pull from the story of Samuel the Lamanite, but that’s where my study took me. I never looked at the story before as being about tolerance and religious freedom. It’s not what I initially thought I was going to write about, but in the light of lock-downs and the state of the country, that’s just a whole new side that showed through. I love how the Book of Mormon is different every time you read it.
This post first appeared on Power in the Book of Mormon.