What Does the Book of Mormon Teach About the Relationship Between Church and State?

Before the time of King Mosiah, religion and government were commingled in Nephite society. Mosiah’s father, King Benjamin, had served not only as the political leader but also as the spiritual leader of his people, and Mosiah had followed suit.

But when Alma arrived with a group of people whom he had organized into a church, that paradigm changed. Alma had refused to be king, scarred by his association with an evil king named Noah (Mosiah 23:6-7). He was exclusively a religious leader with no political ambitions, which provided a unique opportunity to separate religious leadership from political leadership (Mosiah 25:14-15, 19).

King Mosiah encouraged Alma to preach, and he gave Alma permission to organize the church. When Alma learned of inappropriate behavior among some members of the church, he notified the king, deferring to Mosiah’s judgment on the matter. In response, Mosiah established a significant new boundary between church and state. “I judge them not,” he said to Alma; “therefore I deliver them into thy hands to be judged” (Mosiah 26:12). These sins were violations of church teachings, not violations of criminal law. The church should deal with them, not the state.

This might seem like an obvious distinction to us, but it was groundbreaking for them. Just before introducing a new form of government, Mosiah was redefining the scope and the jurisdiction of that government.

In 1835, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints unanimously adopted a declaration of belief regarding “earthly governments” and “religious societies.” The document included the following statement about the limitations of political authority:

We do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul (Doctrine and Covenants 134:4).

In the United States of America, this limitation of government authority is specified in the First Amendment to the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof (“The Bill of Rights: A Transcription,” National Archives)

Today, I am grateful to live in a country where freedom of religion is maintained and where the line between church and state is respected. I will remember that there is an important distinction between legal standards of conduct, which must be enforced by the state, and moral standards, which are within the purview of the church.

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