Words matter. Words have an impact, for good or for evil. Jesus said, “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give an account thereof in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36). And Alma warned the people of Ammonihah, some of whom were guilty of deceiving others, “Our words will condemn us” (Alma 12:24).
But in a democratic society, it is also important to encourage the free expression of ideas. When Mosiah abolished the monarchy among the Nephites, he told them that, going forward, they should make decisions “by the voice of the people” (Mosiah 29:26). It seems trivial to say that you can’t make decisions by the voice of the people unless the people have a voice.
So inherent in this new system of government was an important assumption: No one should be penalized for their beliefs. Some people tried to take advantage of this legal principle, pushing the limits of what they were allowed to do. But regardless of their true motives, the law couldn’t touch them if they didn’t commit a crime:
There were many who loved the vain things of the world, and they went forth preaching false doctrines; and this they did for the sake of riches and honor.
Nevertheless, they durst not lie, if it were known, for fear of the law, for liars were punished; therefore they pretended to preach according to their belief; and now the law could have no power on any man for his belief.
And they durst not steal, for fear of the law, for such were punished; neither durst they rob, nor murder, for he that murdered was punished unto death.Alma 1:16-18
Mormon later explained that this legal protection was based on their understanding of a passage from the Old Testament: Joshua 24:15.
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….
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.Alma 30:7-8, 11
Among the freedoms established by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is freedom of speech: the right to express your opinions without fear of punishment.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.“The Bill of Rights: A Transcription,” from the National Archives website
Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has had to grapple with necessary limitations on these rights. For example, the court has held that words which “by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” are not protected by the First Amendment (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 1942, quoted in “Fighting Words,” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School website).
In the Book of Mormon, the Nephites had to deal with the same issue, as they drew lines of acceptable conduct. One of the most difficult circumstances which they faced repeatedly was sedition, which is “conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state” (Oxford English Dictionary). Here are a few examples:
- Only five years into their new system of government, a man named Amlici tried to reinstitute the monarchy so he could be king. He managed to persuade a large percentage of the population to support him, enough that the proposal was put to the people for a vote. There were many debates, which Mormon described as “much dispute and wonderful contentions” (Alma 2:5). Amlici lost the vote but refused to accept the outcome. He “did stir up those who were in his favor to anger against those who were not in his favor,” and persuaded them to “take up arms against their brethren” (Alma 2:9-10). Tens of thousands of people died as a result of this insurgency (Alma 3:26).
- Thirteen years later, a man named Zerehemnah had the same ambition. Besides convincing many of his own countrymen to support him, he also stirred up their enemies, the Lamanites, “to anger against the Nephites; this he did that he might…gain power over the Nephites by bringing them into bondage” (Alma 43:8). Captain Moroni, who led the Nephite armies, defeated Zerahemnah’s army and insisted that Zerahemnah and his people take an oath not to fight against the Nephites again (Alma 44).
- The following year, a man named Amalackiah, “a man of cunning device and a man of many flattering words,” similarly attempted to overthrow the government and become king (Alma 46:1-7). Moroni raised a flag which he called “the title of liberty,” and recruited people to defend their government against this insurrection (Alma 46:11-21). Under this banner, he led his people to victory (Alma 46:28-37).
- Seven years later, a group of people, known as the “king-men,” again tried to overthrow the freedom of the Nephites. They were angry with their chief judge, Pahoran, because he refused to change the law. “Therefore, those who were desirous that the law should be altered were angry with him, and desired that he should no longer be chief judge over the land” (Alma 51:4). The question was settled by a vote. The king-men lost, but they refused to support the rest of the Nephites, who were at war with the Lamanites. Moroni received authority “to compel those dissenters to defend their country” (Alma 51:15).
- Five years later, while the Nephites were still at war, the king-men succeeded in unseating Pahoran and making a man named Pachus their king. At Pahoran’s request, Moroni rallied the people, and defeated and imprisoned those who had overthrown their government (Alma 62:3-10).
What do we learn from all of these examples?
- There will always be people whose desire for power is greater than their respect for others. We should not be surprised when we see this.
- A charismatic leader can disrupt a government by persuading people to behave unlawfully. Debate and even contention may be a necessary part of democracy, but there is a difference between expressing dissent and interfering with the institutions and processes of government.
President Dallin H. Oaks recently reminded us that even First Amendment rights have their limitations:
The protests protected by the Constitution are peaceful protests. Protesters have no right to destroy, deface, or steal property or to undermine the government’s legitimate police powers. The Constitution and laws contain no invitation to revolution or anarchy. All of us—police, protesters, supporters, and spectators—should understand the limits of our rights and the importance of our duties to stay within the boundaries of existing law.“Love Your Enemies,” General Conference, October 2020
Today, I will be grateful to live in a country where decisions are made “by the voice of the people.” I will remember that with that privilege comes responsibility: to engage in the process of government, to make my voice heard appropriately, and to respect the rule of law.