Alma 8:17 — LeGrand Baker — American Constitutional principles as a key to understand Alma chapters 9 to 14
14 And it came to pass that while he was journeying thither, being weighed down with sorrow, wading through much tribulation and anguish of soul, because of the wickedness of the people who were in the city of Ammonihah, it came to pass while Alma was thus weighed down with sorrow, behold an angel of the Lord appeared unto him, saying:
15 Blessed art thou, Alma; therefore, lift up thy head and rejoice, for thou hast great cause to rejoice; for thou hast been faithful in keeping the commandments of God from the time which thou receivedst thy first message from him. Behold, I am he that delivered it unto you.
16 And behold, I am sent to command thee that thou return to the city of Ammonihah, and preach again unto the people of the city; yea, preach unto them. Yea, say unto them, except they repent the Lord God will destroy them.
17 For behold, they do study at this time that they may destroy the liberty of thy people, (for thus saith the Lord) which is contrary to the statutes, and judgments, and commandments which he has given unto his people. (Alma 8:14-17)
Alma 8:17 is one of those frequently overlooked keys that gives us insight into our understanding other important parts of the Book of Mormon. In chapters 9 through 14, we have a some of the most profound explanations of religious and political doctrines found anywhere in the Book of Mormon. Often, a readers inclination is to divide long sections and isolate their parts as though they were individual entity.(Their division into chapters and verses help us do that.) But they are often better understood when seen as an interconnected part of the whole. In selecting this conversation between Amulek, Alma, and Zeezrom, Mormon has chosen to focus our attention on one of the most important aspects of the ancient Israelite temple ceremony of the New Year festival. It has to do with the eternal relationship between the one’s foreordination at the Council in Heaven, and one’s priesthood and sacral kingship responsibilities in this world. I hope to discuss all of that in some detail as we work our way through those six chapters, but as an introduction, I think it is important to note that the conversations quoted in those chapters all focus on the Lord’s instructions to Alma that he is to return because “they do study at this time that they may destroy the liberty of thy people.” Consequently, the most accurate way to describe these chapters seems to me to be that they are an explanation to Zeezrom (and therefore to us) that God could not support his political coup because Zeezrom had not been chosen at the Council to be a Nephite king. Another way of saying that is that these six chapters are primarily about the legitimacy of priesthood and sacral kingship.
I intended to write that note and let it go at that. But then I asked the scripture this question, What IS God’s role in civil government. As I pondered, I thought you might ask that same question, so I set out to try to answer it. The following is the result:
The beginning of the answer may be found in this statement by Wilford Woodruff. It is his explanation about why he did vicarious temple work for the Founding Fathers.
Wilford Woodruff, September 16, 1877, Journal of Discourses, 19:229
I will here say, before closing, that two weeks before I left St. George, the spirits of the dead gathered around me, wanting to know why we did not redeem them. Said they, “You have had tile use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever done for us. We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we never apostatized from it, but we remained true to it and were faithful to God.” These were the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and they waited on me for two days and two nights. I thought it very singular, that notwithstanding so much work had been done, and yet nothing had been done for them. The thought never entered my heart, form the fact, I suppose, that heretofore our minds were reaching after our more immediate friends and relatives. I straightway went into the baptismal font and called upon brother McCallister to baptize me for the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and fifty other eminent men, making one hundred in all, including John Wesley, Columbus, and others; I then baptized him for every President of the United States, except three; and when their cause is just, somebody will do the work for them.
I have felt to rejoice exceedingly in this work of redeeming the dead. I do not wonder at President Young saying he felt moved upon to call upon the Latter-day Saints to hurry up the building of these Temples. (Wilford Woodruff, September 16, 1877, Journal of Discourses, 19:229)
The part of that statement that seems most relevant to our discussion is his quote from those who came to him: “We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we never apostatized from it, but we remained true to it and were faithful to God.” Apparently they did not actually ask him to do their temple work. Rather, they demanded it on the grounds that they had never “apostatized” from the principles of freedom.
One of those men—my hero of them all—was George Washington. As I have studied his life, I have become convinced that he knew his foreordained mission, long before he sorted out all its details. I am aware of no place where he actually wrote that he had learned it by revelation. This statement, made two years before the Declaration of Independence , in a private letter to a personal friend, is about as close as one can get.
… I am sure I have no new lights to throw upon the Subject, or any arguments to offer in support of my own doctrine than what you have seen; and could only in general add, that an Innate Spirit of freedom first told me, that the Measures which Administration hath for sometime been, and now are, most violently pursuing, are repugnant to every principle of natural justice; whilst much abler heads than my own, hath fully convinced me that it is not only repugnant to natural Right, but Subversive of the Laws & Constitution of Great Britain itself; (Papers of George Washington, Washington to Bryan Fairfax, 24 August 1774)
Washington had not been convinced by the arguments of his friends, until after “an Innate Spirit of freedom first told” him that the principles were true.
While it is true that the validity of participatory government rests on the general conscience of the people, it is also true that, at lest to some degree, conscience is a product of culture. For that reason we must be very wary of political issues that are founded on prejudice and intolerance
The challenge to the framers of the Constitution was to create a government that was so strong that it could protect its citizens, and yet so very weak that it could impose itself upon their private lives.
The object was to prevent the minority from dictating to the majority, however to some degree, they over-corrected. Since then, enough egalitarianism has been introduced into the system that the majority cannot harm the minority. In a free society political issues move like a pendulum, ever seeking stability in the upright position. It seems to me that we are about to the place where the pendulum will begin to swing back the other way again.
Actually, Deism is the answer to the question. Deism has had a bad press for years. That is because the only book that tried to define it was written by Tom Paine who was mad at Jefferson and tried to get even by writing a book saying that Jefferson was a Deist and that all deists were atheists. What Paine wrote was simply not true.
The best way to understand Deism is to look at the lives of the men and women who called themselves Deists—Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and most of the Founding Fathers. Deism insisted there is a God (“Providence” they often called him), who cared about people because he had created them to be the best that they could possibly be. That could only be realized if they were individually free to become fully themselves. That could not happen under an oppressive government. Therefore, the Deists reasoned, God did not want people to live under an oppressive government, and it was his desire and intension that they should live under a system that gave them maximum freedom to be the best they could be. A practical example of what that meant is this: I have never seen any evidence that George Washington prayed for the Lord to look after Mt. Vernon. Mt. Vernon, was, after all, Washington’s responsibility. However, there were many times when Washington urged the Continental Congress to declare special days for fasting and prayer that the Lord would sustain the army in their fight for freedom. And after a successful military engagement, Washington usually issued a general order to his men to setting aside a day for prayers of thanksgiving to the Lord—because, after all, the survival of the fledgling nation, its army—and ultimately of their freedom—were God’s responsibility.
They called what they were doing “the glorious experiment.” No one before had ever tried to create a government whose object was to make people free enough that they could secure their own individual success and happiness.
There are only three fundamental forms of government. 1) that described in Machiavelli, The Prince where the most powerful people assume the authorities of government. 2) That described by Rousseau, where a self-defined moral elite assume the authorities of government. 3) and that based on the principles of Deism, described in theory in the Declaration of Independence, and in function in the American Constitution. Let me point out the differences.
1) The coercive power of The Prince is the same whether the control is exercised by tribal chiefs, medieval landowners, or military dictators. This is a very simple form of government. It rests on the theory that there are casts of people and their status can easily be defined by whether they are or are not a part of the dominant aristocracy. Those who are, control both politics and the economy. They control politics because the law is what they say the law is. They control the economy because they own all the real property, and often also the serfs or slaves who work the land. In most instances (Medieval Europe; ancient Rome, Egypt, Greece; apostate times in ancient Israel, Ancient China and Japan where the emperor was a god, or Communism where the state was god), religion is a major means of keeping the masses in check, because the major gods support the king and validate his actions. Civil and criminal laws are established to reinforce and legalize the power of the king.
2) Rousseau said people are intelligent animals whose primary motivation is avarice: greed, self preservation, and self aggrandizement. He said because this is so, all governments tend to be tools by which the powerful control and take advantage of the weak. He used the dark ages in Europe as a primary example. He said, however, not all people are like that. There is a small minority – a moral elite – who are capable of understanding and therefore of dispensing equanimity in society – that is, if they have the power to do it. He said it is the responsibility of this self-defined, self-appointed moral elite to obtain political power by whatever revolutionary means are necessary, and use government to impose equity upon society. Marks’s Communism picks up on that idea and assumes the working class would constitute that moral elite. George Bernard Shaw saw it differently. He believed the moral elite would be the well educated property class of Britain (people who already had enough money and education they didn’t have to worry about ways to get more). He organized the Fabian Society of England, which is still the thinktank of the British Labor Party. (When the Labor Party got power in England they nationalized railroads, coal mines, and other theretofore private businesses.) His program was that he would establish discussion groups in universities among students who were going into teaching, writing (plays, fiction, etc.), broadcasting, and other fields that had the power to change public opinion. Shaw also started private schools in England. One young woman who attended one of his schools was Eleanor Roosevelt. She returned to America, helped establish Fabian discussion groups at universities here, married FDR, and became very involved in the United Nations.
Rousseau-inspired governmental systems vary markedly in their applications of his principles. In America they are largely espoused by “liberals,” but countered by “conservatives,” so American movement toward implementing his philosophy has been slow. In Europe it has been faster. In Russia, China, and a few other places it has been quick and complete. The theory looks good, but the practice is, by its nature, severely flawed. Its premise is that people, because of their selfish nature, are not able to make decisions that are in their own collective best interest, so participatory government cannot be good government. Therefore only a self-appointed moral elite is capable of making correct governmental decisions for the masses. That necessarily creates a two-cast social, political, and economic system. That it creates a two cast social and political system is obvious, but so is it obvious that its political system must create a two cast economic system.
There is no such thing as wealth in the abstract. Wealth consists of a successful sequence – of first production and then distribution. One can own a mountain full of gold, and it means nothing unless he can refine the gold and get it on the market. The same is true of a field of wheat. Unless it is harvested and marketed, it is not much different from a field of weeds. In Rousseau’s egalitarian system, the same people who make political decisions also make decisions about what should be produced and how it should be marketed. If their decisions are not correct, the wheat does not get planted, or if planted, not harvested, or if harvested, not marketed, or if marketed, to the wrong people for the wrong price. Civil and criminal law are established to ensure the continuance of the system and the power of the individuals who control the state. The opportunities for corruption are enormous, and, as happened in the case of Russia, it is destined to implode.
3) The system based on the notions of Deism was begun as the English Common Law and Parliamentary system. It matured in the American colonies, and was best described in the Declaration of Independence. The best discussion of the Declaration’s philosophy is Gary Wills’ Inventing America. In it he carefully examines the philosophical background of Jefferson’s “all men are created equal.” He shows that Jefferson’s “equality” was fundamentally different from Rousseau’s egalitarian “equality.” Jefferson and his contemporaries did not believe equality meant sameness, as is implied in Rousseau’s egalitarian ideals. Jefferson compared human society to a bucket of fresh milk. As time passes the cream in the milk will rise to the top of the bucket, and the ordinary milk will settle to the bottom. He said people are like that: those with natural talents will rise to the top, while those with less ability will move toward the bottom. He believed government ought not to be used to artificially raise untalented people, or to artificially keep afloat the untalented children of talented people. But that government should get out of the way and let people seek their own levels – according to their ability or their inclination. In his use of the word “created” one also finds a fundamental difference between the two philosophies. Both use the word “freedom,” but with different meanings. In Rousseau’ philosophy, the fundamental purpose of the government is to grant freedom to the people. That means freedom is a gift from the government, and the extent of the freedom is as it is defined by the government.
In Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, God made men free, and the fundamental purpose of government is to keep them free. That gives government a four-fold responsibility: to protect the people from international aggression (military and diplomatic power), to protect them from their neighbors (police and some regulatory powers), to give them freedoms they would not otherwise have (freedom of communication by providing post office and roads are examples), and to leave them alone and let them be the best they can be. In a word: to prevent external restraints on their freedom and to otherwise keep out of the way.
Gary Wills’s Inventing America convincingly shows that what Jefferson meant by “all men are created equal,” is that all people have an innate and equal sense of right and wrong – they all have the same built-in conscience that gives everyone the same universal standard of moral excellence – and on that idea he rested the whole legal justification for the American political and economic system, and for participatory government.
In Rousseau’s thinking, there is not standard of right and wrong, therefore any government that might be elected by the masses would share their inability to distinguish the common good from the common evil – therefore the need of a dictatorship of the moral elite. However, in Jefferson’s system, because there is a universal conscience, the people in a government elected by the masses will naturally share their innate sense of personal (therefore universal) right and wrong. In Rousseau’s system, participatory government must necessarily be corrupt because people are selfish; but in Jefferson’s system participatory government must necessarily be in the best interest of everyone, because the people who run the government would share the common values of the overwhelming majority of the citizens. If the people discover their leaders do not share their values, they replace them with others who will enact and enforce laws that are consistent with the common sense of right and wrong. Criminal law is necessary, but it only applies to those who act contrary to the laws of nature.
In drafting our Constitution and Bill of Rights, the Founding Fathers demonstrated unparalleled wisdom in defining the principles of free government and the delicate balance of powers needed to achieve them.
For the members of the Second Continental Congress, The Declaration of Independence was not so much a statement of what they were doing as it was a justification of what they had already done. More than three months before, on April 6. 1776, they had removed themselves from the British Empire by severing the economic ties that had bound them to England. The next steps were to define that economic severance as a political departure, and then to exert sufficient military prowess to consummate that definition. After that, the greatest challenge would be, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “to Institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
The initial step, though traumatic, was relatively easy. The British Empire was theoretically an economic, rather than a military empire. In April they withdrew from the Empire by closing American ports to all British shipping, and then declared dared those same ports open to trade with all other nations. The question of whether Congress had the authority to do that was answered by the outcome to the Revolutionary War. The questions of why they chose to do it, and the legality of their actions were addressed by the Declaration of Independence.
The legal premises on which they acted were “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” For Jefferson and his contemporaries, a simple reference in the Declaration to those political doctrines was sufficient to establish the point, but for people of the 21st century, the ideas expressed by that phrase are indistinct, obscured by time and disuse. Yet, those two ideas, originating with European thinkers but matured to fruition in the minds of Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Madison, and other Americans, are the theoretical bases for the legitimacy of a free government
The “laws of nature” referred to the concept of government by covenant, and was based on this scenario: In the beginning, before man had established a political structure for his society, there were essentially two sorts of people: those whose lives and pocketbooks were enriched by what they produced or created, and those who exercised themselves only enough to steal or extort the fruits of other men’s labors. The former, finding they were expending too much of their otherwise productive energies defending themselves and their property from the latter, contrived a system whereby they could delegate to “government” the police and military responsibilities of defence. This would free the citizens at large to pursue their private affairs in peace and security.
They designated one among them to be king, covenanting with him that they would provide him sufficient income and adequate power to secure “their safety and happiness” but not enough to restructure their private affairs. In return he covenanted with them that he would never abuse his authority by turning that power against them. The object of the covenant was to establish a system whereby the people could be protected but not dominated. Given the nature of the covenant, it followed that if the king violated his office by usurping additional powers and using it to oppress the people, his tyranny would automatically release them from further moral or legal obligations to keep their half of the bargain. Calling upon this rationale, the Declaration of Independence asserts that the English King had “abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his protection, and waging war against us.”
The “laws of… Nature’s God” is the claim of the supremacy of higher law. There are some things, such as rape and theft, that are wrong by their own nature, and no act of a legislature or edict of a king can make them not wrong. The purpose of participatory government is so that civil and criminal law will consist with natural law—so that which is inherently wrong will be legally wrong also.
With “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” as their premises, the Founding Fathers believed that all governments had four legitimate functions: First, to protect its citizens (i.e., military and police power); Second, to provide equality before the law while protecting the innocent from its misapplication; Third, to enhance freedom by helping individuals function more easily and equitably within society (i.e., postal and highway systems to enhance communication, even-handed tariffs and sanctity of contract); Fourth, to leave individuals alone, so, through the exercise of their freedoms, they might become the best they are capable of being. To discover one’s potential, and mature it to fruition, Jefferson reasoned, is the purpose of life (if it is not, there is no over-riding purpose), so it is a necessary function of legitimate government to stand aside and let people be their best In this, government functions as an umbrella, protecting each from unacceptable external disquietudes, while leaving him free to walk where he will.
Madison, perhaps more than Jefferson, understood it was easier to use those ideas for the rationale of revolution than it was to incorporate them into a working government But, as Washington had so eloquently pointed out at Newburg, if these were the principles for which Americans had been willing to sacrifice their lives, they must also be the undergirding of any government founded upon that sacrifice.
To appreciate the complexity of the problem as the Framers appreciated it, we must understand that there is no such tangible thing as “government” What we call “government” is the interaction of select individuals and their uses of coercive power. Since the single characteristic which makes these individuals different from other citizens is their access to such power, it is not simplistic to define government as the power to coerce. That definition holds true whether one is speaking of a dictatorship or the home of doting grandparents, whether the power is threat of violence or threat of disapproval. The fact remains, if there is no power to coerce, there is no government A free society is not anarchy. The exercise of those four legitimate functions of government are necessary to the preservation and enhancement of freedom. Therefore, the coercive powers that constitute a political structure must be legitimized so they may be brought to bear – but in a way to minimize their propensity to be abused.
One way that suggested itself by their experience was to give people access to the power through representative government, but even that was fraught with danger. The scenario of the covenant did not lend itself so readily to representative government, for the idea of representation seemed to preclude the need for the covenant Yet, as Madison pointed out in the Tenth Federalist, corrupt and power-hungry men will gravitate to government because it is the seat of power, and such men would, by their nature, seek to obviate or circumvent the objects of the covenant
The problem for the authors of the Constitution was how to retain the framework of the covenant within the structure of representative government without abandoning the powers to smiling demigods who could convince the people to vote away their own freedom. Again the answer is alluded to in the Declaration of Independence. The key is found in the organizational relationships of the powers. They must be balanced so delicately that the energy that may be used by government to protect its citizens is rendered inoperative when employed to violate the sanctity of individual incentive.
That the Founding Fathers were able to take that key, and create a workable answer to their dilemma is, one of the greatest miracles of human history.
Their solution was “dual sovereignty” that incorporated separate layers of government, and recognized the people as citizens of each layer. In this two-tiered system, the weaker level—the state and local governments—had the authority to deal with the personal lives of their citizens and sufficient police power to be effectual. It was to the stronger—the federal government—that they assigned the ultimately coercive powers of the military—but limited its jurisdiction to providing for “the common defense,” and promoting “the general welfare.” (They read that “general welfare,” not “general welfare.” In both instances where this phrase is used in the Constitution its intent is to define, and thereby limit, federal jurisdiction to matters that concerned the whole of the American nation.) In this balanced, stratified system, the Founding Fathers achieved the seemingly impossible by separating the potentially dangerous military powers from the authority to deal with individual citizens.
The first principle of freedom is that people govern themselves. This does not only mean that they are governed by representatives of their own choosing, but it also means that in almost everything they do, they actually make the decisions that govern and regulate their own lives. Even though there was much dissension about many things, among the delegates at the Constitutional Convention there was no disagreement about that. Indeed it is probably true that it was the delegates’ mutual belief in that principle that kept them together and caused them to be wiling to compromise on other questions where there was not so much unanimity.
The challenge to the framers of the Constitution was to create a government that was strong enough to protect its citizens, and yet too weak to impose itself upon their private lives. They achieved this by separating the government into two major jurisdictions. The federal government was given authority over matters of a “general” or national concern, and the state and local governments, but more especially the individual citizens, retained authority over everything else. When the final draft of the Constitution was presented to the states for ratification, it presumed that separation, but did not actually say it. Many Americans felt ill at ease about the omission and wanted their own powers spelled out in the document itself. Consequently, when the Bill of Rights was added, two of those amendments, the 9th and 10th, focused on that idea. They read:
IX. The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
X The powers not delegated to The United States by the Constitution; nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Under this system the jurisdiction of the federal government included such matters as national defense, international and interstate commerce, and diplomatic dealings with other nations. It had nothing whatever to do with private citizens in matters such as how they use their property, parental responsibility, or the myriads of other cultural and legal relationships that are a part of living in a community. All such matters were left to state and local governments, or left alone entirely to be regulated on an individual basis.
The real power that sustains such a government can only be the individual goodness of the people—their willing and wilful adherence to what the Romans called “natural law” and Jefferson called “the laws of nature.” The Roman orator, Scipio, defined natural law in a speech before the Roman Senate. He explained that there are some things which are wrong by their very nature. He used burglary and adultery as examples, saying that such things are wrong whether the Senate defined them as legally wrong or not. No government, no matter how powerful, he asserted, can alter the rightness or wrongness of certain human acts. It is the first function of government to recognize natural law and make actions that are innately wrong, legally wrong as well. Under such a legal system the victim of a moral wrong can have a legal recourse.
That argument was accepted as an eternal principle by most of the members of the Constitutional Convention. It is the undergirding of the system they created. It is also the rationale on which the legitimacy of representative government is based. Jefferson and many of his contemporaries believed that a representative government, whether national or local, can succeed because the overwhelming majority of people are “equal” in that they have an equal innate sense of what is right and wrong. When a government truly represents the will and thinking of the people, that government will be the functional expression of the people’s innate moral sense. As such, its primary objective will be to guarantee its people that they may live their lives in a society that recognizes rightness and wrongness the same as they do. The Constitution’s leaving so much power to state and local governments and to the people was intended to expedite that guarantee.
The Constitution presumes that most people are bright enough and wise enough to govern their own actions and that they are honest enough and have enough integrity to refrain from imposing themselves on their neighbors. Because of that presumption, the document leaves the great bulk of the powers to govern with the individual citizens themselves. Americans like that. For the most part we get on quite nicely without government telling us what and when to do. Except for paying taxes, obeying traffic regulations, and the like, most Americans live their day-to-day lives as though there were no government at all to get in the way of their being themselves. That, after all, is what freedom is all about Without that, freedom has neither reason, nor purpose, nor attendant blessing.
Freedom is that one may be one’s Self. That notion presupposes every person’s innate ability to recognize right and wrong, and the ability of the enormous majority of the people to conduct their lives according to their best feelings. It assumes that only a small minority, those who cannot or do not choose to live according to the dictates of their own conscience, need ever become subject to the coercive powers of law and government. The entire notion and structure of American individual freedom is based on the belief that individual citizens will recognize, and will have the integrity to obey “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
The system was never designed to work in a society where people permitted themselves to rationalize away their sense of right and wrong.
In a system where the people are not free, the will of the ruling minority holds the government and its culture together. But in a free society, the cohesive power that makes it all work is the integrity and rectitude of its individual citizens. But there is the rub. Even though honesty and integrity are necessary to the survival of a free government, that government, by its very nature, lacks the power to impose either honesty or integrity upon its citizens, unless they breach the legal code.. Consequently, if the people choose to violate their own sense of what is right and wrong and “call evil good, and good evil,” the system will self-destruct. In its place must necessarily come one of only two possible options: 1) anarchy and chaos, or 2) some variety of dictatorship in which government is not only strong enough to protect its citizens, but also strong enough to impose its own standards of excellence and morality upon their private lives.
The people of the city of Ammonihah had abandoned “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” and were contriving to destroy the freedoms of the Nephite people. So Alma, like Washington so many years later, was called upon to intervene. In that, God is entirely justified, because if the people seek to live by the “laws of nature and of nature’s God,” he will help them establish a government based on covenant. Then, if they continue to be righteous, the ultimate protection of their political freedom is, after all, God’s responsibility.