Sunday, March 21, 2010

Did We Have Our Amalickiah Moment?

Every once in a while there occurs an important event in history that changes the course of history and determines not only the events that a society will face but also the nature and tone of the public, or societal, discourse. Sometimes these important events, while still influential, do not seem to have such an incredible impact at the time. It is only in retrospect that we can look at the course of history and see the point where a society made a choice and then understand how important that choice was, even though it did not seem that way at the time.

For one society one such event came in the form of a rather contentious vote. In The Book of Mormon there is a story included in the Book of Alma about a man named Amalickiah. At this point in time the people, known as the Nephites, had recently switched their form of government from a monarchy to a democracy (probably not a democracy in our modern sense of the word but the laws and judges were voted on and decided by "the voice of the people"). It was at this time that a political controversy arose among the Nephites regarding how the government would be run. There were a group among the Nephites lead by Amalickiah, who apparently thought that the Church of God had too much influence in society and in the affairs of the government. Specifically they objected to the teachings and the preachings of Helaman, the high priest, and his brethren who were the leaders of the Church. The Book of Mormon is not clear about the nature of the dispute, but it is clear that Amalickiah and his followers felt so strongly about the dispute that they decided that the only way to resolve the issue was to make Amalickiah king.

In chapter 46 the situation is described as follows:
1 And it came to pass that as many as would not hearken to the words of Helaman and his brethren were gathered together against their brethren.
2 And now behold, they were exceedingly wroth, insomuch that they were determined to slay them.
3 Now the leader of those who were wroth against their brethren was a large and a strong man; and his name was Amalickiah.
4 And Amalickiah was desirous to be a king; and those people who were wroth were also desirous that he should be their king; and they were the greater part of them the lower judges of the land, and they were seeking for power.
5 And they had been led by the flatteries of Amalickiah, that if they would support him and establish him to be their king that he would make them rulers over the people.
6 Thus they were led away by Amalickiah to dissensions, notwithstanding the preaching of Helaman and his brethren, yea, notwithstanding their exceedingly great care over the church, for they were high priests over the church.
7 And there were many in the church who believed in the flattering words of Amalickiah, therefore they dissented even from the church; and thus were the affairs of the people of Nephi exceedingly precarious and dangerous.
It was at this time that Moroni, who was the chief captain over the armies of the Nephites, raised the Title of Liberty and gathered the people together who still supported the government. After gathering the supporters of the government together the story records that:
29 And it came to pass that when Amalickiah saw that the people of Moroni were more numerous than the Amalickiahites—and he also saw that his people were doubtful concerning the justice of the cause in which they had undertaken—therefore, fearing that he should not gain the point, he took those of his people who would and departed into the land of Nephi.
Essentially a vote was held to determine whether or not the control of government would pass to Amalickiah, but due to the outcome of the vote it became evident that the majority of the people would not support him. When this happened, rather than accept the will of the people Amalickiah chose to leave the country rather than accept the result. The problem with this was that, as Moroni realized, if Amalickiah left the country and joined forces with their enemies then Amalickiah would eventually return with an army to conquer the land. So to prevent this, Moroni went with an army to stop the people of Amalickiah from leaving. While Moroni was able to prevent the people of Amalickiah from leaving, Amalickiah himself was not caught and managed to escape to the land of the Lamanites.

Ultimately Amalickiah managed to make himself king of the Lamanites and returned to wage war on the Nephites and attempted to conquer them. But due to the leadership of Moroni and others and the help of God the Nephites were able to defeat the Lamanites lead by Amalickiah, and after Amalickiah died, by his brother Ammoron. This war, the Amalickiah-Ammoron war, was the most destructive and devastating that the Nephites had ever experienced up to that point in their history, but the course of history for the Nephites would have been radically different if Amalickiah had managed to become king in the first place. At that point in Nephite history the people were still getting used to the idea of democracy and were still working out the issues.

The critical question involved with the Amalickiah issue was whether or not the democracy would survive and whether or not the people would preserve their liberty. On the one hand if the people had chosen to elect Amalickiah as their king then that would have ultimately lead to a loss of liberty and a destruction of their freedom of worship and security. On the other hand, by rejecting Amalickiah they did not manage to prevent a terrible war but they did set a precedent that allowed them to preserve their freedom and their government for many years. Even though afterwards others attempted to become king, they were never successful and liberty and freedom were preserved allowing the people of God to be free to worship.

Thus the Amalickiah moment, as it may be called, was a critical juncture in the history of that society. At the time it may have seemed critical, but for other reasons, but in retrospect it can be seen that it was a critical test for their democracy and their freedom. And this realization makes me wonder, have we had similar Amalickiah moments in our history?

Two years ago one of the most contentious votes in recent US history came when the state of California voted on Proposition 8. While there was no direct threat to the government at the time (i.e. no one was advocating to abolish our democracy and establish a king) there were involved with the Prop. 8 issue the same things that were involved with the Amalickiah issue. While there was a specific question being voted on, the larger issue involved was the nature and role of religious ideals in our public discourse. In both cases the issue at stake was whether or not religious opinions and ideals could be used as the basis of government policy. The question was whether or not people would be free to chose and express their religious convictions. In short, the question was whether or not the people would retain their liberty.

But in 2008 the vote was held in California (and Arizona and Florida) and it came out in favor of the family and religious convictions. The question now is how will those who were defeated by the vote react? In the case of Amalickiah, he "saw that his people were doubtful concerning the justice of the cause in which they had undertaken—therefore, fearing that he should not gain the point, he took those of his people who would and departed". Now I doubt that same-sex marriage advocates will be leaving the country in droves, but I would not doubt that they will still respond in like manner and try to force the issue through some other way. The problem is we have had our Amalickiah moment and the "voice of the people" has spoken. If they do support freedom and democracy (and fairness and equality) as they claim then they will have a hard time "gaining the point" and some of their supporters may become "doubtful concerning the justice of the cause".

The thing to note here is that Prop. 8 did not settle the issue but, like the Amalickiah moment, it created a precedent that allowed liberty and religious freedom to be preserved. There were two outcomes, on the one hand it would have lead to an eroding of personal liberty and freedom, while on the other, even though it did not immediately fix the problem, it did allow the people to retain their liberty to continue living in their free society.

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