Let’s read the Book of Mormon as a commentary on American constitutional law and vice versa. Alma 30:7-10 reads:
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. Now if a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege; or rather, if he believed in God it was his privilege to serve him; but if he did not believe in him there was no law to punish him. But if he murdered he was punished unto death; and if he robbed he was also punished; and if he stole he was also punished; and if he committed adultery he was also punished; yea, for all this wickedness they were punished.
The regime of religious freedom here draws a stark contrast between belief — against which there is no law — and the privilege to serve God on one hand, and the wickedness for which a man could be punished, “unto death” even, on the other. It is a dicotomy that will be familiar to students of American constitutional law. In 1879, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Reynolds v. United States, upholding the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862, which was designed to criminalize Mormon polygamy. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Waite stated:
Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices. Suppose one believed that human sacrifices were a necessary part of religious worship, would it be seriously contended that the civil government under which he lived could not interfere to prevent a sacrifice? Or if a wife religiously believed it was her duty to burn herself upon the funeral pile of her dead husband, would it be beyond the power of the civil government to prevent her carrying her belief into practice? (98 U.S. 145, 166 (1879))
Nineteenth-century Mormons were none too pleased with the Court’s decision in Reynolds. For example, in a lengthy pamphlet that he penned in response to the Court’s decision, George Q, Cannon wrote:
Whenever religion has been denounced, persecuted, and its believers punished, their heresies have always been described in very much the same way that the plural marriages of the Latter-day Saints have been. The ground for punishment has always been that the religious observances of the victims were violative of social duties or subversive of good order. History teaches us that it is not a difficult thing to obtain pretexts for imprisoning and killing people of an unpopular religion. Catholic and Protestant, Episcopalian and Presbyterian, Quaker and Baptist, Infidel and Jew, have each in their turn suffered for carrying their opinions into practice.
As far as I know, however, no Mormon ever noted the similarity between the approach announced by the Court in Reynolds and the rule put forward in Alma 30.
This rule is given in the context of the story of Korihor, where it is offered as an explanation of why the law does not prohibit his blasphemous speech. Indeed, the story itself can be thought of as a kind of extended meditation on the relationship between law and impiety. In many ways, the Korihor story resemebles the story of Sharem told in Jacob 7. Both stories involve Anti-Christs who, after successfully preaching their false doctrines have a confrontation with the leading Nephite prophet, from whom they seek a sign. In response God smites the Anti-Christ, who then meets an ignominious end after confessing his sins. The Korihor story, however, departs from the earlier model given in the Sharem narrative in that there are actually three confrontations between Korihor and Nephite leaders. Furthermore, these confrontations — unlike those in the Sharem story — take the form, at least in part, of a legal trial. Indeed, the successive confrontations between Korihor and the Nephite leaders seem to be the rise of Korihor’s “case” through the appellate system of the Nephite judges.
Strikingly, while Korihor is extremely verbose in the story until he confronts Alma at its climax, all of the judges are mute before him. Indeed, by this point in the Book of Mormon Alma is no longer the chief judge and when Korihor is brought before Alma and the unnamed judge the judge remains mute. The law is thus literally rendered silent in the face of Korihor’s impiety. He is, however, ultimately punished for his wickedness but it is only after he himself asks for a sign. One way of thinking about this is that Korihor is punished only after consenting to that punishment.
Where does this leave the belief action distinction memorialized in Alma 30:7 and Reynolds v. United States? I am not quite sure, but it strikes me as worth while to think about these two texts in tandem. In Alma 30, the rule ultimately renders the law impotent in the face of impiety. In Reynolds, by contrast, it serves to empower the law to punish religious behavior. (Which, of course, is what the Court did with a vengeance in the Raid of the 1880s.) Of course, the Book of Mormon doesn’t necessarily condemn the impotence of the Nephite law. (Although, there is a faint hint of this. Korihor begins his legal odyssey when he is seized not by the Nephites, but by the people of Ammon, who we are told “were more wise than many of the Nephites; for they took him, and bound him, and carried him before Ammon, who as a high priest over that people.” Ammon, however, is not clearly a judge, and he too remains mute.) Ironically, it is also not clear that Mormon theology ultimately condemns Reynolds. On the Mormon view, God intervened in the Saints’ struggle with the federal government not by smiting their enemies — as many of them expected in the dark times of the 1880s — but rather by surrendering to the force of the law. In the end, the desirability of the belief-action distinction in Mormon texts remains ambiguous, but there is a sense in which Korihor and Reynolds provide mirror images of one another, showing how the legal conceptualization of religion as belief both empowers and limits the state.