FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE:
Violence and Force in the Name of God
A decade ago, few people in the West world would have thought that the defining issue of the age would be freedom of religion. Since the Enlightenment, the nations of the West have moved in the direction of religious freedom, with less government involvement in matter of faith. Even in those European nations which still have official state churches and religions, the links between church and state have weakened. In fact, those nations with church states tend to have the least religious citizenry.
From its inception, the United States Constitution has guaranteed freedom of religion. The most famous betrayal of that principle can be found in the history of the Mormons.
On the one hand, 19th century America politicians and lawmakers saw Mormonism as Un-American because they considered it to be Un-Christian. Despite the US Constitution and statements to the contrary by American founding fathers such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, the American public still held firmly to the mistaken belief that the United States was “a Christian government.” The radically new theology of Joseph Smith--and many of those Mormon leaders who followed him--was seen as a blasphemous by orthodox Christian standards, and therefore a threat to the belief system that many Americans mistakenly assumed was the foundation of the Republic. Believing that Mormonism posed a grave threat to the nation, both the Federal government and the government of various states and territories passed laws against the civil rights of Mormons. In Missouri, Governor Boggs issued an extermination notice which legalized the murder of Mormons in that state. Decades later the state of Idaho and the Federal Government passed laws which denied Mormons the right to vote, serve on a jury or hold political office. Mormonism is unique among all religions, in that it is the only faith to be named as a threat to the nation in the inauguration speech of a United States president.
On the other hand, Brigham Young and the first generation of leaders who established the Mormon community in Utah, while giving much lip service to freedom of religion, established a theocratic shadow government to rule the territory. In addition to this, Brigham Young, Heber Kimball and other Utah Mormon leaders preached the infamous doctrine of Blood Atonement in the mid-1850s--which made certain religious heresies capital offenses punishable by death. (The current practice in Utah of execution by firing squad, is a relic of this era and doctrine.)
All of this led to an event which historians, until the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, considered the worst terrorist attack in American history: The Utah Mountain Meadows Massacre, which took place (ironically enough) on September 11, 1857.
At that time, the Federal Government was sending the majority of the US Army to Utah Territory to put down an imagined “Mormon Rebellion.” For their part, the Utah Mormons were caught up in the fanaticism of the Blood Atonement Doctrine and hysteria over the Government’s actions. When a large wagon train of non-Mormons traveling from Arkansas to California passed through southern Utah, a legion of Mormon men--acting under the direction of the Cedar City LDS High Council--attacked the wagon train, brutally shooting and butchering over one hundred innocent men, women and children. Only a few children under the age of eight were spared.
On the Reform Mormon liturgical calendar, September 11th is a day of remembrance on which Reform Mormons look back on the Mountain Meadows Massacre and ponder the attitudes and beliefs that led to this tragedy. Fully committed to the principle that every human being has a natural right to Free Agency, Reform Mormons decry any violence or use of force (including the force of law) in the name of religion.
Ironically enough it was on the 2001 anniversary of the Mountain Meadows Massacre that America again experienced religiously inspired terrorism and violence. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, became the defining events of the current era.
While a “War on Terrorism” is the topic of current debate, the real issue really boils down to religious freedom. Does any government have the right to establish a religion to which all its citizens must submit? Does any government have the right to punish heresy?
These questions do not relate only to the current situation in Middle Eastern countries, or the threat these may have to Western nations: over the past two decades Americans themselves have become bitterly divided on questions of religion. Americans across the political spectrum support government actions to establish a number of various laws and programs which, when examined, are based solely on subjective principles of faith.
In the midst of this “war of words and tumult of opinion,” we might benefit from the following teachings of Joseph Smith.
Joseph himself was one of the most divisive figures in American history, and during his brief life was jailed numerous times for going against the religious mainstream. At the beginning of his famous King Follett Discourse (which serves as the basis for much of Reform Mormon thought), Joseph stood up for the individual’s right to freedom of religion and conscience, and decried all violence in the name of God.
Knowing that most Americans (as well as a growing number of Mormon leaders) considered him a false or fallen prophet, Joseph taught:
“If any man is authorized to take away my life because he thinks and says I am a false teacher, then, upon the same principle, we should be justified in taking away the life of every false teacher, and where would be the end of blood? And who would not suffer?
“But meddle not with any man for his religion: and all governments ought to permit every man to enjoy his religion unmolested.
No man is authorized to take away life in consequence of difference of religion, which all laws and governments ought to tolerate and protect, right or wrong.
Every man had a natural right, and, in our country, a constitutional right to be a false prophet, as well as a true prophet. If I show, verily, that I have the truth of God, and show that ninety-nine out of every hundred professing religious ministers are false teachers, having no authority, while they pretend to hold the keys of God’s kingdom on earth, and was to kill then because they are false teachers, it would deluge the whole world with blood.” (Joseph Smith, “The King Follett Discourse, April 1844)
1. Joseph Smith taught: “No man is authorized to take away life in consequence of difference of religion, which all laws and governments ought to tolerate and protect, right or wrong.”
Is this principle accepted by most nations on earth today? Can you think of examples?
Is this principle consistent with the fact that many nations and governments have “state churches” or “official religions?” Why is it--or why isn’t it--consistent?
Can this principle be reconciled with the common assumption that America is “a Christian nation?” Why, or why not?
2. Joseph Smith taught: “Every man had a natural right, and, in our country, a constitutional right to be a false prophet, as well as a true prophet.”
What are your feelings and thoughts regarding this principle?
3. All law is the use of physical force (or the threat of physical force) to a particular end. If individuals have a natural right to freedom of conscience and belief, are laws establishing religions ethical? Why, or why not?
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