The Civic Duty of the Latter-day Saints
Throughout the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, those who have been sustained as its leaders have repeatedly spoken out on political matters. This has occurred not so much because prophets feel it their duty to opine on controversial topics of temporal relevance, but because the spiritual and temporal elements of our lives are understood by the Latter-day Saints to be, at their core, one and the same.
We have therefore received instructions and commandments regarding our civic duty right alongside similar commandments regarding our spiritual duties as members of the Church. Home teaching, magnifying our callings, temple worship, and paying our tithes and offerings are on an equal platform, to some extent, with our activities to study, support, and defend the principles of liberty and our Republican government.
John Taylor spoke of this intertwining of our responsibilities when he said that the Elders of Israel should “understand that they have something to do with the world politically as well as religiously, that it is as much their duty to study correct political principles as well as religious” (Journal of Discourses, 9:340). Further, Elder Bruce R. McConkie said (emphasis in all quotes is my own):
To worship the Lord is to stand valiantly in the cause of truth and righteousness, to let our influence for good be felt in civic, cultural, educational, and governmental fields, and to support those laws and principles which further the Lord’s interests on earth.
I will warn you at the outset that I will be generously referring to the teachings of men far wiser than myself—men who we Latter-day Saints regard as prophets, seers, and revelators. The quotes I’ll be sharing clearly explain what the civic duties of Latter-day Saints are. We’ll then take a look at how well we are fulfilling those duties, and what their attending promises are if we act as we are told to.
On July 20, 1833, the first open violence against the Saints in Jackson County broke out. The printing press owned by William W. Phelps was destroyed, many of the Saints were turned out of their homes, and Edward Partridge and Charles Allen were tarred and feathered on the public square in Independence, Missouri. (Text taken from LDS Institute manual)
Sections 97 and 98 of the Doctrine and Covenants were given by the Lord as an anticipatory response to the Saints’ natural desire for revenge. Verse 9 of Section 98 contains the truism “when the wicked rule the people mourn”—a succinct summary statement of what the early Mormons had to deal with. After this assessment, the Lord provided the following counsel to the Saints:
Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil.
This, then, is the charge given to the Latter-day Saints in regards to choosing leaders in government: seeking and supporting honesty, wisdom, and goodness. A casual analysis of our current political landscape would find few instances of the aforementioned virtues. We seem to be repeating the mistakes of the past, learning for ourselves the truism that has never changed: “when the wicked rule the people mourn.”
A summary of our civic duty
This significant scriptural passage is an important subset of the civic duties we have as Latter-day Saints and members of the Constitutional Republic in which we live. Perhaps the best summary of our civic duty, and all that it entails, was given by President Ezra Taft Benson in 1986. Prefacing his summary, he said the following:
We are fast approaching that moment prophesied by Joseph Smith when he said: “Even this nation will be on the very verge of crumbling to pieces and tumbling to the ground, and when the Constitution is upon the brink of ruin, this people will be the staff upon which the nation shall lean, and they shall bear the Constitution away from the very verge of destruction.”
And then the summary—please pay close attention to the specific items he lists:
Will we be prepared? Will we be among those who will “bear the Constitution away from the very verge of destruction?” If we desire to be numbered among those who will, here are some things we must do:
1. We must be righteous and moral. We must live the gospel principles—all of them. We have no right to expect a higher degree of morality from those who represent us than what we ourselves are. In the final analysis, people generally get the kind of government they deserve. To live a higher law means we will not seek to receive what we have not earned by our own labor. It means we will remember that government owes us nothing. It means we will keep the laws of the land. It means we will look to God as our Lawgiver and the Source of our liberty.
2. We must learn the principles of the Constitution and then abide by its precepts. We have been instructed again and again to reflect more intently on the meaning and importance of the Constitution and to adhere to its principles. What have we done about this instruction? Have we read the Constitution and pondered it? Are we aware of its principles? Could we defend it? Can we recognize when a law is constitutionally unsound? The Church will not tell us how to do this, but we are admonished to do it. I quote Abraham Lincoln: “Let [the Constitution] be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges, let it be written in primers, in spelling books and in almanacs, let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation.”
3. We must become involved in civic affairs. As citizens of this republic, we cannot do our duty and be idle spectators. It is vital that we follow this counsel from the Lord: “I, the Lord God, make you free, therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free. Nevertheless, when the wicked rule the people mourn. Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil. And I give unto you a commandment, that ye shall forsake all evil and cleave unto all good, that ye shall live by every word which proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God” (D&C 98:8–11).
Note the qualities that the Lord demands in those who are to represent us. They must be good, wise, and honest. Some leaders may be honest and good but unwise in legislation they choose to support. Others may possess wisdom but be dishonest and unvirtuous. We must be concerted in our desires and efforts to see men and women represent us who possess all three of these qualities.
4. We must make our influence felt by our vote, our letters, and our advice. We must be wisely informed and let others know how we feel. We must take part in local precinct meetings and select delegates who will truly represent our feelings.
I have faith that the Constitution will be saved as prophesied by Joseph Smith. But it will not be saved in Washington. It will be saved by the citizens of this nation who love and cherish freedom. It will be saved by enlightened members of this Church—men and women who will subscribe to and abide the principles of the Constitution.
The first item in President Benson’s summary deals with our level of morality and virtue. To the outsider it may seem odd that the first listed item for a Latter-day Saint’s civic duty is to live a clean and just life, but here again we witness the fusion of temporal and spiritual matters into one.
Despite the high standard of striving for perfection, let us nevertheless remember that we are all imperfect beings tasked with a great work. President Gordon B. Hinckley reminded us this way:
…many of our forebears and those who built the foundations of this land were imperfect. They were human. They doubtless made mistakes and fell short from time to time. But the mistakes were minor when compared with the marvelous work they accomplished. To highlight the mistakes of a person and gloss over the greater good is to draw a caricature. Caricatures are amusing, but they are often ugly and dishonest. A man may have a wart on his cheek and still have a face of beauty and strength, but if the wart is emphasized unduly in relation to his other features, the portrait is lacking in integrity.
There was only one perfect man who ever walked the earth. The Lord uses imperfect people—you and me—to build strong societies. If some of us occasionally stumble, or if our characters may have been slightly flawed in one way or another, the wonder is the greater that we accomplish so much.
Those who enjoy the blessings of liberty under a divinely inspired constitution should promote morality, and they should practice what the Founding Fathers called “civic virtue”. Citizens should be practitioners of civic virtue in their conduct toward government. They should be ever willing to fulfill the duties of citizenship.
President Benson cited these virtues that once made our nation great, and asked us regarding their place in our day:
Do we dare ask ourselves if the United States, though cast in the role of a leader to preserve and strengthen world civilization, isn’t itself tottering internally because too many of its citizens have abandoned the virtues that comprised the basic format of its own civilization? For instance, if spiritual faith, courage, and the willingness of our forbears to work hard were the sustaining virtues, and if, solely because of them, they were able to create our own civilization, can we now in the United States substitute for these virtues the human weaknesses of selfishness, complacency, apathy, and fear—and still hope to survive as a civilized nation? (An Enemy Hath Done This, p. 118)
Whether it carries the label of righteousness, morality, civic virtue, or otherwise, our civic duty presupposes living a life worthy of emulation and esteem.
Learning and abiding by constitutional principles
The second component of our civic duty, as suggested by President Benson, is to learn and abide by the principles found in our Constitution. Of course, one cannot abide by principles—let alone teach them to others—without first knowing and understanding them. In this regard, the counsel found in Doctrine and Covenants 11:21 has relevance, where the Lord counsels us to obtain his word before declaring it to others. We must be students of the Constitution before we become its teachers.
In your conversations with others, you will no doubt encounter a great deal of people who profess a belief in the divine origins of the Constitution, and claim to revere it as an important document. But few of these people will understand the historical setting in which it was created, the debates and discussions that resulted in its final draft, and the political implications its mandates have for our day. Perhaps you yourself fit in this category. What’s important, however, is that we are seeking to learn and understand, rather than remain in ignorance. Said President Benson:
We must study and learn for ourselves the principles laid down in the Constitution which have preserved our freedoms for the last two hundred years. If we do not understand the role of government and how our rights are protected by the Constitution, we may accept programs or organizations that help erode our freedoms. An informed citizenry is the first line of defense against anarchy and tyranny. (Provo Freedom Festival, Provo, UT, 29 Jun 1986)
Similarly, Elder H. Verlan Andersen wrote the following:
One who knows not what his rights are can never know when they are taken and is unable to defend them. He is like a man who believes he owns a piece of ground which his neighbor also claims, but he doesn’t know its boundaries. The neighbor continues to encroach further and further onto land he suspects is his, but since he is never certain where the boundary is, he cannot check the advance. Until he takes a firm position and says: “this far and no further,” there is no line.
In a General Conference address some two decades ago, President Benson further drove this issue home, stating:
…we must learn the principles of the Constitution in the tradition of the Founding Fathers.
Have we read the Federalist papers? Are we reading the Constitution and pondering it? Are we aware of its principles? Are we abiding by these principles and teaching them to others? Could we defend the Constitution? Can we recognize when a law is constitutionally unsound? Do we know what the prophets have said about the Constitution and the threats to it?
These questions, to be more effective, must be personalized. Have you read the Federalist Papers? Are you reading the Constitution and pondering it? Are you aware of its principles? Are you abiding by these principles and teaching them to others? Could you defend the Constitution?
Well did Thomas Jefferson say that “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free… it expects what never was and never will be.” The freedom referenced by Jefferson was likewise mentioned by President Boyd K. Packer in July of this year:
To honor the Constitution and to honor freedom is a sacred duty for all of us. I invoke the blessing on you who are doing this sacred work that you will keep it up, and that in due time the challenges that we face now from within can be conquered so that this nation may remain free.
To honor the Constitution, we must understand it. It is essential that we know each of its particulars: why it was necessary; why its opponents disliked it; how it differs from other forms of government; how it has been under attack since its adoption; what it means for our day; and how the document enabled Americans to enjoy the freedoms that set them apart from almost every other civilization.
President J. Reuben Clark once said that “No true Latter-day Saint can or will do other than reverence the Constitution; each will do all in his power to save it from pollution or destruction.” We are deceived, however, if we believe that verbal support and the occasional vote cast at the ballot box is all that is required of us once we have dedicated ourselves to learn and abide by Constitutional principles.
In section 84 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord says that Zion is under condemnation for treating lightly the revealed scriptures, namely, the Book of Mormon. This condemnation, He said, would remain until we “repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which [He has] given [us], not only to say, but to do according to that which [He has] written.” Here we find application for other divinely-inspired documents the Lord has given us, such as the Constitution, which themselves carry a charge and obligation to be read and acted upon. Note the gentle rebuke given by God: we are not only to say, but to do what these documents tell us.
Clearly, many people in our midst—perhaps even ourselves—have treated lightly the divinely-inspired Constitution, a document which Joseph Smith referred to as “a glorious standard” and “a heavenly banner”. Our duty, once we have learned just what the Constitution is and implies, is to not only say what should be done about it, but to do it.
Involvement in civic affairs
This takes us to President Benson’s third component of our civic duty: involvement in civic affairs. To understand the importance of our involvement, we must first realize why our voices for positive change are needed. In the April 2008 General Conference, President Thomas S. Monson offered this assessment of our current situation we are encouraged to improve:
We live in a complex world with currents of conflict everywhere to be found. Political machinations ruin the stability of nations, despots grasp for power, and segments of society seem forever downtrodden, deprived of opportunity, and left with a feeling of failure.
Perhaps with this same outlook on our circumstances, President Gordon B. Hinckley wrote the following:
We are involved in an intense battle. It is a battle between right and wrong, between truth and error, between the design of the Almighty on the one hand and that of Lucifer on the other. For that reason, we desperately need moral men and women who stand on principle, to be involved in the political process. Otherwise, we abdicate power to those whose designs are almost entirely selfish. (Stand a little Taller, pg. 15)
As individual political involvement continues to diminish, the sense of entitlement in our society seems to be inversely increasing. People want the government to improve their lives, but refuse to improve the government. Of those who harbor such feelings, Elder Dallin H. Oaks has said:
We live in a time when sacrifice is definitely out of fashion, when the outside forces that taught our ancestors the need for unselfish cooperative service have diminished. Someone has called this the “me” generation—a selfish time when everyone seems to be asking, what’s in it for me? …
The worldly aspiration of our day is to get something for nothing. The ancient evil of greed shows its face in the assertion of entitlement: I am entitled to this or that because of who I am—a son or a daughter, a citizen, a victim, or a member of some other group. Entitlement is generally selfish. It demands much, and it gives little or nothing.
On a separate occasion, Elder Oaks spoke regarding these entitlements, or so-called “rights”, as follows:
At a time when most of our public discourse concerns rights, it may seem strange to speak of responsibilities. But a democratic republic needs patriotic citizens who are fulfilling their responsibilities as well as claiming their rights. No society is so secure that it can withstand continued demands for increases in citizen rights without producing corresponding increases in the fulfillment of citizen responsibilities.
The real rights given to us by our Creator are accompanied by certain responsibilities that must be fulfilled if we are to preserve our ability to exercise those rights freely. Our involvement in civic affairs is one important part of ensuring that the liberty our ancestors fought dearly for remains intact and unadulterated.
In what civic affairs are we to be involved? The options here are as numerous as our different and unique abilities and opportunities. In October 2000, the First Presidency included in a letter to the general church membership the following statement:
As personal circumstances allow, we encourage men and women in the Church to serve in public offices of either election or appointment — including school boards, city and county councils and commissions, state legislatures, and national offices. (October 2000 First Presidency letter)
This statement is not unique, for similar counsel has been given both previous to and since the one here quoted. If anything, the need for our involvement has dramatically increased as the years progress. So, let us re-emphasize President Hinckley’s declaration that “we desperately need moral men and women who stand on principle, to be involved in the political process.”
For whatever reason, however, the Latter-day Saints have largely ignored the clarion call to be anxiously engaged in political causes. President Benson characterized this reality in this manner:
The devil knows that if the elders of Israel should ever wake up, they could step forth and help preserve freedom and extend the gospel. Therefore the devil has concentrated, and to a large extent successfully, in neutralizing much of the priesthood. He has reduced them to sleeping giants. His arguments are clever.
Here are a few samples:
First: “We really haven’t received much instruction about freedom,” the devil says. . . .
Second: “You’re too involved in other church work,” says the devil. . . .
Third: “You want to be loved by everyone,” says the devil, “and this freedom battle is so controversial you might be accused of engaging in politics.” . . .
Fourth: “Wait until it becomes popular to do,” says the devil, “or, at least until everybody in the Church agrees on what should be done.” . . .
Fifth: “It might hurt your business or your family,” says the devil, “and besides why not let the gentiles save the country? They aren’t as busy as you are.” . . .
Sixth: “Don’t worry,” says the devil, “the Lord will protect you, and besides, the world is so corrupt and heading toward destruction at such a pace that you can’t stop it, so why try.” . . .
And now as to the last neutralizer that the devil uses most effectively—it is simply this: “Don’t do anything in the fight for freedom until the Church sets up its own specific program to save the Constitution.” This brings us right back to the scripture I opened with today—to those slothful servants who will not do anything until they are “compelled in all things” [D&C 58:26]. Maybe the Lord will never set up a specific church program for the purpose of saving the Constitution. Perhaps if he set one up at this time it might split the Church asunder, and perhaps he does not want that to happen yet for not all the wheat and tares are fully ripe.
The Prophet Joseph Smith declared it will be the elders of Israel who will step forward to help save the Constitution, not the Church. And have we elders been warned? Yes, we have. And have we elders been given the guidelines? Yes indeed, we have. And besides, if the Church should ever inaugurate a program, who do you think would be in the forefront to get it moving? It would not be those who were sitting on the sidelines prior to that time or those who were appeasing the enemy. It would be those choice spirits who, not waiting to be “commanded in all things” [D&C 58:26], used their own free will, the counsel of the prophets, and the Spirit of the Lord as guidelines and who entered the battle “in a good cause” [D&C 58:27] and brought to pass much righteousness in freedom’s cause. . . .
Brethren, if we had done our homework and were faithful, we could step forward at this time and help save this country. The fact that most of us are unprepared to do it is an indictment we will have to bear. The longer we wait, the heavier the chains, the deeper the blood, the more the persecution, and the less we can carry out our God-given mandate and worldwide mission. The war in heaven is raging on the earth today. Are you being neutralized in the battle?
Forty-four years have passed since the Saints were asked this question. Have we improved? The need has never been greater to step forward and be actively involved in the developments of our community, state, and nation. As Elder L. Tom Perry has said, “we should use our free agency and be actively engaged in supporting and defending the principles of truth, right, and freedom.” Going to vote on election day might make us feel like we’re involved, but if that is the extent of our involvement in civic affairs, then we have fallen short of the standard that is required of Latter-day Saints.
Making our influence felt
As we become more politically active in our communities, we will not only become better informed as to the troubles of our day and their possible solutions, but we will have more opportunities to share our knowledge and thoughts with others. Influencing others through a variety of methods is the fourth and final component of our civic duty.
We are all on a battlefront in the war of ideas, and even our involvement in civic affairs is not enough to oppose the enemy who is launching his attacks from every angle. Our petitions and votes and campaigns and any other product of our civic involvement matters little unless we convince those around us of the virtue of our cause. Without this secondary and supplementary goal, our work will soon be overturned by others who will one day take our place.
Along with our direct involvement in the political process, we must persuade and influence others. On this subject, President Hinckley has said:
I urge you with all the capacity that I have to reach out in a duty that stands beyond the requirements of our everyday lives; that is, to stand strong, even to become a leader in speaking up in behalf of those causes which make our civilization shine and which give comfort and peace to our lives. You can be a leader. You must be a leader…
These words echo those of the Prophet Joseph, who said that “It is our duty to concentrate all our influence to make popular that which is sound and good, and unpopular that which is unsound” (History of the Church, 5:286). Thankfully, speaking up and making our influence felt is far easier today than it was when President Benson mentioned its importance over two decades ago. Elder M. Russell Ballard explains:
Today we have a modern equivalent of the printing press in the Internet. The Internet allows everyone to be a publisher, to have his or her voice heard, and it is revolutionizing society. Before the Internet there were great barriers to printing. It took money, power, influence, and a great amount of time to publish. But today, because of the emergence of what some call “new media,” made possible by the Internet, many of those barriers have been removed. New media consists of tools on the Internet that make it possible for nearly anyone to publish or broadcast to either a large or a niche audience. … The emergence of new media is facilitating a worldwide conversation on almost every subject, including religion, and nearly everyone can participate. This modern equivalent of the printing press is not reserved only for the elite.
Are you part of that worldwide conversation? Where is your voice? Have you started a blog, shared ideas and quotes on Facebook, created viral videos, tweeted about political events, joined a relevant forum, created your own email list, written a pamphlet, started a network, or worked in some other way to influence those around you? The need for our leadership and influence, which President Hinckley described, was referenced by President Harold B. Lee in this way:
The kingdom of God must be a continuing revolution against the norms of the society that fall below the standards that are set for us in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the field of public life, it must be a continuing revolution against proposals that contradict the fundamental principles as laid down in the Constitution of the United States, which was written by men whom God raised up for this very purpose. If we remember that, we will be in the forefront of every battle against the things that are tearing down our society.
The path that God has in mind for us may not involve holding elected office, but being a person of influence can in many ways have a greater effect upon the direction our society is headed. As part of being on that forefront of every battle, President David O. McKay once said that “every loyal member of the Church [should] look down with scorn upon any man or woman who would undermine [the] Constitution” (Church News, May 29, 1954). In light of our current political situation, there are, of course, limitless opportunities to look down with scorn upon those who are undermining this divinely-inspired document. But let us not forget that the Lord has counseled us to seek diligently for and uphold honest, wise, and good men. If our necks become sore from looking downward with derision at so many people, then the responsibility we have to find people we can look up to becomes all the more important.
To summarize our capacity to influence those around us, President McKay said the following half a century ago:
There is one responsibility which no man can evade and that responsibility is personal influence. Man’s unconscious influence, the silent, subtle radiation of his personality. The effect of his words and acts. These are tremendous. Every moment of life he is changing to a degree the life of the whole world.
Every man has an atmosphere which is affecting every other. Man cannot escape for one moment from this radiation of his character. This constantly weakening or strengthening of others. He cannot evade the responsibility by saying it is an unconscious influence. He can select the qualities he would permit to be radiated. He can cultivate sweetness, calmness, trust, generosity, truth, justice, loyalty, nobility, and make them vitally active in his character. By these qualities he will constantly affect the world. This radiation to which I refer comes from what a person really is, not from what he pretends to be. Every man by his mere living is radiating sympathy, sorrow, or morbidness, cynicism, or happiness or hope, or any other hundred qualities. Life is a state of radiation and absorption. To exist is to radiate. To exist is to be the recipient of radiation.
To radiate our positive influence in civic affairs, we must become righteous and moral; we must, as Ghandi once said, be the change we wish to see in the world. We need to learn and abide by the principles found in the Constitution, for as President McKay taught: “Next to being one in worshiping God, there is nothing in this world upon which this Church should be more united than in upholding and defending the Constitution of the United States!” (Instructor Magazine, 1956, 91:34). We must take that knowledge and understanding of the Constitution, and infuse our political system with its disinfecting simplicity and principled restraints; we must become leaders and work diligently to support good people in public office, or seek office ourselves. And finally, we must radiate our influence by exposing ourselves to those who might be impacted and uplifted by our actions, words, and character.
The challenge to be involved in the political process has not been extended only by one or two Church leaders. Indeed, there are numerous instances in which the Latter-day Saints have been counseled to become more involved. As President Harold B. Lee said, “Patriotism and loyalty in defense of the Constitution of the United States is constantly enjoined upon us” (BYU Leadership Week, June 16, 1953).
The following are but a few of the instances in which our leaders have given us such instruction. From a statement by President McKay in 1966:
In order that there may be no misunderstandings by bishops, stake presidents, and others regarding members of the Church participating in nonchurch meetings to study and become informed on the Constitution of the United States, Communism, etc., I wish to make the following statements that I have been sending out from my office for some time and that have come under question by some stake authorities, bishoprics, and others.
Church members are at perfect liberty to act according to their own consciences in the matter of safeguarding our way of life. They are, of course, encouraged to honor the highest standards of the gospel and to work to preserve their own freedoms. They are free to participate in nonchurch meetings that are held to warn people of the threat of Communism or any other theory or principle that will deprive us of our free agency or individual liberties vouchsafed by the Constitution of the United States.
The Church, out of respect for the rights of all its members to have their political views and loyalties, must maintain the strictest possible neutrality. We have no intention of trying to interfere with the fullest and freest exercise of the political franchise of our members under and within our Constitution, which the Lord declared he established “by the hands of wise men whom [he] raised up unto this very purpose” (D&C 101:80) and which, as to the principles thereof, the Prophet Joseph Smith, dedicating the Kirtland Temple, prayed should be “established forever.” (D&C 109:54.) The Church does not yield any of its devotion to or convictions about safeguarding the American principles and the establishments of government under federal and state constitutions and the civil rights of men safeguarded by these.
. . . We therefore commend and encourage every person and every group who is sincerely seeking to study Constitutional principles and awaken a sleeping and apathetic people to the alarming conditions that are rapidly advancing about us.
From a First Presidency letter in 1973:
We urge members of the Church and all Americans to begin now to reflect more intently on the meaning and importance of the Constitution, and of adherence to its principles. (Ensign, Nov. 1973, p. 90)
From a First Presidency letter in 1976:
The growing world-wide responsibilities of the Church make it inadvisable for the Church to seek to respond to all of the various and complex issues involved in the mounting problems of the many cities and communities in which members live. But this complexity does not absolve members as individuals from filling their responsibilities as citizens in their own communities.
We urge our members to do their civic duty and to assume their responsibilities as individual citizens in seeking solutions to the problems which beset our cities and communities.
With our wide ranging mission, so far as mankind is concerned, Church members cannot ignore the many practical problems that require solution if our families are to live in an environment conducive to spirituality.
Where solutions to these practical problems require cooperative action with those not of our faith, members should not be reticent in doing their part in joining and leading in those efforts where they can make an individual contribution to those causes which are consistent with the standards of the Church.
Individual Church members cannot, of course, represent or commit the Church, but should, nevertheless, be “anxiously engaged” in good causes, using the principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as their constant guide. (First Presidency letter, September 1, 1976)
From a First Presidency letter in 1979:
We encourage all members, as citizens of the nation, to be actively involved in the political process, and to support those measures which will strengthen the community, state, and nation—morally, economically, and culturally. (First Presidency letter, 29 Jun 1979)
From a First Presidency statement in 1987:
We encourage Latter-day Saints throughout the nation to familiarize themselves with the Constitution. They should focus attention on it by reading and studying it. They should ponder the blessings that come through it. They should recommit themselves to its principles and be prepared to defend it and the freedom it provides. (D&C 109:54.) . . .
Because some Americans have not kept faith with our Founding Fathers, the Constitution faces severe challenges. Those who do not prize individual freedom are trying to erode its great principles. We believe the Constitution will stand, but it will take the efforts of patriotic and dedicated Americans to uphold it. . . . We, as Latter-day Saints, must be vigilant in doing our part to preserve the Constitution and safeguard the way of life it makes possible.
This bicentennial year affords us renewed opportunities to learn more about this divinely inspired charter of our liberty, to speak in its defense, and to preserve and protect it against evil or destruction. (First Presidency letter, Jan 1987)
From a First Presidency statement in 1998:
Therefore, as in the past, we urge members of the Church to be full participants in political, governmental and community affairs. Members of the church are under special obligation to seek out and then uphold those leaders who are “wise”, “good”, and “honest”. We wish to reiterate the divine counsel that members “should be anxiously engaged in a good cause and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness” while using gospel principles as a guide. (Ensign, Apr 1998, pg. 7)
And from a First Presidency statement in 2000, as quoted earlier:
As personal circumstances allow, we encourage men and women in the Church to serve in public offices of either election or appointment — including school boards, city and county councils and commissions, state legislatures, and national offices. (October 2000 First Presidency letter)
How have we done?
After these and other statements of encouragement and invitation, we should ask ourselves how we collectively have done. Numbers are hard to come by when trying to determine just how politically active the Latter-day Saints are, but anecdotal evidence suggests a percentage point in the single digits, depending on your criteria.
While voting in elections is hardly a fulfillment of one’s civic duty, it nevertheless is one small factor. Fortunately there is data to analyze in this regard, and so it may help shed some light on how well we are participating in the political process. The following information is one small look into the activity of Latter-day Saints in government.
A 2005 report by the Salt Lake Tribune shows that while the percentage is slowly declining, over 75% of residents in Utah County are members of the Church. Given its high concentration of Latter-day Saints, Utah County is the best option for determining the voting activity of Church members. This data is not, of course, statistically significant for the entire Church at large, but it still provides some interesting insights if interpreted correctly.
Consider, first, the following table which shows available election voter turnout for the past decade:
The above data is represented on the following graph:
Assuming that the 25% of Utah County who are not members of the Church did not significantly alter the overall voter turnout, this data shows a dismal rate of participation in something as infrequent and basic as casting a vote on election day.
If we Latter-day Saints cannot devote the time and energy required to study the issues and determine which candidates we will support, how will we ever rise to the higher bar of civic duty that has been enjoined upon us? In what may be termed as a rebuke in light of this dismal data, President Spencer W. Kimball said:
The only way we can keep our freedom is to work at it. Not some of us. All of us. Not some of the time, but all of the time.
So if you value your citizenship and you want to keep it for yourself and your children and their children, give it your faith, your belief, and give it your active support in civic affairs. (Teachings, 405)
Promises to America
This long regurgitation of quotes from Church leaders might, if not balanced, lead one to think of his civic duty as drudgery. The repeated invitations to become involved are not meant to impose an unnecessary burden or add another item to our ever-increasing checklists. Rather, they are an opportunity to repent and re-prioritize, so that we may fulfill our divinely-mandated duty to “exalt the standard of Democracy,” as Joseph Smith said.
As with all other commandments and opportunities to serve, the call to improve our communities is accompanied by specific and uplifting promises. These promises are contingent upon our adherence to these invitations to act, for as the Lord said in the Doctrine and Covenants, “when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.”
A promise that relates to all of us involved in this great work was summarized by President J. Reuben Clark in this manner:
For America has a destiny—a destiny to conquer the world—not by force of arms, not by purchase and favor, for these conquests wash away, but by high purpose, by unselfish effort, by uplifting achievement, by a course of Christian living; a conquest that shall leave every nation free to move out to its own destiny; a conquest that shall bring, through the workings of our own example, the blessings of freedom and liberty to every people, without restraint or imposition or compulsion from us; a conquest that shall weld the whole earth together in one great brotherhood in a reign of mutual patience, forbearance, and charity, in a reign of peace to which we shall lead all others by the persuasion of our own righteous example.
Our ability to realize that destiny is contingent upon how well we respond to the call to arms. After all, wars are not effectively fought with a paltry level of participation. President Benson related that “The question as to whether we may save our constitutional republic is simply based on two factors: the number of patriots and the extent of their obedience” (“Prepare, Then Fear Not”, p. 58). Our obedience was also referred to by Lehi:
Wherefore, this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall bring. And if it so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he hath given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them; wherefore, they shall never be brought down into captivity; if so, it shall be because of iniquity; for if iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever.
This may easily be the greatest promise of all: the enjoyment of liberty! You will recall President Hinckley’s words we referenced earlier:
We are involved in an intense battle. It is a battle between right and wrong, between truth and error, between the design of the Almighty on the one hand and that of Lucifer on the other.
This promise of liberty is, in reality, not much—it is not lifetime security, nor comfort, nor easy retirement. And yet it is everything. We have little to gain from a material standpoint, and everything to lose. Ours is a work of preservation: preserving the Constitutional principles this country was founded upon; preserving the Christian heritage that guided our forefathers; and preserving a legacy of liberty that has set apart this country from all others throughout the world’s history.
Will America be a land of liberty, or will she turn tyrannical and fade into the history books as all other civilizations have? Will we as Latter-day Saints rise to the call to save, defend, and uphold the Constitution, or will we fritter our time and energy away in other ephemeral pursuits?
The stakes are high, and the need for our involvement has never been greater. May we all focus on living a righteous and moral life, learn and abide by Constitutional principles, become involved in civic affairs, and make our influence felt far and wide. Then, perhaps we will find deeper meaning in the following words, penned by Samuel F. Smith, to describe this land of liberty Father Lehi referenced:
My country! ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountain side,
Let freedom ring!
My native country, thee,
Land of the noble, free,
Thy name I love;
I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills.
My heart with rapture thrills
Like that above.
Let music swell the breeze
And ring from all the trees,
Sweet freedom’s song;
Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break,
The sound prolong.
Our fathers’ God to thee,
Author of liberty,?
To thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright
With freedom’s holy light.
Protect us by thy might,
Great God, our King!
Written by Connor Boyack, a 20-something husband, father, web designer, Latter-day Saint, constitutionalist, paleocon, classical liberal, prepper, budding philanthropist, and master’s student of political economy. I’m from Poway, CA but live in Happy Valley.