Chapter 14: The Constitution of the United States of America
We Have a Debt to the Lord for the Book of Mormon and the Constitution
Having considered the Nephite experience with self-government, we shall now consider our own. Our purpose will be to apply the lessons taught in their record to our own problems. The Book of Mormon and the Constitution are two of the greatest documents on freedom ever written. Each was prepared under the direction and inspiration of the Almighty. As American citizens we owe an unpayable debt of gratitude to Him who has placed them in our hands.
From them we can come to a full realization that He is indeed the author of liberty, and that He has provided the citizens of this nation with a greater degree of freedom than the world has heretofore known. In addition thereto, He has given us in the Book of Mormon, that knowledge which is essential to the preservation of our freedom.
There Are Two Basic Requirements for Local Self-government
Like the Book of Mormon, the Constitution is so profound and its virtues so numerous, that it would take many volumes to discuss even its most important provisions. In this chapter we shall consider the two principal provisions which give the citizens the right to govern themselves.
There are two main aspects of self-government: (1) the right of the people on a local level to make, amend and repeal laws, and (2) the right of the people on a local level to judge those accused of breaking them. Local government is the very heart and soul of liberty, and freedom is [p. 92] greatest under that government which permits these two functions to be performed at the lowest level practicable. Thomas Jefferson has expressed his feelings on this matter as follows:
. . . the way to have good and safe government is not to trust it all to one; but to divide it among the many, distributing to everyone exactly the functions he is competent to. Let the national government be entrusted with the defense of the nation, and its foreign and federal relations; the state governments with civil rights, laws, police and administration of what concerns the state generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties and each ward direct the interests within itself. It is by dividing and subdividing these republics, from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every mans farm and affairs by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best. What has destroyed the liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body, no matter whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or the aristocrats of a Venetian senate. (Thomas Jefferson, Works 6:543)
Is There a Comparison of Self-rule by the Nephites and U.s. Citizens?
It appears that the power of the Nephite voters to make, alter and repeal their laws at the local level was at least equal to that possessed under the Constitution. While our laws are mainly made by legislatures, nothing is said in the Book of Mormon regarding representative government in the making of laws. At the outset the laws then in force, were approved by the voice of the people, and thereafter any changes appeared to require a mere majority vote. Thus, the Nephite voters voice in making laws was apparently more direct than our own.
However, the Nephite citizen did not have as direct a control over the judging process as is provided for under the Constitution. Whereas, elected judges appeared to have the exclusive power to judge those accused of violating Nephite laws, under the Constitution, the people are given the primary right to handle this infinitely important power of self government. It provides that the trial of all crimes, except in the cases of impeachment, shall be by jury . . . (Art. 3, Sec., 2; see also the 6th Am.) In civil cases where the amount in controversy exceeds twenty dollars, either of the litigating parties may demand a jury trial. (7th Am.) [p. 93]
Regardless of these differences, under both systems the power to determine what the laws should be and how they should be enforced was placed in the hands of the people. They could control the making and also the judging of their laws either directly or indirectly. They could, by majority vote, decide whether or not the laws of God are enforced. These fundamental rights which were provided by the Lord, placed the responsibility for government directly on the people in both nations.
There Are Penalties for Abusing the Power of Self-rule
The Nephites were told that if the time should come when the voice of the people, meaning the majority of them,
. . . doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you, yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land. (Mosiah 29:27)
It is assumed herein that this divine decree applies equally to the Gentiles, for our own scriptures declare that the Lord,
. . . holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them, (governments) both in making laws and administering them for the good and safety of society. (D&C 134:1)
The Rights of Self-Government May Be Forfeited
While both the Nephites and the Gentiles living under the Constitution were accorded the power of self-rule, this power may be easily forfeited. The Lord has declared with respect to the duties of those living under the Constitution:
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. (D&C 98:10)
If either by default or intention we allow politicians to take office, who either do not know the laws of God, or do not believe in them, the [p. 94] consequences will be as the Lord has stated:
Nevertheless, when the wicked rule, the people mourn. (D&C 98:9)
It is also apparent that if the enlightened members of society who are able to dispense justice, decline to serve on juries thus leaving the high and sacred function of judging to the idle, the uninformed and those whose main interest is to earn a jury fee, the inestimable privilege of jury trial may fall into disrepute and be abandoned. The citizens would thus forfeit the most important part of their right of self-government under the Constitution.
If it could be assumed that those elected to public office would adopt only laws which are constitutional, and if we could rest assured that those who serve on juries would dispense justice, then it would make no difference whether we exercised our right to vote or do jury duty. The retention of freedom demands effort, and without such it will be lost.
The Lord Has Commanded Us to Preserve Freedom
Not only is it a privilege to preserve freedom, but a commandment of the Lord. Our obligation to obey Gods laws concerning the laws of the land is found in the following quote:
And now, verily I say unto you concerning the laws of the land, it is my will that my people should observe to do all things whatsoever I command them. (D&C 98:4)
Let us next cite the scripture which states what His commandments consist of:
And that law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me.
Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my church, in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land;
And as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less than this, cometh of evil. (D&C 98:5-7)
This scripture permits no latitude to alter the Lords laws. It declares that whatsoever is more or less than those laws which have His approval, [p. 95] cometh of evil. This strictness is in accord with the requirement of obedience to divine laws generally:
There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated
And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated. (D&C 130:20, 21)
Is the Constitution Subject to Change?
Those interested in obeying the Lords commandments regarding the laws of the land will be intensely interested in being able to precisely distinguish between those laws which are, and those which are not constitutional. Some may claim that this is a question which cannot be answered with certainty. Others may state that what constitutes constitutionality, changes with the differing interpretations placed upon that document by a majority of the judges on the Supreme Court of the United States.
Still others say that since there is a provision in the Constitution permitting amendments, if that provision is followed correctly and the amendment properly adopted, and if it has the effect of making laws constitutional which prior thereto were not, the Lord thereby permits us to befriend a different set of laws. Are the Lords laws thus changeable according to the whims of men?
Men Are Forbidden to Change Those Laws Protecting Freedom
If we believe the statement quoted above from D&C 130 which states that there is a law irrevocably decreed, we know the Lords laws do not change. The word irrevocable means unchangeable and neither judges nor democratic majorities have the authority to change divinely decreed laws. Does this mean then that the Lord has forbidden all constitutional amendments and differing interpretations? Let us carefully read what He said regarding the law we are to befriend:
And that law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind . . . . (D&C 98:4) [p. 96]
Here the Lord identifies clearly the laws of which He speaks. They are those which support freedom and maintain rights and privileges that we are forbidden to tamper with. Such laws are eternal and should not be altered because they belong to all mankind, whether they lived before, during, or after the Constitution was framed. The following scripture confirms this view:
According to the laws and constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles; (D&C 101:77)
Since the laws and Constitution should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, regardless of the age or country in which they live, any alterations adversely affecting such rights and protection are forbidden. Thus, it would appear that while some types of changes in the Constitution would not offend, others would. For example, there have been amendments extending the voting privilege and changing the date when congress convenes, which appear to have little if any affect upon freedom. Some may feel that the right to vote is a freedom. Surely it may be so regarded but it is extremely rare when one persons vote affects freedom one way or another. How he votes will surely affect the extent of his freedom in the hereafter, but seldom if ever will it alter the laws affecting his, or any other persons freedom here on earth.
The Penalties for Violating Gods Laws Are Not the Same for All
While discussing the inviolability of Gods laws, it seems important to observe that while His laws are changeless, the penalties imposed for their violation may differ from person to person in order to achieve justice. The scriptures teach:
For of him unto whom much is given much is required; and he who sins against the greater light shall receive the greater condemnation. (D&C 82:3)
Here is stated an eternal principle of justice which is as applicable to the judgments rendered by man against man, as to those imposed by the Lord in the hereafter. Men should be punished only to the extent they [p. 97] have violated conscience. (D&C 134:4; Alma 30:7-11) We do not punish infants and mental incompetents because they are incapable of forming the criminal intent. In accordance with this rule of justice, we should not punish a person for the harm he does, but for that which he intends.
While we can generally assume that a person intends the natural and probable consequences of his acts, this is only a presumption and other considerations may prove it false. When punishment is imposed, its severity should depend upon the accuseds knowledge of Gods laws. We are always justified in assuming that a rational defendant is familiar with the Lords fundamental law called the Golden Rule and that he justifies doing to the accused as he sought to do to others. (Matt. 7:1, 2)
Some may be tempted to conclude that to escape punishment, it would be wise to remain ignorant concerning those laws which are constitutional. When we remember that it is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance, we see that this is not the answer. A man can obey only those laws of which he is aware, and thus if he wants freedom, which is the blessing predicated upon obedience to the Lords laws concerning government, we must be informed sufficiently to merit freedom or slavery. In any event, as shall be pointed out more fully later, men already are familiar with the Golden Rule which is the basic law we must obey in government.
Is There Difficulty in Agreeing upon Constitutional Laws Affecting Freedom?
Since there is so much contention and dispute regarding which laws are constitutional, some may despair of being able to know the Lords will concerning them. Others may believe it impossible to come to a unity on something so controversial. In response to such attitudes, let us first note that the Lord never has, and never will, give a commandment to members of His Church which is beyond the capacity of the ordinary person to obey. Furthermore, compliance will not require an unreasonable expenditure of time and means. If the Lord has commanded us to come to an agreement regarding which laws we should befriend, we may rest assured that such is possible. We have already taken one step toward this goal in noting that He requires agreement only on those laws affecting freedom. We have also determined the Lords laws concerning freedom are the same in every dispensation. [p. 98]
Words of President Benson
The formula for successful relationships with others boils down to that divine code known as the Golden Rule. Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them. [Matthew 7:12] (Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings, p. 44) [p. 99]