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“We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that he holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them.”
So begins D&C 134, known as the Church’s “declaration of belief regarding governments and laws.”1 Here on earth, the Lord expects us to “govern ourselves,” as the Prophet Joseph Smith said, according to “correct principles.”2 He has given us our freedom, our moral agency, to organize for self-government. According to scripture, government is a blessing, an institution of God, to benefit us.
As with all of God’s blessings, the benefit of government is to educate us. Government is a school for becoming self-reliant and gaining the wisdom to govern in eternity. This is why the Lord continually encourages the Saints to engage actively in serving the community, where this is possible.
Good Citizens Are Actively Engaged
“Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; for the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.”3
The reward of active engagement is, of course, the intrinsic reward of serving others. But there is more-we also gain important skills and develop leadership qualities that a child of God must have to become exalted.
“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. 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. I, the Lord God, make you free, therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free.”4
Too many Latter-day Saints interpret the “principle of freedom” as freedom from the obligations and responsibilities of a citizen. The state of Utah, where a majority of voters are members of the Church, has the lowest voter turnout rate in the United States.5 This is a shame, and must not be pleasing to the Lord who expects far more from His people.
A wise Church leader has said, “Freedom is not just freedom from-freedom from interference, restraint, responsibility-although there certainly are things we want to be free from. But the greatest freedom, the freedom of God, is the freedom to do.
“Ask yourself, What am I free to do?’ In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve knew the freedom from. They were free from every discomfort and mortal pain. But they had to leave that idyllic place and enter the dreary world in order to have freedom to do.” 6
We are free to do what we can to improve the world, the nation, and the community we live in, and the Lord expects us to use our opportunities to do so for our own good.
Passive, apathetic citizenship does not result in good government. In fact, in the absence of a vigilant, engaged citizenry, zealous people with extreme views or unhealthy ambitions tend to dominate government.
The scriptures say, “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.”7
Good Citizens Choose Wise, Good, and Honest Leaders
Thus, Latter-day Saints who live in a republic have the duty to inform themselves and choose the “wise, good, and honest” as public servants. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught, “In the Doctrine and Covenants . . . we read that we should seek out men who are wise, good, and honest. When I first read these criteria years ago, they seemed quite general to me; they don’t now. Too often leaders can lead men astray because they lack one or more of these qualities. A leader can be bright but dishonest, and a leader can be honest and conceptually inadequate. A man may be a good man and yet lack the wisdom to cope with complex circumstances that can come upon him. This triad of virtues, for me, is a significant guide to selecting future leaders in any representative government.“8
Therefore, when we vote for a candidate, we should ask these three questions of ourselves: (1) Is this person wise? Does he or she have the background, understanding, and judgment to deal effectively with complicated governmental issues? (2) Is this person good? Does he or she seem generous, compassionate, and selfless? (3) Is this person honest? Is there a track record of integrity? Will this person put the public interest ahead of private gain?
Notice what is missing from this list: the party or ideology of the person.The Lord seems to be more concerned that we choose leaders of competence and character than that they uphold every point of a political or religious manifesto.
The First Presidency regularly affirms the neutrality of the Church regarding political parties, platforms, and candidates, stating that “Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties.”9 President Joseph F. Smith said, “The Church does not engage in politics; its members belong to the political parties at their own pleasure. They are not asked, much less required, to vote this way or that.”10
A Good Citizen Respects Others
Our age is characterized by increasingly poisonous partisanship in government. Bishop H. David Burton points out that today “civility is all but absent in our political discourse.”11 The airwaves shower us with ugly voices filled with mockery and contempt for varying political viewpoints. This cannot be pleasing to the Lord, who expects us to solve problems and build our communities with respect for each other and to value the diversity of viewpoints.
Some years ago, President Stephen L. Richards of the First Presidency cautioned members of the Church: “A threat to our unity derives from unseemly personal antagonisms developed in partisan political controversy. The Church, while reserving the right to advocate principles of good government underlying equity, justice, and liberty, the political integrity of officials, and the active participation of its members, and the fulfillment of their obligations in civic affairs, exercises no constraint on the freedom of individuals to make their own choices and affiliations . . . any man who makes representation to the contrary does so without authority and justification in fact.”12
Thus, no one is authorized to identify his or her political views with the Gospel. It is arrogant and disrespectful to do so; nevertheless, it is often done.
The Book of Mormon illustrates in a dire way the consequences of becoming polarized over political, economic, and social contention. Professor Hugh Nibley made this observation about the conflict between the Nephites and the Lamanites: “The process of polarization [was] pushed to its limit, with each side out to exterminate the other, obsessed with the old doctrine of It is either you or us.’ As in the days of Shiz and Coriantumr, everybody was forced to choose either one side or the other, at a time, of course, when there was very little to choose between them, for both the people of Nephi and the Lamanites had become exceedingly wicked one like unto another’ (4 Ne. 1:45).”13
President Thomas S. Monson warns us against the poison of partisan contention. “We might feel angry when others can’t see things from our perspective. . . . To be angry is to yield to the influence of Satan. No one can make us angry. It is our choice. If we desire to have a proper spirit with us at all times, we must choose to refrain from becoming angry. I testify that such is possible. . . . Harbor no animosity toward any man but rather be peacemakers.14
Elder Russell M. Nelson echoes this counsel: “Now, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, what does the Lord expect of us? As a Church, we must renounce war and proclaim peace.’ As individuals, we should follow after the things which make for peace.’ We should be personal peacemakers.”15
The Lord did not intend government to be an adversarial system but a coming together in respect, humility, and courage for the betterment of society. He will hold us accountable for our acts “both in making laws and administering them for the good and safety of society.”16 How much more fruitful it would be if citizens with differing political views could actually sit down together and truly listen to one another, to understand and value differing perspectives, and arrive at new and better solutions that neither party can arrive at alone. Regardless of what others do, this is what the Gospel requires of the Saints-otherwise, we risk finding ourselves among the shrill and venomous and angry voices.
The Savior calls us to unity. “Let there be no disputations among you,” he pleads.17 (Some might say the Lord meant by this only disputes over doctrine, but a close reading of the verse suggests otherwise.) “Disputation,” according to the dictionary of Joseph Smith’s time, means “a reasoning or argumentation in opposition to something.” We need not give up our own cherished views to respect the legitimate views of others. But careful and genuine understanding of those alternative views almost always defuses conflict and leads us to be “for” something instead of “against” something. We share far more interests than we think.
From a Gospel perspective, a good citizen is not the one who shouts down, mocks, or demeans an “opponent.” A good citizen does not see the world as divided between “us and them.” A good citizen is the one who, like the Savior, peaceably and respectfully seeks the genuine interest of all.
A Good Citizen Obeys, Honors, and Sustains the Law
“We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”18 This Article of Faith applies to all Latter-day Saints everywhere.
In his first conference address as prophet, President Spencer W. Kimball said, “Every Latter-day Saint should sustain, honor, and obey the constitutional law of the land in which he lives [my emphasis].”19
A good citizen is strictly law abiding.The Lord’s requirement is clear: “Let no man break the laws of the land, for he that keepeth the laws of God hath no need to break the laws of the land. Wherefore, be subject to the powers that be, until he reigns whose right it is to reign, and subdues all enemies under his feet.”20
Obedience to the law is, therefore, a fundamental principle of our religion. Latter-day Saints who violate the law bring a stain not only on themselves but also on the Lord’s Church. The world holds us to a higher legal and ethical standard; as a result, when a member of the Church commits a crime, the work of the Lord is hindered. As Alma said in sorrow to his son Corianton, who had abused a woman while he was serving a mission to the Zoramites, “When they saw your conduct, they would not believe in my words.”21
Unfortunately, too many Church members get caught up in criminal behavior. In the heavily Mormon state of Utah, nearly 7,000 fraud cases went to court in 2006. Sexual crimes are ahead of the national average. Instead of being the most crime-free state, Utah is 27th of the 50 states-a dismal, mediocre record.22
In principle, careful obedience to the law is not only right in itself, but it also brings the blessings of the Lord. We might not even agree with the laws we observe (although in many countries we can and should influence the making of laws), but we can still benefit from conscientiously obeying the law.
On November 9, 1989, the world celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, which symbolized for many a new birth of freedom in Europe. For decades before that, Latter-day Saints in the German Democratic Republic had painstakingly obeyed both the law of the Lord and the law of land under a regime that was hostile to religion in general. East German Mormons practiced their faith under many hardships.
Still, Mission President Henry Burkhardt always advised the members to be exemplary in obeying even laws that were in great measure repressive. In 1960, the regime ordered Church members to dispose of their religious literature, which was deemed illegal. Sorrowfully, they did so. For a time, President Burkhardt issued temple recommends to members who had visas to enter only West Germany. But at that time, the temple was in Switzerland. Therefore, he stopped giving out temple recommends rather than become a party to breaking the law.23
“This letter-of-the-law’ obedience,” according to one scholar, was a strategy “to prove to the authorities that members of the Church were reliable, law-abiding citizens of their state. . . [President Burkhardt] emphasized adherence to the law of the land as the only means by which the Church would thrive. His success in conveying this message to government authorities ultimately paved the way for approval of the temple built in 1985.”
Visiting East Germany in 1968, Elder Thomas S. Monson promised the Saints, “If you will remain true and faithful to the commandments of God, every blessing any member of the Church enjoys in any other country will be yours.”24 With the fall of communism in Europe came the fulfillment of that prophecy.
The scholar concludes, “The LDS church’s achievement of legal recognition and a subsequent range of legal privileges in the German Democratic Republic [is] an excellent illustration of the way the church uses political neutrality and obedience to law to fulfill its mission of preaching the Gospel.”25
Obedience to the law of the land enables a community to build rather than to destroy. Obedience to the law of the land protects us, brings down blessings upon us, and prepares us to live in the presence of our Heavenly Father. As President Marion G. Romney taught years ago, “When the rule of law’ breaks down in a family, a community, a state, or a nation, chaos reigns. The kingdoms of heaven are to be free from chaos, because no one will be in any one of them who does not by his own free will obey the laws thereof. A Latter-day Saint should strictly obey every law of God, including the constitutional laws of the land in which he lives, and do it with a good and honest heart.”26
1 D&C 134:1.
2 Cited in John Taylor, “The Organization of the Church,” Millennial Star, Nov. 15, 1851, 339.
3 D&C 58:26-28.
4 D&C 98:4-6.
5 Lee Davidson, “Utah Has Nation’s Worst Voter Turnout Rate,” Deseret News, Jul.5, 2008.
6 Robert M. Wilkes, “Some Thoughts about Personal Freedom,” Ensign, Jul. 1985, 12.
7 D&C 98:4-10.
8 Neal A. Maxwell, “The Lonely Sentinels of Democracy,” New Era, Jul 1972, 47.
9 “First Presidency Issues Letter on Political Participation,” Sep. 22, 2008, lds.newsroom.org.
10 Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, 122.
11 H. David Burton, “Let Virtue Garnish Your Thoughts,” Ensign, Nov 2009, 76.
12 Stephen L. Richards, Conference Report, October 1951, 114-15.
13 Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah, Deseret Book, 1988, 340.
14 Thomas S. Monson, “School Thy Feelings, O My Brother,” Ensign, Nov 2009.
15 Russell M. Nelson, “Blessed Are the Peacemakers’,” Ensign, Nov 2002, 39.
16 D&C 134:1.
17 3 Ne. 11:28.
18 Articles of Faith 1:12.
19 Spencer W. Kimball, “Guidelines to Carry Forth the Work of God in Cleanliness,” Ensign, May 1974, 4.
21 Alma 39:11.
22 “Taking a Bite Out of Crime,” Utah Foundation Research Brief, Aug. 15, 2008. utahfoundation.org/reports.
23 James K. Lyon, review of Thomas S. Monson, Faith Rewarded: A Personal Account of Prophetic Promises to the East German Saints, BYU Studies, 36:3. 2.
24 Our Heritage, 132.
25 Frederick Mark Gedicks, Towards an LDS Understanding of Church Autonomy: Report to the Second American/European Conference on Religious Freedom, University of Trier, Germany, May 17, 1999.
26 Marion G. Romney, “The Rule of Law,” Ensign, Feb 1973, 2.