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Oaks: Constitution offers ‘doctrine of moral agency’

By Genelle Pugmire And Connor Richards special To The Standard-Examiner - | Apr 5, 2021

The Constitution of the United States is of special importance to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to its doctrine and leaders, including President Dallin H. Oaks.

On Easter Sunday, Oaks, the first counselor in the First Presidency, took a side step from the typical LDS General Conference messages to address the divinity of the U.S. Constitution.

From time to time, church leaders have addressed the topic of the U.S. Constitution in General Conference. Former President Ezra Taft Benson was particularly noted for his several commentaries on the subject.

Benson served as Secretary of Agriculture in the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration, while uniquely serving as an apostle at the same time.

Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, said Benson was the president of the church when he was in college. “He’d tell us it’s our job to know the Constitution and defend it.”

Oaks sent a clear and strong message about how members should view, defend and utilize the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

“A constitution is the foundation of government. It provides structure and limits for the exercise of government powers,” Oaks said.

Oaks noted he was not speaking for any political party or other group, but he was speaking for the United States Constitution.

He validated his talk on the subject by noting he had studied the Constitution for 60 years.

“I speak from my experience as a law clerk to the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. I speak from my 15 years as a professor of law, and my 3 ½ years as a justice on the Utah Supreme Court.”

He added, “Most importantly, I speak from 37 years as an apostle of Jesus Christ, responsible to study the meaning of the divinely inspired United States Constitution to the work of his restored church. The United States Constitution is unique because God revealed that he ‘established’ it ‘for the rights and protection of all flesh’ (Doctrine and Covenants 101:77, 80).”

For what purpose?

Oaks asked the question, “What was God’s purpose in establishing the United States Constitution?”

He pointed out several distinct reasons.

“We see it in the doctrine of moral agency,” Oaks said. “The most desirable condition for the exercise of that agency is maximum freedom for men and women to act according to their individual choices.”

Reciting from LDS scripture, specifically Doctrine and Covenants 101:79, Oaks noted that human slavery is wrong.

“And according to the same principle (moral agency), it is wrong for citizens to have no voice in the selection of their rulers or the making of their laws.”

Oaks noted that while church members believe the Constitution was divinely inspired it does not mean that divine revelation dictated every work and phrase.

Oaks referred to deceased LDS leader J. Rueben Clark, who noted, “The Constitution was not ‘a fully grown document. On the contrary, we believe it must grow and develop to meet the changing needs of an advancing world.'”

Oaks gave the example of the amendments abolishing slavery and giving women the right to vote. However, Oaks added that “we” do not see inspiration in every Supreme Court decision interpreting the Constitution.

Divine principles

Oaks noted five divinely inspired principles in the Constitution.

  • The source of government power is the people.

“Sovereign power in the people does not mean that mobs or other groups of people can intervene to intimidate or force government action,” Oaks stated.

  • The division of delegated power between the nation and its subsidiary states.

“Significantly, the United States Constitution limits the national government to the exercise of powers granted expressly or by implication, and it reserves all other government powers ‘to the states respectively or to the people,'” Oaks said.

  • The separation of powers.

“The inspiration in the American convention was to delegate independent executive, legislative, and judicial powers so these three branches could exercise checks upon one another,” according to Oaks.

  • The cluster of vital guarantees of individual rights and specific limits on government authority in the Bill of Rights.

“Without a Bill of Rights, America could not have served as the host nation for the restoration of the gospel, which began just three decades later,” Oaks said.

Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah, is a member of the church and represents District 1 out of Ogden. He spoke of the strength of the nation and the influence the Constitution has in bringing people to the U.S.

“I would probably look to my belief in the Constitution and looking for a better life found in that founding document,” Moore said.

Oaks said there should be no religious test for public office, but the addition of the religious freedom and anti-establishment guarantees in the First Amendment was vital.

He added, “We also see divine inspiration in the First Amendment’s freedoms of speech and press and in the personal protections in other amendments, such as for criminal prosecutions.”

  • Divine inspiration in the vital purpose of the entire Constitution.

“We are to be governed by law and not by individuals, and our loyalty is to the Constitution and its principles and processes, not to any officeholder,” Oaks said.

He noted that none of the three branches of government should be dominant (over) the others or prevent the others from performing their proper constitutional functions to check one another.

However, Oaks added that when exercised by imperfect mortals their intended effects have not always been achieved.

He noted some laws such as those governing family relationships have been taken from the states by the federal government. He also said the First Amendment that guarantees free speech has sometimes been diluted by suppression of unpopular speech.

Undermining threats

He warned there are other threats undermining the principles of the Constitution.

“The stature of the Constitution is diminished by efforts to substitute current societal trends as the reason for its founding, instead of liberty and self-government,” Oaks said. “The authority of the Constitution is trivialized when candidates or officials ignore its principles.”

Members believe that the fabric of the Constitution will hang by a thread.

Rep. John Curtis, R-District 3, is also a member of the church and said he believes in the resilience of the Constitution, more than it gets credit for.

“There have been a lot of things that have stretched that fabric, the Civil War, Watergate, etc. We’re in an era where it is being stretched. In an era where we see and feel more contention.”

Curtis added, “It is amazing the founders built in the Constitution a self-healing government. It’s bigger than any man or any cause, it’s amazing. We’ll emerge from this era stronger.”

Oaks noted, the dignity and force of the Constitution is reduced by those who refer to it like a loyalty test or political slogan.

“On contested issues, we should seek to moderate and unify,” Oaks said.

He said members should advocate the inspired principles of the Constitution; seek out and support good persons who will support those principles in their public actions; and be knowledgeable citizens who are active in making their influence felt in civic affairs.

“In the United States and other democracies, political influence is exercised by running for office (which we encourage), by voting, by financial support, by membership and service in political parties, and by on-going communications to officials, parties and candidates,” Oaks said.

There are many political issues, and no party, platform, or individual candidate can satisfy all personal preferences. Each citizen must therefore decide which issues are most important to him or her at any particular time, according to Oaks.

“It may require changing party support or candidate choices, even from election to election,” Oaks said. “Such independent actions will sometimes require voters to support candidates or political parties or platforms whose other positions they cannot approve.”

Members should refrain from judging one another on political matters, Oaks said. “We should never assert that a faithful Latter-day Saint cannot belong to a particular party or vote for a particular candidate.”

Oaks said that the church will exercise its right to endorse or oppose specific legislative proposals that it believes will impact the free exercise of religion or the essential interests of church organizations.

Contemporary conundrums

Oaks’ comments about the Constitution and political party affiliation come following violent protests across the country last summer and months after a mob, primarily supporters of former President Donald Trump, stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to get lawmakers to reject President Joe Biden’s victory.

After the events on Jan. 6, LDS leaders condemned “violence and lawless behavior, including the recent violence in Washington, D.C. and any suggestion of further violence.”

“With great concern we observe the political and cultural divisions in the United States and around the world,” church leaders said in an official statement in January.

Hilary Stirling, chair of the United Utah Party, a third party that formed to give voice to moderate Utahns dissatisfied with both the “leftward turn of a state Democratic party” and “rightward” tilt of the Republican Party with the nomination of Donald Trump,” said in a written statement that the party “applauds Pres. Dallin H. Oaks’ address during the Sunday afternoon session of the LDS General Conference.

“We welcome his call for Latter-day Saints to not judge each other based on the political party they support,” said Stirling. “His counsel to his fellow Church members to not simply vote straight party in every election is also much appreciated, as is his instruction to prioritize moral values and seek out and support the political party and candidates that best reflect those values.”

LDS Church and Republican Party

Followers of the LDS faith have long been predominantly Republican. According to data from the Pew Research Center, 65% of Mormons identified as Republican or leaning Republican in 2007, while 22% were or leaned Democrat and 13% didn’t lean either way.

In 2014, the percentage of church members who identified as Republican jumped to 70% and the percentage identifying as Democrat dropped to 19%.

The presidency of Donald Trump appears to have pushed some faithful members toward other parties.

A June 2020 poll by KUTV and Y2 Analytics found that 51% of “very LDS” women and 65% of “very LDS” men approved of Trump, while about half of very LDS women and 34% of men, respectively, disapproved of the president.

Among members who identified as “somewhat LDS,” only 39% of women and 65% of men approved of the way Trump was handling the presidency, while 59% of women and 35% of men disapproved.

In 2020, the family of Dieter Uchtdorf, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, donated to several Democratic candidates, including a $1,250 donation to Biden’s campaign, which violated the faith’s political neutrality rules, according to The Associated Press.

All nine LDS members of the U.S. Congress are Republicans, including Utah senators Mike Lee and Mitt Romney and Utah representatives John Curtis, Burgess Owens, Blake Moore and Chris Stewart.

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