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David M. Berrett

Our Relationship and Responsibility to Government

I’m delighted to be here. I should tell you all that I was concerned that nobody would come. When I was a newly called stake president, I was asked to speak to the young single adults in our stake. It is my recollection that only three or four people showed up, and that included me and the people who organized the event. Had I known that there was going to be a choir bringing at least 40 or 50 of you, I would have slept much better last night. I would not have worried at all. Although had only three or four of you showed up, we would conduct this discussion in a small circle, and it would be a little bit more like a symposia than a lecture, which we’ll do our best to keep it from being that.

I am honored and humbled to be asked to speak to you. I am cognizant of the investment of time that each of you make in coming. And frankly, of the leap of faith that you’ve made by simply reading my name on a poster and coming, or perhaps for some of you, it’s an even greater leap of faith because you had no idea who was speaking. You just figured it was better than sitting alone on the quad someplace.

I appreciate the prayer that was offered, and it is my prayer and I hope yours, that your time investment will be well paid. Particularly I appreciate the line in the prayer that it is hoped, and we seek divine help that you may understand what I have to say. I equally hope that I will understand what I have to say. And if that happens, we will, all of us, will be in good shape.

I’m going to start by inviting some audience participation. This is school; that means you come to class. You thought you were going to just get away with sitting here and not being involved. Such is not the case. Who will stand and recite for us the Twelfth Article of Faith?

I will give you a hint—it begins, “We believe….” All right, we have a volunteer back here. Please.

“We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” (Articles of Faith 1:12)
There is somebody who either graduated from Primary or is a Primary president. That is exactly correct.” We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”

As was indicated in the beginning, this week is the week in which the Business College spends time considering the United States Constitution. September 17th of each year, or this past Monday, has been designated as Constitution Day in the United States. This year marks the 220th anniversary of the date upon which the proposed Constitution was signed by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. And the proposed document was then submitted to the various state legislatures for approval.

Approximately nine months later, the ninth state approved it, and the Constitution became valid and binding. In February of 1789, or almost 15 or 16 months after the Constitution was signed, the first presidential election was held. And on April 6th of 1789, George Washington was sworn in as the first president for the United States. I want you to keep all of that in mind for just a minute as I tell you a story.

A few weeks ago, a member of my ward came to the bishop’s office to discuss a matter of great concern to her. She’s married to a man from Logan, Utah, but her home land is not the United States. She comes from a country which has a totalitarian form of government. For those of you who are not political science majors, a totalitarian form of government means that all of the power is centralized into a single person—a dictator, or perhaps a king—or into a small group of people, such as the Politburo, who used to govern the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, when it existed. Totalitarian governments have virtually total control over their inhabitants. This member of my ward expressed significant concerns for the physical safety of her parents, who reside in her home country. They are opposed to the government of that country. She was also very concerned that her membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might in some way cause problems for her parents, even though they are not members of our Church.

So, against the backdrop of Constitution Day and the visit of this member of my ward, today I will speak to the topic of government, and our relationship, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to governments.

I realize that some of you who attend here at the Business College are not residents of—well, you’re all residents, now—but you’re not citizens of the United States. While my examples today will be drawn from U.S. history, and we will make reference to the U.S. Constitution, I believe my message will have applicability regardless of your home country. I probably should say, therefore, because it will apply to everybody, we’ll have a test when we’re done. We’ll grade the test and decide whether or not you get credit for being in attendance today. However, my wife reminds me that I have to be nice, and so we won’t do a test.

We’ve recited and had quoted the Twelfth Article of Faith. It is significant to me that Joseph Smith wrote those words, “We believe in…obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” three years after he spent the winter of 1838-1839 in two different jails, condemned to death. While in the second of those jails, interestingly enough named “Liberty Jail,” he wrote these words, taken from the 121st section of the Doctrine and Covenants:

“O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?
“How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries?
“Yea, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them?
“O Lord God Almighty, maker of heaven, earth, and seas, and of all things that in them are, and who controllest and subjectest the devil, and the dark and benighted dominion of Sheol—stretch forth thy hand; let thine eye pierce; let thy pavilion be taken up; let thy hiding place no longer be covered; let thine ear be inclined, let thine heart be softened, and thy bowels moved with compassion toward us.
“Let thine anger be kindled against our enemies; and, in the fury of thine heart, with thy sword avenge us of our wrongs”
(vv. 1-5).

The wrongs and oppressions to which Joseph was referencing when he wrote these words included not only his own sufferings—for having been in prison in horrible conditions for months in the winter, in a cold, unheated, subterranean prison cell—they included mobbings, lootings, burning of the homes of the members of the Church, destruction of household goods, slaughter of livestock, even rape and assault. And then, the Saints literally were driven from their homes in the Missouri winter, that they might walk across hundreds of miles of prairie, seeking refuge in Illinois. These wrongs and oppressions were the result, at least in part, of the official acts of the government of the State of Missouri. And yet, three years later, Joseph wrote: “We believe in … obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”

Surely you might ask, when Joseph wrote the 12th Articles of Faith, he did not mean we believe in sustaining the government that put him in Liberty Jail. Surely he could not have meant that we sustain a government such as the one feared by my ward member, which would imprison its citizens simply because they resisted or disagreed with the official opinion of the rulers.

“Yes,” I believe he would say, “We must.”

The Doctrine and Covenants speaks of the United States Constitution as “established [by God]…by the hands of wise men…raised up unto this very purpose” (D&C 101:80). J. Rueben Clark, formerly a counselor in the First Presidency of the Church, said: “The Constitution of the United States is a great and treasured part of my religion, and the revelations of the Lord and the words of our inspired leaders compel it to be so” (Stand Fast By Our Constitution, 1978, Deseret Book, p. 7).

Now it is, I think, significant that this does not mean, notwithstanding the Lord’s assertions and not withstanding the fact that the Constitution may well be the right form of government for the United States at this time, it does not mean that it is the only true government. In fact, the Book of Mormon’s King Mosiah told his people that if they could always have “just men to be your kings, who would establish the laws of God, and judge this people according to his commandments…then it would be expedient that ye should always have kings to rule over you” (Mosiah 29:13).

Those of you who are Book of Mormon scholars will recall that, because such could not be the case, Mosiah then suggested that they establish an elected and representative system of government among the Nephites. 

Well, what does this tell us, then, about government, about law and about the form of government? On August 17, 1835, before Joseph went to Liberty Jail, before the Articles of Faith were written, a general assembly of the fledgling new Church adopted a declaration of belief regarding governments and laws. The occasion of the assembly was to consider the proposed publication and contents of the first edition of the Book of Commandments—we know it today as the Doctrine and Covenants. This declaration of belief was adopted to be the concluding statement of the soon to be published volume. We know it today as section 134.

The preamble, or the introductory section, to 134 reads: “That our belief with regard to earthly governments and laws in general may not be misinterpreted nor misunderstood, we have thought proper to present at the close of this volume our opinion concerning the same.” This declaration has been reprinted over and over, with the approval of the leadership of the Church, and has been adopted as scripture. 

Let us consider what it has to say. The first sentence of Section 134 may be deemed to be the topic sentence for the entire section: “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, both in making laws and administering them, for the good and safety of society.”

The key statement in that sentence is: “governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man.” That’s the whole reason that government exists. It is not for the benefit of the leader, or to amass wealth, or to gain or accumulate power. It is for the benefit of man.

The preamble to the United States Constitution captures the feelings of its authors regarding the benefits they thought would flow from the new government they were creating: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The benefits sought by the framers of the Constitution were:

  • Justice
  • Domestic tranquility. (for those of you who don’t know, that means peace at home, domestic, meaning here at home.
  • Common defense
  • General welfare, and
  • The blessings of liberty.

Certainly these are appropriate reasons for people to band together and organize a government. Government ought to establish justice. It ought to insure that its citizens live in peace and tranquility. The blessings of liberty allow citizens, within the framework of domestic tranquility—getting along with each other—and general welfare, to live as they see fit.

Now, returning to the second sentence of 134. It builds upon the notion that governments were instituted for the benefit of mankind:
“We believe,” these early leaders in the Church wrote, “that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life” (v. 2).

Herein, in this single sentence, are identified three objectives which a government must advance in order to exist in peace:

  • The free exercise of conscience
  • The right and control of property
  • The protection of life

Notice that first on this list of objectives is the preservation of the free exercise of conscience or preservation of the right to choose, or preservation of, as you might know it, free agency—or, as we will see elsewhere in the revelations, moral agency.

In a revelation received by Joseph Smith August 6, 1833, two years in advance of this section that we’ve just been looking at—so, two years before section 134 was written, the Lord gave Joseph Smith section 98 of the Doctrine and Covenants. In this, the Lord said:
“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…make you free, therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free.
“Nevertheless, when the wicked rule the people mourn”
(vv. 4-9).

I believe that words mean things, especially when those words come from Heavenly Father. We ought to pay attention to them, and so, let us consider carefully the words of this revelation.

Let’s go back to the first verse. Notice how the Lord introduces the topic of what he’s going to talk about. Concerning the laws of the land, He is going to tell us—“I’m going to give you instruction concerning the laws of the land.” In the next phrase, He tells us, “It is my will that my people should observe to do all things whatsoever I command them.” 

Do you make that connection? A discussion of law must be built upon an understanding of God’s overriding desire. His desire is, in the language of the revelation, His “will” that His children observe to be obedient to his commandments. The very reason for the creation of the earth was to “prove [God’s children]… to see if they [would] do all things whatsoever the Lord their God” commanded them (Abraham 3:25).

Knowing that God’s will, namely that His children choose to be obedient to His commandments, means we possess a key to discern when the laws of man are acceptable to God: “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” (D&C 98:5).

If you back that sentence up, take it apart a little bit, law is justifiable before God when it supports the “principle of freedom” that He has just elucidated in the prior sentence—the principle that “my people should observe to do all things whatsoever I command them.” Law which enables and facilitates people in choosing to keep the commandments is justifiable before God.

A few months after receiving this section, but again still before the declaration on belief was written by Joseph and the early leaders, Joseph inquired of the Lord how to respond to some of the early mobbings and loss of property and physical privations that the Saints were suffering in Missouri. He had not yet been to Liberty Jail, but still problems had arisen. And so he enquired of the Lord. He was told this:

“It is my will that they”—the Saints—“should continue to importune for redress, and redemption, by the hands of those who are placed as rulers and are in authority over you—
“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;
“That every man may act in doctrine and principle….according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment”
(D&C 101:76-78).

God directed that the Saints follow established legal principles, identified here: “According to the laws and constitution of the people,” which He, God, had “suffered to be established…and maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh.”

Now, the question I pose then is, for what purpose, identified in this revelation, were the laws and constitution established and maintained? Why did they come? It was protection of what? And the key is in the next verse:

“That every man may act in doctrine and principle…according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.” 

The whole reason for the existence of government, for the establishment of the U.S. Constitution, for the creation of any other government elsewhere in the world, is to create a place, a system, a society in which men and women may act in doctrine and principle according to agency.

Revelations tell us of the consequences which follow when this principle is violated: “As pertaining to the laws of man, whatsoever is more or less than this”—meaning any law of man which hinders or prohibits God’s children from exercising their agency, their moral agency and choosing to be obedient—“cometh of evil.”

I note, interestingly, that two weeks ago in this same venue, President Woodhouse introduced you to the LDS Business College Six Cultural Beliefs. One of those beliefs states: “Be Accountable—I take responsibility for my obligations as a student.” This cultural belief is a direct reflection of the principle which underlies God’s will concerning governments. As you adopt and implement this Cultural Belief, as well as the other five, you will be conforming your life to the very standard established by Heavenly Father—indeed, the very reason he would even create governments. We just want you to know that we pay attention to what happens here in the Trustees, and you do also. We probably ought to give you a test on the six Cultural Beliefs; it’s been two weeks since they were introduced.

Well, let’s return to section 134. I told you there wouldn’t be a test, and I can’t go back on that at all. Continuing the language of this declaration on beliefs:
“We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments; and that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen thus protected….and that all governments have a right to enact such laws as in their own judgments are best calculated to secure the public interest; at the same time, however, holding sacred the freedom of conscience.

“We believe that every man should be honored in his station, rulers and magistrates as such, being placed for the protection of the innocent and the punishment of the guilty; and that to the laws all men show respect and deference, as without them peace and harmony would be supplanted by anarchy and terror; human laws being instituted for the express purpose of regulating our interests as individuals and nations, between man and man; and divine laws given of heaven, prescribing rules on spiritual concerns, for faith and worship, both to be answered by man to his Maker.” (D&C 134:5-7, emphasis added)
We are, in the United States right now, in an election cycle. There is much press coverage of the campaign among those who would be the next president of the United States. Mayoral campaign elections are underway here in Salt Lake City. Elections may be occurring elsewhere in the world. The United States Congress is in session, and in January, the Utah State Legislature will again convene.

Some of you have the opportunity to participate in these elections. Each of us should be concerned with the actions of our government in the laws that are enacted. The principles we’ve extracted from the scriptures give some guidance in how we might respond to the political process, whatever may be our country of origin, or our home country. 

Candidates for public office may be judged on how their positions will advance fundamental principles of liberty, namely that the people have the right and obligation to exercise moral agency, that citizens should be secure in their property, and that life should be protected. Laws proposed by or enacted by governments should be subjected to this same test. Ask yourself these questions: Will the law inhibit my ability to exercise moral agency? Will the law enable me to be secure in my property? Does the law provide for or enhance the safety and security of me and my family, or protect our lives?

There are many well meaning people, including government officials, who want to enact laws to make sure that we do good things. But if the government controls and dictates my decisions, how can I exercise my agency? If my choices are mandated by others, how am I accountable before God for those choices? God’s plan is built on the foundation that I have the inalienable right and obligation to choose, even if I may make the wrong choice. Remember, Stan was condemned and cast out of heaven because he “sought to destroy the agency of man” (Moses 4:3).

Any government law or regulation which has the effect of forcing behavior by its people, even if that behavior might be desirable, is operating contrary to God’s express direction that His children are to act according to the moral agency which He has given them. Government ought not be a tool to compel people to be righteous.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who advocate that government has no right to make any laws regulating behavior, except for those laws which prohibit injury to others. Consequently, many legal prohibitions which for centuries have governed the behaviors of people are being challenged and removed. Under this argument, there should be no prohibition against pornography, adultery, same gender sexual relationships, abortion, harmful substances such as drugs, alcohol, etc. Proponents of these positions assert that because they have the right to choose, the government has no right to regulate so-called private behavior.

This argument, like the one made by those who would use government to compel righteousness, has the effect of destroying agency, not enhancing it.
In speaking to his son Corianton, Alma, the Book of Mormon prophet, said: “If there was no law given against sin men would not be afraid to sin.

“And if there was no law given, if men sinned what could justice do, or mercy either, for they would have no claim upon the creature?
“But there is a law given, and a punishment affixed, and a repentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth; otherwise, justice claimeth the creature and executeth the law, and the law inflicteth the punishment; if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God”
(Alma 42:20-22).

Another Book of Mormon father explained the principle to his sons in similar fashion:

“And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God….
“And now, my sons…there is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon.
“And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man…it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life….
“Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other”
(2 Nephi 2:13-16).

In order for you and I to be able to act for ourselves, meaning to exercise moral agency, there must be a law and a real opportunity to choose to obey that law or not to comply with it. The elimination of all rules, laws, or commandments prohibits such an opportunity, and therefore, destroys agency. The elimination of choice by eliminating prohibitions is as pernicious as the imposition of forced behavior. These two extremes are opposite sides of the same coin. Both courses have the result of destroying moral agency.

Both Lehi and Alma point out that the existence of law is necessary for God’s plan of mercy and redemption. Those laws may either be the laws of man or they may be the laws of God. Returning to the 134th section of the Doctrine and Covenants: “Human laws are instituted for the express purpose of regulating our interests as individuals and nations, between man and man; and divine laws given of heaven, prescribing rules on spiritual concerns, for faith and worship, both to be answered by man to his Maker” (v. 6).

Not surprisingly, God has resolved any conflict we might feel between the laws of man and the laws of God: “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” (D&C 58:21).

Human laws regulate both our person-to-person interactions and teach us the principles and behaviors which society values. Consider, for example, the laws regarding the marital relationships. The fundamental foundation for the legal codes in this country, as well as many other countries, particularly those in the western world, is the Ten Commandments. Two of the commandments are appropriate for our discussion: “Honour thy father and thy mother…” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:12, 14). For generations, ordered society has made the determination that stable families, consisting of father, mother and children, are the desirable and fundamental unit of society. Legal rewards and benefits have been developed to foster and strengthen families.

Relationships which undermined this basic unit of society were condemned by law. Significantly, the rewards and benefits which society has developed and has given the force of law are consistent with divinely inspired directives, particularly those embodied in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” issued by the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles. 

Society’s concerns about families and the development of children give legitimacy to the right of government to regulate and support certain behaviors which comprise the marital relationship. These laws govern our relationships as people. Such laws are not inconsistent with the notions of moral agency. Rather, these efforts strengthen agency by enticing people to do good. Similar discussion might be had for other areas of the law. I use this one only by example.

We began today by noting that Monday was Constitution Day. Let me conclude with a few words regarding the Constitution and governments in general. These words are from the Dedicatory Prayer from the Kirtland Temple:

“Have mercy, O Lord, upon all the nations of the earth; have mercy upon the rulers of our land; may those principles, which were so honorably and nobly defended, namely, the Constitution of our land, by our fathers, be established forever” (D&C 109:54).

May each of us strive to the best of our abilities to support and uphold those governments which defend the honorably and nobly established principle of agency, so that each of us may be accountable for our choices is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


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