Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Political Tuesday: LDS Political Thought: Lesson 1 (1948-49)

Political Tuesday: LDS Political Thought: Lesson 1 (1948-49)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 05, 2012

And since the preview lesson doesn’t give much to talk about, here’s the first lesson of that 1948-49 series:

Lesson 1 – The Meaning and Importance of Political Doctrines

Elder G. Homer Durham

For Tuesday, October 26, 1948

Objective: to point out the modern tendencies in political thought to ignore spiritual resources and to seek a cure-all through unlimited government.

“The watchword of traffic safety is courtesy.” This slogan appeared at the crossing of a busy intersection recently. The thought behind it appears trite at first. On closer examination we see the modern social problem in a nutshell. Man’s material development has outrun his spiritual. Take the example of traffic, which kills and maims someone every minute. How do we try to solve this problem? largely by car-inspections, super-divided highways, and other materialistic means. This is why the sign, “The watchword of traffic safety is courtesy,” caught my eye. We must mobilize our spiritual resources! Which would you rather face, head-on, in oncoming traffic, a driver in a jalopy, with courtesy extending from him to you; or, a discourteous, ribald person in a thirty-ton truck-and-trailer engineering marvel? or vice-versa? if safety and courtesy are desired on the highway, what about courtesy in the use of battleships and bombs?

Predominance of the Material Over the Spiritual

Just as the modern approach to most problems emphasizes materiality over the spiritual resources of man, so does the modern State and its government exemplify a similar triumph. In case of conflict between two nations the questions usually asked are (1) What are their resources, especially, coal, iron, and petroleum? (2) What is their industrial production and capacity? (3) What is their population and birthrate? Resort is then made to force. The spiritual qualities of the two peoples concerned, their capacity at tolerance, forbearance, and compromise are rarely considered or utilized. Rather they are exploited, devilishly, in support of the material factors in the contest.

Mankind’s spiritual and material needs cannot be separated. But the emphasis given these aspects of human living should definitely subordinate the material to spiritual ends by spiritually motivated means, and not in reverse order.

Increase in material Functions of Government

Today the material functions of modern government outstrip all others. Men have come to rely more on the State for “salvation,” bread, security from hunger, disease, cold, atomic bombs, and the effects of their own indiscretions, than on any other thing. Accordingly, men search for adequate doctrines both to guide the State and to judge its operations as “the way out.” these doctrines, more and more, reflect a totalitarian approach; namely, that the effective solution lies through governmental action, therefore all other possible means must be subordinated, if not absorbed, by the State.

What is the nature of the State? What are its limitations? What is the sphere of effective State action? How should governments be run and controlled? This is the age of politics and political problems. What contribution does latter-day Saint thought make in answer to these questions? What is the gospel, viewed in relation to these problems, and what are the gospel applications? Is there a “true” or better way of running governments as there is a “true” way of baptism and administering the sacrament of the Lord’s supper? Or is the effective reach of the gospel confined to a few simple ordinances and individualistic beliefs having no connection with the War Assets Administration, British loans, the Politburo, or revolution in Indonesia? A consideration of these and allied subjects will form the basis for this year’s course of study.

Contributions of the Past

From the Greek world we derive one of the great political ideas of all time, limited government, meaning that government should be confined to set limits in order that power (which tends to be arbitrary) can be controlled for man’s benefit. The Constitution of the United States is perhaps the world’s greatest fulfillment of this idea. It confines government to certain channels, and forbids it to enter others (for example, those freedoms protected by the Bill of Rights). Moreover, taught Aristotle, even limited power should be divided, with checks and balances – “mixed government” – in order to achieve political stability. Otherwise men are subordinated to the will of their rulers with the result that men serve the State rather than the State serving man. The President of the United States, for example, must have authorization from Congress in the form of a law, before, normally, he can act. Then the courts may review any executive procedure thereunder.

Expounded first by Aristotle, these general ideas are the foundation of constitution-making and constitutional government. The Roman world, though absolutist, nevertheless carried through an idea which moderns speak of as “the rule of law,” namely, that State action must conform to law. Too often among the Romans, law could be the whim of the emperor. But by English times, the Greek and Roman doctrines had merged to recognize that good law, while conforming to natural or divine principles, must yet be agreed upon – in advance – by the people. Thus, twin ideas, limited government and government by consent of the governed, became the modern inheritance. Both are expressed in the Constitution of the United States.

The Crisis in Recent Political Thought

As inventions have multiplied, men, particularly since about 1870, have turned to the State to regulate, control, and now – plan the results accruing from the concentration of population in big cities and other revolutionary changes. Using the doctrine of “government by consent,” the people have gained control of their governments. Then they have asked (spurred on, many times, by scheming men) their governments to do this, then that, then the other thing, until the National Government of the United States alone has been looked to, not only by most Americans, but by peoples in Europe and Asia, as the means of solving all problems. So, State functions have increased enormously, not to mention the influence of socialistic doctrines. What has happened to “limited government”? It appears to have become instead, by means of man’s resorting to the State, a doctrine of unlimited or total government! Can we have unlimited government and preserve the human rights, so precious to the advocates down the centuries, of limited government? Human experience teaches us differently. This is the crisis of modern political thought.

The Need for Nurturing Spiritual Attitudes

Within this crisis congregate the problems of modern society, because our many social institutions have become so enmeshed in the machinery of the state that any break-up of government threatens to dissolve society. To alleviate this situation there is powerful need for spiritual attitudes: courtesy, kindliness, forbearance, tolerance, mutual understanding, faith in God and in each other. Such social institutions as the family, business corporations, labor unions, professional societies, farm bureaus, trade associations have – in the spirit of the times – come to rely more and more on government to settle and support their affairs Juvenile delinquency, adult delinquency, divorce, broken homes, industrial strife – all too often we seek remedies through passing laws, setting up agencies and bureaus, when what is also needed is a nurturing of man’s fundamental religious nature. Divorce involves two holy beings, a man and a woman. The juvenile delinquent, the striking miner, the recalcitrant employer, all are children of God, with deep wellsprings of spiritual power. What is being done to keep this power alive and functioning? If the forces of materialism through the unlimited State come to dominate our lives completely, what forces can then be free to operate in the effort to fulfill the great spiritual needs of men? The state may try, often in a totalitarian way, as in Hitler’s Germany. But man is of such diverse outlook that spiritual freedom is perhaps his most precious freedom. So again, here is the crisis of modern politics and of modern thought.

What paths lead from this dilemma? This is the approach we seek.

Questions for Discussion

1. What is meant by “limited government”?

2. Does the doctrine of “limited government” imply that there are limits on “freedom” as well as on government? For example: Can society tolerate absolute freedom? Can a person, or group, do anything he pleases or must persons and groups accept certain responsibilities?

3. A main problem of government is to maintain the balance between freedom and authority. What are some of the limitations on personal freedom that might be considered desirable?

4. What are some possible limitations on personal freedom that might be considered undesirable?

5. What important human problems can you think of that governments must, of necessity and with satisfaction, solve?

6. Can you think of some human problems that cannot effectively be solved by governmental action?

7. How does governmental action differ from other forms of organized human activity? Does it differ in any respect? Why or why not?



  1. Although I see kernals of some modern conservative ideas here, I don’t see much that is uniquely Mormon.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — June 5, 2012 @ 8:30 am

  2. So far, I’m underwhelmed. Somewhat on the line of Bruce Crow, this appears to be a product of mainstream American post-war views with anti-communism, the Cold War, and Truman’s containment doctrine just in their initial stages. Although I do like the tantalizing promise of this rhetorical question of Elder Durham’s:

    “Or is the effective reach of the gospel confined to a few simple ordinances and individualistic beliefs having no connection with the War Assets Administration, British loans, the Politburo, or revolution in Indonesia?”

    Let’s see what develops . . .

    Comment by Grant — June 5, 2012 @ 6:50 pm

  3. The issue at the heart of the election this fall is already taking shape in this first lesson:

    State functions have increased enormously… Can we have unlimited government and preserve the human rights.. of limited government?…
    Within this crisis congregate the problems of modern society, because our many social institutions have become so enmeshed in the machinery of the state that any break-up of government threatens to dissolve society.

    The real issue at stake this election is whether We the People prefer big government or small government; whether it’s worth giving up some small amount of privacy, liberty, and income in exchange for security and greater prosperity.

    Comment by The Other Clark — June 6, 2012 @ 11:54 am

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.
TrackBack URI