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Political Tuesday: Declaration of Belief: Lesson 5 (1949-50)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 18, 2012

Lesson 5 – The Obligations of Citizenship and the Responsibility of the State – (D. & C. 134: 5, 6, 7, 8)

Elder G. Homer Durham

For Tuesday, March 28, 1950

Objective: To show the responsibility of the State to enact proper laws and of the people to uphold them.

Relation of the Individual to Types of Government

The rise in Communism, Fascism, and various types of totalitarian States has emphasized the problem that modern man has in adjusting the needs of his personal life to that of the group. In Communist countries, men must bow to the will of the State as interpreted by its Communist rulers. In Communism, as in other dictatorships, the highest good and, therefore, the noblest obligation of citizenship (if it can be called noble), is to follow “the party line” and obey accordingly the leaders of the State. The same doctrine in one form or another characterizes all totalitarian States. What are the obligations of citizenship? Must men always, blindly, obey? What are the responsibilities of the State to its citizens? Here are two fundamental questions the nature of which permeates headlines in the daily newspaper. The Declaration of Belief Regarding Government and Laws charts a certain, clear course as to what the answers to these questions should be.

Upholding Just Governments

Should men always obey the State? Should they obey every law? The Declaration answers (verse five): 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 should be punished accordingly; 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.

When should men obey the State? Should men obey every State? The answer is clear. All men, everywhere, should support the government in which they reside so long as they are protected in their fundamental rights. Perhaps the most fundamental right is that of free agency. And the free agency of man expresses itself most fundamentally in freedom of conscience, particularly religious freedom. Have governments the right to enact any law they see fit? The answer is definitely “no.” Government has the right to enact laws. But only such laws, says the Declaration, as “are best calculated to secure the public interest; at the same time, however, bound to enact laws for the protection of all citizens in the free exercise of their religious belief; but we do not believe that they have a right in justice to deprive citizens of this privilege, or proscribe them in their opinions, so long as a regard and reverence are shown to the laws and such religious opinions do not justify sedition nor conspiracy.

The early Christian church met with this problem in the days of the Roman Empire. The statues of the emperor were placed in every community and emperor worship was one of the requirements of life in the empire. Can a Christian worship the emperor and still worship God? Can man obey the State and at the same time be loyal to his God? This is one of the great questions that has agitated political life for thousands of years. Jesus answered this question by the statement, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” When do we know when a thing is Caesar’s? When do we know when loyalty is due to God?

The Declaration in these verses and particularly in the seventh verse gives us a guide. Latter-day Saints are obliged to obey a government which enacts laws for the protection of all citizens “in the free exercise of their religious belief.” But religious freedom does not give the individual Latter-day Saint nor any other citizen – according to this political doctrine – the right to use his religious opinion for seditious purposes nor to conspire against the government. The Communists in the United States and elsewhere today always make a great deal of talk about freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and other freedoms. However, they use this freedom as the basis for sedition and conspiracy. Verse seven of the Declaration of Belief states that this is not justified. Regard and reverence are due to the law and “religious opinions do not justify sedition nor conspiracy.” Communism is a religion, and its “religious opinions” do not justify conspiracy.

Punishment of Crime

The State has a right to protect itself so long as the State itself protects its citizens in the free exercise of their rights. Sedition and conspiracy against such a State, however, constitute crime. Verse eight suggests: We believe that the commission of crime should be punished according to the nature of the offense; that murder, treason, robbery, theft, and the breach of the general peace, in all respects, should be punished according to their criminality and their tendency to evil among men, by the laws of that government in which the offense is committed; and for the public peace and tranquility all men should step forward and use their ability in bringing offenders against good laws to punishment.

One of the evidences of a decline in morality – a most dangerous political condition – is when citizens grow apathetic towards the commission of petty acts of criminality. Men are not justified in using their freedom to undermine the State, “all men should step forward and use their ability in bringing offenders against good laws to punishment.” The meaning of this seems perfectly clear.

At a first reading, verse eight might suggest the theory of punishment to be found in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, The Mikado, “let the punishment fit the crime.” What does the Declaration means when it says, “the commission of crime should be punished according to the nature of the offense”? Some clue may be found in the teachings of Joseph Smith. When he ran for the Presidency of the United States in the 1844 campaign, Joseph Smith’s platform included the doctrine that prisons of the land should be turned into seminaries of learning. In other words, punishment should eventually take the form of rehabilitation. This is not the doctrine of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. It is not the harsh concept of deforming the body by cutting off limbs or other forms of cruel and unusual punishment. At the same time, the doctrine is clear that tendencies to evil among men must not go unnoticed. “All men should step forward” says the Declaration,. What does it mean to step forward? Let the class discuss this point. How can we today step forward and use our ability in sustaining good laws and in bringing offenders against good laws to punishment? This is a question of the hour.

Questions for Discussion and Lesson Helps

Special Project: If possible, secure, bring to class, and read a copy of the “Ordinances on Religious Liberty and Free Assembly” presented to the Nauvoo City Council, March 1, 1841, by Joseph Smith. (Copies may be seen in Joseph Smith: Prophet-Statesman, pp. 81-83; or in the Documentary History of the Church, IV, pp. 306-307.)

1. When should men obey the law as the voice of the State and government?

2. When men disobey the law, when may they properly be punished by the government?

3. Is punishment of law-breakers by the government ever unjust? Under what conditions, if any?

4. Can members of the class suggest some good examples of laws that respect freedom of conscience and, at the same time, meet the public interest?

5. Can members of the class suggest some good examples of law or governmental action that may possibly disregard freedom of conscience and the public interest?

6. What distinction is possible between “public interest” and “national interest”?

7. What is the importance of the principle of the “rule of law?”

8. What is the relation between the “rule of law” and the principle of “limited government”?

9. What should the attitude of latter-day Saints be towards law enforcement? (What kind of law?)

10. Note that the Declaration, verse eight, says we should “step forward … in bringing offenders against good laws to punishment.” What are the tests of a good law?


1 Comment »

  1. What an interesting and appropriate gospel lesson.

    I think no matter where your political views fall their always is (should?) be a tension between political and religious ideals. I was struck particularly by the question of Public interest and National interest. (My mind contrasted them not against each other , but instead against personal interest.)

    With a large part of the electorate, on the right and left, fighting for personal rights and liberties, I wonder how often we step back and ask ourselves whether those personal choices are in the public or national interest.

    Is a particular tax policy in the public interest, even if I personally do not benefit from it?
    Does a particular military action help or hurt the national interest?
    Does a public policy that annoys me help the public interest in some way?
    Does this thing I am about to say or do, impact the national interests? Does the fact that I am protected in saying it mean that I should say it?

    Certainly this makes me think that public and national interest may well be more important to Christ, rather than if we made a bad choice that hurt other but we officially had a right to do so, when we come to answer for our lives. We claim the personal right to apply to the Word of Wisdom and wearing modest clothing, as a right of conscience.

    There are lots of areas were we do not have direct revelations, beyond D&C 134. I think that is wise, since it gives us a framework to think about our choices, without being told exactly what to think. In a worldwide church it would be impossible to answer every question that will ever come up for every member. Since we are given a framework to think and pray, I would expect that whether we follow those thought processes will be more important than the exact answer or choice we make.

    Comment by Julia — September 18, 2012 @ 12:21 pm

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