A lesson from the 1961 Gospel Doctrine manual (written by Harvey Fletcher) discusses the need for law and the exercise of citizenship.
It also, unfortunately, contains examples and language that was more comfortable in 1961 than it is in 2012.
“Without law all must certainly fall into chaos.” (Joseph Smith, Documentary History of the Church2:12.)
When the book of Doctrine and Covenants was first printed in 1835 there was placed at the end, in Section 102, an article entitled, “Of Governments and Laws in General,” with this preamble:
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 section was then accepted by the membership of the Church by unanimous consent at the general assembly of the Church held on the 17th of August, 1835, at Kirtland, Ohio, then the headquarters of the Church. This has always been considered the official pronouncement of the Church on this matter and is printed in our current editions of the Doctrine and Covenants as Section 134.
The early part of this declaration reads as follows:
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.
We believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws be framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right of control of property, and the protection of life.
We believe that all governments necessarily require civil officers and magistrates to enforce the laws of the same; and that such as will administer the laws in equity and justice should be sought for and upheld by the voice of the people if a republic, or the will of the sovereign. (Doctrine and Covenants 134:1-3.)
These are very sweeping statements with a very broad concept of government, and every government which is not despotic and which governs with a sense of the well-being of the individual would be supported by this declaration. There is a good reason for this, for the type and character of a government must be suited to the intelligence, knowledge and understanding of its peoples. This is being well demonstrated in present world events. For example, the peoples of Africa are now attempting to change from their tribal existence and government, which has been guided somewhat by more advanced nations by whom they have been held as colonies, to a condition wherein they govern themselves as independent nations. It is quite obvious that they are not intellectually prepared to do this by completely democratic procedures, such as are exercised by some of the more dominant nations of the day.
The restored Gospel, because of the conditions of its founding, causes us to be especially conscious of the government of the United States of America. The principles of this government, as is also true with many present-day governments, are based on a long experience of man with governments which are now known only in history. These include ancient Israel, the Roman Empire, Feudal England, and Colonial America. But we have a belief that God, also, influenced the organization of the government of the United States of America, so that His Church could find a suitable political climate in which its restoration could come about.
In a revelation, counseling Joseph Smith, the Lord said:
And again I say unto you, those who have been scattered by their enemies, it is my will that they 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.
Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.
And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood. (Doctrine and Covenants 101:76-80.)
We can be quite sure that the Lord has guided the development of governmental systems in other nations also, where these nations recognized God as the Creator and established governments which would operate for the eternal benefit of the governed. Accordingly, there are on the earth today many good governments, and while they differ in detail and somewhat in method ,the results for the governed may be broadly the same. All such governments should be supported by the Latter-day Saints who are subject to them.
We do not believe that the evolution of government into newer and more advanced forms is yet come to an end. This subject was discussed by Joseph Smith in an editorial in the Times and Seasons (Nauvoo newspaper) on July 15, 1842. (See also Documentary History of the Church 5:63.) In this editorial he wrote:
It has been the design of Jehovah, from the commencement of the world, and is His purpose now, to regulate the affairs of the world in His own time, to stand as a head of the universe, and take the reins of government in His own hand. When that is done, judgment will be administered in righteousness; anarchy and confusion will be destroyed, and “nations will learn war no more.”
Thus, the governments of the earth will ultimately unite as one and become a theocracy, and eternal righteousness will furnish the principles on which that rule will be based.
But until this comes, until God himself establishes this rule – and no man knows when this will be – men are left with the existing governments to coordinate and regulate civil affairs; and these governments must be supported by the people, for anarchy, misery, and death will be the lot of those who try to live without the shelter of responsible government, and in such condition men would revert to jungle living.
The Exercise of Citizenship
In many nations today where the Church thrives, the citizen is permitted, and even encouraged, to express his opinions on policy matters by means of the ballot. And by this same means he also elects those who are to exercise civil authority over him. In areas where the privilege of the ballot is now withheld, the people are usually not yet ready to guide their own destinies, because of the lack of education and information which leads to the understanding necessary to make choices in a proper manner.
When a citizen becomes of voting age, or when he moves into a new community, he should very early learn the details of the voting privilege and become qualified to perform this function of citizenship. Since the judgments at the ballot box are no better than the judgments of those doing the balloting, every voting citizen should seek information on the civic problems of the day, select the best alternatives, and then exercise his right to vote as a sacred duty as well as a privilege. It is hoped that every Latter-day Saint will gauge his thinking on civil matters on the basis of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the prophets of God, both ancient and modern; for then he will be pointing his choices toward eternal goodness. Too many persons, when contemplating the vote, ask themselves the question: “What do I gain by bothering about political questions and voting?” A good citizen does not ask such a question, but rather asks, “What can I do to help in making my government better – better for all who live under its rule?”
A government regardless of its form is no better than those who are called or permitted to govern. On this matter the Lord has said:
… 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. Nevertheless, when the wicked rule, the people mourn. wherefore, honest man 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. (Doctrine and Covenants 98:5-10.)
It is wisdom, as pointed out in this scripture, that we should be especially careful to use the ballot to select good and righteous rulers, and we should be diligent in this matter.
One should discover the persons who have politica linfluence in his community, and inquire of their friends and neighbors as to their background, and why and how they happen to be in or seeking political position. Is it because they really want to serve the people, or do they have a personal motive, usually selfish, which leads them to seek this position? If their purposes are less than fully honorable and righteous, then we should do all we can to replace them in office with men who understand the second great commandment and at all times attempt to practice it. Every community has persons of high purpose who are civic minded and who could be called to rule over us, and these we should seek out and give our confidence and support. A vigilant citizenry, supported by a free and wide awake press, can usually force out of office dishonest, careless, and inept leaders. If this cannot be done, the government is likely to be a government by opportunists, or, worse, by despots.
If there be political parties in the nation in which you live, then it is your duty to examine the tenets of the parties and become an affiliate of that one which most nearly espouses the principles of government in which you believe. Not alone this, but you should also take an active part in moulding the tenets of the party to make them fully correspond with Christian principles.
In several of the democratic countries where political parties are involved in the processes of government, the members of the party not in power at a particular time speak of themselves as constituting the “loyal opposition”; loyal, in the sense that always they are for their nation and its best interests; in opposition, in that they examine carefully, and even challenge, the doctrines, philosophies, and activities of the party which at the moment is in the seat of government. This is good, for it keeps under close deceit, chicanery and other dishonorable practices. It subjects these to the fierce light of public information, and thus tends to keep governments, and the individual men in power, out of holy and unwise practices and actions. We should never give up the privilege nor the practice of constituting ourselves as part of the loyal opposition when such is needed to correct wrong in government.
In the democratic nations today men are not condemned by high government officials, but by a jury selected from among their citizen associates. Thus a citizen may be called at any time to jury duty. Many people seek to evade this duty by various evasive means. One who does so is not a good citizen. The jury system was purposely organized so that men accused of crime could have a fair, unbiased trial. The fairness can be assured only when every responsible citizen accepts the call to act on a jury. If the more capable citizens all sidestep this duty, the resulting juries may render strange and unintelligent decisions; and justice is not served in this way.
Other civic duties which every good citizen should accept are: the response to a call for help in emergency situations, the call to military service, the honest payment of taxes, willingness to serve on local committees established for the welfare of the community, and soon. In the last analysis, the real objective of good government is to provide a code of procedures and individual actions which will make it possible for a large group of individuals to live and work together in a community to the end that the common welfare of all may reach its most desirable state; and so to control those who are selfish and undisciplined that they cannot thwart this purpose.
The highest objective of government will probably only be reached when all citizens are converted so that they live the good life, and this is brought about by obeying the second great commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” It may be that this will not be fully achieved until the Lord, Himself, comes to rule and reign as we are promised by prophecy.