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Political Tuesday: The Tasks of Modern Citizenship (1949)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 03, 2013

The Tasks of Modern Citizenship

By Dr. G. Homer Durham
Head of Political Science Department, University of Utah

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)

The incident calling forth this statement of Jesus may be forgotten. But the force of the message involved carries down to modern times. What things shall be rendered unto Caesar? What loyalties? What demands may modern government make upon the individual in the name of the State? What things are due only to God? Conversely, what are the rights of the individual, if any, in the State? In the Church? What demands may the Church properly make upon the individual, with what methods? Should religious organizations, the churches, set the example for modern governments in dealings with the individual? Most men would agree that an ideal religious institution should properly set the example, not only by precept, but by living institutional practice.

The eleventh article of faith declares:

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

The twelfth article of faith says:

We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.

The Declaration of Belief Regarding Governments and Laws in General (D. & C. 134:2) suggests that the following human rights should be held inviolate:

1. The free exercise of conscience
2. The control of property
3. The right to life

These doctrines require respect for God and Church, for the State and government, and also for the individual. The worth of the individual soul and its free agency receive the highest of all values in the gospel. As God respects the rights of man and “will force no man to heaven,” so the restored Church claims no prerogatives of social action over the minds or bodies of men. The Declaration on Governments and Laws reserves to the Church a single sanction or enforcement power – the power of excommunication. And as Thomas Jefferson once wrote, such action”neither picks my pocket nor bites my leg” – although serious social, economic, and physical consequences may follow spiritual loss. Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants says “Amen to the priesthood or the authority” of any man who undertakes to exercise unrighteous dominion over the souls of men. The Church, in its own government, not only respects the individual rights and testimony of the membership, but in applying rules of Church discipline and government, utilizes the doctrine of common consent as revealed to the prophet Joseph Smith. (See D. & C. 20:65, 67, 81-82; 26:2; 28:10-13; 41:2; 107:12, 27, 32, 82-84.) Thus, properly developed, the restored Church respects the individual rights of man, individually and collectively.

Although the Priesthood is restored and could function as Priesthood, the Church as a Church, modern revelation makes clear, cannot function as a church without the law of common consent and the free, voluntary support of its members. This doctrine provides an excellent example and parallel for the tasks of modern citizenship. For, without individual rights there could be no effective citizenship. A totalitarian church could not qualify as the true church, respecting the free agency of man. Similarly, a totalitarian State substitutes abject obedience and slavish consent for intelligent, active citizenship. The probation of man, the gospel plan, requires freedom of conscience as the basis of both Church membership and citizenship. The Lord’s respect for the things of Caesar is only another way of indicating his divine respect for the free agency of man as a fundamental truth.

What shall be rendered unto Caesar? Can Caesar command anything? And then, must we obey? The answer is that the State cannot, if the rights of man are respected, require men to do anything and everything. The rights of individual freedom of conscience, property, and life should be held inviolate by the State. Beyond this, with the implication that governments rest on the consent of the governed, we are obligated to obey the laws of the land – provided (D. & C. 134 & 5) that they meet two tests: (1) conformance to the public interest; (2) respect for, and holding sacred, the freedom of conscience. The tasks of modern citizenship involve, therefore, two fundamental considerations:

First, the citizen must have sufficient discernment to understand the true sphere of the State. He must see that governmental activity always respects freedom of conscience and meets the public interest. Lawmaking, or any political activity, contrary to freedom of conscience, for any child of God, should be opposed. This is a citizenship task of preventive, negative character. The second, or positive aspect, is to see that laws are framed and administered “for the good and safety of society” (D. & C. 134:1). This positive, affirmative aspects leads to a related major task of modern citizenship, namely, “obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”

In order to influence and positively use freedom of conscience, we must learn our rights and duties as citizens. President John Taylor taught that it was as important for us to study political principles as to study religion, “to know and comprehend the social and political interests of man, and to learn and be able to teach that which would be best calculated to promote the interests of the world” (The Gospel Kingdom, pp. 297-298).

How might this be done by a member of Relief Society? The membership of the Relief Society is international. The following references to American practice, therefore, though local, are typical of practices in other nations.

First, it is the duty of a member of the Relief Society, if possible, to qualify as a voter. In the American states the qualifications vary from state to state. In Utah the basic requirements include age, residence, and registration. One must be twenty-one years of age or upwards, have been a citizen of the land for at least ninety days preceding the election, have resided in Utah for one year, in the county four months, and in the precinct sixty days. Property qualifications are expressly forbidden by Article IV, Section 8, of the Utah Constitution.

Many people fail to qualify as voters, usually by failing to register. Then many fail to exercise their franchise on election day. In the Salt Lake City municipal elections as few as twenty percent of the voters sometimes participate. This means that a mayor and city commission may be elected by an organized minority of as few as ten per cent of the qualified voters! In general Presidential elections, Utah leads the forty-eight American states in the percentage of qualified voters who go to the polls, around eighty per cent. But in municipal affairs, school board, and other by-elections, interest often lags. This often means great power for those groups which have the foresight and initiative to organize behind the candidates of their choice.

Secondly, after qualifying and participating as a regular voter, an active citizen needs to consider the question: “How can I influence the nomination of persons seeking election?” It is one thing to go to the polls. It is another thing to determine whose names get on the ballot in the first place! In states having the direct primary and a simple filing system, as few as five people can nominate a person for public office. In other cases, a simple designation of candidacy by a single individual does the work, providing a filing fee is paid. In Utah the filing fee is one-fourth of one per cent of the total term-salary of the office sought. Thus the filing fee for the United States Senate is $187.50, for Congressmen, $62.50, for Governor, $75, for  a member of the State Legislature, $3.

There are many ways to influence the nomination of officers. The oldest, perhaps most certain, and most influential in the long run, is to actively affiliate with one of the major political parties in your community. Someone has to decide who runs for office. Fundamentally, this is the work of the political party. But friendly groups can also wield a strong influence. Organization is the keynote to success in all political activity. This leads to a third suggestion.

In many communities, outstanding women have formed non-partisan or bi-partisan civic counsels. In Utah, for example, we find the Women’s Legislative Council, and such organizations as the Salt Lake Council of Women. These bodies study public questions and their members may then fearlessly present their views to legislators, executives, and administrative bodies. It is an old adage that “the squeaking wheel gets the grease.” Interpreted for tasks of modern citizenship, this could mean that an effectively organized body of women, in every community, large or small, can have a distinctive and effective voice in public policy. By common consent and discussion, the group may decide when to exercise calm restraint and be silent, and when to persist with public officers in seeking necessary changes and in securing public improvements. This is a political world and we live in a peculiarly political age. The Prophet Joseph Smith said:

It is our duty to concentrate all our influence to make popular that which is sound and good, and unpopular that which is unsound. ’Tis right, politically, for a man who has influence to use it. … Joseph Smith: Prophet-Statesman, page 205).

Woman suffrage has been justified, among other reasons, in the hope that the enfranchisement of women would result in greater influence of the ideals of womanhood and motherhood in public affairs. This has not yet been realized. Commenting, a leading American text has this to say:

Such evidence as exists … indicates that, by and large, women voters are not very different from men voters. Some are vigilant and intelligent, many are uninformed and apathetic; some make up their own minds, others merely do as a ward [political division] leader, a member of the family tells them, many go to the polls voluntarily and with scrupulous regularity, many go but seldom and only when pressed to do so, and more still do not go at all. Suffrage for women is sound in principle, and entirely correct as a matter of policy; but it has not worked … a revolution (Ogg and Ray, Introduction to American Government, 8th ed., pp. 162-163).

Perhaps women’s suffrage will never work “a revolution.” Perhaps it should not be expected to do so. But, nevertheless, as the home, family, ward, and stake would be pretty dull affairs and institutions without the Relief Society, so, too, it is clear that the political community may and should benefit from the organized activity of women. The Relief Society is not in politics and probably never will be. That is not its particular mission, as we understand things. But, if I may be permitted the thought, more members of the Relief Society, whether Republicans or Democrats, as well as other righteous women everywhere, should be in politics! Of course, this activity and its extent will depend on the inclination and interest of the individuals concerned.

Finally, in this short space, in addition to (1) voting; (2) influencing the nominating process; and (3) engaging in some organized political activity of desired degree, every modern woman should attempt to keep informed on public questions. What, for example, are the issues involved in the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949?

The search for information on which to base successful citizenship is never-ending. But a few suggestions may be mentioned here.

Would you like to know the requirements and procedures for voting and holding office in your state? In nearly every instance, a letter to the secretary of state at your state capitol will bring you a voter’s handbook, a copy of the state election and suffrage laws, or some other convenient pamphlet. Your state university, in nearly every instance, has bulletins which will be of some service. National, state, and local headquarters of the major political parties canal ways provide applicants with materials. If no other address is known, one may write the “Democratic National Committee,” or, ”The Republican National Committee,” Washington, D.C.

The above information is purely technical, and once learned, has little value except for ready reference. Do you read a daily newspaper? If so, what in it do you read? The news of public policy, as well as the comics, the women’s page, and the dollar-day advertisements? Ten minutes each day with the front pages will keep you informed about the United Nations, foreign policies, national, state, and home affairs. Always “wade through” important documents, like the text of the North Atlantic Treaty, a presidential message, an important speech. Then you can make up your own mind as to its worth. Also recommended is selecting a radio news broadcaster of your choice, not the editorializing, sermonizing variety (although they have their own uses), but one of the factual, concise, type. What comes in the news may affect your pocketbook and your children’s happiness. It will pay you to listen to a good newscast regularly.

Our Church maintains, in the Intermountain Region, one of the finest daily newspapers and one of the best radio services in the world. They are worthy of our patronage as we seek for information and pursue the tasks of citizenship. Moreover, our Church magazines increasingly are giving space to questions and discussions of modern factual problems. Usually, too, they contain a basis for evaluation and critical judgment of the issues of the day. If we are to be saved as fast as we gain knowledge, we will need to include knowledge pertinent to the tasks of citizenship. May we all be good citizens and make worthy use of our rights to free conscience, property, and life in the modern world!



  1. He seems to like the major parties. D-News & Bonneville Broadcasting get plugs. D-News used to be “one of the finest.” And I love this:

    “Also recommended is selecting a radio [Cable, Internet] news broadcaster of your choice, not the editorializing, sermonizing variety (although they have their own uses), but one of the factual, concise, type.”

    Comment by Grant — September 3, 2013 @ 8:29 am

  2. Interesting. Where was this first published?

    Comment by David Y. — September 3, 2013 @ 10:26 am

  3. It was a Relief Society lesson, published in the Magazine.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 3, 2013 @ 10:48 am

  4. Interesting that Durham concentrates so much on national and international issues, and not so much on local issues where individuals can have the most impact.

    Given today’s information glutted society, local issues still get overlooked, and finding local news apart from TV, which tends to focus on sensational issues, is harder. It is too easy as well to just go to internet sites that feed our own biases. For every legitimate news site, there are dozens of issue oriented sites that cater to a specific and narrow demographic. It’s not that you can’t get some valid information, but that the breadth of coverage tends to have narrowed, and you never have to hear alternative viewpoints if you don’t want to.

    Overall, good advice for now, even if the means of getting your information has all changed.

    Comment by kevinf — September 3, 2013 @ 3:05 pm

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