Lesson 44: Being Good Citizens
Doctrine & Covenants 134
Purpose: To encourage Church members to be good citizens by participating in government, obeying the law, and strengthening the community.
Lesson Discussion and Application
[1. Participating in government
2. Obeying the laws of the land
3. Strengthening the community]
Write on board before class, in a place where it can remain throughout the lesson even if the board is used for other purposes during discussion: “In the Church … there is neither Scandinavian nor Swiss nor German nor Russian nor British, nor any other nationality.” – Joseph F. Smith, 1917
By coincidence, the United States formally entered World War I on April 6, 1917, just as the Latter-day Saints were meeting in the Tabernacle in General Conference. The War had already been raging for two and a half years, and there had been calls for many months for the United States to get involved. It is likely that every Latter-day Saint at that conference had long ago made up his mind which side he supported in that War.
President Joseph F. Smith rose to address the Saints on their responsibilities during that awful time:
In speaking of nationalities we all understand or should that in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints there is neither Greek nor Jew nor Gentile; in other words, there is neither Scandinavian nor Swiss nor German nor Russian nor British, nor any other nationality. We have become brothers in the household of faith, and we should treat the people from these nations that are at war with each other, with due kindness and consideration. (Joseph F. Smith, “Address,” Conference Reports, April 1917, 2-12)
The Church has grown far beyond anything that President Smith knew in his day – today he might not hesitate to say that “in the Church there is neither Mongolian nor Indonesian nor Bolivian nor Belarus.” And I think that, in the same spirit, we can say that “in the Church there is neither Republican nor Democrat nor Libertarian; there is neither supporter of Senator Mike Lee nor opponent of Senator Harry Reid; there is neither anti-trade union nor pro-ACLU.”
Our lesson today is on being good citizens under secular government. Our ground rules today are that we do not forget that while we are citizens of a secular government, we are also members of the Church and citizens in the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom not only includes Latter-day Saints who live in many countries, under many forms of government; it also includes American Latter-day Saints whose ideas of policy and leadership may be very different from your own. Anything we say today needs to be said “with due kindness and consideration,” in President Smith’s words, and needs to avoid partisanship.
I’ll leave President Smith’s words on the board, and if I need to point to it during discussion, you’ll understand that I think we’re straying into territory that we should avoid.
In 1835, the headquarters of the Church were in Kirtland, Ohio. The Kirtland Temple was under construction and would be dedicated the next year. It was a time of relative peace in Kirtland – the apostasy that would threaten to rip the Church apart was still two years away. A large body of the Saints had settled in Missouri several years earlier, and there had already been quite a bit of trouble – the Saints had been driven out of Jackson County and had resettled in Clay County. The Saints in Ohio had sent a body of armed men – Zion’s Camp – to try to help the Saints return to their Jackson County homes, but had returned to Kirtland unsuccessful.
Even with the Saints in Ohio living at relative peace with each other and with their non-Mormon neighbors, the warlike events in Missouri were raising questions and debates. Were the Mormons abolitionists, as the pro-slavery Missourians believed? Did the Mormons believe in being subject to civil law, or were they going to raise private armies to attack their neighbors, as some people believed was the purpose of Zion’s Camp? Were Mormons really Americans, heirs to the principles of the American Revolution, or were they renegades and radicals? These are the kinds of questions that were being discussed in newspapers and debating societies around the country.
In August 1835, a general priesthood meeting was convened in Kirtland. The conference was directed by Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon. Joseph Smith was not there; he was absent on a mission in Michigan. The primary business of the conference was the formal acceptance of the Book of Commandments – the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants – as scripture, for the government and instruction of the Church.
As another piece of business at that conference, Oliver Cowdery stood and read a paper he had written, with the title “Of Governments and Laws in General.” He felt that this statement was necessary to clarify for the non-Mormon press the Mormon position on government, in response to the speculations and accusations that were being made. This is a document that Oliver Cowdery wrote himself, during Joseph’s absence and without Joseph’s input. It was not a revelation in the way we usually think of revelations, but of course Oliver Cowdery was a counselor to Joseph Smith and was entitled to inspiration in his calling. The priesthood assembly voted to accept that statement on government as an accurate summary of the Church’s position, and voted to have it added to the Book of Commandments. A few weeks later, when Joseph Smith returned to Kirtland, he read the declaration and said that there was nothing in it that was contrary to the will of God, and he allowed its addition to the Book of Commandments.
That statement on government is known to us to day as Section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants, and is accepted by the Church as scripture.
Let’s turn to Section 134 now.
A declaration of belief regarding governments and laws in general, adopted by unanimous vote at a general assembly of the Church held at Kirtland, Ohio, August 17, 1835. Many Saints gathered together to consider the proposed contents of the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. At that time, this declaration was given the following 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.”
1–4, Governments should preserve freedom of conscience and worship; 5–8, All men should uphold their governments and owe respect and deference to the law; 9–10, Religious societies should not exercise civil powers; 11–12, Men are justified in defending themselves and their property.]
Read verses 1-3:
1 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.
2 We believe 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.
3 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 law 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.
Do these verses explicitly endorse any specific form of government, or the government of any specific country?
According to verse 1, what are the purposes of God in establishing the general principle of government?
According to verse 2, what are some basic requirements that we believe should be supported by government, regardless of the specific form of government?
If a particular government does not embody these principles – if, say, a government does not allow the right and control of property – does this verse say that such a government is wicked and contrary to the will of God? What does it say is the problem with such a government? [No such government can “exist in peace.”]
Two kinds of government are mentioned in verse 3, what are they? Are there other types of governments, beyond “the voice of the people” or “the will of the sovereign”?
According to verse 3, laws that provide for “the good and safety of society” are not enough – in order to be practical, those laws have to be administered by people holding offices and fulfilling the duties of those offices. Do you agree with that, or do you think it is possible for a society to function with only a set of laws and without government officials to administer those laws?
Verse 3 refers to administering the law “in equity and justice.” What is “equity”? What is “justice”? How are they different, and why are both necessary? In the Church, we often use another phrase that means the same thing, but that we may not think of in terms of government – what phrase is that? [mercy and justice]
Let’s read verse 4:
4 We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul.
This verse speaks of the relationship of civil government and religion. Is one or the other more important, more vital, than the other? Where do the rights of religion end and the rights of government begin, and vice versa?
As a practical matter, how can we defend the rights of religion – the rights of conscience and the freedom of the soul – if government civil government limits what actions can be taken by an individual or church?
In September, the Church posted some material on the Internet with regard to religious freedom (http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/official-statement/religious-freedom). Along with explaining religious freedom and why it matters, and outlining the duties that come along with religious freedom, those materials listed three bullet points under the heading “What We Can Do”
* Learn about religious freedom — what it is, how it works and the issues that threaten it.
* Practice religious freedom — respect the religious beliefs of others and the beliefs and opinions of those with no religion. Be civil in your conversations and interactions, both face to face and on the Internet.
* Join with others to promote religious freedom — get involved in your community wherever you feel comfortable. Use the Internet and social media to help others learn about religious freedom.
What resources do we have for learning about religious freedom?
What are some specific examples of practicing religious freedom?
How can we join with others in the promotion of religious freedom?
Let’s go back to Section 134, and read verse 5:
5 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.
If we disagree with a government action or policy, how far are we justified in resisting that policy or action? Without identifying any specifically partisan example, do you think that in Utah or in the United States as a whole, we ever cross the line between resistance that is justified, and “sedition and rebellion”? What can we as individual Church members do if we see our fellow citizens crossing that line?
6 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 owe 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.
What is our duty when an elected or appointed official is someone we don’t like, either because of his personal character or his political positions?
We’ll skip the next verses in the interest of time, but you should really read them on your own. Verse 7 returns to the relationship between religion and civil government; verse 8 speaks of dealing with crime; verse 9 calls for both the prevention of sectarian religious influence on government and the prevention of government favoring or disfavoring one church over another.
7 We believe that rulers, states, and governments have a right, and are 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.
8 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.
9 We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied.
Verse 10 enumerates a principle that was especially important in the Kirtland era, and throughout the 19th century, in telling the public that the Church did not claim the right to replace civil government in the lives of its members. Let’s read verse 10:
10 We believe that all religious societies have a right to deal with their members for disorderly conduct, according to the rules and regulations of such societies; provided that such dealings be for fellowship and good standing; but we do not believe that any religious society has authority to try men on the right of property or life, to take from them this world’s goods, or to put them in jeopardy of either life or limb, or to inflict any physical punishment upon them. They can only excommunicate them from their society, and withdraw from them their fellowship.
There have been times, as in the first months of settlement in the Salt Lake Valley, when Church organization substituted for civil government when there was no civil government in place. There have been other times where, in the name of Church unity or in claiming the right to speak up in debates over moral issues, the Church has endorsed candidates or opposed policies. It would be bad history to pretend that those actions did not frequently occur throughout the 19th century and in the early 20th century. That is a very different thing, though, from what this verse is talking about. What are the limits of penalties the Church can impose on a member for what this verse calls “disorderly conduct”?
11 We believe that men should appeal to the civil law for redress of all wrongs and grievances, where personal abuse is inflicted or the right of property or character infringed, where such laws exist as will protect the same; but we believe that all men are justified in defending themselves, their friends, and property, and the government, from the unlawful assaults and encroachments of all persons in times of exigency, where immediate appeal cannot be made to the laws, and relief afforded.
Does the Church endorse pacifism on the part of its members? How do you reconcile this verse with the teaching of Jesus that says we should “turn the other cheek”?
Verse 12 is a very strange verse to our modern ears, but one that was very important in 1835 and for years afterward, when non-Mormons suspected us of secretly promoting rebellion by slaves:
12 We believe it just to preach the gospel to the nations of the earth, and warn the righteous to save themselves from the corruption of the world; but we do not believe it right to interfere with bond-servants, neither preach the gospel to, nor baptize them contrary to the will and wish of their masters, nor to meddle with or influence them in the least to cause them to be dissatisfied with their situations in this life, thereby jeopardizing the lives of men; such interference we believe to be unlawful and unjust, and dangerous to the peace of every government allowing human beings to be held in servitude.
This raises some interesting questions. While all of us should be supporters of law and order, I think most of us would probably be pleased if we could point to our early Church as an example of the defenders of freedom for all men and women, regardless of race or color. We were not – we were pragmatists rather than idealists, and did not endorse “interference” in slavery.
There may be, from time to time, social issues or legal restrictions about which we become passionate – we deeply believe that it is a matter of justice to do X, a matter of conscience to support Y. When and how is it appropriate to become involved? What are the limits of involvement?
We have a duty, both as Latter-day Saints and as citizens of a government, to be involved in government – to be informed, to participate, to work for the betterment of our communities. This duty is imposed, in our case, by our living under a government that depends on the involvement of its citizens for its legitimacy and success. This duty is also imposed, in our case, by being Latter-day Saints, who recognize that governments are instituted by God, and that governments have a major impact on our being allowed to exercise our religion and to achieve the purposes for which we came to this earth.
In closing, I’d like to share with you a few lines I recently read in a talk given by Gordon B. Hinckley, which for me summarizes both our duty to be involved in civic matters and our duty to behave righteously when we are so engaged:
Brethren, teach those for whom you are responsible the importance of good civic manners. Encourage them to become involved, remembering in public deliberations that the quiet voice of substantive reasoning is more persuasive than the noisy, screaming voice of protest. In accepting such responsibilities our people will bless their communities, their families, and the Church. (Regional Representatives Seminar, April 1, 1988.) – Gordon B. Hinckley. The Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997), pp. 130-131.