Political Tuesday — er, Thursday: The Constitution of the United States and Religious Liberty (1948)
This essay appeared in the Relief Society Magazine.
The Constitution of the United States and Religious Liberty
Preston D. Richards
Salt Lake City Attorney,
formerly Assistant Legal Advisor to the Secretary of State of the United States,
and formerly a member of the YM.M.I.A. General Board.
After more than 150 years of struggle and self-sacrifice our forefathers issued a Declaration of Independence, declaring:
We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This was a declaration of personal and religious liberty and had been brought about not by a controversy with the mother country over property rights of great material value – the entire cargo of tea destroyed in Boston Harbor had a value of less than 18,000 English pounds, and the tax amounted to only a few pence. But the principles involved were to the colonists worth more than life itself. Their fathers before them had abandoned everything they had of material value, and had wandered around Europe seeking personal liberty and the right to worship God according to their own conscience.
Eleven years later, and after bloodshed and victory, the colonists met to establish a government that would protect the liberties and the religious rights for which they had fought.
In the preamble to the Constitution, they declared:
We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The American statesmen who gave us our Constitution were, almost without exception, of English birth or descent, were experienced in government and had an intimate knowledge of the history, institutions, and common law of England and of humanity’s struggle for personal and religious liberty.
The principal end they had in view was to protect individual rights against arbitrary and despotic power, whether exercised by a king, Parliament, or by any government which might be set up by the people themselves.
They gave us a Constitution that does protect the individual against the arbitrary powers of the President and Congress by a careful separation of the branches of government, each of which is a check upon the other.
The instrument provides that:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …
At the point of the sword, in the year 1215, the people forced King John to give them the Magna Charta, the first great charter of personal liberty.
By the control of the “purse strings” in the year 1628, the Parliament forced Charles I to sign the Petition of Rights, the second great charter of personal liberty.
In 1689, after Parliament had declared the throne vacant and elected William and Mary as rulers, they approved the Bill of Rights, the third great charter of personal liberty.
These charters of personal liberty were attained through centuries of bloodshed and human sacrifice, and they formed the solid foundation upon which our Constitution was built by men whose ancestors had fought and bled to win them.
After the Constitutional Convention had been in session for four or five weeks without agreeing upon a single sentence or paragraph of the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin arose in the convention on June 28, 1787, and said, in part:
In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor. To that kind Providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity, and have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men, and if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that, Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this, and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel.
Whether the framers knew it or not, the same divine Providence that assisted the colonists in gaining their freedom, also directed the framers in establishing our Constitution. If you believe that the Lord ever has concerned himself with the affairs of men, then it is not difficult to believe that he had a hand in establishing our Government and our Constitution.
Save the coming of our Savior and the establishing of his Church no event that has occurred in the world’s history has contributed more to the happiness and well-being of mankind than the establishment of this Government under the Constitution of the United States. Therefore, if the Lord concerns himself with big and important things pertaining to the welfare of mankind, and we know he does, the framing of our Constitution was worthy of his attention and direction.
The Lord said to Joseph Smith, “I established the Constitution of this land” (D. & C.101:70).
When his people because of their religious belief had been driven from Independence, Missouri, and their homes confiscated and burned, and many of their members murdered Joseph Smith, the prophet of modern times, who was then in Kirtland, Ohio, organized a company of strong men to go to the rescue of those who had been so unjustly persecuted, but before applying force he asked guidance of the same Father of light that Benjamin Franklin had implored in the struggle for liberty. His prayers were similarly answered and the Lord spoke to him in these words:
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 …
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 … (D. & C. 101: 76 ff).
President Brigham Young made it plain that this Government, under our Constitution, was established by the Almighty himself, that he might have a nation on this earth guaranteeing sufficient religious liberty to its citizens that he could safely restore his gospel and establish his kingdom without the danger of its being destroyed. On this subject President Young said:
The Almighty …moved upon Columbus to launch forth upon the trackless deep to discover the American Continent; he moved upon the signers of the Declaration of Independence; and he moved upon Washington to fight and conquer, in the same way as he moved upon ancient and modern prophets each being inspired to accomplish the particular work he was called to perform in the times, seasons, and dispensations of the Almighty. God’s purpose in raising up these men and inspiring them with daring sufficient to surmount every opposing power, was to prepare the way for the formation of a true republican government.
We believe that the Lord has been preparing that when he should bring forth his work, that, when the set time should fully come, there might be a place upon his footstool where sufficient liberty of conscience should exist, that his saints might dwell in peace under the broad panoply of constitutional law and equal rights. In this view we consider that the men in the Revolution were inspired by the Almighty, to throw off the shackles of the mother government, with her established religion. For this cause were Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, and hosts of others inspired to deeds of resistance to the acts of the King of Great Britain, who might also have been led to those aggressive acts, for ought we know, to bring to pass the purposes of God, in thus establishing a new government upon a principle of greater freedom, a basis of self-government allowing the free exercise of religious worship (Discourses of Brigham Young , pp. 551-552).
Speaking of our Constitution and its framers, President Young said: “Although unknown to them, it was dictated by the revelations of Jesus Christ.”
The governments of Europe are now passing through a despotism which our ancestors passed through seven hundred years ago.
Stating it in another way, the countries of Europe, so far as concerns freeing themselves from despotism and establishing personal and religious liberty, are more than seven hundred years behind our Constitution of the United States.
There are some even within our own country who are now declaring that age and the years have made our Constitution obsolete.
I ask you, are the Ten Commandments of Moses obsolete because they were thundered forth from Sinai 4,000 years ago?
Have the years made obsolete the wisdom of Solomon?
Is the Sermon on the Mount obsolete because it was delivered almost 2,000 years ago?
Have 300 years made obsolete the drama of Shakespeare, or has it been made obsolete by the modern discovery of the silver screen?
Have 170 years made obsolete the Declaration of Independence?
Have the years made obsolete man’s love for liberty?
Have the years made obsolete man’s burning desire to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience?
The Constitution of the United States is the greatest charter of religious liberty ever written. It will never become obsolete so long as men love democracy more than despotism, liberty more than bondage, God more than the paganism of unbelief.