[This letter was written in late May 2013 in response to a portion of an article, which portion was entitled ‘Principles in the Public Square, as found in the February 2013 Ensign magazine. The text of this article can be found Here]
Dear Elder Dallin Oaks,
My name is Skyler Hamilton and I am writing this letter to address some specific concerns I have over some apparent discrepancies between your words and the words of other men of your position, as well as words of former Presidents of the church. I am hoping for some help in reconciling the differences due to the fact that the confusion is undeniable to those paying attention on civic affairs and legal matters.
There have been many things said and done throughout the years that have worried me, but in your recent article “Balancing Truth & Tolerance,” in the February 2013 Ensign, I noticed an open and seeming dissatisfaction with those Constitutional principles that have long been held up as the legal standard the church leadership has generally championed. Simply put, I see The Proper Role of Government by Ezra Taft Benson, which principles were echoed time and again in multiple general conference and devotional addresses, and your section on ‘Principles in the Public Square’ as mutually exclusive. Some clarification would be greatly desired.
I assure you that none of this is stated to be, in anyway, disrespectful of you, let alone your calling in the church, and is said with all due respect, but I have felt that this should not go without address.
You have frequently used the term “democracy” in speaking of American government and law. This seems very ironic to me, seeing how often you speak of and on the Constitution and the founding documents. These documents never mention the word, due to the fact that they were written by men who nearly all agreed on the flaws and errors of democracy. In fact, Article Four, Section Four of the Constitution guarantees that every state of the Union will have a Republican form of government. The founders championed republican principles, not purely “democratic” ones. The Rule of Law would be a misnomer in a society truly established on the maxim of majority will and majority rule. So, how could the Rule of Law be such an inspired part of our system, if the founders truly implemented the principle of “popular sovereignty” as you have described it?
In fact, John Adams even stated that “the very definition of a republic is ‘an empire of laws, and not of men.’” If our system is set up merely for majority rule and democracy, why would it matter if our allegiance ran to principles? The system would then be set up to answer to not just one man, but to whatever cause 51% of people championed, regardless of the quality of that cause and the nature of their demands. Thus, I see cognitive dissonance in your use of the word democracy, while still claiming to maintain that “the rule of law is the basis of liberty.” This is why even your attacking of “relativism” seems somewhat hollow to me, when you seem to maintain that the Laws should reflect the desire of a majority of people, or even an ability of a group to lobby for codifying “moral” laws, in the face of the Natural Law standard set forth by the Founders. If majority rule isn’t morally relative, what could be considered as such?
The only reason I am dwelling on this point is because I feel that, potentially, the rest of the issues may stem from this very basic misunderstanding. In fact, you seem to even know some of the quotes from the founders of which I speak, except when you quote them in the public spotlight, you substitute the word “democracy” where they used the word “republic.” (Fox 13, Religious Freedom At Risk Interview). I am having a hard time understanding why this would ever be valid. It is one thing to accidentally misquote, or to misunderstand; But to promote, whether inadvertently or otherwise, misunderstanding, without correction, seems, at best, irresponsible. In fact, I would be anxious to see even one quote that can be produced from the founding fathers that literally promote “democracy” the way you speak of it. Yet, even this quote would not change the state of truth that shapes reality.
The first point out of five points you make in your section on “Principles in the Public Square,” states that: “First, they must seek the inspiration of the Lord to be selective and wise in choosing which true principles they seek to promote by law or executive action.”
This point I can obviously agree with. But I find it telling that, instead of echoing what former Presidents of the Church have stated regarding agency, the Constitutional standard, and even the Lord’s own standard as found in scripture (D&C 98, among many others), you seem to promote a, ironically, relativist standard.
Government is force. Force, if not in harmony with the reparation that can justifiably be demanded as a reaction to actual crime (corpus delicti being the standard), necessarily infringes on the agency and individual freedom that the Lord desires to be protected for all of mankind.
President Benson clearly stated, in a sermon on government and the Constitution, that: “The central issue in the premortal council was: Shall the children of God have untrammeled agency to choose the course they should follow, whether good or evil, or shall they be coerced and forced to be obedient? Christ and all who followed him stood for the former proposition – freedom of choice; Satan stood for the latter – coercion and force. The war that began in heaven over this issue is not yet over. The conflict continues on the battlefield of mortality. And one of Lucifer’s primary strategies has been to restrict our agency through the power of earthly governments.” (Constitution: A Heavenly Banner, emphasis added)
President McKay stated that: “This principle of free agency and the right of each individual to be free not only to think but also to act within the bounds that grant to every one else the same privilege, are sometimes violated even by churches that claim to teach the doctrine of Jesus Christ. The attitude of any organization toward this principle of freedom is a pretty good index to its nearness to the teachings of Christ or to those of the Evil One.” (CR Apr. 1950, emphasis added)
With even just these two quotes in mind, how could it be considered good and right to advocate, let alone in a publication with the Lord’s name on it, that people strive to codify into statute their own distinctive standard of morality, which will be enforced on all persons, regardless of their beliefs? Why not encourage people to seek to understand the “index” that President McKay outlined?
You state that “[b]elievers can be less cautious in seeking government action that would serve principles broader than merely facilitating the practice of their beliefs, such as laws concerning public health, safety, and morals.”
So, I respectfully ask, whose “health, safety, and morals”? The public doesn’t tangibly exist. The public itself doesn’t think, act, and lobby. Only individual persons do. Society doesn’t exist outside of the individuals that make it up. So, how can advocating for measures, in the relativist cause of “the public good,” be advocating for measures in harmony with the Lord’s will regarding individual agency and the freedom of all mankind? Suppose that one person believes that vaccines are good, and another believes that they are bad? Is the one that believes they are good, with 51% percent support from the populace, or even with a highly mobilized lobbying force of “religious” people that are successful in obtaining government action, justified in using government force to force their beliefs on other people?
For someone who does seem to recognize the importance of the freedom of religion, your stance appears to me to have missed the underlying importance and supreme sanctity of the right and freedom of conscience. This sacred right is non-negotiable. The Founders even openly indicated this premise. In fact, scripture states that government “should restrain crime, but never control conscience.” (D&C 134) In the book of Alma, it states,
“Now there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds…there was a law that men should be judged according to their crimes. Nevertheless, there was no law against a man’s belief; therefore, a man was punished only for the crimes which he had done; therefore all men were on equal grounds.” (Alma 30:7,11)
Yet, in the counsel on affecting change in the public square, it seems to me that you are counseling members of the Church to, essentially, be better at mobilizing and lobbying for “moral” measures than the ACLU. Is the argument truly being made in this church publication, not against a group action, such as the ACLU and their promotion of “separation of church and state,” not attacking the principle behind which they attack religion using the statutes and court decisions, but merely criticizing our lack of success using the same tactics for our own views?? Ezra Taft Benson taught that “government is not a play thing.” I wonder when will we learn this vital lesson?
Your second point is that: “when believers promote their positions in the public square, they should always be tolerant of the opinions and positions of those who do not share their beliefs.” You continue, by stating that we should be loving and patient in regards to contrary opinions. With all due respect, how could this point be considered genuine with regards to the nature of how statutes and laws are enforced? Forcibly expropriating someone for noncompliance, or otherwise infringing on people’s life, liberty, or property, does not lessen in actual impact if the police officer does so with “love” and “patience.” Calling for the codifying of a moral code, outside of the mere general morality surrounding the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence, is not, in fact tolerant. How could it be considered “tolerant” and “compassionate” toward others’ differing opinions, when a group is simultaneously seeking to potentially “criminalize” those very same differing opinions and beliefs?? Any benefit given by government necessarily comes at the expense of someone else, and thus, there is a fine line drawn around the proper role of government that should never be crossed.
As was stated by H. Verlan Andersen so succinctly:
“A government which pretends to be just to all must see to it that the code of morality expressed by its laws is properly enforceable against everyone. With the exception of infants and mental incompetents, everyone is expected to conform to the laws or suffer punishment. But unless each member of society believes the conduct which the law prohibits to be evil, and that which it commands to be good, some will be punished for doing that which they sincerely consider to be right while others will be compelled to do that which they regard as wrong. This violates our sense of justice and the only solution is to find a moral code which is known and accepted by all people.But does such a code exist?” (Moral Basis of a Free Society, Introduction)
This point carries through to your third point. You state that “believers should not be deterred by the familiar charge that they are trying to legislate morality.” I think we are all agreed on this point. Every law has a moral backing. But there still lies the dilemma inherent in the creation and sustaining of civil governments, and of deciding which code of morality should be codified and enforced by those governments. What set of morals are justifiably enforceable against every single individual in society?
H. Verlan Andersen stated:
“While people differ widely in their objectives, everyone wants to be free to achieve his own, whatever they may be. Everyone wants those elements of freedom – life, liberty of action, property and knowledge – without which no objective can be reached.
Not only does each desire to possess these elements, but each is keenly aware of what injures them and considers such actions harmful and evil when committed. Even during infancy and youth we condemn that which injures our bodies, restricts our movements, deprives us of our property and corrupts our knowledge. With respect to those possessions which are necessary to the exercise of freedom, we all have essentially the same moral code: that which denies or injures them is evil and wrong; that which provides, protects and preserves them is good.
When the laws of a nation conform to this universal moral code, they will be respected and upheld because they suit the paramount need and desire of all people. But when they deviate from it, contention and strife are bound to arise because this is the only standard of moral behavior which is known and accepted by all men. In essence this universal moral code is nothing more nor less than the Christian’s GOLDEN RULE which, according to Holy Writ, ‘is the law and the prophets.’ (Matt. 7:12)” (Moral Basis of a Free Society, Introduction)
And in more depth:
“We are told in D&C 134:1 that He holds us accountable for our acts in relation to government, both in making laws and administering them. How can He do this? Very simply, He merely requires each of us to apply exactly that same test of right and wrong to the actions of government as we do to every other act for which we are responsible; this is the test of conscience. If those who adopt and execute laws are our agents, doing our bidding, we should never ask them to do anything we would consider evil or wrong for us to do ourselves. Every person who knows right from wrong can apply this test as quickly and as easily in the case of government as in any other moral decision. We need only realize that an act performed by public servants which has our approval makes us equally as responsible as if we had done it ourselves. We should apply the same test of conscience.
Who will contend that the Lord uses one moral law when the individual acts alone and still a different one when he acts jointly with others whether in a gang, a mob, or a government? The thought is contrary to reason as well as the scriptures which explicitly tell us we should never use the police power in such a way as to violate conscience…
Since the only conscience we really know is our own, it is the only one we can use or violate. In determining those circumstances under which we would consider it proper to deprive our fellowman of his life, liberty, or property, it is necessary that we mentally place ourselves in his position before we accurately know what our conscience tells us. We must apply Christ’s Golden Rule which says:
‘Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.’ (Matt. 7:12; 3 Ne. 14:12)
Each normal person senses immediately an injustice done to him. His reason tells him that others will react the same way. The scriptures also tell us that all men may know right from wrong:
‘For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil.’ (Moroni 7:16 See also D&C 84:46.)
Every person is capable of answering this all-important problem of government: Under what circumstances is it proper to use coercion? The answer demanded by both logic and our moral sense of right and wrong is: Only when we would consider it just to have the same force used against ourselves. Thus, in passing judgment upon our neighbor’s actions, we pass judgment upon our own. If we feel we should be free to do as we please under a given set of conditions without fear of punishment, the Golden Rule demands we allow our fellow men the same latitude.
In the Golden Rule we have found Christ’s answer to the following question discussed above:
Under what circumstances does a group of men have the moral right to forcibly deprive their fellow man of his life, liberty, or property?
The Golden Rule provides a reliable and very simple standard by which we may each determine for ourselves what actions of government are good and what are bad. Not only is it a test, but it is the only test based upon moral law which exists. If we do not use the Golden Rule and the test of conscience, we are without any standard at all which is based upon considerations of good and evil. The individual conscience is the only place we can go to distinguish between right and wrong.
It will be recalled that in discussing the law of retribution it was concluded that the only justification for forcibly depriving another of one of the elements of freedom was for the purpose of enforcing this law. In other words, if one commits an evil act by destroying an element of his neighbor’s freedom, it is proper to punish him by depriving him of some element of his own freedom. Let us demonstrate that this is the same test we use when we apply the Golden Rule.
No person would consider it just to be punished for anything except an evil act. The Golden Rule insists that we use force upon our neighbor only for this same purpose. Under the law of retribution, we justify the use of force only for the purpose of punishing one who, without justification, destroyed freedom. The destruction of freedom is equivalent to committing evil; therefore the rules are identical.” (Many Are Called But Few Are Chosen)
This standard is a standard of government that merely punishes actual crime, and merely prevents injustice from reigning, instead of somehow “promoting justice,” or “supplying social justice.” This seems to be the only standard that recognizes the satanic quality that preemptive force and coercion innately carries. I do not see this same standard championed in your article. In fact, I see a very different standard entirely. The reasons as to why, I would be anxious to read and/or hear.
Your fourth point states that “believers should not shrink from seeking laws that maintain public conditions or policies that assist them in practicing the requirements of their faith where those conditions or policies are also favorable to the public health, safety, or morals.” This seems extremely vague to me as has been pointed out. Once again, whose health, safety, or morals? Why, if the law is there to merely protect every person in the exercising of their rights, and the enforcement of their duties, should they seek laws that actively “assist” them in practicing the requirements of a particular faith? If we desire others to respect our religious beliefs and practices, should we not, then, owe them the same courtesy, regardless of the potential disagreements that could arise in doctrine and/or practice?
Even if government abandons its proper role often throughout history, I do not see this as “appropriate.” From a gospel perspective that introduces the maxim that good has always existed, it stands to reason that evil has also eternally existed. Therefore, how can something merely having “long-standing history of appropriateness,” in and of itself, make something correct. In this world, there are many evils that have a longstanding history. Does that lessen the fact that it is evil and inappropriate? Plus, as has been pointed out, regarding how civil statutes are enforced, how can one enforce their particular code of morality against other people, and still maintain “sensitivity” towards their particular view?
President David O. McKay taught that “Next to being one in worshiping God, there is nothing in this world upon which this Church should be more united than in upholding and defending the Constitution of the United States!” (CR, Oct. 1966) President George Albert Smith stated that “to me the Constitution of the United States of America is just as much from my Heavenly Father as the Ten Commandments. When that is my feeling I am not going to go very far away from the Constitution and I am going to try to keep it where the Lord started it, and not let anti-Christ come into this country.” (CR, Apr. 1948) The Lord Himself states that “anything more or less” than the Constitution “cometh of evil.” (D&C 98). Yet, with all this divine sanction and emphasis, there seems to be a blind eye turned towards this issue, both in this article, and in the membership of the church generally. Why is this so? Elder Ezra Taft Benson even stated that “we stand in jeopardy before God of losing our exaltation” (CR, Apr. 1976) if we abandon the fight for individual freedom.
Elder Ezra Taft Benson warned of deception concerning the issue. In a BYU devotional, he stated that:
“There are some regrettable things being said and done by some people in the Church today. As President Clark so well warned, ‘The ravening wolves are amongst us, from our own membership and they, more than any others, are clothed in sheep’s clothing because they wear the habiliments of the priesthood.’ We should be careful of them.
Sometimes from behind the pulpit, in our classrooms, in our Council meetings and in our church publications we hear, read or witness things that do not square with the truth. This is especially true where freedom is involved. Now do not let this serve as an excuse for your own wrong-doing. The Lord is letting the wheat and the tares mature before he fully purges the Church. He is also testing you to see if you will be misled. The devil is trying to deceive the very elect.” (Our Immediate Responsibility, emphasis added)
With this in mind, I am hoping for a reply with some clarification as to why the emphasis in your article seems to be, essentially, faction building, as opposed to promoting the Proper Role of Government, the Constitution, and the protection of individual freedom. Perhaps there is an angle I am missing from your perspective. I am open to critique. But I cannot help but think of how much importance the Lord places on individual freedom in fulfilling the Fathers’ plan, and in inspiring the Constitution as originally intended.
My mind always thinks of a quote from President David O. McKay, in which he stated: “Next to the bestowal of life itself, the right to direct that life is God’s greatest gift to man. Among the immediate obligations and duties resting upon the members of the Church today, and one of the most urgent and pressing for attention and action of all liberty loving people, is the preservation of individual liberty.” (CR Apr. 1950) Understanding the importance of agency, how could the Church’s cause be any different?
President McKay pointed out that, in the end, there are only Two Contending Forces. “’In the beginning’ they were known as Satan on the one hand, and Christ on the other…In these days, they are called ‘domination by the state,’ on one hand, ‘personal liberty,’ on the other.” (BYU Devotional, May 1960, emphasis added)
I look forward to a response.
Thanks for you time.
June 21, 2013
Dear Brother Hamilton:
I received your letter on June 6th and this is my first opportunity to reply. In view of the enormous responsibilities of my office, I am not able to respond in detail to your seven-page single spaced letter that essentially disagrees with a talk I prepared prayerfully to fulfill the responsibilities of my calling in the circumstances of the present.
I am mindful of the many quotations in your letter, but without agreeing with your assertion that what I said was at odds with what others have said earlier, I urge you to be more sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit about the meaning of the words of living prophets. (underline in original)
Sincerely your brother,
Dallin H. Oaks
“We have heard men who hold the priesthood remark that they would do anything they were told to do by those who preside over them (even) if they knew it was wrong; but such obedience as this is worse than folly to us; it is slavery in the extreme; and the man who would thus willingly degrade himself, should not claim a rank among intelligent beings, until he turns from his folly. A man of God would despise the idea. Others, in the extreme exercise of their almighty authority have taught that such obedience was necessary, and that no matter what the saints were told to do by their presidents, they should do it without any questions. When the Elders of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they have it in their hearts to do wrong themselves.”
– (Millennial Star, Vol. 14, Num. 38, pp.593-595)
“What a pity it would be if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually.”
– Brigham Young (JD 9:151)
Joseph Smith spoke to the Relief Society on May 26, 1842 and states that: “the people should each one stand for himself, and depend on no man or men in that state of corruption… applied it to the present state of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—said if the people departed from the Lord, they must fall—that they were depending on the Prophet, hence were darkened in their minds, in consequence of neglecting the duties devolving upon themselves.” (TPJS, pp. 237-238.)