Friday, June 1, 2012

Oxymormonisms: A Mormon Constitution

In an Oxford Union debate I attended this February, an individual cited to "Mormon Law" as applied in Utah to undergird his argument for separation of church and state.  I made a "point of information" by standing up and identifying myself as both a Mormon and a Utahn, and explained to him that there is no such thing.

I found this assertion just as dumbfounding as the title of Gary Wills' article, "The Mormon Constitution" in the New York Review of Books last week.  The factual and logical errors in the article are legion, as nicely illustrated by Joanna Brooks here.  (This, unfortunately, is not the first time I have encountered questionable findings in Wills' scholarship, particularly that on James Madison, but perhaps such is fodder for a post on my professional blog and/or an article parsing out Madisonian fact from fiction.)  Wills' logical errors are repeated and compounded by Andrew Sullivan's "Did Jesus Foresee the Constitution" in the Daily Beast.

So let's first explore the doctrinal facts before plunging into interpretation.  The basis for the LDS belief in an inspired constitution is drawn from a scriptural source not mentioned by any of the above authors (and as Brooks points out, is easily found by going to and searching for "constitution"- a good tool for any seeking to know what is factual rather than sensational about my faith).  In a revelation given to Joseph Smith cannonized as Doctrine and Covenants 101:76-80, we find the following:

76 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—
 77 According to the laws and aconstitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established, and should be maintained for thebrights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles;
 78 That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral aagency which I have given unto him, that every man may be baccountable for his own sins in the day of cjudgment.
 79 Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in abondageone to another.

80 And for this purpose have I established the aConstitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the bshedding of blood.

In another cannonized revelation (not all of Joseph Smith's revelations were cannonized), we find the following little-quoted verse:

 And now, verily I say unto you concerning the alaws of the land, it is my will that my people should observe to do all things whatsoever I command them.
 And that alaw of the land which is bconstitutional, 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 aconstitutional law of the land;
 And as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less than this, cometh of evil. (Doctrine and Covenants 98:5-6)

Much interesting doctrine is unearthed here, and, as most LDS scripture, is often interpreted and applied differently by Latter-day Saints.

Take Rex Lee's interpretation.  Lee is the father of Utah Senator Mike Lee and UT Supreme Court Justice Tom Lee.  He is more famous, however, for being Solicitor General of the United States during Reagan's first term.  For those unfamiliar with the post, the SG is the individual who argues on behalf of the government before the Supreme Court and often before federal courts of appeal.  Justice O'Connor once said that Lee's presence at the Court had been the most defining fact for 25 years (to read a report of her eulogy of him upon his death from cancer in 1997, click here).  In his position of government responsibility, Lee was called upon to argue and interpret the Constitution on a regular basis.

Lee served as president of Brigham Young University from 1989 to 1995 while his cancer was in remission.  In 1991, Lee spoke as the President of BYU on the Constitution, including its significance for Latter-day Saints.  In his speech, recorded here, Lee summated the Mormon cultural view towards the constitution and the scriptural view:

The descriptive phrase most commonly used by many members of the Church is that our Constitution was "divinely inspired." Unfortunately, some Church members have deduced from that general, nonscriptural description more than the scriptures or the Constitution or common sense will sustain.

That is, from the general label "divinely inspired ," some assume that the Constitution is tantamount to scripture, and therefore perfect in every respect, reflecting in every provision and every sentence the will of our Heavenly Father, just as is true of the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants. That view cannot withstand analysis. Our Constitution has some provisions that are not only not divine, they are positively repulsive. The classic example is contained in Article V, which guaranteed as a matter of constitutional right that the slave trade would continue through at least the year 1808. There are other provisions that are not as offensive as the slavery guarantee, but they were quite clearly bad policy, and certainly were not divinely inspired in the same sense as are the scriptures. Moreover, regarding the Constitution as tantamount to scripture is difficult to square with the fact that our republic has functioned very well, probably even better, after at least one of its original provisions (requiring United States senators to be elected by their respective state legislatures rather than by the people at large) was amended out of existence by the Seventeenth Amendment.

In my own view, this whole issue is resolved simply by examining what the scriptures say, rather than resorting to the generality "divinely inspired," which you will not find anywhere in the standard works. Probably the most helpful statement is contained in section 101, verse 80 of the Doctrine and Covenants: "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." I submit that this scripture makes it very clear that our Heavenly Father's involvement in the bringing forth of our Constitution was more an involvement in process than in end result. As President Benson has stated, "It is my firm belief that the God of Heaven raised up the Founding Fathers and inspired them to establish the Constitution of this land." His focus, and the focus of the Doctrine and Covenants, frees us of the burden of trying to equate the Constitution with scripture and, therefore, to justify every part. And a focus on process reaffirms the fact that the Constitution did not just come about by chance. Our Heavenly Father did play an active and essential role. That role was not the revelation to a prophet of infallible truth, perfect and reliable in every aspect. Rather, what the Lord did was to raise up at just the right time and in just the right combination people who could and predictably would produce a document that is, on balance, the most remarkable ever struck by human hands. Interestingly enough, James Madison himself in Number 37 of the Federalist Papers also expressed the view that "it is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it [referring to the Constitution] a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical state of the Revolution." Statements similar to that of Madison can be found in the writings of others of the Founding Fathers.

Although I did not know him personally, Rex Lee has had an outsized influence on my life: he was president of BYU while my sister attended, he died immediately before my enrollment at the same, I went to high school with his daughter, took law classes and was advised by his son, Tom, was assisted in ConSource activities by another son, Mike, before he became a senator, and have become acquainted with his assistant as solicitor general, now Justice Samuel Alito.  Rex Lee also founded the law school I attended, J. Reuben Clark Law School (which I believe should be renamed in Lee's honor), and I have read dozens of his speeches and other's memorials to him.

I read the speech quoted above years and years ago, and memorized the "by the hands of wise men" scripture as a little girl.  Perhaps my belief in an "inspired constitution" (whatever that means) has provided impetus for my deep and abiding interest in the same.

As I have considered Lee's words and the scriptures I know so well, including the scripture in Section 98 which says that all laws which are "constitutional" belong to all men--not limited to the United States, I have come to think about revelation and inspiration as a whole as it relates to the US Constitution.  Revelation, I have found, is a process, and not an event.  It often involves initial thoughts as flashes of light that are then expounded through experience, interaction with others, and working out with pen and paper exactly what God would have me do.  Revelation requires work.  As it pertains to a group,  it is often the work product of many working together, wherein the product is greater than the sum of the parts.  In LDS church-speak, we call this "counseling with our councils" wherein bodies of men and women think and pray about a specific spiritual question and through discussion and counseling come to (usually) a unanimous decision.

I wonder if a similar phenomenon occurred for the members of the Constitutional Convention.  Not necessarily that there was group prayer (it was recommended, but no money was available to pay a pastor), but an idea - the Virginia Plan - was worked out by individual members through discussion, through smaller-group consultations, and, eventually, consensus was reached through a sort of  unanimity.

To me, God's hand in "establishing" a Constitution through the hands of "wise men" (note that the revelation does not call them perfect) was affected in large part through the extra-legal process of creating a constitution and construct for men being governed by law and not by other men, in identifying and publishing a standard against which government could be held accountable.

This interpretation better accords with the verses in section 98 which identifies that all laws which are constitutional, or that abide by a fundamental law of the land that provides for freedom and the protection of individual liberty - belong to "all mankind."


  1. Thank you for your fantastic analysis. Please continue to write about such fascinating and interesting topics.

  2. Small question, if Rex Lee die in 1987 how was he President of BYU from 1989 to 1995?

    I love your blog and you give me loads of inspiration and education! Thank you for your writings and for being a lovely woman of faith.

  3. Martha - thanks for your kind comments! I love blogging - it's a sort of journal for me, and helps me to learn as well.

    I simply got the date wrong by a decade - he died in 1997, immediately before I started at BYU...