Speaking at a campaign event on Monday, February 13 in Mesa, Arizona, Mitt Romney made a bold suggestion about the Constitution and Declaration of Independence: “They're either inspired by God or written by brilliant people or perhaps a combination of both.”
Inspired by God? It sounds like just another sop tossed to Tea-Party constitutionalism, but Romney was in fact invoking a longstanding Mormon doctrine which views the U.S. Constitution as not only great, but literally divine.
A few years back, at the behest of a couple of fresh-faced missionaries, I read through the Book of Mormon. Its focus on politics surprised me. Of course, the Old Testament is a hugely political set of books, setting down God-given laws for Israel and directing her relationship with other nations, but Latter Day Saint scriptures carry accents quite distinct from the Bible.
A repeated theme is that this new “chosen land” of America is to be “the land of liberty” (Alma 46:17). Referring to America in 2 Nephi 10:11, for example, the text states that “this land shall be a land of liberty unto the Gentiles, and there shall be no kings upon the land.”
So, too, the identification of national “liberty” with republicanism in the book (or at least with anti-monarchicalism) explains what otherwise would be a striking oxymoron. In Alma 46:35, the LDS prophet Moroni puts to death those Amalickiahites “who would not enter into a covenant to support the cause of freedom.” The otherwise Pythonesque threat to kill someone unless he agrees to be free disappears if we understand the action is addressed to royalist rebels in a civil war. (Think of the loyalty oaths offered to defeated Confederates during and after the Civil War.) The “covenant to support the cause of freedom” is the repudiation of royalism for the nation.
A substantive commitment to republicanism is not controversial in the U.S. today. But our Constitution provides for republicanism not because it’s divine revelation, but because it’s consistent “with the genius of the American people” (Federalist No. 39) and with the American experience. LDS political thought, then, stands in a very different relationship to the American experiment than does, say, orthodox Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or Methodist thought.
The divinization of the Constitution is explicit in LDS scriptures. The Doctrine & Covenants, which form part of LDS scripture, states as divine revelation that the U.S. Constitution was established by God by men whom God raised for that purpose.
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, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood (D&C 101:80).
During the Revolutionary War, Whig pastors preached the need for and legitimacy of the conflict. These pastors often too easily conflated spiritual freedom in Christ with political freedom from Britain. But even by these standards, LDS scriptures ratchet up the degree of identification between God’s aspirations and the political aspirations of the American project. Given its teaching that the U.S. Constitution is a divine establishment, any “law of man” that is “more or less than” constitutional “cometh of evil” (D&C 98:7).
I am second to few people in my admiration for the U.S. Constitution. But the Electoral College? Six-year terms for Senators? The three-fifths clause? These are divine establishments it would be “evil” to violate?
In a 1987 article in The Ensign, then-LDS President Ezra Taft Benson discussed and celebrated an event recorded in LDS history—the deceased founding fathers of the United States ostensibly visiting then future-LDS President Wilford Woodruff, asking to be baptized by proxy through Woodruff. Benson relates:
President Wilford Woodruff spoke of it in these words: “Before I left St. George, the spirits of the dead gathered around me, wanting to know why we did not redeem them. Said they, ‘You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever been done for us. We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we never apostatized from it, but we remained true to it and were faithful to God.’”
Aside from the surreal picture of the spirits of deceased framers gathering in an LDS temple to plead for baptism by proxy, is it really true that adherence to the form of government of the United States is something that someone not metaphorically, but literally, apostatizes from?
The upshot to this credo is that LDS politicians serious about their beliefs have a significantly different understanding of the relationship of their religion to the U.S. government than almost any other religious politician in the U.S. I do not at all suggest that this disqualifies LDS members from holding political office. But it does raise honest and legitimate questions about unique implications of LDS scriptures for the U.S. Constitution, the American project, and the vocations of LDS politicians. What’s more, because of the highly political nature of these beliefs, these questions cannot be waved aside as unrelated to public life. Campaign reporters need to ask Romney to expand on LDS political theory and its implications when he suggests his belief in the LDS doctrine that the Constitution is divinely inspired.
Abraham Lincoln once called the United States an “almost chosen” nation. The adjective matters. There is a great difference between America being an “almost chosen” nation and its being a “chosen” nation, as LDS scriptures would seem to have it. In a wry turn of the phrase that he nonetheless meant seriously, Richard John Neuhaus would articulate his assessment that, “On balance, and considering the alternatives, the United States has been a force for good in the world.” It is difficult to see room in LDS revelation for a similarly nuanced understanding.
James R. Rogers is associate professor and department head in the Department of Political Science at Texas A&M University.
Ezra Taft Benson, “Our Divine Constitution,” The Ensign, 1988.
Reid Esptein reporting from Mesa, Arizona
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