CALLED UNTO LIBERTY, DALLIN H. OAKES
The United States Constitution is unique because God revealed that He “established” it “for the rights and protection of all flesh” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:77; see also verse 80). That is why this constitution is of special concern for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout the world. Whether or how its principles should be applied in other nations of the world is for them to decide.
What was God’s purpose in establishing the United States Constitution? We see it in the doctrine of moral agency. In the first decade of the restored Church, its members on the western frontier were suffering private and public persecution. Partly this was because of their opposition to the human slavery then existing in the United States. In these unfortunate circumstances, God revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith eternal truths about His doctrine.
God has given His children moral agency—the power to decide and to act. The most desirable condition for the exercise of that agency is maximum freedom for men and women to act according to their individual choices. Then, the revelation explains, “every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:78). “Therefore,” the Lord revealed, “it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:79). This obviously means that human slavery is wrong. And according to the same principle, it is wrong for citizens to have no voice in the selection of their rulers or the making of their laws.
Our belief that the United States Constitution was divinely inspired does not mean that divine revelation dictated every word and phrase, such as the provisions allocating the number of representatives from each state or the minimum age of each. The Constitution was not “a fully grown document,” said President J. Reuben Clark. “On the contrary,” he explained, “we believe it must grow and develop to meet the changing needs of an advancing world.” For example, inspired amendments abolished slavery and gave women the right to vote. However, we do not see inspiration in every Supreme Court decision interpreting the Constitution.
I believe the United States Constitution contains at least five divinely inspired principles.
First is the principle that the source of government power is the people. In a time when sovereign power was universally assumed to come from the divine right of kings or from military power, attributing sovereign power to the people was revolutionary. Philosophers had advocated this, but the United States Constitution was the first to apply it. Sovereign power in the people does not mean that mobs or other groups of people can intervene to intimidate or force government action. The Constitution established a constitutional democratic republic, where the people exercise their power through their elected representatives.
A second inspired principle is the division of delegated power between the nation and its subsidiary states. In our federal system, this unprecedented principle has sometimes been altered by inspired amendments, such as those abolishing slavery and extending voting rights to women, mentioned earlier. Significantly, the United States Constitution limits the national government to the exercise of powers granted expressly or by implication, and it reserves all other government powers “to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Another inspired principle is the separation of powers. Well over a century before our 1787 Constitutional Convention, the English Parliament pioneered the separation of legislative and executive authority when they wrested certain powers from the king. The inspiration in the American convention was to delegate independent executive, legislative, and judicial powers so these three branches could exercise checks upon one another.
A fourth inspired principle is in the cluster of vital guarantees of individual rights and specific limits on government authority in the Bill of Rights, adopted by amendment just three years after the Constitution went into force. A Bill of Rights was not new. Here the inspiration was in the practical implementation of principles pioneered in England, beginning with the Magna Carta. The writers of the Constitution were familiar with these because some of the colonial charters had such guarantees.
Without a Bill of Rights, America could not have served as the host nation for the Restoration of the gospel, which began just three decades later. There was divine inspiration in the original provision that there should be no religious test for public office, but the addition of the religious freedom and antiestablishment guarantees in the First Amendment was vital. We also see divine inspiration in the First Amendment’s freedoms of speech and press and in the personal protections in other amendments, such as for criminal prosecutions.
Fifth and finally, I see divine inspiration in the vital purpose of the entire Constitution. We are to be governed by law and not by individuals, and our loyalty is to the Constitution and its principles and processes, not to any office holder. In this way, all persons are to be equal before the law. These principles block the autocratic ambitions that have corrupted democracy in some countries. They also mean that none of the three branches of government should be dominant over the others or prevent the others from performing their proper constitutional functions to check one another.
Source: President Dallin H. Oaks, First Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Excerpt [minus footnotes] from his address, “Defending Our Divinely Inspired Constitution,” delivered during the Sunday Morning Session of the 191 Annual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, Utah, April 2021.
Called Unto Liberty are researched, compiled, edited and formatted for the Internet (with occasional commentary and explanatory notes) by Steve Farrell, Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Self-Educated American.