We the People

Yesterday, I promised an in depth exploration of "The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner." Today, I want to focus on what it says about the importance of limiting the powers of government. I know that faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have widely differing views on this topic and differences can be contentious. So, let's start with a disclaimer. 

I have a personal conviction that President Benson's address was prophetic. That does not mean I or anyone else has the right to question the devotion of members who disagree. Church canon is determined by the united voice of the First Presidency and the Twelve. Furthermore, there are significant differences between President Benson's BYU address and his talk in General Conference a year later. Much of the material I'm covering today was not repeated in General Conference. I don't know why and I'm not going to speculate, but I think that signals a need to be cautious. 

That said, I was there. The experience was profoundly moving for me and I believe the principles he taught warrant serious and prayerful consideration. So this series of posts is an effort to process what he was teaching. Mutually respectful discussion in the comments will be welcome. 

President Benson began his BYU address with a quick review of 5 basic principles that he identified as fundamental to freedom. All quotes below are from that address:

* Agency: "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?" We rejected Lucifer's coercive plan then, but the battle continues today. 

* The Proper Role of Government: "The most important single function of government is to secure the rights and freedoms of individual citizens."

* Divine Source of Human Rights: "Rights are either God-given as part of the divine plan, or they are granted by government as part of the political plan." The doctrine of inalienable rights (D&C 134:5) holds that we have God-given rights to life, liberty/freedom of conscience and property/pursuit of happiness.

* The People are Superior to Government: "Since God created people with certain inalienable rights, and they, in turn, created government to help secure and safeguard those rights, it follows that the people are superior to the creature they created."

* Limits on Government's Powers: Government does not have the right to create new powers not held by the people who created it. It is "primarily a mechanism for defense against bodily harm, theft, and involuntary servitude. It cannot claim the power to redistribute money or property nor to force reluctant citizens to perform acts of charity against their will."

It's the last principle that is most contentious and for me, personally painful. I am distressed by the injustice in the world. I would like to correct it. It is tempting to think that with the enormous power of government comes great responsibility to make things right. But according to these principles, government has no right to enormous power. In fact, it doesn't have any more right to impose its will on others than I do. 

What happens when government creates powers for itself?

The mess we're in today. 

Government has become a voracious monster and the two major parties are engaged in a no-holds-barred battle to hold the reins. Both sides have an agenda that they want to impose on the other. Neither wants to submit to the coercive dictates of their opponents. 

In other words, the problem with powerful government is that, inevitably, that power turns on the people. It might be used in ways we approve for a term-of-office or two, and then it will be used in ways that we see as damaging. Every time the reins change parties, new powers are claimed in order to "undo" the damage wreaked by the last holder of office. And each time, the prospect of the opposition getting the reins becomes more frightening. 

President Benson recommended an alternative: limited government. That prospect is also frightening because it means that it would be up to us, instead of government, to correct injustices. And we would have to use persuasive instead of coercive means. When people suffered it would be up to us to organize ourselves to help -- in voluntary ways. Where we had the will and the wisdom to do it, things could be better. Solutions could be tailored to individual problems rather than mandated by bureaucrats in the capital. We could truly learn to love our neighbor. 

There's always the risk, though, of enclaves of evil, where people wouldn't have the will or the wisdom to help each other out. But then, there are enclaves of evil already, despite our government. And there are enclaves of helplessness, where people who have surrendered their powers to a mighty but inattentive government languish in the face of indifference, unaware of their own capacity to change the world in each other's behalf.

Maybe it's time to stand up and tell government to stand down. We the people, who built this country from a ragtag collection of colonies and wrested independence from a voracious superpower. We claimed our sovereignty then. Is it time we did so again?


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