It turns out that liberty and salvation are much more closely related than I’d realized.
First, a little background: In 1941, FDR’s Department of the Treasury decided to sell bonds to fund US involvement in the war. As part of this effort they contacted a wide variety of private organizations, including unions, professional groups, service organizations, and churches, among them the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, hoping they would urge their members to participate in the “war effort” by buying bonds.
The First Presidency not only turned them down, they boldly condemned both the war and the Administration’s New Deal policies, in the strongest of terms. You can read all 18 pages of their letter, plus some eye-opening historical context if you’d like. This bit jumps out:
Unless the people of America forsake the sins and the errors, political and otherwise, of which they are now guilty and return to the practice of the great fundamental principles of Christianity, and of Constitutional government, there will be no exaltation for them spiritually, and politically we shall lose our liberty and free institutions.
There are a couple things I’ve been mulling over about this in the couple days it’s been since LDS Liberty posted it on their page shortly before Christmas. The first thing is the remarkable way the Brethren tied political and eternal salvation together, at least for Americans. This is an intriguing teaching, and as I’ve pondered it, it’s started to come into focus and make a lot of sense to me.
Agency is so central to the Father’s Plan. I think of it as a “ruling principle” of the Heavens. The scriptures teach that separation from God is a death. Poor choice is the reason for the separation, and God has the power to prevent this tragedy. Yet He does not.
Agency is that important.
Agency means that when we come to earth, we risk permanent separation should we choose sin. Lucifer offered a risk-free plan, one that guaranteed that nobody would lose. When our Father chose Christ we shouted for joy, in spite of the risk.
Agency is that important.
The Lord, in the Doctrine and Covenants, tells us that He gave us the Constitution -in essence, He takes credit for Authorship – and then He explains why He did it:
That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment. (D&C 101:78
The way I see it, the Constitution is about preserving agency. That is the reason The Lord gives for giving us the Constitution: to preserve our freedom of choice. And He says further that the reason for that is so we’ll all be responsible for our own actions (and no one else’s) when it’s all said and done. That cuts right to the heart of the purpose of life.
The Constitution is that important.
So when I think it through, it makes perfect sense for political and eternal salvation to be tied in the writings of the First Presidency, because they are, in fact, very closely related.
That’s cool, but so what? What should we do about it?
This quote is remarkable in that these brethren not only gave us an important gospel truth, but they also tell us about two distinct actions we ought to take:
1. “Return to the practice of the great fundamentals of Christianity.”
The Savior summed his teachings up in a similarly succinct manner:
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (Matthew 22:37-39)
The Founders repeatedly talked about how key to the survival of the Union virtue is, both the Federalists and the Antifederalists. In fact, one of the Antifederalist objections was that the Constitutions renders too little homage to God; the Articles of Confederation had been more appropriately respectful, they said. While there was no nationally established religion, that is, no religion receiving tax support, nearly every single State had a religion or religions that did (and this continued into the 19th Century), and even the Federalists spoke of the importance of religious education and the necessity for virtue in order to maintain freedom. Virtue calls down the blessings of Heaven; both are necessary for establishing and maintaining freedom. The more broad the freedom, the larger the “space” in which to exercise our agency. Virtue, both public and private, is a critical element in maintaining our freedom, and there is nothing quite like the Gospel of Christ for persuading men that the effort of being virtuous is not only a good idea, but actually in their own best interest.
In our home, we use our homeschool education to support and enhance our teachings about the “fundamentals of Christianity.” We often stop, when reading about history as well as fictional stories, and discuss who is the good guy, and who is the bad guy. Particularly interesting have been the times where it seems clear that there really wasn’t any good guys in that historical episode. How “great” was Alexander the Great? (He more or less invaded the whole world…) We blend secular and spiritual instruction in every topic, even English grammar. We learn sacred and secular history they way they happened; all mixed together. And in doing so, there is some opportunity to point out some aspect of the Gospel in every day. It’s what works for us.
2. “Return to the practice of the great fundamentals of … Constitutional government.”
You can’t do this unless you know the fundamentals. Not just the fuzzy awareness that the Constitution has “checks and balances” that I left school with, not even just a general familiarity with the words of the document, though that is a good start. To know the fundamentals, you need to know the ideas that moved the inspired men we call the Founders. They set up our government based on a philosophy called Natural Law. Natural Law is not taught in our schools, yet it is the foundation our nation rests upon. The clearest explanation I’ve found for what it is is in the first chapter of The Thousand Year Leap by Cleon Skousen. (I highly recommend this book and Ezra Taft Benson’s essay, The Proper Role of Government as a starting place for learning about good government.) Skousen quotes the Roman statesman Cicero to explain Natural Law:
“Therefore Law [of the Creator] is the distinction between things just and unjust, made in agreement with that primal and most ancient of all things, Nature, and in conformity to Nature’s standard are framed with those human laws which inflict punishment upon the wicked and protect the good.” (The Thousand Year Leap, p. 39)
Cicero believed that these laws of Nature’s God – Natural Law – could be discovered through the use of our Reason. He reasoned his way, using this philosophy, to the things that Christ summed up so beautifully as the greatest law and the second law: Love God, and love our neighbors. From this foundation our Founders worked to codify our government and protect the Natural Rights, or unalienable rights, that our Father in Heaven has given us.
Understanding this foundation makes the idea of limited government make perfect sense. The old ways conceived of the King as the fountain of rights. If the citizens had privileges, it was at the pleasure of the King, because He was sovereign, and typically ruled through some sort of Divine Right. But the Founders rejected monarchy and despotism, believing the People to be sovereign, and the People’s Rights to be of Divine origin. The government is limited because government powers are not natural to them, but they are delegated to them by the People. This is a tremendously important idea! In this kind of government (and it has the specific, scriptural endorsement of the Lord), government can have no power that could not be exercised by an individual. It’s an entirely different way of thinking about things. From The Proper Role of Government:
Leaving aside, for a moment, the question of the divine origin of rights, it is obvious that a government is nothing more or less than a relatively small group of citizens who have been hired, in a sense, by the rest of us to perform certain functions and discharge certain responsibilities which have been authorized. It stands to reason that the government itself has no innate power or privilege to do anything. Its only source of authority and power is from the people who have created it. This is made clear in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, which reads: “WE THE PEOPLE… do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The important thing to keep in mind is that the people who have created their government can give to that government only such powers as they, themselves, have in the first place. Obviously, they cannot give that which they do not possess. So, the question boils down to this. What powers properly belong to each and every person in the absence of and prior to the establishment of any organized governmental form? A hypothetical question? Yes, indeed! But, it is a question which is vital to an understanding of the principles which underlie the proper function of government.
Homeschool, again, plays a big part in our family’s plan for what to do about it. We teach early and often about what our government is supposed to be, and what freedom should look like. We look at history and talk about what happens when people are not free. We relate things to the teachings of King Mosiah as he set up the Judges, and to other scripture stories. These are things that even a child can begin to understand, though it does take some effort to re-educate ourselves to see past the flimsy propagandized version of things that my husband and I were taught in the public schools. It is, however, well worth the effort.
It makes a great deal of sense that, at least in America, political and eternal salvation should be related to each other, because they are both so closely related to agency, and this land has been set up as a land of freedom, a beacon to all the world. The war over agency, far from being decided in the past, rages today, with government being a primary front in the battle. The price of failure, whether failure to maintain and restore the institutions that safeguard our political freedom or failure in relation to our eternal salvation, is terrible. It is no wonder that the First Presidency sounded such a clear warning about it.