November isn’t just the season that we give thanks for our many blessings, it’s also the time of year when we celebrate our government by taking our voices and opinions to the polls. When we vote, according to the dictates of our own conscience, for the programs and people that we believe are the best fit for our nation.
But this is not passive participation in government. Rather, it requires that we research each candidate and proposal to find out which one is best suited for our communities, states and nation. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes inadvertently called the Mormon Church) believe that this is more than their civic duty, it is their obligation.
The late Prophet and President Spencer W. Kimball said:
To those of you who are citizens of the United States: I wish to urge you and your family members of voting age to go to the polls in large numbers … and vote for the strongest, finest people who are certain to do the most to safeguard the rights and freedoms of this nation. We do not endorse any candidates, but we hope you will vote for good men and women of character, integrity, and ability. You are to be the judge.
Indeed, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ, said before the 2008 elections:
As citizens we have the privilege and duty of electing office holders and influencing public policy. Participation in the political process affects our communities and nation today and in the future.
The importance of active participation in the political process cannot be ignored. Ours is a government for the people, by the people, and can only function properly with input from the people. To fully appreciate our obligations, we must understand the blessings of living in a democracy. And to fully appreciate the blessings of living in a democracy, we must defend and protect our system of government.
The Beauty of American Democracy
The United States of America was founded by a religious people—of various faiths—who believed they were subject to God and created a system of government for a God-fearing people. It began with the U.S. Constitution. Elder M. Russell Ballard, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, said:
The principles and philosophies upon which the U.S. constitutional law is based are not simply the result of the best efforts of a remarkable group of brilliant men. They were inspired by God, and the rights and privileges guaranteed in the Constitution are God-given, not man-derived. The freedom and independence afforded by the Constitution and Bill of Rights are divine rights—sacred, essential, and inalienable. …
Believe it or not, at one time the very notion of government had less to do with politics than with virtue.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, taught:
The Constitution had its origin in a resolution by which the relatively powerless Congress called delegates to a convention to discuss amendments to the Articles of Confederation. … They were conscious of their place in history. For millennia the world’s people had been ruled by kings or tyrants. Now a group of colonies had won independence from a king and their representatives had the unique opportunity of establishing a constitutional government Abraham Lincoln would later describe as “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
James Madison, who’s often called the father of the Constitution, said:
We have staked the whole future of American civilization not upon the power of the government—far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God. (Russ Walton, Biblical Principles of Importance to Godly Christians, New Hampshire: Plymouth Foundation, 1984, p. 361.)
The Framers of the U.S. Constitution created a form of government that was meant to protect Americans from tyrannical government. The government was not a pure democracy, where the people vote and decide on the issues. Nor was it government-controlled. Rather, the people elect representatives, and the representatives are accountable to the people for the way they run the government.
The late President Ezra Taft Benson said:
The wisdom of these delegates is shown in the genius of the document itself. The founders had a strong distrust for centralized power in a federal government. So they created a government with checks and balances. This was to prevent any branch of the government from becoming too powerful.
Congress could pass laws, but the president could check this with a veto. Congress, however, could override the veto, and by its means of initiative in taxation, could further restrain the executive department. The Supreme Court could nullify laws passed by the Congress and signed by the president. But Congress could limit the Court’s appellate jurisdiction. The president could appoint judges for their lifetime with the consent of the Senate.
Each branch of the government was also made subject to different political pressures. The president was to be chosen by electors, Senators by state legislatures, representatives by the people, and the Supreme Court by the president, with the consent of the Senate. All this was deliberately designed to make it difficult for a majority of the people to control the government and to place restraints on the government itself.
The beauty of American democracy is the system of checks and balances inherent in the system. And the greatest checks to balance the system are the people themselves.
The Power of Citizenship
Many in the world today misunderstand the power of this new form of government. It is not found in the government itself, but in the citizens of the nation. Former Harvard professor Mickey Edwards—a former U.S. Congressman from Oklahoma who is also a founding member of the Heritage Foundation—said:
We live in a community of shared responsibilities and shared obligations. But we’ve also created a system of government that lays out … that the American is not a subject of government, but a citizen. And there’s a big difference because governments tell their subjects what to do and citizens tell their governments what to do.
The success—or failure—of our government depends on the willingness of its citizens to participate in the political process. It also depends on the righteousness of its people. President Benson said:
… Righteousness is an indispensable ingredient to liberty. Virtuous people elect wise and good representatives. Good representatives make good laws and then wisely administer them. This tends to preserve righteousness. An unvirtuous citizenry tend to elect representatives who will pander to their covetous lustings. The burden of self-government is a great responsibility. It calls for restraint, righteousness, responsibility, and reliance upon God. It is a truism from the Lord that “when the wicked rule the people mourn.” (Doctrine & Covenants 98:9.)
Thus, religion plays a vital role in a free society. Elder Oaks said:
Our society is not held together just by law and its enforcement, but most importantly by voluntary obedience to the unenforceable and by widespread adherence to unwritten norms of right or righteous behavior. Religious belief in right and wrong is a vital influence to advocate and persuade such voluntary compliance by a large proportion of our citizens. Others, of course, have a moral compass not expressly grounded in religion. John Adams relied on all of these when he wisely observed that
“…we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
The U.S. government was established for a moral people who would work together for the good of the whole. Only a people who feel obligated to a higher power and a higher cause can rise above their own selfish desires for the good of the entire population. From the very beginning, the Founding Fathers provided an excellent example for the rest of us to follow. Elder Oaks said:
… One should not expect perfection—one certainly should not expect all of his personal preferences—in a document that must represent a consensus. One should not sulk over a representative body’s failure to attain perfection. Americans are well advised to support the best that can be obtained in the circumstances that prevail. That is sound advice not only for the drafting of a constitution but also for the adoption and administration of laws under it.
The power of citizenship is that the government honors and respects the rights of all citizens, not just an elect (or select) few. In this way, it is a beacon on the hill. Edwards said:
… We are a different kind of nation. … We’re a nation set up to honor the dignity, the rights, of every single individual human being.
Is American Democracy Really in Need of Protection?
The question then becomes, is our system of government really in need of protection? Following the Constitutional Convention, someone asked Benjamin Franklin what the delegates had for the new nation. Franklin answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
The Founding Fathers did not create a democratic government, in the purest sense. A democracy is when the people make decisions by themselves.
In the history of the world, our country is relatively young. Edwards said:
The system of government we created is still an experiment and we don’t know yet if it’s going to survive. The question is not whether our system of government will survive all of these great threats that a nation like ours invariably faces—Al Qaida, ISIS or other economic threats. … The question is whether our system will survive us.
Edwards cited several examples of the breakdown of the checks and balances in recent years—beginning with the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They are becoming more and more disconcerting. He said:
Under the British system you did not need to be from the place you were supposedly representing, and our founders said, “No, you’re not going to be representing a party, you’re going to be representing the people that elected you.” … We are moving more and more to a system in which Democrats and Republicans feel obligated to support those from their parties, not members of a separate branch of government to be kept in check as the Constitution envisions but as the captain of their team … to whom partisanship demands unquestioning loyalty. …
Increasingly today, in both houses of Congress, the party in the majority, whoever it is, blocks consideration of alternatives, blocks amendments, blocks other proposals. There is more actual serious debate in a social studies classroom in Provo High School than on the floor of either the United States House or Senate.
The problem is that we aren’t working together for the common good. Rather, it appears that each party is working for the benefit of itself. And when this happens, we all lose. Edwards said:
James Madison and the rest of Congress gave us a blessing, a government in which the people would be citizens, not subjects, … and that is disappearing. …
Citizens Have to Power to Enact Change
So what can we do? What can one person do to help our nation? It turns out, there is a lot that one person can accomplish. Edwards said:
We have created a republic that doesn’t understand the Constitution. We cannot save this constitutional republic of ours unless we create at the same time a people committed to this form of government and willing to stand up to save it.
The founders created it. Saving it is up to us.
And it begins at home. This, again, is where religion and faith help to stabilize our nation. The late President Gordon B. Hinckley said:
A nation will rise no higher than the strength of its homes. If you want to reform a nation, you begin with families, with parents who teach their children principles and values that are positive and affirmative and will lead them to worthwhile endeavors. That is the basic failure that has taken place in America.
Richard G. Wilkins, at the time, a law professor at Brigham Young University (the flagship school of The Church of Jesus Christ), said:
Throughout history, stable societies have recognized (and protected) the family as the basic unit of society precisely because the family is the social unit that has the primary responsibility for rearing and educating children. The family has successfully performed these fundamental tasks, in large part, because peaceful existence within a secure family demands that family members recognize (and respect) not just “rights” but communal responsibilities. During the latter half of this century, however, a modern emphasis on autonomy has shifted the focus of academic and governmental energies away from the recognition of (and respect for) communal responsibilities to a focus on “individual rights.” …
The social consequences have been disastrous. In the words of Elder [Bruce] Hafen, because of the “emerging but misguided tendency among some adults to defer increasingly to children’s preferences,” the modern world may well fail to encourage the “development of the personal competence needed to produce an ongoing democratic society comprised of persons capable of . . . responsible action.” It is time to appreciate (and correct) the consequences of the modern focus on autonomy and of disregard of the family. It is time to recognize and reemphasize the central role of the family community in creating and maintaining a stable society. It is time, in short, to direct some of the energy we have lavished on protection of the individual to the defense and protection of the family. Without this defense, the family, the most basic community of all, may be imperiled.
And the failure of governments to protect the family ultimately weakens the governments themselves. Indeed, as President Kimball stated:
Whether from inadvertence, ignorance, or other causes, the efforts governments often make (ostensibly to help the family) sometimes only hurt the family more. There are those who would define the family in such a nontraditional way that they would define it out of existence. The more governments try in vain to take the place of the family, the less effective governments will be in performing the traditional and basic roles for which governments are formed in the first place.
Citizens have the power to enact change, one home and one family at a time. The home is where we learn how to treat other people, to respect one another’s opinions and differences and how to work together for the greater good. Each family member can then take what is learned at home into the community.
We all enjoy the blessings of democracy—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to choose our representatives and the freedom to vote them out if we don’t like what they do. But we also share the responsibility of being good citizens, working together and respecting one another’s opinions—even the ones we find insufferable, intolerable and unpopular. This is what makes America great. And these are the obligations of living in a democracy. We don’t all have to think alike, but we all must work together for the common good. And, in the end, it is our responsibility to hold our government accountable as we voice our opinions at the polls.