Tuesday, May 20, 2008

When The Constitution Hangs By A Thread--Part One


In a 1991 address, BYU President Rex E. Lee noted that compared to any other kind of law--including statutory, regulatory, or judge-made common law--constitutional law is very difficult to make or change.

"The central feature of the American Constitution is that with only one exception [the Thirteenth Amendment, prohibits slavery], its provisions are confined to limiting the powers of government... The Constitution contains some fairly obvious, though not always specific, prohibitions concerning what government--federal, state, or local--can do to its citizens. Some of the most prominent are protections for the criminally accused, such as the privilege against self-incrimination, protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to counsel, and jury trial."

Lee goes on to discuss how spreading the powers of government among several separate entities and by making each a competitor with the others makes it less likely that these entities can gain the power to become oppressive. Without the Constitution and the rights that were guaranteed to us, the Mormons would not have survived as a people. This was the only nation and the only set of laws under which the Lord could have restored his Church.

Despite its strength, Latter-day Saints have been warned that one day the Constitution would be found in danger. The Prophet Joseph Smith thus prophesied in his famous "hanging by a thread" speech; and more than half of his successors repeated the admonition. I am well aware that Joseph's declaration has been quoted every time a tax increase comes along, or a failure to collect the garbage on time, or during a boundary dispute with a neighbor, as Lee so humorously puts it.

But today we have before us two Constitutional issues which deeply concern the Latter-day Saints. The first is the actions of the Texas legal system against the FLDS at the Yearning for Zion ranch. The second is the ruling of the California Supreme Court that a ban on gay marriage violates its constitution.

These two issues are of extreme importance to Mormons as they strike to the heart of the Proclamation on the Family. In the coming week I plan to discuss each issue, examine the Constitutional issues at stake, and probe the responsibilities of Mormons to engage these topics. I find it interesting that despite their relevance, the Church hierarchy has seen fit to combat one, while doing everything possible to distance themselves from the other.

How deeply should the Church be involved in these Texas and California legal battles? There are at least two perspectives. One view points out that the Church represents itself as non-partisan and should not throw its weight and the tithing money of its diverse membership into political issues. Another position is that the Church must take a stand on moral matters. The Joseph Smith prophecy is instructive in this regard:
"When the Constitution of the United States hangs, as it were, upon a single thread, they will have to call for the Mormon elders to save it from utter destruction; and they will step forth and do it." –Brigham Young, JD 2:182, February 18, 1855

"I believe that it is the destiny of the Latter-day Saints to support the Constitution of the United States. The Prophet Joseph Smith is alleged to have said—and I believe he did say it—that the day would come when the Constitution would hang as by a thread. But he saw that the thread did not break, thank the Lord, and that the Latter-day Saints would become a balance of power, with others, to preserve that Constitution. If there is—and there is one part of the Constitution hanging as by a thread today—where do the Latter-day Saints belong? Their place is to rally to the support of that Constitution, and maintain it and defend it and support it by their lives and by their vote. Let us not disappoint God nor his prophet. Our place is fixed." -Melvin J. Ballard, Conference Report, April 1933, p. 127.

What part will we have in the coming days and months, in supporting the Constitution of the United States? What form might this support take? Please comment with your opinion, and come back for Parts 2 and 3 of this discussion.

10 comments:

ECS said...

I believe individual Church members have the obligation to inform themselves about the political and legal developments in both polygamy and same sex marriage.

I would prefer the Church as an institution, however, to refrain from choosing sides and advocating a particular result.

The Constitution hanging by a thread is one of my favorite images. Joseph Smith and Justice Antonin Scalia make strange bedfellows.

I look forward to Parts II and III!

J. Stapley said...

Of course, the metaphor is somewhat tainted because of the popularized "white horse prophecy." Still, there are other extant sources. The first is a recollection by James Burgess. See The Words of Joseph Smith pg. 279. There is a primary and contemporary account of a different discourse recorded by Martha Coray which is on page 416 (see also footnote 9). This latter account is also published with a lengthy discussion in the "Historians Corner" of BYU Studies (1979) vol. 19 no. 3.

Anonymous said...

But all the comments you cite are abou the Constitution of the United States, while the California same-sex marriage decision is based solely on the California Constitution.

Bored in Vernal said...

Stapers, I've seen the BYU Studies piece. And I know that the quote is hazy. But with the amount of times the phrase has been approved and repeated by other Prophets and GA's, it holds an undisputed place in LDS thought! The important part of the teaching for me right now is the assurance that the Latter-day Saints will be the ones to rescue the Constitution from its precarious position. I won't cover this in depth, but historians might be interested in looking at how that latter part is phrased in the various accounts; and then in the later reiterations.

Btw, in the quote I referenced, what do you think Ballard meant in 1933 when he said that one part of the Constitution was already hanging by a thread?

anon, you're getting ahead of the discussion. Come back and see how I fit it together.

J. Stapley said...

I would imagine that he was probably referring to Prohibition.

Steven B said...

I think this prophecy has the potential to engage believers in a way, not unlike evangelicals supporting Israel in order to bring about the "end times" or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for Israel to be wiped off the map to help usher in the return of the 12th Imam.

MormonZero said...

I personally believe that the Constitution will/does hang by a thread whether Joseph Smith really said it or not.

One thing that I think is important though is that saving the Constitution is not about making sure Mormon beliefs are instilled upon the people but rather that the genuine nature of the Constitution is restored/maintained.

Not all but some members (at least from my pov, so take this however you want) can't seem to separate their own beliefs while getting involved in politics, science, etc. They seem to forget AofF 12 that allows ppl to believe how they may; they do this by attacking others lifestyles and/or beliefs.

I believe this is a vitally important issue in our country today but we have to be careful how we do it. I think the war in heaven is an excellent example...It is fight w/ words about liberty, Satan wanted to make everyone do it the "right" way but we all sided w/ the group that essentially said..."yes, we will make wrong choices but we will have a choice."

just my .02 cents is all.

MormonZero said...

It is almost like we feel like we are sinning if we try to not just defend our beliefs but also the beliefs of others who differ from our own.

Maraiya said...

I ditto ecs' comment.

RWW said...

Has anyone noticed this story?

"The more we stand by and watch the federal government get involved in areas where it has no legal authority, we kill the Constitution a little at a time," he said. "The last few decades, the Constitution has been hanging by a thread."