Eternal Principles of Government: A Theological Approach
June 1976

“Eternal Principles of Government: A Theological Approach,” Ensign, June 1976, 11

Eternal Principles of Government:

A Theological Approach

The gospel of Jesus Christ contains principles of truth applicable to the government of our families, our churches, our cities, states, and to nations themselves. These principles of government are so basic to human nature that they are applicable to different times and cultures as well as to our own. These seem to me to be some fundamental eternal principles of government:

1. Government properly constituted is both necessary and good. It is not a necessary evil that must be tolerated since the alternative is anarchy; nor is it something that we will necessarily “outgrow” once we overcome some particular human or social weakness. Instead, the Doctrine and Covenants states plainly: “We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man.” (D&C 134:1; see also D&C 98:4–10.) Joseph Smith taught that man’s propensity to govern himself through laws was based upon an eternal principle:

“If man has grown to wisdom and is capable of discerning the propriety of laws to govern nations, what less can be expected from the Ruler and Upholder of the universe? Can we suppose that He has a kingdom without laws? Or do we believe that it is composed of an innumerable company of beings who are entirely beyond all law? Consequently have need of nothing to govern or regulate them? Would not such ideas be a reproach to our Great Parent, and at variance with His glorious intelligence? Would it not be asserting that man had found out a secret beyond Deity? That he had learned that it was good to have laws, while God after existing from eternity and having power to create man, had not found out that it was proper to have laws for His government?” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 55.)

2. A second principle arises from a theory of knowledge peculiar to the Mormon people. If there are principles of government that are sufficiently basic to human nature so as to transcend the limitations of a given time and place, how are these principles to be known? And how are such general principles to be applied in a particular circumstance? The Doctrine and Covenants records that when Oliver Cowdery sought particular wisdom beyond his own, the Lord taught him a principle of truth applicable to anyone who seeks knowledge. The process is one of struggle and intense mental effort characterized by straining to the limit one’s own mental powers, followed by seeking confirmation from the Lord:

“You must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.

“But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong.” (D&C 9:8–9.)

3. With properly established government seen as a good, and with a means described by which the lawmaker may have access to knowledge beyond his own, a third principle emerges: while government is good if constituted and administered properly, such propriety depends in part upon the limitation of coercion to the least possible degree.

The Prophet Joseph said that man, if taught correct principles, would govern himself. (See JD, 10:57–58.) It would follow that coercion as an instrument of government will be drastically limited as the individual learns correct principles, thereby becoming able to govern himself more by internal motivation and less by external constraint. The Doctrine and Covenants, while speaking of ecclesiastical government, noted that power or influence should be maintained “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge” (D&C 121:41–42) rather than by virtue of office or position. Secular government under certain circumstances must use coercive, self-protective, or punitive measures, but the ideal remains: The means of persuasion or long-suffering are greatly to be preferred to the use of the sword, which is often two-edged. The end—no matter how desirable—does not justify an otherwise illegitimate means of force or domination.

4. If otherwise impermissible force cannot be made legitimate by its use in accomplishing a good end—if the end doesn’t justify the means—then permissible means to accomplish good ends must be protected at all costs, or there would remain no way to reach desirable goals. This is likely why it was almost always within the context of a discussion of the First Amendment freedoms of religion and speech that the Prophet Joseph Smith referred to the United States Constitution as an inspired document. (See, e.g., HC, 6:56–57, 5:289–90, 3:304.)

The fourth principle therefore follows: Even though force may sometimes be necessary to govern behavior, matters of conscience must not be regulated by government. The Prophet Joseph Smith said:

“We deem it a just principle, and it is one the force of which we believe ought to be duly considered by every individual, that all men are created equal, and that all have the privilege of thinking for themselves upon all matters relative to conscience. Consequently, then, we are not disposed, had we the power, to deprive any one of exercising that free independence of mind which heaven has so graciously bestowed upon the human family as one of its choicest gifts.” (Teachings, p. 49.)

Latter-day Saint theology spells out the permissible means one person can use in influencing another’s beliefs—and they are peaceful persuasion, tolerance or long-suffering, appreciating diversity, and “love unfeigned.” These means guarantee and are in turn guaranteed by freedom of conscience. Brigham Young stated:

“Our religion will not permit us to command or force any man or woman to obey the Gospel we have embraced. And we are under no obligation to do this, for every creature has as good a right, according to his organization, to choose for himself as the Gods.” (JD, 14:94.)

This allowance of diversity is based not merely upon a philosophical spirit liberalism, but more fundamentally upon the eternal principle of free agency.

The Book of Mormon carefully distinguishes between an act, which may need to be regulated, and a belief, which cannot be. Alma stressed:

“Now there was no law against a man’s belief. …”

If a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege; or rather, if he believed in God it was his privilege to serve him; but if he did not believe in him there was no law to punish him.

“But if he murdered he was punished unto death; and if he robbed he was also punished; and if he stole he was also punished; and if he committed adultery he was also punished; yea, for all this wickedness they were punished.

“For there was a law that men should be judged according to their crimes. Nevertheless, there was no law against a man’s belief; … therefore all men were on equal grounds.” (Alma 30:7, 9–11.)

Brigham Young insisted on tolerance with this pungent metaphor:

“Shall we deny the existence of that which we do not understand? If we do, we would want to keep an iron bedstead to measure every person according to our own measurement and dimensions; and if persons were too long we would cut them off, and if too short draw them out. But we should discard this principle, and our motto should be, we will let every one believe as he pleases and follow out the convictions of his own mind.” (JD, 14:131.)

Implicit in this principle of freedom of conscience is the protection of pluralism and of minority rights.

The principle of freedom of conscience can be maintained by different forms of secular government with appropriately different means. Family and church government would be sensitive to this principle in a variety of ways. The United States Constitution reflects and protects this principle through the First Amendment’s guarantee of speech, religion, and assembly and the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection of freedoms of the individual against infringement by the states.

5. A fifth principle of government is the necessity of the consent of the governed. The principle of consent could be manifest in different ways. “Majority rule” is one such means. However, to be in harmony both with the principle of consent and with freedom of conscience, majority rule would have to be limited by the protection of basic minority rights. The American Constitution provides for majority rule while preserving minority rights in many ways, including the protections found in the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment.

One of the most instructive examples of majority rule occurred in the Book of Mormon after a righteous king, Mosiah, turned his power back to his people, giving them responsibility for their own actions at the same time. He first explained why one-man rule is dangerous:

“Because all men are not just it is not expedient that ye should have a king or kings to rule over you.

“For behold, how much iniquity doth one wicked king cause to be committed, yea, and what great destruction!” (Mosiah 29:16–17.)

To avoid a situation where power would lie in the hands of only one man, Mosiah recommended that judges be selected by popular vote to judge “according to the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord.” (Mosiah 29:25.)

He saw that the guarantee provided by majority rule against exploitation and domination rested in a fundamental facet of human nature:

“It is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people.” (Mosiah 29:26.)

This advice would not necessarily eliminate a constitutional monarchy, a parliamentary government, a unitary state, a federal republic, or even a more authoritarian form of government that truly represented the people. The test is whether the “voice of the people” conducts the business. This principle of King Mosiah was not just a brilliant experiment—it was inspired. An illuminating test of the principle occurred some years later among the people when one faction agitated for an all-powerful king and, consequently, for the abolition of the “voice of the people.” Two parties formed—the king-men and the freemen—and gave their “voice” on this question. The results: “The voice of the people came in favor of the freemen, and [the chief judge] retained the judgment-seat.” (Alma 51:7.)

Even though these are political examples, they reflect a theological principle. Our Father himself recognized the principle of consent, and Brigham Young, in discussing celestial government, maintained that “the eternal laws by which he and all others exist in the eternities of the Gods, decree that the consent of the creature must be obtained before the Creator can rule perfectly.” (JD, 15:134.)

6. The sixth principle recognizes that though power is essential, it may be fatal to good government. Power must be given and harnessed simultaneously: both absolute power and absolute impotence may corrupt absolutely. One of the most profound passages of the Doctrine and Covenants observes:

“We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” (D&C 121:39.)

The United States Constitution restrains the power that it grants by the application of three tenets: the separation of powers, federalism, and the protection of individual rights. Power at the national level is separated and balanced between three coordinate branches. Power is further checked by dividing its prerogatives among the nation, the state, and the people. Finally, the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment protect basic individual rights against violation by any level of government.

Of course, other means of limiting power may also be effective. Parliamentary systems with the concept of responsible government also limit power successfully. More authoritarian governments can also possess traditional customs or laws limiting the powers of the lawgiver.

7. The seventh principle is the human factor: unwise or dishonorable men can corrupt a fair system; conversely, wise and good men can make good government out of a flawed structure. This human factor demands that “honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold.” (D&C 98:10.)

All these principles of liberty flow together toward two preeminent principles—a harmony of the one and the many, with man’s god-like individuality on the one hand and his natural, uncoerced communality on the other. These two principles provide at once the origin and the apex of all other governmental principles.

Political thought has traditionally been polarized between competing theories, one position emphasizing man’s communality and the other his individuality.

The theory of communality has been characterized by a belief in objective reality—a strand of classical Greek thought which held that because the good existed and could be discerned, force was justified in obtaining it; that is, the good is known and is embodied in the whole of the community, and the individual may therefore be coerced into conforming to that fact. Force is legitimated by the end to be achieved.

This theory of communality continued to be well-suited to the religious and political power structure of the post-Greek and medieval world. But with the rise of the modern nation-state and its fracturing of the Roman empire, with the destruction of the secular power of the papacy, with the devastating impact of the Reformation upon the universality of the Western Church, and with newly developing capitalism overpowering the less efficient but more communal medieval feudal economy, the world of universals, of so-called objective reality, seemed shattered beyond repair, and with it was also shattered the theory of communality.

Thus, a climate was created in which a far different view of the world could flourish. This other position asserted the dominant individuality of man. The theory of individuality was based upon a rejection of the premise that man can discern objective reality by reason and by intuition. Denying either (or both) the existence of universal principles or the ability of man to perceive them if they did exist, this form of liberalism asserts the subjectivity of knowledge and ethics, since both arise solely from man’s sense experience and his individualistic desires. Freedom becomes simply the untrammeled accomplishment of individual desires. Coercion therefore has no moral base but is simply tolerated, at the lowest possible level, so that individual man might accomplish without infringement by others his individually discerned desires. Community is therefore minimal and artificial.

Latter-day Saint theology maintains that a mixture of truth and error exists in both classical Greek and liberal thought. Objective reality exists and can be known, forming the basis of uncoerced and natural community. At the same time, however, the Latter-day Saint belief in man’s uncreated individuality and in the sanctity of his agency—an agency so sacrosanct that God himself will not infringe upon it—denies the legitimacy of force as a means of attaining the community’s ends. Man’s goal is seen as being the perfection of his individuality in the image of his Heavenly Father, until he is able to enjoy a celestial community. The attainment of such a goal, however, can only be accomplished by loving persuasion, not by force.

The ninety-third section of the Doctrine and Covenants establishes the basis for the ultimate individuality and agency of man. Jesus announces that “I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn. …

“Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. …

“Behold, here is the agency of man.” (D&C 93:21, 29, 31.)

Man is declared to have been in the beginning with the Father, possessed of an uncreated intelligence. Man’s agency and his ultimate accountability are based upon that fact.

The premortal goal of perfected individuality patterned on a likeness of our Father was seen in a vision by Abraham:

“Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was. …

“And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell;

“And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;

“And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever.” (Abr. 3:22, 24–26.)

Satan is seen as having committed a premortal sin by attempting to force community at the cost of man’s individuality and agency. Moses recorded:

“And I, the Lord God, spake unto Moses, saying: That Satan … came before me, saying—Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost. …

“Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man … I caused that he should be cast down.” (Moses 4:1, 3.)

Brigham Young noted the central role of agency in man’s progress: “The volition of the creature is free; this is a law of their existence, and the Lord cannot violate his own law; were he to do that, he would cease to be God.” (JD, 11:272.) Further:

“My independence is sacred to me—it is a portion of that same Deity that rules in the heavens. There is not a being upon the face of the earth who is made in the image of God, who stands erect and is organized as God is, that should be deprived of the free exercise of his agency so far as he does not infringe upon others’ rights, save by good advice and a good example.” (JD, 10:191.)

The principle of man’s natural communality is seen in Latter-day Saint theology, not as the antithesis of his individuality or his agency, but rather as the means by which his individuality is both fully attained and rewarded, or “added upon.” Man’s probationary mortal state is a time in which the godlike capacity to love is to be attained, not by retreat into solitary isolation but rather by being “in” the world though not “of” it. This second estate is given that man might learn the principles of governing self, family, and community. After death, those whose natural propensities draw them together without coercion form natural communities. In the Doctrine and Covenants we read:

“For he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory.

“And he who cannot abide the law of a terrestrial kingdom cannot abide a terrestrial glory.

“And he who cannot abide the law of a telestial kingdom cannot abide a telestial glory. …

“That which is governed by law is also preserved by law and perfected and sanctified by the same. …

“All kingdoms have a law given. …

“For intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light; mercy hath compassion on mercy and claimeth her own; justice continueth its course and claimeth its own.” (D&C 88:22–24, 34, 36, 40.)

The final judgment therefore becomes not an arbitrary act, but rather an act of kindness based upon self-judgment and a natural grouping. Moroni records that one not able to live celestial principles would be unhappy in such an environment:

“Do ye suppose that ye shall dwell with him under a consciousness of your guilt? Do ye suppose that ye could be happy to dwell with that holy Being, when your souls are racked with a consciousness of guilt that ye have ever abused his laws?

“Behold, I say unto you that ye would be more miserable to dwell with a holy and just God, under a consciousness of your filthiness before him, than ye would to dwell with the damned souls in hell.” (Morm. 9:3–4.)

Examples of uncoerced community may be examined from the Book of Mormon. The history of the people immediately following the ministry of the resurrected Lord presents the picture of a homogeneous society without ethical, economic, or other divisions among them. (See 4 Ne. 1:1–49.)

“And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift. …

“And it came to pass that there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people.

“And there were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.

“There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.” (4 Ne. 1:3, 15–17.)

Unfortunately, after a century of such society, it disintegrated into civil war and self-destruction.

About a century before the time of Christ the Nephites and Lamanites who had joined the church experienced the same combination of personal righteousness and social cohesion. Although they suffered persecution from without, their internal unity prevailed. The prophet Alma described their community, summarizing:

“And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.” (Alma 1:30.)

But this community was also destroyed eventually by unrighteousness among the people.

“Yea, he saw great inequality among the people, some lifting themselves up with their pride, despising others, turning their backs upon the needy and the naked and those who were hungry, and those who were athirst, and those who were sick and afflicted.” (Alma 4:12.)

Another people who experienced something approaching complete individual righteousness and perfect natural community, although living in a period of general unrighteousness, dwelt in the city of Enoch:

“And the Lord called his people ZION, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18.)

Presumably these communities fulfill the requirements of celestial society described in the eighty-eighth section of the Doctrine and Covenants. In such communities we can see eternal principles of government.

To summarize these principles: (1) Government properly constituted is good, not something necessarily to be overcome. (2) Means exist by which God’s knowledge of eternal principles may be known by man. (3) Coercive means of domination are not only prohibited, but in the nature of things can produce neither individual righteousness nor real community; such can only be accomplished by teaching correct principles with persuasion, long-suffering, and love. (4) The conscience of man must be left free from governmental restraint or coercion. (5) Legitimate government demands the consent of the governed. The “voice of the people” or majoritarianism makes government legitimate, assuming the protection of minority rights and the inviolability of matters of conscience. (6) The inherently necessary and yet potentially corruptive nature of power makes necessary both its grant and its limitation. (7) Honest and wise men must operate the organs of government or an institutionally satisfactory system will be inadequate or perhaps tyrannical. Finally, Latter-day Saint theology offers a solution to an age-old paradox—the conflict between individualism and communality—by suggesting a harmony between them in which each is essential to the other. Man’s individuality, stemming from his eternal and uncreated intelligence and protected by the principle of agency, is developed to its ultimate godlike potential as he serves his brothers and sisters without compulsory means in righteousness and love.

  • Edwin Brown Firmage, a professor of law at the University of Utah, serves as a Sunday School teacher in the Fourteenth Ward, Salt Lake Holladay South Stake.

Painting by Del Parson