What is a citizen’s duty if a democratic government is oppressive or supplies only a limited amount of freedom?
June 1976

“What is a citizen’s duty if a democratic government is oppressive or supplies only a limited amount of freedom?” Ensign, June 1976, 61–62

What is a citizen’s duty if a democratic government is oppressive or supplies only a limited amount of freedom?

Dallin H. Oaks, president of Brigham Young University As long as the government is a representative one, so that aggrieved persons can work to enlarge their freedoms and relieve their oppressions by legal and peaceful means, a Latter-day Saint citizen’s duty is that of “being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” (A of F 1:12].) There are exceptions to this duty, discussed below, but they are extremely limited.

All governments formed and administered by imperfect men will be oppressive and limit our freedoms in some measure, since they will inevitably mirror the imperfections of those who rule and those who are ruled. For this reason, we promote the cause of freedom and good government when we fulfill our religious duty to work for good laws, seek diligently for honest and wise rulers, and preach repentance to all citizens.

Even when victimized by what they must surely have seen as very severe government oppressions and abridgments of freedom, the Mormon people and their leaders have remained loyal to their government and its laws. The compliant position outlined in the twelfth Article of Faith, quoted above, was written during the Nauvoo period after almost a decade of persecutions that government officials either conducted, condoned, or refused to redress. Just after the Saints were forcibly driven out of Jackson County, Missouri, with great hardship and loss of property, the Lord revealed his “will that they should continue to importune for redress, and redemption, by the hands of those who are placed as rulers and are in authority over you. …” (D&C 101:76.) The Declaration of Belief later adopted by the Church affirmed “that to the laws all men owe respect and deference, as without them peace and harmony would be supplanted by anarchy and terror. …” (D&C 134:6.)

These principles and precedents, and others too numerous to cite in this limited space, are persuasive evidence that even an oppressive government that limits freedom is preferable to a state of lawlessness and anarchy in which the only ruling principle is force and every individual citizen has a thousand oppressors. Abraham Lincoln was espousing this preference when he said, “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.” (Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, p. 635, 14th ed.)

There are exceptions. The command of loyalty to laws and rulers does not compel a citizen to participate in or submit to a government edict that runs counter to the common consensus of humanity, such as genocide or other cold-blooded murder. Nor should it require a person to violate the fundamental tenets of religious faith. For example, if the current laws permitting abortion (which are highly objectionable) were expanded to requiring abortion in certain instances, an unwilling mother and father who regarded this practice as “one of the most revolting and sinful practices in this day” (First Presidency statement of January 1973) would be justified in refusing to observe the law. Another exception is specified in our Declaration of Belief, which proclaims that “human law has [no] right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion. …” (D&C 134:4.) An additional exception is hinted in the Doctrine and Covenants sections that proclaim the duty of government to protect our rights of conscience, property, life, and religious belief and practice, and which may condition our duty of loyalty to a government that fails to fulfill those obligations. (D&C 98:5–6; D&C 134:2, 5, 7.)

Thus, there are exceptions, but they should not be applied to any but the most extreme challenges to faith and liberty lest the exceptions be trivialized or used to weaken our support for the principle of ordered liberty. When we see the oppressions our forefathers endured (such as imprisonment and deprivation of civil rights for acts then required by their religion) without repudiating their basic commitment to observance of law, and when we reflect on the considerable opportunities our democratic government offers for the lawful redress of grievances (such as the legal challenge BYU is now making to agency regulations that exceed the constitution and laws), we should be extremely reluctant to deviate from our basic position of loyalty to rulers and observance of law.