The following article was written by Stephen M. Studdert, who served as a White House advisor to three U.S. Presidents. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, he has served twice as a stake president and as a mission president. He is the author of America in Danger.
The Preservation of the Very Soul of America
Today is an important day in the United States, yet few Americans know it.
Most Americans know the Constitution was ratified by thirteen original colonies in 1789. What most don’t know is its first ten amendments – known collectively as the Bill of Rights – were added to the Constitution on December 15, 1791. In 1941, one hundred and fifty years later, December 15th was officially proclaimed Bill of Rights Day.
Does it matter? Yes, because you and I are engaged in what may be the most important battle of our time, with a compelling moral urgency not before seen. Regrettably, we may all be slow to grasp the severity of the assault.
The battle to which I refer is the full-scale war to destroy the religious liberties we cherish. It is overt, relentless, pervasive, and well-funded.
Liberties under Attack
The Bill of Rights is a proclamation of liberties, including freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and much more. Today those hard-fought rights of liberty – especially religious liberty – are under unceasing attack as the absence of core moral and spiritual values in our political life increases seemingly by the day. Values we cherish, and our divine right to honor those values, will almost assuredly be the most important political question of the twenty-first century.
A half century ago President David O. McKay said, “One of the most important urgent needs today is the preservation of individual liberty.” That need is even more urgent today. President McKay continued, “When we fight for freedom of speech, the right to worship, we fight for the preservation of the very soul of America. Lose that soul, and we lose our liberty.”
Prophets throughout this dispensation have consistently voiced a warning. About the Constitutionally-guaranteed liberties of individual religious choice, the Prophet Joseph Smith, joined by his Liberty Jail cellmates, wrote: “This principle guarantees to all parties, sects, and denominations, and classes of religion, equal, coherent, and indefeasible rights; they are things that pertain to this life; therefore all are alike interested; they make our responsibilities one towards another in matters of corruptible things, while the former principles do not destroy the latter, but bind us stronger, and make our responsibilities not only one to another, but unto God also.”
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve recently said, “Surely the First Amendment guarantee of free exercise of religion was intended to grant more freedom to religious action than to other kinds of action. Treating actions based on religious belief the same as actions based on other systems of belief should not be enough to satisfy the special place of religions in the United State Constitution.”
Religious liberty was, for the most part, reasonably secure until the last quarter of the twentieth century. What infringement on religious liberty did occur was primarily through judicial activism.
Obviously, judicial activism remains a serious concern. The federal bench is replete with vacancies. As of last month, President Barrack Obama had nominated twenty-one individuals to the federal appellate bench, more than ten percent of the total appellate court strength; six more appellate vacancies are anticipated. The Fourth Circuit alone, widely recognized as one of the most conservative courts in the land, has five vacancies. At the federal district court level, seventy-two vacancies exist, about ten percent of the total.
Mr. Obama has already filled one Supreme Court position. A second opening on the Court may be imminent with the anticipated retirement of 89-year old Justice John Paul Stevens. Most court watchers expect both new Justices are likely to embrace traditional activist positions.
The Battle Moves to Regulatory Processes
But now the battleground is expanding beyond the courts. Today the battle rages in federal, state, and municipal legislative and regulatory processes, aided and abetted by the growing exclusion of moral and spiritual values from political life.
Before taking office, Mr. Obama wrote about the inhospitable confirmation process endured by federal judicial nominees: “I wondered if, in our reliance on the courts to vindicate not only our rights but also our values, progressives had lost too much faith in democracy. Elections ultimately mean something … Instead of relying on Senate procedures, there was one way to ensure that judges on the bench reflected our values, and that was to win at the polls.”
That view was further expressed by Yale law professors Jack Balkin and Reva Siegal, both committed Obama supporters, who advocated rethinking the activist agenda in “The Constitution in 2020”. They point out that an abundance of non-judicial avenues exists to reshape the Constitution. “But courts can only push so far out against what the people believe. They can lead, but they have to get some degree of take-up from the legislature, or nothing is going to change.”
Influential individuals and groups are zealously at work today, committed to reshaping the Constitution through public policy and legislation by turning to presidential appointees and elected officials instead of only to the historic judicial approach. Their expressed focus on a legislative and regulatory agenda embraces a frightening multitude of secular views contrary to religious liberty and doctrinal truths.
Consider that government’s budgets are in reality moral documents – for therein are found the priorities of a city, state, or nation, and even international organizations such as the United Nations. Today it is in such traditionally unexciting spending plans that public policy is being drastically altered to embrace secular values and infringe upon the free exercise of religion.
Religious values, and our vigorous defense thereof, are much more extensive than only our beliefs concerning same-sex marriage and abortion. Indeed, under broad attack is the very fundamental issue of worshipping how and when we choose and without government constraint or interference.
Sacred to Us
Religious liberty is sacred to us. “We believe that rulers, states, and governments have a right, and are bound to enact laws for the protection of all citizens in the free exercise of their religious belief; but we do not believe that they have a right in justice to deprive citizens of this privilege, or proscribe them in their opinions, so long as a regard and reverence are shown to the laws and such religious opinions do not justify sedition nor conspiracy.” [D&C 134:7] “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may. [11th Article of Faith]
Of America’s future, President Abraham Lincoln said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” You and I cannot allow that to happen.
In defending those hallowed freedoms, I offer eight suggestions we as Latter-day Saint citizens may consider as regarding religious liberty:
- We must define our individual citizenship by doctrine as well as by action.
- We must acknowledge that citizenship requires personal responsibility, respect, and civility.
- We must become voices of advocacy for a political discourse which neither ignores nor threatens religious values.
- We must make our considerable voices heard in the face of alarming moral decline and unrestrained secular advocacy.
- We must consciously engage in a constructive defense of a consistent religious and moral independence, while striving to avoid the ideologically distorted categories of liberal and conservative.
- We must appeal to like-minded individuals of all faiths and across the political spectrum, looking beyond doctrinal differences and political party lines to build alliances with others of shared values while assiduously avoiding mean-spirited divisiveness.
- We must work to restore the historic public policy implications of religious and moral values, and to return an element of faith to the public square.
- We must exert ourselves at every level of government to protect our treasured religious liberties, including the free exercise of our own religion.
The United States of America, the nation where the Gospel of Jesus Christ was restored, was founded upon religious and political ideals. You and I have a twin duty of discipleship and citizenship to ensure the protection of those religious ideals, to promote a more engaged dialogue on politics and faith, and to preserve the founding American ideal of respect for religious liberty.
President Spencer W. Kimball said, “The only way we can keep our freedom is to work at it. Not some of us. All of us. Not some of the time, but all of the time. So if you value your citizenship and want to keep it for yourself and your children and their children, give it your faith, your belief, and give it your active support in civic affairs.” His counsel is just as relevant today.