Thursday, September 02, 2004

The Constitution as Scripture?

I've found a credible reference to the "hanging by a thread" statement we were wondering about earlier. Rex E. Lee, the Solicitor General under Regan, talked about it in a speech at BYU in the early 90s. I'll put the quote at the end of this post. Another interesting thing he mentions in this speech is the belief that some LDS people have that the Constitution is "inspired" and therefore on par with scripture- i.e. infallibe and eternal. Lee doesn't agree that it should be seen that way, but this leads me to another question- why does a large part of church members seem so optimistic about our country and the supposed virtues of the founding fathers and at the same time subscribe to this "hanging by a thread" notion? Along these lines, I also can't help but wonder if LDS members are too trusting of political authority, b/c we are so trusting of our religious authorities. The whole article is here.

"A final area of constitutional interest unique to Latter-day Saints finds its source in the well-known "hanging by a thread" statements by the Prophet Joseph Smith. Similar statements have been reiterated by no fewer than six of his successors, including the current prophet. In a forthcoming book to be published by the Religious Studies Center, Professor Donald Cannon lists over forty instances in which these seven presidents have either used the "thread" metaphor or something like it. But in none of those quotations cited by Professor Cannon has any Church leader ever been very specific as to the metaphor's meaning. "


At 9/08/2004 04:39:00 PM,

Chris -- A more recent (and direct) reference to the "hanging by a thread" concept can be found in a talk by Boyd K. Packer at a BYU law school devotional on 28 February 2004 ("On the Shoulders of Giants," see Packer actually quotes Brigham Young who quotes Joseph Smith as saying, "the time will come when the destiny of this nation will hang upon a single thread..." Regardless of the exact semantics, though, I think you make a good point.

Just last week our Sunday School lesson focused on the inimitable pride cycle. Asked to "liken the scriptures" to our current state, almost all in our class agreed that America was a prosperous nation on the verge of heavenly reprimand - if not already in the midst of it. I too find it odd that this perception of our country can co-exist with the optimistic zeal which leads many to support the dissemination of American values abroad.

As for trust in our political leaders, I think LDS members are party-loyalists like most others. What I find most fascinating is the effect that Wilford Woodruff's vision in the St. George temple has on people's perception of the founding fathers. Just because these men apparently chose to receive postmortem baptism does not, it seems to me, justify their earthly lifestyles or consecrate the Constitution beyond its level of political significance.

There seems to be a double standard in the way that LDS church members champion the liberal principles of the Bill of Rights as a precursor to the restoration and protector of our religious rights (inasmuch as others did not agree with us) and now decry these same liberal values that seek to protect groups with which WE disagree.

At 9/09/2004 01:08:00 AM,

“There seems to be a double standard in the way that LDS church members champion the liberal principles of the Bill of Rights as a precursor to the restoration and protector of our religious rights (inasmuch as others did not agree with us) and now decry these same liberal values that seek to protect groups with which WE disagree.”

Well, it’s because we’re right and they’re wrong. I mean, how can it be otherwise? Don’t you think God wants the ACLU eternally silenced? (I’m afraid sarcasm doesn’t translate accurately in written text).

The post-mortem acceptance of the Gospel by founders does nothing to convince me of the Constitution’s sacred nature. But this makes a fair case:

“And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood.” Doctrine and Covenants 101:80

The purpose refered to above is “that every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgement. Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.” (D&C 101: 78)

In light of this, how are we to accept the Constitution? Revelatory scripture, partially inspired, good adivce? The 3/5 compromise and the fugitive slave clause don’t seem in line with the Lord’s intention to ensure moral agency and disspell “bondage one to another.”

I’ve heard some say that the Constitution is the best that could have been done at the time. It’s sad to think that anything that allowed slavery could still qualify, as some would say, as “the best possible scenario, considering the circumstances.”

I’m not criticizing the founders for allowing that provision. They did remarkable things and I have profound respect for them as leaders, regardless of their choices in personal matters. (Elsewhere, someone is writing a blog detailing the history of one of the founders ellicit relationships with his slaves). However, I wonder how the Constitution could be considered entirely inspired as it is.

I attended a seminar with Fred Gedicks, a BYU law professor who teaches Constitutional law. He proposed that not every part of the Constitution be accepted as inspired. His proposal did not shock me. The crowd response did. During the intermission, I listened to four middle-aged men complain that anyone dared to think so little of the Constitution. Does my faith require that I accept the Constitution as scripture?

At 9/09/2004 11:16:00 PM,

Certainly digging up true origin of an oft-quoted statement attributed to JS or BY is worthwhile, but another approach is to consider why it keeps getting passed around. After all, you can find a quote somewhere in the History of the Church, the Times & Seasons, or the Journal of Discourses that says just about anything. The real question is why most are ignored buy a few become popular.

So why does the "hanging by a thread" quote get cited so much? Maybe most Mormons still harbor a grudge against the US government for how Mormons were treated in the 19th century. Maybe some Mormons still cling to the idea that the Church will rule the world someday and see a failed US government as the first step on that path. However you look at it, it seems a little disturbing that leaders or average members like the "hanging by a thread" quote enough to keep repeating it. Maybe we should stick with the canonical "inspired Constitution" theme.

At 9/11/2004 03:09:00 PM,


I'd easily believe your given reasons for the behavior. It's a classic underdog story, like the lion and the mouse: down and out underdog becomes unlikely hero and ends up saving the day. Always sells. We could write a screenplay. Have your people call my people.




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