Last November at my Primary preparation meeting, the secretary announced the location of the local polling place and the hours during which it would be open for a statewide election. No one was particularly surprised that such an announcement was made in a Church meeting. Most Mormons take their right to vote seriously and often exercise that right in local, state, and national elections. If asked why they took the trouble to vote, a frequent reply might be that this exercise of the franchise was one of their duties as citizens of a democratic country. Most Latter-day Saints want to be known as good citizens, but how many Church members have actually earned that label? Must one be a good citizen in order to be a good Latter-day Saint? To answer these questions, we must review the range of rights and duties generally associated with the idea of citizenship in a democracy.
The term “citizenship” has a somewhat different meaning in democratic countries than it does in autocratic or totalitarian states. In democracies, the rights of citizens are emphasized and the duties of citizenship, beyond obedience to the country’s laws, are considered to be voluntary rather than obligatory. Nondemocratic systems tend to stress the duties of citizens to the state and the right of the state to ensure that these duties are performed, by use of force and repression if necessary. These countries measure a good citizen by his degree of enthusiasm in supporting the economic, educational, cultural, and political institutions established by the state. Mere passive acceptance of these programs, or withdrawal from involvement in them, is frowned upon; active opposition to the state’s priorities and value system is often rewarded by a jail sentence.
In democratic countries, on the other hand, the option of withdrawing totally from political life is respected. One of the most important rights of democratic citizenship is the right to be what might be called a “bad citizen”—in other words, the right to reject any form of civic participation beyond passive obedience to law. In a democracy, questions relating to one’s civic involvement, like those relating to religious commitments, economic philosophy, or cultural preferences, are theoretically determined by the individual rather than by the state. In latter-day scriptures the Lord has made clear that the freedom of choice given democratic citizens is essential to the preaching and practice of the gospel:
“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 judgment. …
“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.” (D&C 101:78, 80.)
Only if a citizen is allowed to make decisions of conscience and lifestyle free from state control or coercion can he be held totally accountable for his actions.
Although the concept of “democratic citizenship” necessarily includes the option of complete withdrawal from the political life of the country, is such withdrawal ever appropriate for the faithful Latter-day Saint? Most Church members would agree that when one is called on a mission, “worldly concerns,” including those relating to politics, should be set aside to make way for total devotion of one’s time and energies to the Lord’s work. But some members like to think that civic participation by Latter-day Saints in democratic countries is seldom appropriate. On what grounds do they arrive at such a conclusion? Some argue that since the world is presently engaged in the last tragic scenes of a drama which (as the Lord has revealed) must inevitably end in the destruction of all the kingdoms of men, it is hopeless to try to maintain (or restore) honesty, accountability, or effectiveness to one’s political system. Others maintain that the demands of active Church membership leave little time or energy for engaging in “active citizenship.” With the constant pressures of making a living, caring for a family, and almost daily Church responsibilities, how can one sandwich in participation in political activity such as delivering a petition or running a friend’s political campaign or seeking an office of civic or political service?
Despite these difficulties, latter-day prophets have indicated that neither the knowledge of future political collapse nor a full schedule of Church activities absolves the Latter-day Saint from the duty, at the proper time and place, of going beyond regular voting to more active levels of participation in the process of democratic government. For example, the instruction book on bicentennial observance sent to all American wards states, “Celebrating the 200th anniversary of America’s birth involves much more than a passive admiration for this country, it involves active rededication to the principles laid out by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.” The instructions admonish members to “help solve your own community problems and preserve your own freedoms that will allow the gospel to spread throughout the world.” (One Hundred and One Ideas; An Idea for Any Occasion—Including the Bicentennial, p. 2.)
The Saints must be concerned with the maintenance of personal freedom, which the Lord has indicated is essential to individual salvation and exaltation.
We must not assume that since the Constitution embodies a “divinely inspired” political system the machinery of checks and balances, separation of powers, and other constitutional limitations will automatically preserve political and moral freedom for the individual. The prophets have made clear that no constitution or set of laws, written or unwritten, can by themselves protect a nation from corrupt leaders. Brigham Young remarked, “No matter how good a government is, unless it is administered by righteous men, an evil government will be made of it.” (Journal of Discourses, 10:177.) Bitter experience has shown that the best way to keep corrupt individuals from subverting constitutional and legal processes is for committed citizens to maintain a constant, careful surveillance over governmental activities, opposing individuals motivated only by selfish ambition in seeking public office. Although ancient and latter-day scriptures warn that increasing political violence and corruption will precede the millennium, Latter-day Saints must continue during this premillennial period to struggle to maintain the political freedoms essential to the spread and practice of the gospel.
Political life, whether on the level of school board member, “pressure group” leader, or state governor, refines the political skills of reasoning, persuasion, organization, and negotiation. As the active citizen develops these skills, he also takes the greatest possible advantage of his precious gift of free agency. When one leaves the burden of active political participation to others, he loses the opportunity to affect directly many of the decisions that will shape his world. He abdicates a degree of control over his life and his community which he might otherwise have exercised. The Lord has often indicated his opposition to kingships and other autocratic forms of government that take the opportunity and responsibility for decision-making out of the hands of the people. He surely cannot be pleased when those of his children blessed with a democratic form of government refuse to grasp the opportunities it offers for active civic participation and allow their potential for gaining greater understanding and mastery of self-government to atrophy.
Even for those convinced of the need for a commitment to active citizenship, questions of how and when persist. Although family, church, and job responsibilities can make it difficult or impossible for many Saints to achieve constantly high levels of civic participation, there are many opportunities for meaningful participation in one’s “own backyard.” Significant problems and challenges often can be met by local civic action, which does not require great expenditures of individual time or resources. For example, neighborhood residents have effectively organized to have a new children’s playground built nearby, or to drive pornography from their area. The commitment of time and energy to civic projects need not be full-time or statewide to accomplish meaningful results.
Most systems of democratic government are flexible enough to allow citizens to drop in and out of the more active levels of participation as other commitments require. One young LDS wife, for example, served as chairman of the city’s conservation commission until her first child was born. At that point she turned over the demanding responsibilities of the chairmanship to another commissioner. She commented recently that when her children are in school and she has a little more free time, she will again become more active in community affairs.
For some Latter-day Saints, participation in the political life of the community, the state, or the nation is a full-time vocation. For most of us, civic affairs are a more occasional concern. The temptation is strong to allow civic participation to become so totally overshadowed by day-to-day concerns that we never get beyond the “faithful voter” level of activity. In such circumstances, it might be wise to remind ourselves that no constitution or set of protective laws is self-executing. Guarantees of political freedom maintain their force only if citizens are willing to exercise that freedom in their own behalf. If men and women of character fail to participate in the political decisions that shape their lives, others with more selfish motives will inevitably rush in to fill the void.