“Just and Holy Principles”: An Examination of the U.S. Constitution


The Prophet Joseph Smith strongly implied that governmental leadership, like personal leadership, is truly successful only when rooted in principle rather than expediency. He said: “I teach my people correct principles and they govern themselves.” A like appeal to the importance of fundamental principles introduced the American Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776:

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”

Three primary points are worth noting in this concise profession of faith. First, the claim is advanced that all persons are created equal in dignity and brotherhood as members of the great human family and are entitled to equal rights and privileges before the law. Second, the Declaration proclaims the existence of certain “unalienable rights” that all individuals are entitled to enjoy, and which, coming from the Creator, are themselves divine and eternal in nature. Third, these sacred rights pertain in part to the enjoyment of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

The accuracy with which Thomas Jefferson and those associated with him in the drafting of the Declaration identified these fundamental and “correct principles” of government is not surprising to Latter-day Saints. The same principles are specifically mentioned in modern revelation as the desired basis for government. In the course of a remarkable revelation, in which the Lord reports that he “raised up” wise men through whose inspired efforts the Constitution was established, the very concepts emphasized in the Declaration are reiterated and sanctified. (See D&C 101:77–80.)

First, the basic elements of constitutional government, as embodied in the American Constitution, “should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh.” (D&C 101:77.) Keeping in mind the universality of God’s love for all of his children, whatever their race, color, or creed (see 2 Ne. 26:24–33), this explicit recognition that “all flesh” may lay claim to legal protection rejects any limited application of constitutional principles. Since the Lord is “no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34), each individual is equally entitled to the protection of law in the exercise of personal “rights.”

Second, the Lord indicates that the elements of constitutionalism should be maintained “according to just and holy principles.” (D&C 101:77.) The implication is inescapable: the framers of the Constitution of the United States, by divine inspiration, imbedded within it certain eternal principles. Since the document was intended as a framework for government, these principles seem to relate primarily to the relationships between government and citizen, defining the rights of the people and circumscribing the powers of the government. Being “just and holy” in nature, they could presumably be referred to as an eternal, irrevocable, and inalienable “endowment” of all mankind.

Third, the purpose for which these “just and holy principles” exist is to assure 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 judgment.” (D&C 101:78.) Like the parallel statement in the Declaration of Independence, this pronouncement suggests that principled limitations upon the government are ordained to provide the maximum possible range of freedom of choice as people pursue the goals of eternal life, eternal liberty (freedom from sin), and eternal joy or happiness.

The concept of principled limitations, in this context, clearly implies order and balance; it does not reject the need for appropriate legal discipline in community and societal relationships. The thrust of the revelation is toward the marking of a “just and holy” line between the range of matters subject to governmental regulation and the area of private personal conduct that ordinarily lies outside that range. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17.)

The precise nature of the “just and holy principles” is not explained in the revelation. A useful key to their identity, however, is found in their clearly stated purpose—to promote the free and intelligent exercise of the “moral agency” that all possess, allowing them to freely choose between right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsehood, virtue and sin. Forced obedience was the basis of Satan’s rejected amendment to the Father’s plan of salvation. Voluntary obedience, as shown by righteous decisions, motivated by faith, repentance, and a humble willingness to yield to “the enticings of the Holy Spirit” (Mosiah 3:19), characterized the approved plan supported by the Son. But history documents the fact that power can be a corrupting influence and that the possession of unlimited power by evil men, as King Mosiah warned, can “pervert the ways of all righteousness.” (Mosiah 29:23.)

“We have learned by sad experience,” wrote the Prophet Joseph Smith, “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.) It may be reasonably inferred, therefore, that the “just and holy principles” referred to would include at least those constitutional limitations upon the exercise of governmental power which (1) are clearly calculated to enhance our personal freedom to make intelligent voluntary choices in matters of conscience and belief, (2) have roots in scriptural truths, and (3) are consistent with the plan of salvation.

It would be difficult to identify all of the constitutional principles that meet this test. Among those that do, however, three are worthy of special attention.

1. Religious Freedom and Independence from Government

The First Amendment to the Constitution declares: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Similarly, modern scripture proclaims, on behalf of the Church: “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. …

“We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied.” (D&C 134:7, 9.)

A striking historical incident illustrating the principle that government has no right to coerce individual agency in matters of religious belief is recorded in the third chapter of Daniel. This is the thrilling account of the three Israelites—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—who were prepared to sacrifice their lives rather than yield to the command of King Nebuchadnezzar that they worship a golden idol.

When threatened with a terrible death by being burned alive for their disobedience, they responded to the king: “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.

“But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.” (Dan. 3:17–18.)

This remarkable testimony of faith was, of course, rewarded. After they had been thrown bound into the midst of the fire, King Nebuchadnezzar himself looked into the flames and, in astonishment, declared: “Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.” (Dan. 3:25.)

Good King Mosiah appealed to the Nephites to avoid absolute monarchy as a form of government, “because,” he said, “all men are not just.” (Mosiah 29:16.) As an example of the tragic consequences that could result from wicked monarchs, Mosiah reminded his listeners of the reign, some sixty years earlier, of “king Noah, his wickedness and his abominations, and also the wickedness and abominations of his people.” (Mosiah 29:18.) The Book of Mormon records that Noah, upon assuming the kingship, “did not walk in the ways of his father” and “did not keep the commandments of God.” Instead, Noah “changed the affairs of the kingdom” in various ways, including replacing the priests who had been consecrated by his father with handpicked substitutes who “were lifted up in the pride of their hearts.” In addition, he laid a 20 percent tax on every form of private property, to support the monarchy and its controlled clergy. “Thus,” we are told, “they were supported in their laziness, and in their idolatry, and in their whoredoms, by the taxes which king Noah had put upon his people; thus did the people labor exceedingly to support iniquity.” (Mosiah 11:1–6.)

James Madison, in his famous “remonstrance” against a proposal to levy taxes in support of religion, argued that “the religion … of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.” This right, Madison proclaimed, is “unalienable because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated in their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men. It is unalienable, also, because what is here a right toward men is a duty toward the Creator.” The proposed tax, therefore, must be opposed, he said, even though it be relatively small, apparently harmless, and favorable to Christian denominations. In Madison’s words, “It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties … Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute threepence only of his property for the support of any one establishment may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?” (Annals of America, Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1968, 3:17.)

2. Freedom of Belief and Expression

A second principle which appears to be “just and holy” by the suggested test relates to the sanctity of personal beliefs and their communication. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution declares, in this regard, that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” In giving effect to this principle, the Supreme Court declared in 1943: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” (West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette, 319 US 624.)

Freedom to formulate one’s own beliefs in accordance with private conscience, uncoerced by fear of governmental sanctions, and to conform one’s conduct to those beliefs, allows sweeping scope to the “moral agency” of mankind. Moreover, where this freedom is recognized, it necessarily follows that one believer may freely seek to persuade others, by noncompulsory means, to a similar view. According to Alma, the “virtue of the word of God,” when preached by the Spirit, had “a great tendency” to lead people to righteous living; it even had a “more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword” or any other external influence. (Alma 31:5.)

The difficulty with the concept of freedom of expression, of course, arises from the need, in a variety of situations, to regulate illegal actions. Ideas can be expressed in both words and conduct, and the two are frequently intermingled; it is often difficult to isolate cause from effect, to determine whether public disorders have resulted from words used by a speaker or from the reactions of his listeners. Yet the distinction needs to be made, in order to preserve the integrity of the constitutional command that freedom of speech not be interfered with. “We believe … that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul.” (D&C 134:4.)

This basic distinction between ideas and conduct is verified by the experience recorded in the thirtieth chapter of Alma. Korihor, the anti-Christ, came preaching throughout the land of Zarahemla, teaching the people that the fundamental doctrines upon which their government was based were nothing but foolish traditions, mere falsehoods promulgated by the priests and teachers of the people for the sake of personal gain. Some of the good citizens of Zarahemla, being offended by these false and vicious doctrines, made a citizen’s arrest, bringing Korihor before Alma, the prophet and chief judge. Alma, however, refused to use the power of government to punish Korihor, since, as the record points out, “there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds.

“For thus saith the scripture: Choose ye this day, whom ye will serve.

“Now 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, a man was punished only for the crimes which he had done; therefore all men were on equal grounds.” (Alma 30:7–11.)

Since governmental punishment of Korihor for his beliefs, or for his teachings about his beliefs, “was strictly contrary to the commands of God,” his condemnation came not through the law of the land but by the power of God. (See Alma 30:50–52.)

3. Equal Justice under Law

Included among the laws given through Moses to the children of Israel was the law of equal justice: “Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for one of your own country: for I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 24:22.) The Constitution contains the same law: neither the national government nor any state may deny to “any person,” citizen or stranger, the “equal protection of the laws.” (Fourteenth Amendment.) This concept is the essence of the statement in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” Its premise is the brotherhood of man.

Recognition of the common humanity and divine heritage of all mankind is an essential prerequisite of obedience to the Lord’s law of love. The scriptures teach that love of the Lord is best demonstrated by obedience to his commandments and by demonstrating love for one’s neighbor. The full magnitude of his concern for mankind was demonstrated by his willingness to permit his Only Begotten Son to be sacrificed as an atonement for the sins of all mankind, withholding that blessing from none who accept him. He admonished us to be perfect in living the commandments, even as our Father in Heaven is perfect. (See Matt. 5:48.) His perfect standard of love is set forth with unmistakable clarity in the Book of Mormon:

“He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him. …

“Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden. …

“He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” (2 Ne. 26:24, 28, 33.)

These important precepts—freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and equal justice under law—are in my opinion among the “just and holy principles” contained in the Constitution. The central purpose of agency, which these principles seek to promote, is to permit all people to learn by experience to love the Lord and to love their neighbors as themselves. Within the framework of the law of love, our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness imply an additional commitment on our part to accept and respect one another, while seeking constantly to overcome the sin and temptation to which we are all exposed. The existence of these rights implies an attitude of compassion and understanding based upon a deep sense of eternal brotherhood, a rejection of evil and selfish thoughts in our relationships with one another. Their existence emphasizes the need for each of us to listen and to learn from one another, but also a willingness to teach and seek to influence each other toward righteous behavior.

As we seek to abide in “the liberty wherewith [we] are made free” (D&C 88:86), we should not lose sight of the spiritual significance of these divinely inspired principles. That significance is solidly rooted in the fact that the laws of human liberty and the exercise of agency are inseparably related to the eternal law of love. This idea was eloquently expressed by Governor Christian Herter of Massachusetts, who in 1955 declared:

“Liberty is not any one man’s possession. When a man asks freedom for himself alone, both he and his neighbor lose what he thinks he has gained. The spirit of liberty is more than jealousy for your own rights. It is a decent respect for the rights and opinions of others. We are free, not because we have freedom, but because we serve freedom. The love of liberty cannot be separated from loving your neighbor as yourself.” (Proclamation of Civil Rights Week, December 1955.)

Finally, we should never forget that the full enjoyment of the “just and holy principles” here discussed, as with other principles of righteousness, requires personal discipline and obedience to law. Freedom and responsibility are inseparable; neither is complete or meaningful without the other. In Edmund Burke’s words:

“Men are qualified for civil liberties in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. … Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” (“Letter to a Member of the National Assembly,” in The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke, London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1925, 4:319.)

[illustration] “Signing of the Constitution,” by Thomas Prichard Rossiter. Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park.

[photo] Freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and equal justice under law are among the “just and holy principles” contained in the Declaration of Independence and reiterated in the Constitution. The central purpose of agency, which these principles seek to promote, is to permit all people to learn by experience to love the Lord and to love their neighbors as themselves.

Arvo Van Alstyne is deceased. At the time of his death, he was Utah State Commissioner of Higher Education. This article is reprinted from the June 1976 Ensign.