The Lonely Sentinels of Democracy


It is particularly appropriate this month that the New Era covers the first lecture from the recently inaugurated Commissioner’s Lecture Series.

The talks in this series, twelve lectures in all, will be or have been presented to young audiences at various locations, each speaker delivering his talk to two different audiences so they can have the opportunity to learn from many top Latter-day Saints who have made their mark in various fields of scholarship.

It was G. K. Chesterton who first warned us about what can happen to a “tired democracy,” a democracy in which the people are willing to leave their chores to a few “lonely sentinels.” There are many who now believe that American democracy is, in fact, a “tired democracy,” with “deliberate apathy” eating away at the vitals of our society. There are also those who argue that things are so complex now and the consequences of decisions so grave that democracy will falter simply because—by its very nature—democracy leaves, in the words of Chesterton again, terribly important things up to ordinary people.

Significantly, the American presidents whom we admire most are men who have, in one way or another, cracked the Constitution we venerate—whether it was Jefferson in making the unauthorized purchase of the Louisiana Territory, or Jackson defying the United States Supreme Court, or Lincoln suspending certain civil and constitutional rights in order to save the union, or Teddy Roosevelt digging an unfunded Panama Canal while Congress was still debating the merits of the project, or Franklin D. Roosevelt threatening to impose some economic controls whether or not Congress fashioned such a law. It should give us pause that our admiration flows to leaders who were decisive and who assumed great psychological size in American affairs; John Stuart Mill warned about laying our liberties at the feet of even great men. We must “want the consequences of what we want.” Yet in today’s hurly-burly world, our democracy finds it difficult to get most of us even to participate in the periodic, formal decision making of elections, let alone in the careful, time-consuming assessment of various alternatives and consequences.

So much of what we have done in America is simply to equalize expectations without, at the same time, increasing our capacity to deal on those expectations. Thus, most of the rhetoric on the American scene today consists either of creating unrealistic expectations or of decrying our failures to deliver on those expectations!

With regard to the domestic dimensions of American democracy, we are almost over-aspiring, given the limitations that apathy, finite funding, etc., place upon our capacity to deliver. It was Jefferson who warned, “When we reflect how difficult it is to move or to inflect the great machine of society, how impossible to advance the notions of a whole people suddenly to ideal right, we see the wisdom of Solon’s remark that no more good must be attempted than the nation can bear.”

We need a manageable, do-able domestic agenda.

One of the great challenges of our democracy is to blend appropriately the stability that comes from tradition with the adrenalin that flows from necessary but constitutionally designed change. We depend upon the political center in America to refine the chemistry of change, and if the center “cannot hold,” the consequences will be dire.

In a time of rapid change, note the words of G. K. Chesterton about tradition:

“Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.”

Just as the past should not be disregarded, Jefferson and others argue convincingly that the earth belongs to the living. Future generations have rights, too. It may help to remind us all that our landlord is the Lord, and the earth belongs to none of us.

When one seeks to reconstruct a people after convulsive change, he would do well to look to tradition for some guidance. Shez, who ruled in Jaredite times, faced the challenge of building up again a broken people. Shez remembered the past and its lessons before he proceeded to build many cities to preside over populations, growth, etc.

There is a complex chemistry that connects the past and the future; citizens who are concerned only with the here and now—who disdain the past per se—are not likely to care much about the future either. I say that as one who believes that cardinal among the virtues of the United States Constitution is the elasticity it provides each generation—but within certain stable parameters.

While attesting to the virtues of democracy, one needs to be very conscious of some of its limitations:

First, public opinion is often uneven and episodic in its influence. Thomas Jefferson assumed the American people would be informed and attentive. So often we are uninformed and/or inattentive. The music democracy makes is analogous to a piano keyboard—you and I respond only when our particular key is struck; we resonate and contribute only when the issues affect us. Some keys seem persistently silent, and, thus, what we hear is a cacophony or the “chopsticks” of a few recurring keys, not Chopin—for only occasionally do we experience a chord that cuts across the keyboard and brings us together in human harmony.

Second, while representative government cannot be effective unless it does provide representation, one of the limitations of democracy that some critics have difficulty accepting is the fact that representative government is often just that—representative! The people have spoken, and some don’t like what the people have said.

Third, S. M. Lipset has observed that democracy requires certain originating or initial conditions to bring it into being. Fortunately, democracy tends to reproduce and reinforce those same necessary conditions—except that it also produces two other consequences, mass bureaucracy and political apathy, that are like a virus threatening to kill the host. Mass bureaucracy is an enemy of pluralism on which our founding fathers counted to produce true majorities, to checkrein interest groups, and to filter public opinion.

We may not know if political apathy increases as a democracy ages, but bureaucracy clearly does, and insofar as bureaucracy disenchants individuals, it reinforces apathy, and apathy often reaches plague proportions at the very time the people need to make decisions of immense consequences.

Fourth, de Tocqueville observed that democracy in America might not be able to compete for men’s attention as we pursue our private physical and material gratifications. He observed, further, that democracy has a tendency to separate man from his ancestors and his community, creating a personal isolation that does not augur well, if de Tocqueville is correct.

Fifth, it remains to be seen, also, whether our American democracy can tame the technology brought about by the genius of our people. Technology contributes immeasurably to the challenges growing out of complexity and compartmentalization. Technology may even be counter-democratic in its impact on our democracy. It may be technology, inadvertently, that calls for the new forms of authoritarianism in order to deal with complex, tough decisions concerning the management of technology about which the common man not only does not have adequate data, but, worse still, about which he is exceedingly ambivalent.

Sixth, a democracy has neither much of a memory nor significant anticipatory skills. It is difficult for people to feel pain prospectively and to avoid that pain later by acting preventively. Thomas Paine observed in his time that people would think only when they felt a problem—such as heavy taxes.

Today we have a plethora of Paul Reveres warning us about the coming of so many dangers, and it is difficult to sort out the crucial warnings from the false warnings. The very decibel level of multiple warnings has the consequence of turning many of us off.

My faith in democracy is strong but conditional. I am somewhat in the position of the man whom the Savior questioned concerning his religious faith. The man replied, “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.” I, and probably you, need reinforcing experiences to freshly validate the workability of democratic ideals. Skepticism tends to feed on itself.

I am intrigued by the scriptures that describe a time when men’s hearts shall fail them. Presumably, the despair level at that point in human history will be so great that many will doubt, and doubt deeply, man’s capacity to cope with the challenges around him. But democracy need not drive men toward despair; in fact, it offers them an excellent way of avoiding that consequence, if the “voice of the people” chooses wisely. But democracy does not automatically produce results simply as a function of intellectual commitment. The Prophet Joseph Smith understood that democracy involves a collision of values and ideas, and he urged us to do what we could to make good causes popular and bad ones unpopular. This is sober counsel from one who was both gored and ignored in the arena of opinion.

I turn now to a few examples from the scriptures, with insights from a divine data base that I find helpful in juxtaposition to my secular experience. Incidentally, if you have not read Hugh Nibley’s chapter called “Good Guys and Bad Guys” (Since Cumorah [Deseret Book Co., 1967], pp. 318–81), do so—it is a very helpful potpourri from the Book of Mormon.

First, when I read the Book of Mormon many years ago, I was troubled by the suggestions that there could occur such marked and quick changes in the spiritual and political conditions of a society as the Book of Mormon indicates occurred in the matter of just several years. No one who has gone through the decade of the sixties in America, however, should question the rapidity with which certain developments and subcultures can come into being! In many ways things change very slowly, but it is also true that deterioration can be exceedingly rapid under some circumstances.

Second, I am impressed that the Nephite society became too litigious for its own good. The tendency to dispute reflected the loss of the lubricant trust that is always needed to get resolution of differences in a free society. Of course, some of the significant gains in American society have come about because of litigation, and our courts must checkrein the other two branches of government, but perhaps our litigiousness has reached a level that adds to our contentiousness and our polarity.

Third, the word civilization is only used twice in the Book of Mormon (Alma 51:22 and Moro. 9:11), once when its loss is graphically described. It is impressive to note that the loss of civilization was tied to the growing immorality, not to a decline in Nephite art; and the growing anarchy was the outcropping of a decline in their capacity to love, not a decay in their architecture. The author who chronicled this decaying society commented on perversion and violence, not just the failure of the political systems to perform. The inner deficiencies of men impact on the quality of our institutions.

Like it or not, therefore, one of the messages of the scriptures is that defective personalities project themselves into the affairs of state, and their defects are mirrored in the politics of their time; and society, in subtle and direct ways, can pay a terrible price!

It is clear that the chastity and the quality of the home life of the rulers matter! (Ether 10:6, 7, 10.)

Men who are immoral can contribute some good to human affairs, as the Book of Mormon candidly records. (Ether 10:11.) But to argue that the personal pressures that sin can bring into the life of a ruler do not have a consequence in his management of the affairs of his people is to argue that nothing in a leader’s experience (or that is on his mind) has any bearing on what he does. If a leader who is fatigued physically can make bad decisions, a leader who is fatigued spiritually can make them also, and a damaged ego can lead to bad policy.

The Book of Mormon suggests that there are certain almost cyclic patterns involving poverty, humility, prosperity, pride, and then hedonism and disorder. I am sure these are not rigid cycles, but they occur with sufficient frequency that one must make note of them. When a society acquires social paunch, this obesity born of affluence poses a danger for the total system—just as human obesity does for our physiological system.

Social stratification, for instance (3 Ne. 6:11, 12, 14), in Nephite times was so bad that the poor could not afford an education for their children. This condition was a factor in the breaking up of the Church.

There are too many scriptures condemning members in all dispensations for ignoring the poor to require repetition here. I do turn to an example that summarizes some of the errors of the culture in Sodom.

“Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” (Ezek. 16:49.)

Add to this observation the powerful verse 20 in the 49th section of the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 49:20], and we see that there is a clear connection between economic disparity and sin. While the scriptures do not come down on the side of the poor automatically—for the poor are often described as greedy and grasping—affluence is seldom a friend of spirituality.

Though I can see real challenges for the modern Mormon in megalopolis, we should be encouraged that there are a variety of instances in the Book of Mormon in which city building seems to have been one of the great accomplishments through the centuries of the Nephite and Jaredite cultures.

Taxes are frequently described in the Book of Mormon as being used to build spacious buildings (apparently the “edifice complex” existed then, too) and to underwrite the revelry of the bureaucracy of the time when there appears to have been much concupiscence. These times of heavy taxing were also times in which the political establishment is described as lazy and in which alcoholism was at significant levels and many prisons were built. (Ether 10:6, 7; Mosiah 11:3.) These periods are also characterized by a lack of leveling between the king, his bureaucracy, and the people.

These episodes stand in stark contrast to King Mosiah who ruled in righteousness with minimum government, even supporting himself financially. King Mosiah was not on an ego trip. That virtue of personal humility was also clearly apparent in President Abraham Lincoln.

In the 29th chapter of Mosiah [Mosiah 29] we read about the concept of “equal chance,” about every man enjoying “his rights and privileges alike.” But King Mosiah also stresses that the burden of government “should come upon all the people,” an interesting blend of rights and responsibilities. That same chapter sets forth basic doctrine about democracy and majority rule:

“Now I say unto you, that because all men are not just it is not expedient that ye should have a king or kings to rule over you.

“And behold, now I say unto you, ye cannot dethrone an iniquitous king save it be through much contention, and the shedding of much blood.

“For behold, he has his friends in iniquity, and he keepeth his guards about him; and he teareth up the laws of those who have reigned in righteousness before him; and he trampleth under his feet the commandments of God;

“Therefore, choose you by the voice of this people, judges, that ye may be judged according to the laws which have been given you by our fathers, which are correct, and which were given them by the hand of the Lord.

“Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do yourbusiness by the voice of the people.

“And if the time comes that the voice of the people doth choose iniquity, then is the time that the judgments of God will come upon you; yea, then is the time he will visit you with great destruction even as he has hitherto visited this land.

“And now if ye have judges, and they do not judge you according to the law which has been given, ye can cause that they may be judged of a higher judge.

“If your higher judges do not judge righteous judgments, ye shall cause that a small number of your lower judges should be gathered together, and they shall judge your higher judges, according to the voice of the people.” (Mosiah 29:16, 21–22, 25–29. Italics added.)

In another basic document about government, the 134th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, verse 5, we read:

“We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments; and that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen thus protected, and should be punished accordingly; and that all governments have a right to enact such laws as in their own judgments are best calculated to secure the public interest; at the same time, however, holding sacred the freedom of conscience.” [D&C 134:5]

It is significant that that concept is consistent with what we read about laws in the Book of Mormon times that pertained to freedom of thought and conscience. “There was no law against a man’s belief,” and men were “judged according to their crimes.” (Alma 30:11.)

My own perusal of the scriptures suggests caution about the limitations of human institutions and the good they can do, even though the scriptures make it plain that government is ordained of God and helps to meet our basic need for order.

In the Doctrine and Covenants, section 98, verse 10 [D&C 98:10], we read that we should seek out men who are wise, good, and honest. When I first read these criteria years ago, they seemed quite general to me; they don’t now. Too often leaders can lead men astray because they lack one or more of these qualities. A leader can be bright but dishonest, and a leader can be honest and conceptually inadequate. A man may be a good man and yet lack the wisdom to cope with complex circumstances that can come upon him. This triad of virtues, for me, is a significant guide to selecting future leaders in any representative government.

It takes decades to prepare a nation for democracy, as was the case in America, but we could lose it or damage it in a matter of years, if not weeks, depending upon whom we select to lead us—at all levels.

We are given a sobering warning in the 121st section of the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 121] about the tendency of “almost all” men to abuse power—a harsh indictment of human nature! Political systems seek to hedge power with restraints and with checks to avoid abuse. In the last analysis, however, just as there is the occasional rogue cop who runs amok, we can have political leaders who are in crucial positions, who make decisions that are far-reaching, and who are encapsulated in an enclave of supporters who do not level with the leaders—who, alas, finally cannot be reached except by their own conscience, and that is a very, very small and a very still voice in some cases.

Preston Nibley, in an article written nearly a quarter of a century ago, describes the transmission of the words of the Prophet about the Constitution of the United States and its coming to peril point eventually. There is some question, because of failures to record and memory differences, as to whether or not the Constitution (which in all versions would be in jeopardy) would be saved by the “elders” of this Church, or whether “if the Constitution be saved at all, it will be by the elders of this Church.” Whatever version is correct, we do seem to have rendezvous with history concerning the American Constitution.

We can best prepare ourselves for that time by thinking through our commitment to constitutional government, by involving ourselves in and contributing to the process of that government in appropriate ways, as did Mosiah in Nephite society and Joseph in Egypt, by understanding the lessons of secular history, and by drawing upon the scriptures in which we have so much longitudinal information about men’s past struggles to be free as they faced the issues of their times.

This rendezvous can best be kept by individuals who avoid both naïveté and despair. We must be as resilient as John Taylor and Brigham Young who saw the Saints fail to get constitutional protection in difficult circumstances but still venerated that document. It can be a rendezvous best kept by men and women who are devoted to the whole document of the United States Constitution; the wise men who authored both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights on which we, as a people, may need to rely were as wise about one part of the First Amendment as another. We cannot seek shelter under the tree of the Constitution if we cut off some of its branches or fail to nourish the whole tree.

Finally, an omniscient God who has seen massive and individual human failure—who knows us perfectly—has never displayed contempt for man; neither should we!

God’s kingdom has functioned in several political settings, but the revelations for our dispensation have clearly sanctioned “that law of the Land which is constitutional,” and tell us to do our business by “the voice of the people.”

May we do our part and let our own voice shape the voice of the people so that we shall comport ourselves consistently with the divine and tacit compliment God has given us when He gave us agency, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

[illustration] Illustrated by Nina Grover