Mormon Church on Citizenship and Founding Fathers’ Intent

I think it’s safe to say I am very politically active in large part because of my upbringing in the Mormon Faith. My own father, who is a constitutional law professor, probably took as much interest in the Constitution as he did because of the importance placed on the document in our faith.

It is an interesting time for the Mormon Church to speak up about citizenship in a recent statement released to the public. I found the emphasis on religious freedom particularly timely. It’s an issue gripping and dividing our nation as we speak. While the Church takes no position on any individual bill right now, particularly the Arizona Bill vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer, this statement goes to lengths to emphasize the importance of not only religious freedom, but also for the need of the people of this nation to be a religious people to maintain freedom itself. No doubt Ayn Rand would totally disagree… but I digress.


Update: Originally I pointed to a quote falsely attributed to James Madison erroneously included in the Church's statement. Since the time I posted this, the Church appears to have discovered the error and removed the quote. They added a reference to a verifiable George Washington quote, which is probably better for their case as it were. 

"And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion." George Washington

I am happy that the Church has always emphasized participation in politics (without taking sides on political parties or candidates no less). No doubt that low participation rates in this country is making our democracy weaker. Certainly we need political leaders of good character and wisdom as well.

A moral and religious people…

One thing contained in the Church’s statement that warrants further pondering is the notion that our nation’s Founding Fathers believed religious institutions were vital to the proper functioning of the nation. From the Church’s statement:

“James Madison, known as the Father of the United States Constitution, affirmed this when he said, “We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.””

Great quote… only James Madison never said that. The Church cites a 20th Century work, but not an original source for the quote. In the early nineties, this quote was the subject of media scrutiny by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, which could not find the quote anywhere in the writings of James Madison. Editors of the Papers of James Madison at the University of Virginia did a thorough search of their archives for the quote as well.[1] This was their response:

"We did not find anything in our files remotely like the sentiment expressed in the extract you sent us. In addition, the idea is inconsistent with everything we know about Madison's views on religion and government, views which he expressed time and time again in public and in private."

Even Rush Limbaugh has admitted this was not a quote of James Madison when called out by FAIR for using it.

Indeed, Madison is much more famous for quotes such as this:

“Whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood, & the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State.”[2]

Or this:

"During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution."[3]

The Church’s statement uses another suspect quote from John Adams:

“John Adams, another Founding Father of the United States, declared, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.””

The sentence before this one shows Adams’ intent that moral and religious are synonymous in his lexicon.

“Avarice, ambition, revenge, and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net.”

These are behaviors… ones a moral person avoids, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. Eternal salvation under the Gospel is the role of the Church, and of course they are right to do the work to spread that salvation. However, there are a great deal of moral people with no religion whatsoever. In real, factual terms, there is no correlation between moral behavior and religious affiliation.

Clearly Adams wasn’t suggesting only religious people are moral. In fact, after devoting himself to theological study reading more than 20 volumes of writing, he wrote to Thomas Jefferson on December 12, 1816. “Romances all!  I have learned nothing of importance to me, for they have made no change in my moral or religious creed, which has, for fifty or sixty years, been contained in four short words, “Be just and good.  In this result they all agree with me.”

The quote used by the Church has been used several times before by religious writers making arguments against the Separation of Church and State. Only problem is they just don’t hold up to scrutiny and aren't consistent with the other words spoken and written by the Founders.

Voice of the People

The Church’s statement then underscores the importance of democratic voice in our society.

“Governments that do their business by the “voice of the people” provide a greater measure of protection to the rights of their citizens because “it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right” (Mosiah 29:26). Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, believed in the voice of the people, saying, “It is rare that the public sentiment decides immorally or unwisely, and the individual who differs from it ought to distrust and examine his own opinion.” Members of the Church who are citizens in nations that do their “business by the voice of the people” bear an especially important and sacred responsibility as citizens to raise their voices for good and right causes, including the fundamental freedoms of conscience and religion.”

Government by the people is the best form of government, even if it’s not perfect. No doubt the Church is emphasizing that point. And if the voice of the people is so important, how can we be good people and not speak up? We need to have our individual and collective voices heard. That said, one should exercise caution on where you take this point. To quote James Madison, the father of the Constitution, writing to Thomas Jefferson in France from the Continental Congress on October 24, 1787: “when a majority... united by a common interest or a passion cannot be constrained from oppressing the minority, what remedy can be found...?"

Madison expressed his hope that the nation would be large enough, with enough "different interests and parties... that no common interest or passion will be likely to unite a majority of the whole number in an unjust pursuit." In the areas of civil and religious rights, he predicted, "If [one] sect form a majority and have the power, other sects will be sure to be depressed." In short, majorities can be dangerous, especially when they form factions. The framers knew this well and put several constitutional constraints on majorities to protect minorities. This was a major reason for the inclusion of a Bill of Rights.

Most Mormons should understand the importance of Madison’s words. After all, majorities in Missouri attempted to exterminate Mormons in the 19th Century. When we allow majorities who believe in their own moral superiority to rule the day, only the innocent are harmed.

I can image every conservative in Utah has read the Church’s statement to be an affirmation that the voters who enacted a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in Utah should be honored. Besides the inherent problem with majority tyrannies mentioned above, let’s also not forget that the Fourteenth Amendment is also the voice of the people, and in fact a broader representation of people of the entire nation. If the Courts determine (which they have in most part) that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibits states from denying civil marriage to citizens based on sexual orientation, than it is also the will of the people. Or we could simply look at polling and see that a majority of people in the country favor allowing gay couples to enter civil marriage.

I believe one of the fears is that these laws will somehow require Mormons to recognize or even perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. However, no one in the conversation about same-sex marriage is advocating that churches be required to have anything to do with same-sex marriages, and this would be a gross violation of religious freedom protected by the First Amendment. The Church is absolutely right that any government forcing practice or belief upon anyone would be wrong.


[1] Robert S. Alley, Public Education and the Public Good, 4 Wm. & Mary Bill Rts. J. 277 (1995),

[2] Madison Letter to Robert Walsh, March 2, 1819

[3] Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments in July 1785.

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