Each of these quotes comes from a devotional that Rex E. Lee gave while he was President of BYU, on January 15, 1991, titled The Constitution and the Restoration. The full video, courtesy of BYUTV, is embedded at the end of this post. The emphasis in the quotations below is my own.
On the Anti-Federalists, Constitution, and the survival of early Mormonism:
The constitutional principles and features that we have discussed thus far are relevant to every American citizen, and indeed to every person who enjoys the benefits of our constitutional system of government. For those of us who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the study of the Constitution offers at least three other pluses, and they are unique to us.
The first is that the Restoration itself probably could not have survived if 200 years ago the anti-Federalists had prevailed. The events of the Restoration all occurred in this country. The message that it brought back to the world was highly controversial and provocative. Even with such protections as separation of powers and federalism and the explicit religion guarantees of the First Amendment, our early survival was as miraculous as that of the Constitution itself. Without those protections, we likely would not have survived at all.
On the “Divinely Inspired” Constitution:
And this brings me to the second unique relationship between our American Constitution and our religion. We know that in fact the events whose two-hundredth birthday we observe did not come about just by chance. The descriptive phrase most commonly used by many members of the Church is that our Constitution was “divinely inspired.” Unfortunately, some Church members have deduced from that general, nonscriptural description more than the scriptures or the Constitution or common sense will sustain.
That is, from the general label “divinely inspired ,” some assume that the Constitution is tantamount to scripture, and therefore perfect in every respect, reflecting in every provision and every sentence the will of our Heavenly Father, just as is true of the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants. That view cannot withstand analysis. Our Constitution has some provisions that are not only not divine, they are positively repulsive. The classic example is contained in Article V, which guaranteed as a matter of constitutional right that the slave trade would continue through at least the year 1808. There are other provisions that are not as offensive as the slavery guarantee, but they were quite clearly bad policy, and certainly were not divinely inspired in the same sense as are the scriptures. Moreover, regarding the Constitution as tantamount to scripture is difficult to square with the fact that our republic has functioned very well, probably even better, after at least one of its original provisions (requiring United States senators to be elected by their respective state legislatures rather than by the people at large) was amended out of existence by the Seventeenth Amendment.
In my own view, this whole issue is resolved simply by examining what the scriptures say, rather than resorting to the generality “divinely inspired,” which you will not find anywhere in the standard works. Probably the most helpful statement is contained in section 101, verse 80 of the Doctrine and Covenants: “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.” I submit that this scripture makes it very clear that our Heavenly Father’s involvement in the bringing forth of our Constitution was more an involvement in process than in end result. As President Benson has stated, “It is my firm belief that the God of Heaven raised up the Founding Fathers and inspired them to establish the Constitution of this land.” His focus, and the focus of the Doctrine and Covenants, frees us of the burden of trying to equate the Constitution with scripture and, therefore, to justify every part. And a focus on process reaffirms the fact that the Constitution did not just come about by chance. Our Heavenly Father did play an active and essential role. That role was not the revelation to a prophet of infallible truth, perfect and reliable in every aspect. Rather, what the Lord did was to raise up at just the right time and in just the right combination people who could and predictably would produce a document that is, on balance, the most remarkable ever struck by human hands.
On the adaptability of, dare we say it, the “Living” Constitution(?):
One of the most important features of the American Constitution, both in theory and in practice, is the magnificent breadth of its most important provisions–notably the commerce clause, most of the Bill of Rights guarantees, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses. The lack of specificity of these and other provisions has almost certainly been essential to the ability of this document drafted in 1787 to survive over 200 years of the largest and most unanticipated change that any country at any time has ever experienced.
And yet there is another edge to this generality. Someone has to be vested with the final authority to determine what the Constitution means when its provisions are applied to concrete practical facts, many of which were totally unanticipated at the time of the Constitutional Convention. For example, how, if at all, is the authority of the states to regulate the lengths and weights of trucks on interstate highways precluded by Congress’s constitutional authority “to regulate commerce . . . among the several states”? In 1787 few people were thinking about interstate highways or trucks. Similarly, the Constitution guarantees against infringements on free speech. What does that guarantee do, if anything, to state laws providing recovery for libel and slander? And what is speech? Any form of expression? Does it include flag burning? If so, is there a difference between burning flags and burning draft cards? Or sleeping in tents as a protest against homelessness? And what about the recent controversy over the refusal of the National Endowment for the Arts to give grants to projects or works that it considers obscene? Does the Constitution require that so long as NEA gives grants to anyone, it not exclude those that it considers objectionable?
You can read the Constitution very carefully and not find, even in a footnote or an annotated version, any answer to any of those questions. Each of these is a form of expression, and yet none of them uses words. Speech or not? First Amendment protected or not? Different people would give different answers to those questions.
And even where the text is more specific, questions of interpretation still remain. For example, with respect to the issue that is very much at the forefront of all of our minds today, how much could President Bush have done in the Persian Gulf without a formal congressional declaration? In this case, Congress acted, but in other crucial instances, such as the Civil War, Korea, and Vietnam, congressional action was either absent or less decisive. The Constitution states unequivocally, and quite specifically, that “the Congress shall have power . . . to declare war.” Yet in language that is equally unequivocal and equally precise, Article II states that “the President shall be Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” Did Presidents Lincoln, Truman, Johnson, and Nixon act unconstitutionally, or were they within their Article II powers?
Nothing in the text of the Constitution, and nothing in its history, provides the answer to those and many other practical questions that arise every day.
On judicial review and original intent:
There are some consequences of this judicial power to interpret the Constitution that are a concern to many people, including your speaker. It means that five people–a majority of the Supreme Court–have the power not only to interpret the Constitution, but also effectively to amend it if they choose to do so, with little effective power for Congress, the president, or the people to reverse what the Court does in any particular case.
As large and as real as that concern is, it needs to be tempered by two facts. The first is that it is fairly clear to me that this power of judicial review–the authority of the courts to have the last word on constitutionality–was intended by the 1787 framers, though they did not explicitly say so. By combining the power of judicial review (which, as Hamilton says, they probably did intend) with the very broad language that the Founding Fathers used in the Constitution’s most important provisions, the expansive judicial power that comes from judicial review was, in a sense, part of the “original intent” of the 1787 framers.
Second, there is, over the long run, a responsiveness between the will of the people and the content of our constitutional law. This comes about through the power of the president to appoint members of the federal judiciary. Indeed, as every recent president since Eisenhower has explicitly observed, one of the most important acts of any president–some have said the most important–is to appoint members of the Supreme Court, whose average tenure has been several times that of our presidents.
And, finally, on the Constitution “hanging by a thread”:
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.
Unfortunately, some members of the Church have been all too ready to offer their own explanations. The only thing consistent about these explanations is that in each instance, it was the Church member’s own unresolved, often very private, grievance that supplied evidence that the thread was beginning to fray, sometimes beyond repair. Among some people, any problem from a tax increase to a failure to collect the garbage on time to a boundary dispute with one’s neighbor is likely to call forth the observation that it is certainly easy to see how the Constitution is hanging by a thread. A companion assertion is that the election or appointment of certain persons, often the person making the assertion, to designated positions provides the key to preventing the demise of our constitutional system.
In my view, this is another instance in which going beyond what our leaders have said can be misleading at best, and potentially fraught with mischief. Even though we have not been given the exact meaning of the prophets’ statements about the Constitution hanging by a thread, the scriptures do define the conditions on which freedom in the land of America ultimately depends. I am satisfied that whatever else may eventually hang in the constitutional balance, this much is clear: The continuation of the blessings of liberty depends finally on our spiritual righteousness.
Watch the video, it’s well worth it!