The United States of America is a representative democracy, also called a democratic republic, which is a form of government in which the people elect officials to represent them. This is different than a pure democracy where all citizens are able to assemble and vote directly on government matters. Most, if not all, latter-day prophets have indicated that our Founding Fathers were inspired by God to establish our nation in such a way. For example, President Hinckley said:
“Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were brought forth under the inspiration of God to establish and maintain the freedom of the people of this nation” .
Although our nation has been established on the principles of democracy and representation, we must keep in mind that democracy and representation are not in themselves the end, but are the means to an end—which is to protect our rights and freedom. Our divinely inspired founding fathers, while establishing a representative democracy, knew that other principles were at play, and did their best to embed them into our government. These other principles are even more fundamental than democracy and representation, which means they ultimately trump them when in conflict. Unfortunately some of these fundamentals are often overlooked and even forgotten when government policy is discussed and implemented.
The Fundamental Principles of Government
The most basic and fundamental principles of government can be summarized as the following:
1. The role of government is to protect rights, which are summarized as life, liberty and property.
2. Government power is derived from the power of the governed.
(Note: I’ll further refer to these as Principle #1 and Principle #2)
Principle #1 is supported by latter-day scripture:
“We believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life” .
These rights–life, liberty (the free exercise of conscience), and property–are God-given as part of the plan of salvation , and therefore are often referred to as natural or inalienable rights.
Principle #2 is supported by latter-day prophets. President Ezra Taft Benson said:
“People are superior to the governments they form. Since God created people with certain inalienable rights, and they, in turn, created government to help secure and safeguard those rights, it follows that the people are superior to the creature they created… Governments should have only limited powers… People who have created their government can give to that government only such powers as they, themselves, have in the first place. Obviously, they cannot give that which they do not possess. By deriving its just powers from the governed, government becomes primarily a mechanism for defense against bodily harm, theft, and involuntary servitude” .
Elder Dallin H. Oaks said: “The people are the source of governmental power. Along with many religious people, Latter-day Saints affirm that God gave the power to the people, and the people consented to a constitution that delegated certain powers to the government… The sovereign power is in the people” .
Principle #2 is also supported by the United States Constitution (“We the people…do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America…”) and the Declaration of Independence (“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”).
Under Principle #2, President Benson also provided further insight as to how to determine what government can be given power to enforce:
“What powers properly belong to each and every person in the absence of and prior to the establishment of any organized governmental form?” 
To further clarify, we should ask the following when determining whether government can be given power for a specific program or policy:
“There is one simple test. Do I as an individual have a right to use force upon my neighbor to accomplish this goal? If I do have such a right, then I may delegate that power to my government to exercise on my behalf. If I do not have that right as an individual, then I cannot delegate it to government, and I cannot ask my government to perform the act for me” .
The only possible exception to Principle #2 is if God was directly guiding the government Himself, either personally or through an authorized servant. Examples of this exception are when Moses led the Children of Israel, when Nephi was established as king of the Nephites, and when Christ will reign after His second coming. However, even in the case where God is directing the government, it doesn’t seem reasonable that He would implement a law or policy in which the government would enforce something beyond what we as individuals would feel morally justified in enforcing upon each other. Therefore, the premise behind Principle #2 would still not be violated. Today in the United States, and anywhere else in the world, God Himself is not directing the government, so the power of any current government is derived from the people.
Principle #1 and Principle #2 are interrelated, and should be used together to support each other. With Principle #1 there may be situations where there seem to be a conflict of rights. How do we know the limits of each right, or under which circumstances one right trumps another? We resolve this by applying Principle #2 and deciding what would be morally justifiable for one individual to enforce over another if there was no organized government. I will illustrate this with a couple of examples.
Under the right of liberty, we have the right to practice a religion of our choice. What if someone’s religion required a child sacrifice? Are we justified having laws which prohibit this? If there was no organized government, people would be justified in using force to stop the sacrifice because it is a violation of the child’s right to life. The right of religion does not grant someone the right to do any religious ceremony that can exist, but it does grant someone the right to do any religious ceremony which does not infringe upon the rights (life, liberty, or property) of others. Because the people individually have the power to use force to stop this ceremony, it is therefore a protection of rights and they can delegate this power to government.
Another example is that under the right to individual liberty, we have a right to seek education. Does that mean we can have government force everyone to receive the equivalent of a high school education? If there was no organized government, most people would not feel justified in forcing their neighbor to have their child graduate from high school under threat of taking the child from their home or locking the parent up. Therefore, since individuals aren’t morally justified in doing so, they cannot delegate this power to government.
President Benson called Principle #1 and Principle #2 “basic, eternal principles” . I’d like to emphasize this. They are not simply great concepts that we should seek to apply in government when convenient with many exceptions. They are “eternal principles”. For further support and a more detailed explanation of these two fundamental principles, refer to The Proper Role of Government by President Benson .
Democracy and Representation
Because we live in a representative democracy, many people argue that democracy or representation overrules the fundamental principles presented above. Many others may not even realize that there are more fundamental principles that democracy and representation stand upon. They argue that democracy means that if a majority votes in a particular way, it can be enforced no matter what. They may also argue that because we have government representatives, they have the power to force us to do whatever they see fit. I don’t know of any scripture or prophetic quote which supports the idea that democracy or representation trumps Principle #1 or Principle #2. In fact, the opposite is supported. President Benson said:
“I believe that God has endowed men with certain inalienable rights as set forth in the Declaration of Independence and that no legislature and no majority, however great, may morally limit or destroy these; that the sole function of government is to protect life, liberty, and property, and anything more than this is usurpation and oppression” .
So how does democracy play in? Even under Principle #1 and Principle #2, there will be some gray area. One example is environmental laws. Let’s say I own a plot of land. If someone were to dump toxic waste directly on my land, clearly it would be a violation of my property rights. If they dumped toxic waste in an area right next to my land, and it diffused into my land and air, harming me, my family, or my plants, it would also be a violation of property rights. How many feet above the surface do I own? How many feet below the surface do I own? How much toxic waste would be harmful to me, and how far away is safe enough that it won’t diffuse onto my property in a harmful way? These aren’t black and white issues. There are many opinions on this. As our understanding of science progresses, people’s opinions will change over time.
Another example of where democracy comes into play is determining punishment for crime. Although punishment should be aimed at restoring what was damaged, the value of damage is not always black and white. For example, if a vehicle is stolen, the value of the car should be returned to the owner, but other damages should also be considered. In the case that the vehicle was needed for the owner’s employment, what penalty should be paid for loss of time and business? There are also additional costs, such as utilizing the police to track the criminal down, find evidence, etc. What should be the penalty to restore the police cost for a car theft be compared to other crimes such as shoplifting, kidnapping, and rape? Restoration of damages due to a crime is not clear, and opinions will vary from person to person.
Democracy never trumps fundamental Principle #1 and Principle #2. It comes into play after they have been considered for a specific issue and there is still no conclusive answer. It allows us to agree on a standard and avoid chaos.
How does representation play in? Representation comes in as a matter of efficiency. Everyone doesn’t have time to diligently study out every gray-area issue, debate it, and decide. Even if they did have time, there wouldn’t be reasonable time for everyone to vote on every issue and count it in an accurate way. In addition, some people would feel inadequate to vote on everything, especially if it is an area far beyond their expertise. Therefore, we delegate that power and responsibility to our representatives.
However, we cannot delegate to our representatives powers we don’t have in the first place. To draw a parallel, I cannot delegate to my neighbor the power to my seal my friends in the temple. I don’t have that power in the first place, so how can I delegate it? Similarly we can only give power to our representatives that we have in the first place (Principle #2), which means we can only give them the power to protect rights (Principle #1). All too often our representatives feel that they can implement government policies which extend beyond what an individual can justifiably force upon their neighbor. The scriptures warn us of such:
“We have learned by sad experience 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” .
It is vital that we support and vote for representatives that understand the fundamental principles of government, especially those which are more fundamental than democracy and representation. Imagine how much better our rights would be protected if, when considering any issue at hand, our representatives first discussed Principle #1 and Principle #2.
It would be wonderful if our leaders first had to consider President Benson’s question: “Do I as an individual have a right to use force upon my neighbor to accomplish this goal?” For example, if the senate was considering whether the United States should subsidize a car company, they would ask each other, “Do we as individuals have a right to force our neighbor to give money to a specific car company, even if they won’t receive any goods or services in return?” Better yet, what if they had to sign their name to such a statement? So before the president could sign his name to a bill that socializes healthcare, he had to sign a statement saying, “I believe I personally can force my neighbor to receive a specific type of healthcare.” Our rights would surely be better protected, and our use of government force would certainly be founded upon Christian principles!
LDS Church Involvement with Politics
On occasion, the Church asks us to support specific political measures. For example, the First Presidency has recently told us to support measures which would ban homosexual marriages. Sometimes, from a certain perspective, it may seem to violate the fundamental principles. However, in these cases it is not a violation of the above principles. If God tells us (directly or through an authorized servant) to support a certain measure, then under principle #2, we the people do have the power to force such a measure upon our fellow men and, under principle #1, the purpose of the measure is to protect rights. Therefore we can delegate that power to government.
In addition, as we study out the position the Church has asked us to take, we can often further discover how it is not a violation of the fundamental principles. This can be especially helpful for us to explain to those not of our faith why they too should support such a measure and how it is not a violation of fundamental principles.
For example, in the case of banning homosexual marriages, the Church has not told us to ban homosexuals from having ceremonies on their own and signing contracts amongst themselves (although we don’t encourage such actions, homosexuals are free to do them). What we have been told to advocate against is homosexuals forcing us to recognize that they are a union. With the way many of our laws are written and interpreted by courts today, liberty is violated because third parties have been forced to recognize homosexual unions instead of being free to decide what unions they will recognize on their own. Elder Oaks provided several examples of this:
“In New Mexico, the state’s Human Rights Commission held that a photographer who had declined on religious grounds to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony had engaged in impermissible conduct and must pay over $6,000 attorney’s fees to the same-sex couple. A state judge upheld the order to pay. In New Jersey, the United Methodist Church was investigated and penalized under state anti-discrimination law for denying same-sex couples access to a church-owned pavilion for their civil-union ceremonies. A federal court refused to give relief from the state penalties. Professors at state universities in Illinois and Wisconsin were fired or disciplined for expressing personal convictions that homosexual behavior is sinful. Candidates for masters’ degrees in counseling in Georgia and Michigan universities were penalized or dismissed from programs for their religious views about the wrongfulness of homosexual relations. A Los Angeles policeman claimed he was demoted after he spoke against the wrongfulness of homosexual conduct in the church where he is a lay pastor. The Catholic Church’s difficulties with adoption services and the Boy Scouts’ challenges in various locations are too well known to require further comment” .
Importance of Sticking to Fundamental Principles
Usually, when I disagree with someone on a specific government policy, I ultimately discover that they are proposing a violation of Principle #1, Principle #2, or both. As I’ve come to this realization, I’ve noticed that in the past, when I’ve argued in circles for endless hours about an issue, it would have been resolved much more quickly if we would have taken a step back and started at the basics. I recommend this when disagreeing with someone; take a step back and start with the fundamental principles. If you can’t even agree on those, there’s no point in going further into deeper discussions—first you should work on building their understanding of these. This is parallel to missionary work—if someone doesn’t understand the principles of faith in Christ, repentance, and the priesthood, you’ll have a tough time convincing them to live the Word of Wisdom or the law of tithing. So you stick with teaching them the basics until they gain testimony of those.
Another difficulty I’ve come across is that others with disagreements may eventually come to understand the fundamental principles as great ideas. They agree that the principles should generally be followed, but they think I’m not being pragmatic because I’m so adamant about sticking to them. They may also express their frustration in talking to others with a similar political philosophy to mine because they are too focused on the fundamentals and not enough on the application of them. Many times these frustrations come from Latter-day Saints, which is ironic because many people in general think that Latter-day Saints aren’t pragmatic. It’s argued that we as a people stick too much to principles, so applications such as the Word of Wisdom, Law of Chastity, or Law of Tithing are just not practical to live by under today’s conditions. Once again, the key to resolving most of these issues is to go back to the basics.
Another concern to address is the argument that because someone doesn’t support government enforcing a certain action, the individual is discouraging people from performing that action. In other words, because someone doesn’t support government prohibiting a certain action, that individual encourages it. For example, I don’t believe in compulsory education laws, based on the fact that I don’t think it would be morally justifiable for me to lock up my neighbor or take away his children if he didn’t force them to go to school. Does that mean I don’t want his children to be educated, or that I want our country to be like a third world country with limited education available? No! Of course not! I don’t want government to force people to go to church or exercise regularly. Does that mean I want to live in a God-less society where everyone sits around all day being lazy? No.
There are better, more Christian approaches to encourage the good and discourage the bad rather than using force and coercion when it comes to actions that are wrong but don’t violate the rights of others. Instead of enforcing compulsory education laws, we can encourage everyone to be educated, be living examples of the benefits, and help provide (and encourage others to provide) for others that don’t have sufficient means to be educated. Instead of forcing hotels and restaurants to prohibit smoking, we can commit to only visit hotels and restaurants that willingly do so. Instead of implementing the unjustified use of force, if the majority of people don’t want smoking in certain establishments, they can agree to only support businesses that prohibit smoking. If they did so, the majority of businesses would willingly prohibit smoking anyway and no rights would be violated.
One of the primary issues we all fought for in the pre-mortal world was agency. A large part of that was fighting for the freedom to make mistakes and progress. That’s the same fight we need to continue here.
Although we live in a representative democracy, there are fundamental principles that this form of government must be founded upon. These can be summarized as:
1. The role of government is to protect rights, which are summarized as life, liberty and property.
2. Government power is derived from the power of the governed.
It is our duty to understand these principles, educate others about them, and support representatives and government policies which follow them. This is how we will best protect our freedom and our rights.
1. Keep Faith with America. President Gordon B. Hinckley. Commencement address given at Weber State University, Ogden, Utah on 6 May 1999. [http://www.latterdayconservative.com/quotes/gordon-b-hinckley/]
3. The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner. President Ezra Taft Benson. Speech given at Brigham Young University on 16 September 1986. [http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=6985]
4. The Divinely Inspired Constitution. Elder Dallin H. Oaks. Ensign. Feb 1992. [http://lds.org/ensign/1992/02/the-divinely-inspired-constitution?lang=eng&noLang=true&path=/ensign/1992/02/the-divinely-inspired-constitution]
5. The Proper Role of Government. Ezra Taft Benson. God, Family, Country: Our Three Great Loyalties. Pg 281-303. [http://www.latterdayconservative.com/articles/ezra-taft-benson/the-proper-role-of-government/]
7. Elder Dallin H. Oaks. Speech given at Chapman University School of Law on 4 February 2011. [http://beta-newsroom.lds.org/article/elder-oaks-religious-freedom-Chapman-University]