Last fall, I pruned the two apple trees in my back yard. One damp day this winter, I drove down to the nearby fire station to check on the legality of burning the pile of dried-out branches. The fireman I spoke with told me that it was illegal.
“What if I built a fire with the branches, then roasted marshmallows on it? Is that legal?” I asked.
“Well, you could get around the law that way, because technically, cooking fires are allowed, so long as you followed the restrictions for cooking fires,” he answered with a dismayed look on his face.
“Great, we’re going to roast some marshmallows tonight!” I said, and left.
Let’s say I didn’t bother to cook any food on the fire. Does building an illegal fire make me a bad person? Remember, “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” But if I use a loophole in the law, and warm up a marshmallow and then eat it, am I then no longer a bad person? Should good people ever need to find ways around laws, to do what they want to do? If a person blatantly breaks the law, can they still be a good person?
You might be inclined to think that this isn’t a black-and-white issue, that it’s fairly subjective, to be decided on a case-by-case basis. But I disagree. I believe that it can be pretty clear what is right and wrong with respect to obeying or breaking the law. I’ve come to the conclusion that just because some activity is legal does not mean that it is morally right. Also, just because some activity is illegal, does not mean that it is morally wrong. There are also things that are good, yet illegal, and there are things that are perfectly legal, yet morally wrong.
For example, the Founding Fathers of the United States of America were traitors of the highest degree, condemned to death for breaking the law of the land. These are the same people who the Lord had “raised up unto this very purpose … wise men” to write the Constitution which he “suffered to be established and [which] should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh.” (D&C 101:80, 77)
Just because a government has made a law obviously don’t mean it’s good for people; just look at Nazi Germany, or the current government of China. Governments in the USA don’t have such a great track record either. Consider the Missouri Executive Order 44 issued in 1838 by Governor Lilburn Boggs. “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State.” The order wasn’t rescinded until 1976. So for 138 years, it was technically legal to murder any Mormons in the state of Missouri.
Around the same time period, a bunch of criminals set up the “underground railroad”, helping thousands of slaves escape. More recently, Hitler’s government wanted to kill Jews, and it was breaking the law if to help them to survive. Today it’s against the law to get on a commercial flight carrying a drill bit. You’re required to wear a helmet to ride your motorcycle. It’s illegal to repair an electrical outlet in your house. You can’t sell homemade cookies in front of your house without a permit. It’s illegal to watch the DVD you bought on an unlicensed player. And it’s illegal to burn apple-tree branches in your backyard.
So which laws are good, and which are not? Which laws are important, and which ones can you break without feeling guilty and perhaps failing your next temple recommend interview? How can a Latter-Day Saint figure out what to do? Fear not! There’s a scripture that explains it perfectly: Doctrine and Covenants Section 98, starting in the fourth verse. Let’s take a close look at it.
“And now, verily I say unto you concerning the laws of the land, it is my will that my people should observe to do all things whatsoever I command them.” The Lord states here that His laws supersede the laws of the land.
Next, the Lord uses the word “constitutional” (note the lower-case “c”), which is then immediately defined: “And that law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me.” So those laws that support the preservation of people’s natural rights are approved by God, and everyone should abide by them.
He goes on: “Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my church, in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land.” We are to obey those laws that are approved, that are in harmony with the principles of free agency and God’s plan of happiness.
Now we get the answer to our question: “And as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less than this, cometh of evil.” So if a law does more or less than support free agency, it comes from evil, and we are under no obligation to keep such laws. “I, the Lord God, make you free, therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free.” The Lord reinforced His emphasis on freedom.
So when you have a question about some law or regulation, you can apply this test, and see if the Lord requires you to keep it or not. If you want to ride your motorcycle without a helmet, and you can do so without impacting anyone else’s free agency, you need not feel obligated to keep that law. Bring your drill bits onto that plane, fix that broken electrical outlet, sell those cookies, watch that DVD you bought, burn those branches.
Let’s get a bit trickier. Should I report to the IRS that I earned some money last year by selling some handmade crafts? The idea is that they take a little money from everyone to run the government and look after the interests of the people as a whole. But do I agree with what they’d spend the money on? There are hundreds of harmful social programs that keep the poor dependent on government aid, megatons of weapons used in wars around the globe, legions of bureaucrats who sap the efforts of the honest workers and destroy liberty. I’d rather keep the money they would take from me, and spend it on piano lessons for my daughter. And I wouldn’t feel guilty about it at all.
But along with our free agency comes the freedom to fail. We have the ability to make decisions that lead to our own destruction. Sometimes our actions take away our free agency. If you start taking heroine, you will probably get addicted. So much for your free agency–you’ve become a slave to a drug. If the IRS finds out that you cheat on your taxes, you’ll get in trouble. You might go to jail, then where is your free agency? Who will take care of your family then? If you decide to be an outlaw, be prepared to face the consequences. You are no longer under the protection of the law, so you had better be on your toes.
But then again, how valuable is the protection of the law? Just look at what happened to Joseph Smith when he was “protected” at Carthage.
Oh, and the marshmallows were delicious.