Presidential Inspiration

January 22, 2010 | 54 comments
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Were the Founding Fathers inspired? Was Woodrow Wilson inspired? Is Barack Obama inspired?

I’m going to guess that most Mormons will say yes to the first question, shrug for the second, and that their answer to the third will depend almost entirely on their personal political opinions. I’m inclined to say yes to it, because I like Obama.* Most Mormons don’t, and so would be inclined to say no.

But I think we should dig a little deeper for our definition of “inspired” than treating it as a quick proxy for “matches my personal political beliefs.” So what exactly do we mean by inspired? In a Church where we don’t think the prophet is infallible, what might “inspired” even mean for a politician? And why do I cringe every time a Mormon brings up the notion that the Founding Fathers were inspired? I think it gets on my nerves because it usually–wittingly or not–carries the following unfortunate baggage with it:

–It becomes a divine stamp of approval for all of their actions . . . which include the enslavement of human beings, the un-enfranchisement of women, the slow (and sometimes not-so-slow) genocide of Native Americans.

–It demonizes their opponents. After all, if they were inspired, their political adversaries must have been inspired by . . . the adversary. This is, as I have argued before, not the most helpful approach to politics and one that the Church is currently working to squelch.

–It can lead to the automatic conclusion that things are getting worse. (I’ve addressed this idea before as well.) Lincoln was a terribly polarizing figure in his day, but all we choose to remember is the good side of him. The same could be said, in various degrees, for virtually every president of the distant past. Of course, we don’t have that perspective on recent and current presidents: we are all too aware of their controversies and foibles. This leads to the false impression that presidents used to be great and inspired, things are getting much worse, and is it getting warmer in here and why are we in this handbasket? The Founders did many perfectly awful things, but we tend not to focus on those 200 years later.

–The assumption is frequently made that since the Founders were inspired, whatever they wanted is what God wants for our country now. I can think of (at least) two problems with this:

(1) The application of what the Founders established to the current situation is not quite as straightforward as the application of a Sunday School lesson on tithing to your checkbook. To wit, using yesterday’s Supreme Court case as an example:

Option A: The Founders were inspired by God, the Constitution is inspired, the First Amendment is inspired, the First Amendment protects free speech, yesterday’s court decision protects free speech, therefore yesterday’s decision is the express will of God and to argue against it puts you on Satan’s side.

Option B: The Founders were inspired by God, the Constitution is inspired, the Constitution sought to establish a government by the will of the people, corporate money will destroy that, therefore yesterday’s decision is contrary to the will of God and to argue for it puts you on Satan’s side.

(2) It is not at all clear to me what the Founders would have written–what they might have been inspired to write–were they writing now. Would the Second Amendment look the same if written in the day of street gangs and Uzis? Would the First Amendment look the same if written in the day when most people spend 13 years in a government-run school? Would the commerce clause read differently if written in the day of multinational corporations? Does the ban on cruel and unusual punishment mean that prisoners have a constitutionally protected right to Facebook? I have no idea how the Founders would have addressed these issues, and neither do you.

–LDS scripture does not say that the Founders were inspired. The closest it comes is D&C 101:80, which reads, “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.” Being “raised up for a purpose” isn’t necessarily the same as being inspired. Esther might be a good analogy: she was clearly raised up for a certain political purpose, but one would be hard pressed to see most of her personal life choices as evidence of heeding inspiration (hint: if your husband can’t tell what religion you are, you aren’t living it very well). This verse does suggest that it is the Lord who established the Constitution, which may lead us to conclude that it is the thing inspired (even if its writers were a little iffy), but I like what Rex E. Lee had to say on this issue:

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 . . . 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.

In conclusion . . . OK, so this is the part where I’m supposed to wrap everything up into a nice, neat little package and explain exactly in what sense the Founders and/or the Constitution and/or current politicians are/are not inspired, but I’m at a loss. All I know is that the usual LDS reading makes my neck tense up.

*By “like,” I mean “I am tempted daily to drop to my knees and thank heavens that Sarah Palin isn’t one geriatric heartbeat away from leading the free world,” not “like” as in “I agree with everything he has and hasn’t done.”

54 Responses to Presidential Inspiration

  1. Mike Parker on January 22, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    That is, of course, the appropriate follow-up question: “Inspired to do WHAT?” No one—including the prophet—is inspired in every act. The Founders were inspired to write a Constitution of limited powers and representative government, but not every idea that came from the mouth or pen of Jefferson, Hamilton, or Madison was given by God.

    Just as with George W. Bush or Barack Obama: Some of the ideas they espouse are inspired; others are not. (Which is which will depend on one’s personal views, unfortunately.)

    One correction, however: Uzis—meaning the open bolt, blowback-operated submachine gun designed by Uziel Gal—are not widely used, if at all, in violent crime in America (despite what we see in the movies). They are difficult to obtain, not easily concealed, an use ammunition too quickly to be of use in robberies and gang activity. Small semiautomatic handguns are much more widely used.

  2. Julie M. Smith on January 22, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    Mike, thanks for that comment and info re Uzis.

    I was also thinking that the best kind of inspiration a politician might have is often a very subtle thing: you may or may not like social security, but it is clear that we can’t afford the current set up. However, we wouldn’t have this problem if social security had been granted to “everyone 4 years or more over the average life expectancy” instead of “everyone 65 or older.” (When SS was passed, the average life expectancy in the US was 61.) We probably wouldn’t recognize the inspiration in that small change of verbiage if we were there at the time, but think of what an enormous difference it would make now!

  3. Matt W. on January 22, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    I think you assume to much baggage here on our inspired founding fathers. Just as we acknowledge fallible yet inspired General Authorities in the church, can we not in the electorate? Can not George W. Bush and Barak Obama be inspired on some things, and grossly wrong on others? Could not the Founding Fathers? If not, how can we say Joseph was, with his mistakes? Or Brigham? Or Moses? etc.

  4. Steve on January 22, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    Elder Quentin L. Cook addressed the J. Reuben Clark Law Society on March 13, 2009 and in his talk he made the following comments about the U.S. Constitution:

    Both President J. Reuben Clark Jr. and Elder Dallin H. Oaks, two Apostles who had previously been eminent lawyers, share a common view of our understanding that the Constitution is divinely inspired. Neither of them has seen every word as being inspired. Elder Oakes has said, “Our reverence for the United States Constitution is so great that sometimes individuals speak as if its every word and phrase had the same standing as scripture.” He continues, “I have never considered it necessary to defend [that possibility].” President J. Reuben Clark enunciated a similar view in an address given in 1939. I concur with their assessment .
    President Clark saw three elements of the constitution as being particularly inspired. First is the separation of powers into three independent branches of government. Second is the guarantee of freedom of speech, press, and religion in the Bill of Rights. And third is the equality of all men before the law.
    Elder Oaks, while concurring with President Clark on these three elements, also includes the federal system with the division of powers between the nation as a whole and the various states and the principle of popular sovereignty. The people are the source of government.

  5. Mike Parker on January 22, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    @Matt W.: “Can not George W. Bush and Bara[c]k Obama be inspired on some things, and grossly wrong on others?”

    Precisely. Just as Thomas Jefferson was inspired to write “all men are created equal,” but not to apply that to men brought in chains from Africa.

    I don’t fault him for that: He was a man of his time, and we need to understanding him in his context. But inspiration has limits.

  6. Craig H. on January 22, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Very nice Julie, thanks. Maybe another element of “inspiration” worth mentioning is that it doesn’t usually come from nowhere, or nothing. Steve mentions three elements regarded as inspired: all came out of reflection on conditions in Europe the previous several hundred years, changes in those directions in Europe in the preceding century, and especially the first had connections to John Adams’ firsthand experience as ambassador to the Dutch Republic, which had made the division of powers an art form for the previous 150 years.

  7. Jim on January 22, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    I consider the Constitution an inspired document, but that’s very different from a revealed document. The conditions in place at the time of the American revolution provided an astonishing proportion of “wise men” for such a sparsely populated new world.

    At the same time, I also take a scriptural view of government (Mosiah 29:27): we get the government we clamor for, and reap the blessings and/or perils accordingly. Our best presidents have not been without their glaring faults; our worst are not totally devoid of virtues.

    It’s harder to speak with disinterested objectivity about our current political players. Presidents’ reputations rise and fall depending on contemporary biases. (Heck, there are folks still arguing over Julius Caesar’s legacy.) Polarizing figures are particularly hard to come to consensus on; witness your reaction to Sara Palin. There’s not a lot of middle ground on her: she’s either loved or hated. Me? I’d have taken her in a geriatric heartbeat over the Pinky and The Brain pair we ended up with. I never bought into the unicorns and rainbows shtick.

  8. wreddyornot on January 22, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    Jim,
    Your entry is revealing but not inspiring. :) So, imagination — as in unicorns and rainbows — has no place in inspiration? I think it does.

  9. Jim on January 22, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    Wreddyornot,

    It’s not that I think unicorns and rainbows have no place in inspiration. But there’s a reason some are inspired by Obama’s “planet begins to heal and the waters recede,” others by Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill,” and that there’s not much overlap. Nobody resonates equally well to all.

    What inspires us is, I agree, revealing of us. Every successful politician speaks to the hopes or fears of a substantial portion of the country, while simultaneously scaring a good chunk of the rest.

    I don’t root for the failure of Obama’s presidency; I favor some of his policies but want others nuked from orbit. Which I would also say about every President in my lifetime. As for Biden: I’ve met him, I’ve followed his career for decades…and I’m deeply unimpressed. On that, Obama and I agree.

  10. Dan on January 22, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    Where does the phrase “divinely inspired” come from? Who first uttered it?

  11. CatherineWO on January 22, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    “All I know is that the usual LDS reading makes my neck tense up.”

    My reaction too, Julie. I am in awe of the constitution and those who wrote it, but I don’t worship them (as some Church members seem to do, including some members of my own family). One thing that bothers me about the attitude of some Church members is that they put themselves (and all Americans) above the rest of the world, justifying this with the idea that this is a “chosen” land, Americans are a “chosen” people and the Constitution is “divinely inspired.”

    Thank you for your thoughtful post.

  12. Jones on January 22, 2010 at 11:09 pm

    I agree with #1. It isn’t difficult for me to say inspiration was involved in the writing of the constitution and that God does inspire leaders of countries. That includes countries other than the U.S. Why else do we pray that the hearts of leaders of countries be softened that the proclaiming the Gospel can go forth in that land?
    My main feeling about the constitution is that I’m deeply grateful for it. I have lived in another country and that experience helps me be aware of unique ways that America is blessed. Many other countries (if not all, but I’d have to think about that) are blessed also.
    Part of my thinking about “are Presidents inspired?” is related to my thinking that God is very aware of and involved in our daily lives. While horrible things happen it isn’t because God is looking the other way or isn’t _brooding_ over those people. He does love us and is aware of all His children and especially those who are suffering. Our free agency allows all of us to heed the gentle promptings of the Light of Christ (inspiration) or ignore them.
    I think inspiration is a very real fact of beauty, goodness and creativity. Studying the lives of great composers leads one to ponder if composers are also inspired? If Handel was then why not Wilson?

  13. Cameron Nielsen on January 22, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    As far as ‘chosen’ lands and people, I agree that sometimes we in America forget the many applications of the title ‘chosen.’ Just as we are called to build Zion throughout the world, in a sense then, every day, the elect receive the Gospel and are chosen. Joseph Smith defined ‘Zion’ as the whole of both American continents. Surely Jerusalem is chosen as the spiritual capital during the millennium.

    Also, haven’t some church leaders implied that we are in the beginning of the ‘time of the Gentiles’ receding, after rejecting the truth, and a return to the House of Israel?

    We can only do our best to clarify this for those who haven’t fully understood this yet, instead of resenting it inside (I know I need to get better at this).

    ——————————————

    I don’t doubt that Mr. Wilson and Obama were/are sincerely inspired to try and make the world a better place, but I sure doubt their policies and means to attain those goals were/are inspired. President Bush seemed quite penitent and sincere in his decisions, but still foolishly ‘abandoned free market principles to save the free market.’

    President Obama and many other contemporary prominent officials feel different to me somehow. In the past, I got a vibe that they were generally inspired by the light of Christ. Increasingly, more and more public figures feel ‘empty’ to me as I observe their countenance and actions. I attribute it to the lack of faith mentioned in Section 1 of D&C.

    *feel free to correct my hastily synthesized, possibly incorrect ideas*

  14. Dave on January 22, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    Nice thoughts, Julie. Now that I think about it, there is much to be wary of in a president (or other elected official) who is convinced that his or her thoughts and ideas are “inspired” (however that is defined) by God. I’d be much more comfortable with an elected official that thinks their ideas could be wrong — a belief which might motivate that official to carefully gather lots of information and talk to a variety of experts in formulating policies. I think it’s fair to say the second approach probably results in better public policy decisions.

    And, of course, in a democracy elected officials are ultimately accountable to the electorate. That sense of being accountable is a good thing. When an official feels he or she is accountable primarily or only to God (say to energetically enact those inspired political thoughts), that may too easily morph into a sense of being accountable to no one.

  15. Robert G. on January 23, 2010 at 12:01 am

    On what do you base your claim that “most” Mormons don’t like President Obama? Considering that most Mormons live outside of the United States, I question that claim.

  16. Brian Duffin on January 23, 2010 at 12:10 am

    An inspired post, Julie!

  17. Owen on January 23, 2010 at 2:58 am

    Here we prefer the Tec-9 to the Uzi for our street crime.

    #13: Public officials feel different to you now because you’re older. The ones who were around before you were aware of them feel different to you because you weren’t around to have an opinion about/interest in the things they were making decisions about. If you had lived in the time of Lincoln, chances are fair you would have seen the devil in his eyes.

    There was no golden age, just the memories of the privileged of a different age of oppression.

  18. Cameron Nielsen on January 23, 2010 at 4:10 am

    Owen,

    I was only referring to public figures I’ve experienced in my lifetime. I don’t think there’s any doubt that society is less civil, more polarized, and generally more indifferent and hostile towards religion than even a decade ago. To me, this is because individuals are increasingly using agency in ways that offend the light of Christ. I have sensed the resulting emptiness in many contexts, both directly and indirectly. I’m even part of the problem, as I really don’t know my neighbors enough to befriend them and share the Gospel.

  19. Dan on January 23, 2010 at 8:34 am

    let me ask again. Who first coined the phrase “divinely inspired Constitution?” If it is not found in our scriptures, who first said it?

  20. Mark B. on January 23, 2010 at 8:37 am

    Most of the people who claim that the constitution is “divinely inspired” have probably never read it.

    And, as Julie suggests, they’ve never read D&C 101:80.

  21. Bob on January 23, 2010 at 9:28 am

    I like a little humanity left in the story of the writing of the Constitution. It was a hard labor and great men (and past great men) thinking and working.
    I have never liked the football player saying “I give all glory to God for my touchdown”.

  22. Nathaniel H. on January 23, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    To better understand this issue (“Were the Founding Fathers inspired?”), I suggest reading the Encylopedia of Mormonism article “Constitution of the United States of America.” It can be viewed at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/EoM&CISOPTR=4391&CISOSHOW=3509. I highly recommend it.

  23. Clark on January 23, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    I think one problem I have isn’t whether the Founders were inspired, I think they were. Rather it’s the way some members assume that by inspired that everything they wrote was dictated scripture. That leads to some rather odd treatments of the Constitution as well as legal hermeneutics. I’m no lawyer but it’s funny to me when some folks do literalist readings of both the Constitution and the Federalist Papers the way they do literalist interpretations of Genesis.

  24. Clark on January 23, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    I don’t know who said, “divinely inspired constitution” but the idea goes back at least to Brigham Young who probably put it more strongly than most of us would be comfortable with.

    If the law had not come to Saul of Tarshish, sin would not have revived in him, so when light comes, heresy, false principles and everything else, are made manifest — when a man forsakes his evil, and then does right the remainder of his life, he will be blest, and owned of the Lord.
    I want to say to every man, the Constitution of the United States, as formed by our fathers, was dictated, was revealed, was put into their hearts by the Almighty, who sits enthroned in the midst of the heavens, although unknown to them, it was dictated by the revelations of Jesus Christ, and I tell you in the name of Jesus Christ, it is as good as I could ever ask for.
    The next thing is, I dare raise my voice against wickedness in high places, and if the President, the Senate, the House of Representatives will do wickedly, I will tell them of their sins, as I would the poorest gold digger who goes with his pack on his back; for rest assured, in the latter days offenses must come, but wo be to them by whom they come.
    I say unto you, magnify the laws! There is no law in the United States, or in the Constitution, but I am ready to make honorable and I declare in the presence of God and all holy angels, and all good men, and even the devils in hell, that I never have transgressed any of them. If Governor Boggs had not ordered out the troops, we should have whipped all the mob that came against us, yet if poor old Boggs himself was to come here, I would feed him, lodge him for the night, and help him on his way.
    (Brigham Young, 14 July 1850)

  25. SJT on January 23, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    Cameron (#18),

    >>>>>I don’t think there’s any doubt that society is less civil, more polarized, and generally more indifferent and hostile towards religion than even a decade ago.

    I do have doubt in that statement and somewhat disagree with you.

    You really think society is less civil today? Is societies past, women had little to no civil rights, slavery was commonplace, open homosexuality had sever (uncivil) consequences, and Native Americans were being wiped out. You think civil rights has been getting worse for blacks? (Could Obama have ever won prior to this decade?)

    More polarized? Since the country has been a 2 party system for such a long time, how do you really know that? Aren’t there more independent voters today than ever before? (Look how Scott Brown won).

    More indifferent and hostile towards religion? Pretty sure there use to be law allowing the extermination of Mormons, but not today. Would society today be more open to electing a Buddhist president than it would have in past decades? Would Mitt Romney had a better chance at the presidency had he run in the 1960s? No way. I think society, although not there yet, is opening up to religions.

    I know the Glenn Becks of the world are preaching that there is a war on Christianity. But maybe society isn’t “against” Christianity like you think it is, but rather trying to not be hostile and indifferent to the nonchristian religions that have a hard time finding a place in such a christian-ran country.

  26. Dan on January 23, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Cameron,

    #18,

    I was only referring to public figures I’ve experienced in my lifetime. I don’t think there’s any doubt that society is less civil, more polarized, and generally more indifferent and hostile towards religion than even a decade ago

    A decade ago. That was the Clinton era. Certainly more civil then. Not as polarized, no way. Oh, and none of that moral relativity crap. What about two decades ago? That was the “religious wars” era of Pat Buchanan. Ah, Murphy Brown takin’ on Dan Quayle. Who could forget. Which decade exactly was more civil, less polarized and kind toward religion? Oh and we need to get specific here on religion. Do we mean all religions? Because of course, under our Constitution, Americans are free to exercise religion as they see fit. Which religions have been under threat and from whom? Was there ever a time when religions were not under threat from external forces? Or you mean good white, Christian Americans?

  27. Jim Donaldson on January 23, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    I think that the founding fathers were inspired to provide freedom of religion in the Constitution. They also had lots of other good ideas, and a few not so good one. They didn’t want the fight the Civil War just then, so they procrastinated it a while. I think the ideas that Elders Clark and Oaks find inspired, I just find good, and wise.

    I think that the establishment of government protected religious freedom was condition precedent for the Restoration and God helped bring that about, even though it didn’t work quite as well in practice as it looked on paper, but somehow we survived. We might not have otherwise or it could have been worse.

    Apart from that, most political institutions and decisions are irrelevant to God. He has bigger fish to fry.

    I cringe when anybody brings up the Constitution in church because it is usually some sort of sneaky way to bring up an uninvited and inappropriately political comment in a religious discussion or service.

  28. Bob on January 23, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    #27: Jim, freedom of religion was not in the Constitution. The Constitution was appended to give that right.
    I don’t think the writters planned to have a civil war. But I think the Civil War came out of some of the things written in the Constitution.

  29. DavidH on January 23, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    I think who and what we find inspired depends upon where we sit.

  30. Scott on January 23, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    #25

    “You really think society is less civil today? Is societies past, women had little to no civil rights, slavery was commonplace, open homosexuality had sever (uncivil) consequences, and Native Americans were being wiped out. You think civil rights has been getting worse for blacks? (Could Obama have ever won prior to this decade?)”

    We need to establish criteria for what we’re going to call “civil.” We also need to analyze which side(s) we’re talking about. It’s easy to say “White Protestants are more civil than they were in 1850,” but that’s only looking at one side of the issue: whether slavery exists or not.

    If we look at it as a black-and-white (no pun intended whatsoever, nobody should read into that) one-variable approach, then it would be easy to surmise a conclusion without approaching the whole picture. It’s not really possible to include every single variable in a changing picture, particularly because of our global, exponentially-integrated society. Let me give just one example.

    Let’s take the claim that black members of U.S. society used to be oppressed, and now oppress others through affirmative action and claims of discrimination where none was intended (sounds rather uncivil, which would suggest times have gotten worse since 1850). We should include other variables for a more complete picture:

    Are there many black members of gangs throughout the United States? (sounds uncivil)
    Would they get out of gangs if they had the opportunity and the freedom? (sounds civil)
    Do they want to stick it to white society who kept their ancestors in slavery for hundreds of years and still seems to carry superiority around? (sounds uncivil)
    Does that perceived sense of superiority really exist, or does it just exist in the mind? (sounds uncivil)
    Have they recently been unfairly discriminated against for crimes they haven’t committed? (it happens. Does this count up to being civil or uncivil?)

    As you can tell, if we just take one of those variables, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion “Yes, they’re terrible people” or “No, they’re justified for trying to get additional benefits,” but it’s not looking at the whole picture.

    That’s the same thing that happens when we jump to conclusions and say “Women have more rights nowadays, so society is more civil” or so on; we’re likely missing out on other pieces of the picture by focusing on the problems of the past, not of the present or future. Could it be that other parts of our society are less civil than they were 150 years ago? We’re supposedly more united, but after we get past skin-deep analyses, we can see this country’s not far from ripping itself apart at times — worse than with the civil war.

    We should also remember that certain pretenses and guises maintained nowadays restrain people from breaking society wide open, as they might have done two centuries ago. The fact that rebellion isn’t openly manifest doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist; if people shouted for a revolution in 1750, it would’ve spread like wildfire (partially because of their shaky political circumstances, true, but partially for their looser and less pretentious society). If FOXNews shouted for a rebellion today, they’d be devoured by the news media and their posterity back to Adam would be stigmatized in literature for generations. Thus, to claim “civil” so quickly is looking at too few variables. We could talk about more examples like the passive-aggressive Puritans who brought both good and bad, or the existence of publicly funded abortions by the Federal Government… but this is a very long post already.

  31. Scott on January 23, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    #30

    Above post, rather than reading “now oppress others through affirmative action and claims of discrimination where none was intended” should read “now try to get back at society and their enemies through gang warfare and syndicated crime.” Revisions mid-post, etc.

  32. AHLDuke on January 23, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    By way of getting to your main point, Julie, I would take issue with one of your assumptions (in the third paragraph) regarding that the Church doesn’t believe that the prophets are infallible. I find that when you ask a Mormon that question head on, you get the answer that you anticipated. But when pressed to find some issue on which the current prophet has erred or where his advice is not to be regarded as authoritative, Mormons tend to get much more defensive about his inspiration. Its easy to point out that Brigham Young said something crazy, but to say that President Hinckley or Monson was just wrong about something, there would be a great deal more reticence there. In this way, we present the opposite case of the Jews in Jesus’ time– we stone the dead prophets, and honor the living ones.

    Similarly, its easy to point out where Jefferson, Washington, or the others were mistaken (e.g. slavery). Those original parts of the Constitution that have been discarded over the years are open for criticism, but those that are still part of the Constitution are regarded as fated and infallible, as if they were not tainted by their association with the Founder’s other mistakes.

  33. Julie M. Smith on January 23, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    AHLDuke, very interesting comment.

  34. Jim Donaldson on January 23, 2010 at 11:10 pm

    Bob, re: #28

    I counted the Bill of Rights, perhaps erroneously, as part of the Constitution. It was conceived at the same time by the same people and viewed by many as an essential part. North Carolina, as I recall, wouldn’t ratify the Constitution without them. But I’ll go your way if you want. The religion clauses of the First Amendment were inspired; the Constitution? Not so much. To reiterate: I think the freedom of religion thing was crucial and God had a hand in it; the rest, good, but not of any particular religious significance.

    I know they didn’t plan on having a civil war. My point is that their inability to resolve the question by negotiation—procrastinating its resolution—led to The Civil War. Eventually. My point? Not exactly inspired.

  35. AHLDuke on January 24, 2010 at 1:14 am

    Julie,
    I am in absolute agreement with the balance of your post. I have the same tense feeling in my neck when I hear the words “inspired Constitution” at Church or among Mormon friends. I would tend to agree with J. Reuben Clark’s assessment, which considers the Constitution inspired in its broad strokes, but perhaps not in its precise text.

    My point was simply that (many) LDS exhibit an uncritical attitude towards the living prophet(s) (which is not extended to the same degree to the dead prophets). I believe some of the same uncritical attitude holds when they talk about parts of the Constitution that have not been expressly repudiated in our nation’s history.

  36. dangermom on January 24, 2010 at 10:33 am

    I’m not quite sure what “the usual LDS reading” is. Can someone point me to it? Are we talking about The 5000 Year Leap or something like that? (All I know is, the other night at the bookstore I picked up “The Real George Washington” to see what the fuss was about, and on about the second page of the biography it claimed that Washington was a descendant of Odin and they had similar characters, so then I put it down again.)

  37. B.G.Porter on January 24, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    How about politians inspirations being put in the same class as a poet, writer, artist,speaker, sculptor or musician? Can’t a political figure be inspired in his or her own art as a politician?

  38. Chelsea on January 24, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    John Oliver (of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) did a great piece a couple of weeks ago about why things in the past were so much better than they are now. (Contains strong language, which is bleeped out, and a fair amount of Glenn Beck mocking.)

    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-january-5-2010/even-better-than-the-real-thing

  39. R. Gary on January 24, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    Julie, I do hope the tenseness in your neck gets better.

  40. Jacob J on January 24, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    *By “like,” I mean “I am tempted daily to drop to my knees and thank heavens that Sarah Palin isn’t one geriatric heartbeat away from leading the free world,” not “like” as in “I agree with everything he has and hasn’t done.”

    Fascinating definition of “like.” So when you say you like some, what you mean is that you dislike someone else more than that person? I like you Julie. I also really like the founding fathers.

  41. Jared on January 24, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    I’ve had the chance to travel to many places. America is a unique country.

    Having the freedoms that have come to us through the Constitution and related American political documents is a real treat. Read the histories of China, Japan, Russia, Cuba, Germany, the Islamic countries, Africa, and many others–the USA is a standout.

    Regarding the inspiration of our founding fathers and the Constitution–the Book of Mormon testifies that there is a promised land that is choice above all other lands. 2 Nephi 1:5-7

    Personally, I consider it a privilege to be an American, and to live in the promised land.

  42. Anne (U.K) on January 24, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    One of the uglier aspects of Church membership is being in the position of having this ‘Constitution is inspired therefore Americans are in some way superior’ cultural reference bandied around during discussion. I long ago adopted the response of a friend who succinctly said: ‘it may be inspired, but it is not perfect and it is not revealed scripture’.

  43. DavidH on January 24, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    “Personally, I consider it a privilege to be an American, and to live in the promised land.”

    I don’t know about that. Most LDS FARMS type scholars think the Book of Mormon took place in southern Mexico/Guatemala. Thus, Mexico/Guatemala, not the US, are the promised land. And fortunately the hard right wing of the GOP are striving diligently to keep Mexicans and Guatemalans in the promised land.

  44. Velska on January 25, 2010 at 6:36 am

    Thank you.

    What you’re saying, in other words, is that the Constitution put America on right track, and that track made it possible to abolish slavery, to achieve suffrage for women, to give full civil rights to African-Americans?

    I like that, since that rhymes with the Restoration. The LDS Church is not an exact replica of either the original Church of Christ (founded by Christ — they were pacifists, who sold their property and donated everything to the Church) or the second Church of Christ (founded by Joseph Smith & co. — you know). The Restoration put the Church on the right track, and we are, at least hopefully, improving on it.

    Going back to what was before is seldom an improvement, although our world has many problems that are a direct result of increasing freedom to live one’s life as one chooses. Despite the problems, I believe that freedom is the very essence of accountability and vice versa.

  45. Velska on January 25, 2010 at 7:11 am

    BTW, for example, Finland, which during the cold war got a bad rep, has had universal voting rights since 1905, fought a civil war where the serfs (approximately same as sharecropper) and their supporters were given substantial aid by the Red Army in 1918 (resulted in a major land reform, so the end result was good, though the war was terrible), fought back the Soviet Russia twice after that, and all the while built the highest literacy rate in the world by the 1980s, as well as among the lowest infancy mortality rates and highest life expectancies and per capita GNPs.

    I don’t know terribly much about the Finnish Constitution (originally from 1920, after the 1917 independence and 1918 civil war), but it apparently seeks to guarantee the same kinds of rights that the U.S. Constitution does. Freedom of religion, free enterprise, full political freedoms. The U.S. Constitution definitely has given the world a pattern. Then, of course, the French 1789 revolution was very closely tied to U.S. independence and then the process of writing the Constitution. The same ideas of political freedoms and other basic freedoms. It required some courage in those times to write a constitution that would explicitly proscribe “establishing a religion”. The way the political discourse is going these days, it would never get done.

  46. Canadian_ on January 25, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Inspired or inspiring?

    Hitler was inspiring – thus millions of Germans followed him and cost millions of lives in the process. Not many, however, would argue that he was inspired.

    Inspired? Sure, men and women can be inspired to do many things that affect many people, but not all things that they do are inspired. In fact, some things that they do may be totally uninspiring but inspired (if that makes sense)! The trick today is to differentiate between an inspired leader and a political or religious hack! Barack Obama may be (or was) inspiring, but I would argue that his inspiration comes from his own vanity, pride and delusions of his own ability and grandeur! To be able to weed out individuals like him is the real test of our own inspiration. Then we vote accordingly…

  47. CB Stewart on January 25, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    I’m actually surprised by this thread. Maybe that should be expected given that I am one of those who likely subscribes to what Julie refers to as the “usual LDS reading,” regarding the Founders. Of course, I think her description of what that term actually entails is off the mark.

    Has anyone really ever met a member of the Church who takes their veneration of the Founders to include “a divine stamp of approval for all of their actions . . . which include the enslavement of human beings, the un-enfranchisement of women, the slow (and sometimes not-so-slow) genocide of Native Americans.” I can’t say I have.

    Similarly, I can’t say I’m ever come across a member of the church demonizing the opponents of the Founders (what form would this take, anyway? Darn those loyalists! If they hadn’t fled to Canada none of this would have happened!) Maybe it happens more up near the border?

    More importantly, the one thing that is missing from this thread, both in Julie’s original post and in the vast majority of the comments (BY the sole exception) is any sort of acknowledgment of the countless statements from church leaders – statements made over several generations – that have helped create and foster the “usual LDS reading.” There is a reason the “inspired Founders” meme has become an integral, widespread portion of Mormon LDS culture. We shouldn’t propagate the notion that those of us within the Church who do in fact revere the Founders just made it up out of whole-cloth or because Cleon Skousen or Glenn Beck told us we should.

    I think the more mainstream view of Church members towards the Founders deserves a little more respect than that.

  48. Geoff on January 26, 2010 at 7:36 am

    Relating to this thread, I was surprised, on a recent visit to US to find that some members were so sure of their conservative political beliefs that they were more than inspired. For example a sunday school teacher in the lesson said “universal health care is of the devil”
    2 problems with this are that it makes discussion of the benifits or otherwise impossible because. There’s no need to discuss it anyway because it’s evil, and 2 it brands anyone who doesn’t agree with you as evil.
    I live in a country with universal health care and find it to not only provide a superior service but at far less expense to both individuals and government. I also think it will be necessary in a Zion society for there to be no poor.

    Back to the point about believing that your political ideas have the same source and validity as your religious beliefs. The people who think like this also have trouble believing a person who has different political beliefs can be a worthy member of the Church. Which means the Gospel is not for all the world only for the conservatives.

    This may not seem too terrible unless for example a Bishop has this view. In my experience conservative beliefs have become one of the requirements for a Bishop. A few years back I had a Bishop charge me with Apostacy because I would not agree with some of his political beliefs. Luckly I was a High Priest and a Bishop can not excommunicate a HP. I do feel rather strongly about it though.

    I also cringe when I hear Americans quoting scripture about their blessed homeland, isn’t that subject to righteousness? It may shock you to know America would be well down the list of places I would choose if I had to leave Australia. My problem with America is as above, a very bigoted, intolerant place, particularly in the Church.

  49. Julie M. Smith on January 26, 2010 at 9:33 am

    “In my experience conservative beliefs have become one of the requirements for a Bishop.”

    I’m pleased to say that I recently had a bishop who had a homemade bumper sticker that said “Dick Cheney deserves a fair trial.” :)

  50. Gina on January 26, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    In my husband’s home ward which is *extremely* conservative politically, the Bishop is the head of the County Democrats. He and his wife are probably the only Democrats in the ward, and obviously open about their politics. But he’s been Bishop for several years and loves and serves the people and they sustain him.

  51. Velska on January 26, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    See my hand-waving here?!

    “America” = South and North America, and some talk about MesoAmerica as if it were a geographical definition. Central America has been used before, AFAIK.

    America != USA -> The blessings in the BofM are for people in America, not just citizens of the USA, the inspiredness of the Constitution (not the Founders so much, perhaps; the Prophets are a different thing altogether — give unto Caesar &c.) notwithstanding.

    Sorry if this sounds like I’m down on the good ol’ US; I’m not, but I want to remind that the BofM stuff was not talking about USA, it was about the Promised Land, wherever that may be, and certainly our views of that are diverse.

    In the last 30 years that I have been a member, I haven’t seen the GA statements in Conferences that someone talked about. They come from talks in small gatherings of local people in the USA mostly, or books like Gospel Doctrine or DofS, which also tell us that the African-Americans carry the curse of Cain, and therefore can’t have the Priesthood.

    And I’m sorry to pull that one on you, but hey, this is just discussion. I think we all tend to pick from Church leaders’ speeches the things that soothe our vanity and support our own way of thinking more than listen to know what we should learn in this life and perhaps make a little sacrifice here and there.

  52. Crick on January 27, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    Inspired is one thing. How about foreordained?
    A mission companion of mine suggested that Bill Clinton was foreordained to be POTUS. I asked him why he thought that and in his humble Polynesian way he simply said “President of the United States.

  53. Raymond Takashi Swenson on January 28, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    Your point is well taken that God did not say the creators of the US Constitution were “inspired”–he said they were “wise”. Wise is good enough.

    Elsewhere the Lord advises the Saints to seek political leaders who are honest, just and wise. That is a short list, but how many prominent politicians of your own lifetime qualify in all three categories? (Exercise your own subjective judgment.)

    The Lord mentioned the Constitution specifically because he endorsed the Saints’ obedience to the laws enacted consistent with it. I think what that means is that, in all the difficulties of deciding when it is righteous for us to “obey” magistrates and other government authorities, laws that have been enacted through a process of legislation in two representative bodies, then approved by the president, and not ruled inconsistent with the Constitution by the courts, are likely to be reasonable laws, ones that we are seldom justified in disobeying.

    What is exactly wrong with the US Constitution, with 200 years of course corrections (like the 13th, 14th and 15th and 29th Amendments)? Much of the specific criticism I read about concerns the difficulty in enacting new laws. But the fact is that if you can’t get consensus on a new law, then a lot of people disagree with you about how desirable it is. The Constitution was created precisely to divide up power between states and the Federal government, and between the Congress, the courts, and the Executive. The Founders had fought a long revolutionary War precisely to get a powerful central government off their backs. They wanted to prevent the new national government from becoming another taskmaster. Before the Bill of Rights, the most essential guarantee of freedom in the Constitution is the way it limits the power of each of the men and women in government.

    The bane of the 20th Century was totalitarian states in which one man or a few men could have total control over all citizens of a state. In the case of Germany, that totalitarian control was established through a popular election. The Founders knew they were all fallible men, and they designed the government so it would impede fallible men from concentrating too much power in their own hands. That sounds like a pretty “wise” idea to me. And God takes credit for it.

    As for the USA being a “promised land”: Obviously, as we learn from the Book of Ether, all of North America (at least) seems to be included in the designation. Of course, that does not mean that everything any American nation does is divine. Rather, it means very clearly that every nation in the Americas is held accountable for its actions. Hugh Nibley suggested American nations are MORE accountable than those in the Old World. As Spiderman’s uncle told him, with great power comes great responsbility.

    Is the USA blessed? Sure. That is obvious to any historian. But note that the result of the American blessing is blessings on the world. The freedom of Japan, of Germany, and all of the nations they conquered, is due to the USA. The freedom of eastern Europe is due to the USA. And no other nation is in the position to bring so much help to other nations than the USA, as is happening today in Haiti, and before in Indonesia. The USA has imperial power but not imperial ambition. America makes its gains from a world that is more free, not a world that is colonialized by the USA.

  54. John A. Coltharp on February 5, 2010 at 3:15 am

    I think the various Presidents of the United States are constantly receiving revelations (whether or not they realize it), from both holy and unholy sources.

    If there are spirits in the spirit world who want to influence our world, what better way to do it than to influence influential people? I’m sure the President, as well as other prominant individuals, are magnets for spirits. I’m sure the Oval Office is swarming with spirits all the time, attempting to prompt the President to think, say, or do whatever it is they wish for him to do.

    (See discourse by Brigham Young, 12 Feb. 1854, The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young, vol. 2, edited by Richard S. Van Wagoner [Salt Lake City: The Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2009], pp. 754-60; see also discourse by Brigham Young, 22 June 1856, in Journal of Discourses, vol. 3 [Liverpool: Orson Pratt, 1856], pp. 367–73.)

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