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.”