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Reflections on President Oaks’ conference talk on the Constitution from the worlds of politics and law

U.S. Constitution’s crowning purpose is to provide, protect moral agency, including freedom to vote one’s conscience instead of for party loyalty, he said

SHARE Reflections on President Oaks’ conference talk on the Constitution from the worlds of politics and law
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President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, speaks about the U.S. Constitution and the moral agency of voters during the Sunday afternoon session of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 191st Annual General Conference in Salt Lake City on Sunday, April 4, 2021.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The frank rebuttal to partisanship in President Dallin H. Oaks’ recent talk on the U.S. Constitution has been driving conversation since he gave it on April 4 in Salt Lake City, Utah, during the 191st Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The talk was timely, according to political and legal sources, because while politicians, pundits and social media hawks increasingly insist on party loyalty, President Oaks said no party can meet all of the needs of a voter and that voters should act independently of parties when they don’t.

In fact, he said the Constitution’s greatest meaning to Latter-day Saints is that it ensures moral agency, or freedom to choose.

Richard E. Turley Jr., an attorney and historian who recently published a biography of President Oaks, said some people have tried to interpret President Oaks’ talk as being a broadside against Republicans or Democrats but should let it speak for itself and instead focus on its principles.

He said one of those principles is that political and moral agency involves more than voting a straight-party ticket. Of course, the church’s long-held official position is that “principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties, and members should seek candidates who best embody those principles.”

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President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talks with his biographer, Richard E. Turley Jr., the former assistant church historian and recorder who retired last year as managing director of the Public Affairs Department.

Leslie Nilsson, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

“I think sometimes people want to abrogate their personal responsibility for being informed and making good judgments by delegating that or passing the buck to somebody else,” said Turley, author of “In the Hands of the Lord: The Life of Dallin H. Oaks.”

In his talk, President Oaks said, “There are many political issues, and no party, platform or individual candidate can satisfy all personal preferences.”

He continued:

Each citizen must therefore decide which issues are most important to him or her at any particular time. Then members should seek inspiration on how to exercise their influence according to their individual priorities. This process will not be easy. It may require changing party support or candidate choices, even from election to election. Such independent actions will sometimes require voters to support candidates or political parties or platforms whose other positions they cannot approve. That is one reason we encourage our members to refrain from judging one another in political matters. We should never assert that a faithful Latter-day Saint cannot belong to a particular party or vote for a particular candidate.

Those statements cheered Jennifer Walker Thomas, senior director of strategy and nonpartisanship for the nonpartisan Mormon Women for Ethical Government.

“For a long time we’ve been saying that it’s really, really hard to fight clearly for ethical governance if you’re so perfectly aligned with one party,” she said.

Her group’s mission is to empower women to engage peacefully in developing a more just world and more ethical government independent of party and partisanship. Thomas said she has seen women become less idealogical.

“As women in our organization have stepped back and viewed their parties critically, some of them have switched parties but most of them have actually developed a deep pragmatism about party affiliation, and it was super interesting to me to see that option reflected in President Oaks’ talk,” said Thomas, who lives in Belmont, Massachusetts.

She said she knows of thousands of Latter-day Saint women who experienced judgment from other church members for their political views during last year’s U.S. presidential election cycle.

“These are great women committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ who are doing their best,” she said.

Turley said President Oaks has been thinking and writing about the Constitution for decades. In fact, his conference talk reflected an article he wrote for the Ensign, the official church magazine, in 1992, eight years after he was called off the bench of the Utah Supreme Court and into the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

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President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints listens to translation as his wife, Sister Kristen Oaks, records her talk for a March 14 Spanish-language young adult devotional that was taped at the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In that article, he said the Constitution was the product of two miracles. The first was the miracle of its drafting, because the Founding Fathers were “deeply divided” with “seemingly irresolvable differences.” The second miracle was the ratification by 13 “badly divided” colonies.

George Washington said the Constitutional Convention’s success was rooted in “the spirit of amity and mutual deference,” said Judge Thomas B. Griffith, a Latter-day Saint who retired in September from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

On Friday, President Joe Biden appointed Griffith, who was a George W. Bush nominee, to the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States.

“It was that spirit that led the delegates to the Convention to compromise some of their dearly held views in order to create a union,” Griffith told the Deseret News. “Remarkably, they agreed that they would compromise for the sake of unity even before they knew the terms of the compromise. That, I believe, is the spirit of the Constitution. Those who take an oath to support and defend the Constitution take a solemn vow that they will work for unity and not be agents of division. Those who refuse to compromise for the sake of unity undermine the Constitution.”

Griffith has written multiple times about the need for civic charity at the founding and now, including for an article published in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy.

President Oaks began his April 4 conference talk by saying the current “troubled time” had inspired his words. He said a fundamental Latter-day Saint Article of Faith requires church members to seek unity.

“It does require that we exercise our influence civilly and peacefully within the framework of our constitutions and applicable laws,” he said. “On contested issues, we should seek to moderate and unify.”

That’s increasingly important because American Latter-day Saints are increasingly diverse politically. In fact, more church members under the age of 40 (47.2%) voted for Biden than for Trump (42.5%), according to the 2020 Cooperative Election Study.

Among those 40 and older, Trump won the Latter-day Saint vote, 80% to 18%.

The church is politically diverse, said Rob Taber, national co-chair of Latter-day Saint Democrats of America.

“I appreciate President Oaks’ teachings, especially about the importance of the rule of law, being loyal to principles rather than personalities, and citizens having a voice,” Taber said. “I also appreciate his reminders that we as Latter-day Saints are going to come to different conclusions on which candidate and which party to support in any given election. Last year, we saw record Latter-day Saint support for President Biden, including a plurality of Latter-day Saint voters under 40. It’s clear that the church membership is politically diverse, and as long as we can come together as saints and leave partisan statements out of our church meetings, that diversity is a wonderful and beautiful thing.”

Thomas, the strategist for Mormon Women for Ethical Government, also noted the clear shift among younger Latter-day Saints.

“We have to ask ourselves if it’s worth alienating them from the church because we insist that they conform to an older generation’s political alignment,” she said. “That to me is a huge problem, if we prioritize our political affiliations over our religious one.”

Thomas said that while the American church seems to be moving toward political diversity, that discussion overlooks the far more complicated and broad diversity of political beliefs among Latter-day Saints around the world.

“We need to always remember that the political constructs in which we have ordered our lives are often very foreign to members of the faith in countries that operate very differently,” she said. Also, she added, “If we narrowly define goodness according to our political system, we run the risk of limiting the reach of our faith.”

Thomas also said that while she does think party affiliation will diversify among American Latter-day Saints, her experience with Mormon Women for Ethical Government makes her anticipate a different change.

“What I actually hope we see and what I think we will see is a broad diversity of how we approach problems,” she said.

Besides, having a supermajority of church members aligned with one party limits their political influence, Thomas added.

“If all members of one church are aligned so strictly with one party when there just are only so many members of our church in the nation, that party can take us for granted and the other party doesn’t have to talk to us,” she said. “When the party in favor is in power, maybe we can engage and maybe we can’t, but they still can rely on us whether they help us or not. And when the party that we don’t align with is in power, we’re basically locked out of conversations. That’s not super healthy.

“We would argue that Latter-day Saints have a lot to say, individually along a huge range of issues, and our nation is better off when they have a voice and are heard.”

The United Utah Party also issued a statement thanking President Oaks for his talk.

“We welcome his call for Latter-day Saints to not judge each other based on the political party they support,” party chair Hilary Stirling said. “His counsel to his fellow church members to not simply vote straight party in every election is also much appreciated, as is his instruction to prioritize moral values and to seek out and support the political party and candidates that best reflect those values.”

President Oaks said the Constitution was imperfect but listed five principles he specifically said are divinely inspired:

  • The people are the source of government.
  • The division of delegated power between the nation and its subsidiary states.
  • The separation of powers.
  • The guarantees of individual rights and specific limits on government authority in the Bill of Rights.
  • The rule of law and not individuals.

Video and text of the talk by President Oaks is available online at this link.