In 1992, author and activist Wendell Berry penned a sentence that is no less relevant when read today: “If we have equality and nothing else — no compassion, no magnanimity, no courtesy, no sense of mutual obligation and dependence, no imagination — then power and wealth will have their way; brutality will rule.”
Berry correctly suggests that equality — our activist battle cry du jour — won’t bring about its intended purposes if it stays divorced from the lifeblood that ought to sustain it.
“The idea of equality is a good one,” he reminds us, “so long as it means ‘equality before the law.’”
That notion came clearly into view on Sunday when President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spoke of the principles that underpin the U.S. Constitution, reminding a global church that fidelity to the supreme law of the land — not to personalities, parties or purity tests — is what grants a moral people their freedom to choose and fosters equality among all people.
I admit I was surprised when President Oaks, formerly an esteemed professor of law and a member of the Utah Supreme Court, introduced his topic. For two hours in the preceding session of the Church of Jesus Christ’s general conference, speakers and musicians emphasized the worldwide nature of the faith. Members from every corner of the globe shared music and the spoken word. The optics were powerful: Faith in Christ transcends cultures and languages, and all are equal under him.
So dedicating an address to tenets of the U.S. Constitution left me with a sense of anticipation — how does this apply to a global church audience? As I listened, I understood the brilliance of it: The universality of the Constitution’s principles similarly transcend cultures and partisanship for the “rights and protection of all flesh,” as the scriptures put it.
Everyone — American or otherwise — benefits when the Constitution is respected.
But respect for it is becoming harder to come by. Of the five constitutional principles enumerated by President Oaks, none have escaped recent years without wounds. The Constitution gives ultimate power to the people, for example, which was a divinely inspired yet radical idea. Now, some have twisted that principle to fit their own narratives. Mob rule (violent protests and the attack on the Capitol come to mind) isn’t compatible with the Constitution.
Neither is the federal government amassing powers once held by the states, the legislative branch relinquishing its authority to the White House or the freedom of speech faltering before academic speech codes. Each scenario leaves a stain on the document that guides the country.
How did we get here? Most likely because we’ve ignored President Oaks’ fifth principle — that we are to be governed by law and not by individuals.
That idea was the essence of leaving behind a monarchy for a constitutional republic, but it seems we’ve supplanted the law in some cases with our personal kings.
“Our loyalty is to the Constitution and its principles and processes, not to any office holder,” President Oaks said. “In this way, all persons are to be equal before the law.”
That equality and the significance of the Constitution diminish when we warp the motivation for its origin, President Oaks said. So too when the document is either neglected by leaders or worshiped as a political slogan. The vacuum of principle left behind is filled, as Berry observed, with wealth, power and brutality.
Patching up a broken country may well begin by reclaiming respect for its governing document. That is no small feat. Borrowing the prescription from Berry, it will take a good deal of compassion, magnanimity, courtesy and a sense of mutual obligation — forgotten virtues of our body politic. It will require citizens to surrender their loyalties when they conflict with inspired principles. It demands of us that we see others as equal under the law and work within the confines of the Constitution to fix what inequalities do exist.
“We should trust in the Lord and be positive about this nation’s future,” President Oaks reflected. Indeed, the United States is remarkable not because of its flaws but because it has successfully allowed principles to govern its people in spite of their flaws. The urgency of our moment requires us to rediscover those principles — for ourselves and for the world.