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Perspective: Leaning into the center

This great nation was formed with a clear and unapologetic center: God

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Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

Editor’s note: For years, the Deseret News’ editorial page carried the epigraph: “We stand for the Constitution of the United States as having been divinely inspired.” In honor of Constitution Month, the Deseret News is publishing a variety of articles examining the Constitution’s continued importance.

At age 8, while visiting an amusement park’s fun house, I learned the value of being “centered.” Looking very much like a giant record player, a large spinning wheel was embedded in the floor. Children of all ages climbed onto the wheel and excitedly dug in palms and heels in hopes of surviving the 90-second ride. As the spinning wheel accelerated, kids were flung into surrounding pads to the laughter and enjoyment of onlookers. While I was repeatedly pitched from the wheel into the “cushions of shame,” I could not help noticing the same girl seated in the middle of the wheel grinning broadly — the lone survivor. My little mind suddenly made a startling discovery — she survives because she stays in the center!

Armed with this insight, I joined the other newly “enlightened” kids as we raced to the center and quickly took up our positions next to her, bracing ourselves for another spinning cycle. But as the wheel slowly began to turn, I watched the girl place her feet and hands on the backs of those closest to her and move them just slightly off-center. I then felt her sharp elbow coaxing me away just a few inches. Her actions raised no immediate alarm — we must have concluded she needed some extra personal space. 

She had another motive, however, and gravity was her weapon. As the wheel accelerated, I felt my arms and legs once again strain under the powerful centrifugal forces. Inch by inch, my body shifted further from the safety of the center, until I was hurled into the entanglement of flailing bodies and familiar pads. Rising to my feet, I stared back at the grinning girl, and I thought, “She’s evil!” Determined and wiser, I marched once more to the center. This time, I fought off her jabs, remained centered, and felt the elation of surviving the whirling disc.

The simple lessons of that day have stayed with me over the years: Know the center; lean into it; be vigilant when forces try to push you from it; and learn from those who are well-centered.

God at the center

I learned at a young age that this great nation was formed with a clear center. While there was no single established state religion, and religion was granted freedom from state interference in the First Amendment, still the Founding Fathers were unapologetic in placing God at the center of a governmental system and guiding documents that reflected his will and his moral standards. During their lives, many spoke of God’s hand in the development of this nation.

Such a divinely inspired center was created to safeguard our freedoms and rights, and secure our happiness. John Adams boldly stated that our Constitution “was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Little wonder that hundreds of thousands of immigrants from across the world left countries rife with religious persecution and sailed to a nation that valued and protected religious freedoms. 

The Declaration of Independence acknowledges the existence of God and that he has endowed his children with unalienable (“divine”) rights centered on moral and religious principles. Again, the Constitution protects the freedom of religion, underscoring our nation’s commitment to safeguarding individual religious beliefs. From a young age, I was taught that these chartered documents were efficacious only to the extent that the governed would be a people centered on God’s laws and moral standards. Benjamin Franklin stated, “(Only) a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”

Consequences of leaving the center

Like the opposing forces from the spinning wheel of my childhood, there are similar denigrating forces today at work eroding the core of our nation’s moral center and the God-inspired values and pushing us to a secularized periphery. “And now, we can behold the decrees of God concerning this land, that it is a land of promise; and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall serve God, or they shall be swept off when the fulness of his wrath shall come upon them. And the fulness of his wrath cometh upon them when they are ripened in iniquity.” 

One day, as a young missionary serving in Guatemala, I stood amid the ancient ruins of Peten — just a few of the thousands of ruins lost in those dense jungles. I saw firsthand the remains of a civilization that was swept off this land. Seeing the ruins of a once great civilization was a vivid reminder that nation’s rise and nation’s fall.

To remain a strong nation, we must follow that which has guided the country to strength. Today secularism pervades our institutions as efforts to move this nation from its original moorings to individual self-enlightenment are growing. Thus, to be “one Nation under God,” centered on eternal, unchanging principles will require a greater understanding, courage and vigilance as never before. 

Preserving the center

Our remarkable nation is struggling at its core, a circumstance that begs the question: What can we as a body of religious people do to preserve the center and enjoy God’s protection and blessings? My hope is that we never underestimate the impact that each of us as individuals can realize. Instead, may we remember the power for good that one person can achieve. To that end, here are a few suggestions. 

  • We can educate our children and grandchildren on the importance of religion and faith in our society, and our nation’s moral and religious heritage. 
  • We can more fully educate ourselves on the dangers of secularism. We can exercise our rights in the democratic process, supporting moral candidates that share our vision of America. 
  • We can leverage our social media presence by sharing love for the country and the values it espouses, while also respecting those of different beliefs. 
  • We can stand up for religious freedoms and remain vigilant when those freedoms are threatened. 
  • We can be more compassionate and grateful when speaking of the Founding Fathers and national heroes — imperfect people, but inspired by God. 
  • We can more meaningfully celebrate our national holidays and pledge allegiance to our flag.
  • And finally, if we truly want to remain within the stability of life’s spinning wheel and be worthy of this wonderful nation, we should never forget to live a life more Christ-centered.

Mark Callister is the director of the School of Communications at Brigham Young University.