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.

On a June day in 1964, upon college graduation, I raised my right hand and took the oath of office as an infantry lieutenant in the United States Army. I pledged to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

It was a sobering moment I will never forget. 

Not six weeks later, North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked the destroyer USS Maddox in the Tonkin Gulf, and the United States was plunged into the Vietnam War. Hundreds of thousands of other young Americans would eventually take that same oath. Thousands of them ultimately gave their “last full measure of devotion.”  

What is it that we are promising with such oaths and pledges? Exactly what is it we are supporting and defending? Quite simply, we are promising, with our solemn, sacred honor, to do all in our power, even at the expense of our own lives, to uphold the system of government established by the Constitution and the promise of liberty and justice it holds out to persons in this nation. Our pledge is not a matter of party, politics, policies or personalities.

It is a covenant with each other — and with God who inspired it — to uphold the principles of governance embodied in the Constitution — a collaborative government where we come together to resolve differences and find solutions to the nation’s problems. 

‘We the People’

Those principles were forged in the crucible of the War of Independence, and the chaos that followed in its wake. The principles of collaborative government did not come easy. They were defined under desperate circumstances, line upon line, provision by provision, by a small group of men clustered in the stifling heat of a Philadelphia summer. Men from North and South; merchant, farmer, lawyer, doctor; rich men and those of modest means; men from large states and from small ones; men of strong opinions; but also men who under the inspiration of Heaven found a way in a welter of strong, often opposing, ideas to listen to each other, to weigh the ideas advanced, sometimes to rethink their own opinions, and through it all, to create the most unique, remarkable governing document in the world’s history.  

Their work was not finished, much less perfect, when the Constitutional Convention concluded in 1787. Another near four score years, a devastating Civil War, and the divinely inspired courage, vision and political genius of President Abraham Lincoln would be required before the civil liberties incorporated in the Constitution and its first 10 amendments would be extended to all races and ethnicities. Further amending would extend voting rights to women. Still other amendments would be added, refining and polishing the principles set forth in the original document. 

Latter-day Saints are by no means alone among Americans in believing the Constitution was divinely inspired. But what is so “inspirational” about it? 

Instead of concentrating power — a natural human inclination — it distributed it. Some powers were granted to a national (federal) government; all others were reserved to the states. At the national level, power was further subdivided between a legislative branch (Congress), an executive branch (a president and other officers), and a judicial branch (a Supreme Court and such other courts as Congress would establish). But the framers did not stop there in subdividing and distributing power. Within Congress, they created two bodies, or “houses” — a House of Representatives, whose members would be elected biennially based on population; and a Senate composed of two senators from each state, regardless of population, who would serve staggered terms of six years. To Congress, they assigned power to make the law. To the executive, they granted the authority to enforce the law. To the judiciary, they gave the power to interpret the law and to resolve differences between the other branches. And more.

This elaborate system of “checks and balances” was established for one, single purpose — to give every citizen; every region and state; every culture and ethnicity; every perspective and point of view a voice and fair treatment in the governance of this vast country. The three most important words in the Constitution are the first three, found in the Preamble — WE THE PEOPLE: 

“We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union; establish Justice; insure domestic Tranquility; provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The divine genius of the Constitution is that, although the Founding Fathers were racially monochromatic (white), of a common ethnicity (Northern European, largely English), and from 13 states bordering on the Atlantic Ocean, they established a structure of government that has stood for nearly 250 years and continues to serve a vast nation of more than 330 million stretching “from sea to shining sea” and beyond. 

All races, cultures, ethnicities and religions, including those with no religion at all, are represented in that population. Myriad voices in that vastness, with opinions on every conceivable issue, seek to be heard. Each is a child of God. Each has the divine gift of moral agency. Each is entitled to fair treatment under the principles established by the Constitution of the United States. That is the guarantee of “We the People.”

A forgotten oath

But “We the People” are struggling to fulfill our promise to each other. We seem to have forgotten our oath to “support and defend” the Constitution — our pledge of allegiance to that collaborative government that is the essence of the one “indivisible” nation the Founders sought to establish.

Too many of us have conflated the Constitution, an instrument establishing collaborative government, with a text supporting our own personal points of view on various policies and perspectives, left and right. Instead of seeing the Constitution as primarily providing a cluster of public fora for listening to each other and adopting fair-minded public policy, some of us have wrested and weaponized it for our own political purposes. In too many cases in our shrill public discourse, the phrase “support the Constitution” has become a code for one political campaign point or another.

Of course, robust debate about the meaning and interpretation of various words and phrases in the document is healthy and has been an integral part of the nation’s political history since the founding. The difference now is an unwillingness on the part of too many to accept the decisions of the institutions of government created by the Constitution. Instead, like a game of capture the flag, “the Constitution” and its institutions are seen as a prize that must be seized from “the enemy,” which is to say from our fellow citizens with whom we disagree. One extreme recent example occurred on Jan. 6, 2021. But that is by no means the only example. Neither are these examples confined to one side of the political spectrum. Both ends of that spectrum are at fault. The situation is akin to two teams on a baseball diamond, where each tries to capture the umpires instead of playing the game as defined by the rules of baseball.

‘A more perfect union’

The American people may be the most diverse of any on the planet. That opinions and perspectives on public issues vary enormously is only to be expected. What’s more, we look and sound different from each other. We live in different places. We trace our respective genealogies to virtually every other place on earth. Our economic and educational circumstances vary widely. And in our perception of differences we can overlook the most important circumstance of all — we are all Americans! We are the “We the People” joined together by that incredible instrument — the Constitution of the United States — who would “form a more perfect union; establish justice; insure domestic tranquility … promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

The oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” — the pledge of allegiance to “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” — once taken, never expires. It is our sacred compact with each other. The hour may be late. But it is not too late for each of us, every American, to figuratively raise their hand to the square or place it over their heart and renew that oath, that pledge; and then get to work within our constitutional institutions of governance to form a more perfect union. Together

Elder Lance B. Wickman is an emeritus general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is the current general counsel of the church. He is a graduate of Stanford Law School and UC Berkeley and worked for many years as a partner at the international law firm of Latham & Watkins.