When George Washington warned the nation about political factions that could inhibit the workings of the Constitution, he was speaking, in modern terms, about extreme political partisanship, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday, at an event marking the start of September as “American Founders and Constitution Month.”
Cox, speaking to a gathering in the State Capitol rotunda, said the nation’s first president understood that extreme partisanship was the only way in which the nation one day could fail. The governor urged Utahns to study the Constitution and to begin holding each other accountable to its principles.
The founders, he said, understood that humans, themselves included, were flawed people. The Constitution is aspirational, he said, and the nation can never achieve its lofty standards unless people are decent and moral, with strong institutions that include civic organizations and churches.
Earlier this year, state lawmakers passed HB179, a law that proclaims all of September as “American founders month,” an expansion of Constitution Day, which long has been recognized on Sept. 17.
The Bill passed the Utah Senate unanimously, and it passed the House with only two no votes. Among other things, it encourages “all civic, fraternal, and religious organizations, and public and private educational institutions, to recognize and observe this occasion through appropriate programs, teaching, meetings, services, or celebrations in which state, county, and local governmental officials are invited to participate.”
At Thursday’s event, state superintendent of public instruction Sydnee Dickson unveiled a Constitution fitness award as a voluntary program for grades K-6. The goal is to help students become proficient in understanding the Constitution. Each year, participating students will be asked to complete six Constitution-related elements modified for their grade levels. These, she said, would help students interact with the principles with which the founders struggled.
The idea, Dickson said, is not just to create scholars, but to create “stewards of the Constitution.”
Former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert told the crowd Americans need to stop looking to Washington for the solutions to problems. Quoting former Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, Herbert said states “are the laboratories of democracy.”
In a 1932 court decision, Brandeis said states are in a position to “try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”
Another speaker Thursday was Tad R. Callister, former general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He is affiliated with “Why I love America,” a group that was instrumental in persuading lawmakers to designate September as “American founders month.”
Callister expressed concern about the results of a recent Wall Street Journal poll, which found patriotism on the wane nationwide. In a 1998 poll by the same organization, 70% had considered patriotism very important, with 62% saying the same for religion. But in 2023, only 38% said patriotism was very important, with 39% saying the same about religion.
Fly the flag
He urged Utahns to fly the flag in September, read and study the Constitution as families, attend patriotic events and pray to God to express appreciation for his hand in the nation’s history and for his blessings in its future.
The church, which is not affiliated with the “Why I love America” organization, has taken the new law’s admonitions to heart. It has urged each Latter-day Saint stake to sponsor one patriotic event in September to “rekindle a spirit of patriotism by educating our Saints on the inspired principles of the Constitution” and to “build a spirit of appreciation for our Founding Fathers who were raised up by the Lord,” according to a letter to stake presidents from the church’s Utah Area Presidency.
In addition to the Wall Street Journal poll, a recent First Amendment survey by the Knight Foundation found that high school students are generally supportive of free speech guarantees, but that only 57% believe news organizations should not be subject to government censorship.
Another poll by the National Opinion Research Center found few Americans able to recite the five freedoms of the First Amendment, with only 26% mentioning religious liberty, the first enumerated right. Almost one-third could not name a single one.
Cox expressed optimism for the nation’s future. He said he recently visited Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where he saw George Washington’s chair and its engraving of half a sun on its back. Benjamin Franklin used to stare at the sun during the Constitutional Convention and wonder whether it was a rising or setting sun, Cox said. When the Constitution was written he concluded it was rising.
There is increasing evidence, he said, that the sun is setting today, but “that is not written in the stars.” Americans have the ability to choose whether it is setting or rising. “I believe this room … is filled with sun risers, not sun setters.”