An apostle for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said today the United States Constitution is a singular document whose fundamental principles must be understood, valued and protected.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks made the remarks in his keynote address at the Constitution Day Celebration held in the Tabernacle on Temple Square. The event was presented by the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and America’s Freedom Alliance.
Elder Oaks’s interest in and understanding of the Constitution is the product of a legal career that spanned more than 50 years. He is a former professor of law and Utah Supreme Court Justice and widely considered an expert on the U.S. Constitution.
Elder Oaks stressed that his remarks were focused on the “long view” and were not an endorsement or condemnation of actions or specific proposals on current issues. “I know that some will apply what I say — one way or another — to issues currently being reported in the media,” he said. “But I do not seek to be heard for the short term.”
Four fundamental principles define the Constitution, Elder Oaks said.The first principle is popular sovereignty, the principle that the government’s power comes from the people being governed. “Sovereignty in the people necessarily implies responsibility in the people,” Elder Oaks said. “Instead of blaming their troubles on a king, on a cabal of military leaders, or on some distant group of wise men, citizens who are sovereign must share a measure of the burdens and responsibilities of governing.
The second fundamental, division of powers in a federal system, was unprecedented at the time the Constitution was drafted. It has served the nation well, but increasingly, Elder Oaks said, this concept of the distribution of powers between the nation and the various states is being neglected.“Whatever the merits of current controversies over the laws of marriage and child adoption and the like, let us not forget that if the decisions of federal courts can override the actions of state lawmakers on this subject (which is one reserved to the states), we have suffered a significant constitutional reallocation of lawmaking power from the lawmaking branch to the judicial branch and from the states to the federal government,” he said.
Elder Oaks noted that the next fundamental principle, the Bill of Rights, begins with the guarantee of religious freedom. This right to free exercise of religion, he said, is one of the supremely important founding principles in the U.S. Constitution.“We are fortunate to have such a guarantee in the United States, but many nations do not,” Elder Oaks said. “The importance of that guarantee should make us ever diligent to defend it. And it is in need of being defended. During my lifetime I have seen a significant deterioration in the respect accorded to religion in our public life, and I believe that the vitality of religious freedom is in danger of being weakened accordingly.”
Separation of powers, the fourth fundamental principle, is implemented by the checks and balances that exist among the various branches of government.For that idea to work properly, Elder Oaks said, “Each branch of government must preserve its independence from the others. Moreover, the powers of each of these three branches must be exercised in a good faith effort to serve the interests of the public, rather than to dominate the others or to enhance the personal position of a particular official. Politics, revenge or personal gain must never be the primary driving force in the application of checks and balances.”
To sustain and protect the Constitution and its principles, Elder Oaks suggested five responsibilities every citizen should undertake: understand the Constitution, support the law, practice civic virtue, maintain civility in political discourse and promote patriotism.