Originally posted on LDS Liberty here.
[A podcast of our interview with the author on this topic can be found here.]
We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying honoring, and sustaining the law.
The Twelfth Article of Faith is a standard of religious compliance and belief of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints specifically regarding every member’s obligation to be subject to the laws of their country and to their leaders. Many interpret this Article of Faith to mean absolute compliance to all laws enacted within a political mechanism, while others have used this article to justify a higher principle of natural rights, justice, and morality.
Grammar of the Twelfth Article of Faith
This particular Article of Faith is commonly misread to include a coordinating conjunction that is not actually found and which dramatically changes its meaning when added. Most quote theTwelfth Article of Faith to read, “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents rulers, and magistrates, [and] in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” The coordinating conjunction “and,” however, does not exist in the actual text. This is important because, grammatically, the coordinating conjunction changes the meaning of this passage.
In the English language there are seven coordinating conjunctions: “and,” “but”, “or,” “nor,” “for,” “so,” “yet.” These coordinating conjunctions are used to join two separate complete sentences into one. For example, “Jack went to a baseball game, and Jill practiced piano.” Independently, “Jack went to a baseball game” is a complete sentence – as is, “Jill practiced piano.” However, by using the coordinating conjunction “and,” we are allowed to splice these two complete clauses together into one sentence.
The Twelfth Article of Faith has no coordinating conjunction. This means that there is only one complete sentence, and not two clauses. By adding a coordinating conjunction we change the meaning of the Twelfth Article of Faith to have two separate clauses: (1) “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates,” and (2) “We believe in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” This, however, is not the way this Article is written.
Instead, the Twelfth Article of Faith reads: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” Without the coordinating conjunction the belief of being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, is qualified in this single clause by their obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law. Our belief in being subject to these leaders only goes so far as they obey, honor, and sustain the law. Without the coordinating conjunction, the qualifying “obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” is applied to the leaders, and not to the people themselves.
Does this mean that the Latter-day Saints do not believe in “obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law”? No, it does not, for Section 98:5 of the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C) tells us that the Lord wants us to befriend that Constitutional law of the land that promotes the liberty and freedom of all mankind, and Section 134:5 tells us that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming any citizen protected in their inherent and inalienable rights.
Questions, however, arise concerning whether the Twelfth Article of Faith gives any room for a lex injusta non est lex (an unjust law is no law at all) philosophy or for civil disobedience. What if the citizen is not “thus protected” (D&C 134:5) by their government in his inherent and inalienable rights? If the Twelfth Article of Faith offers room for the non-est-lex philosophy and civil disobedience, how so and what are their limits? These are not simple questions, and the answers are generally divided into two competing philosophical theories: (1) legal positivism, and (2) natural law. Each philosophical theory answers these questions differently.
Legal Positivist Interpretation
The legal positivist’s claim on the Twelfth Article of Faith calls for absolute obedience to all laws enacted by the political leadership. Disobedience to enacted laws is a strict violation of this Article of Faith according to this view. Unjust laws are legally repealed by the legislature and not merely dismissed by an individual who disagrees with the enacted law. This interpretation is justified in light of D&C 58:21-22: “Let no man break the laws of the land, for he that keepeth the laws of God hath no need to break the laws of the land. Wherefore, be subject to the powers that be. . .” This appears to contradict the natural law theorist’s slogan that an unjust law is not law at all (lex injusta non est lex). Legal positivists believe that members of the Church are commanded to obey the laws enacted by their government (laws of the land), and that in obeying the law of the land (even an unjust law) they will not break the laws of God – or a higher moral law.
An analogy used by legal positivists to interpret D&C 58:21-22 is that of a soldier who obeys an unjust order to kill in a time of war. Leaders of the Church have declared that soldiers are not morally accountable for following orders to kill their enemies in a time of war, but that the accountability of an unjust command falls on the leader(s) who gave the order. As President Gordon B. Hinckley stated, “God will not hold men and women in uniform responsible as agents of their government in carrying forward that which they are legally obligated to do” (Hinckley 80). Legal positivists argue that the citizen – like the active soldier – has immunity for following an unjust order (law) legislated by his government. The individual’s responsibility is to obey the scripted law, and it is the legislator’s responsibility to enact just laws. The important thing is for the citizen to be honest and obedient to all established laws – good and bad – until the time comes when an unjust law can be changed legitimately through the political mechanism of government. At this time, the citizen becomes responsible for acting in such a way as to change the unjust law. Until then, the individual is justified in obeying an unjust law. In this strict obedience to the law, even to an unjust law, the legal positivist finds himself obedient to the Twelfth Article of Faith and the laws of God.
Natural Rights and Law Interpretation
Natural law holds a different view of the Twelfth Article of Faith. To the natural law understanding,D&C 58:21-22 is qualified in D&C 134:5: “We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments; and that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen thus protected. . .” (emphasis added). While the natural law thinker recognizes the need to obey the law of the land and to be subject to the powers that be, he still recognizes that sedition and rebellion have their place when a government no longer protects the inherent and inalienable rights of the people. Furthermore, the person who recognizes natural law must qualify and differentiate between a just and an unjust law as he differentiates between the two forms of law that represent just and unjust laws inD&C 98: the law of the land and the law of man.
And that law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me. . .
And as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less than this, cometh of evil. . .
And I give unto you a commandment, that ye shall forsake all evil and cleave unto all good, that ye shall live by every word which proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God (D&C 98:4-7, 10-11).
In acknowledging natural law, a man further recognizes that the law of the land is conditionally limited to that which promotes the rights and privileges of all mankind. Anything more or less than that which promotes the rights and privileges of all mankind is the “law of man” and is “evil.” It is within the law of man that the naturalist finds unjust law. Furthermore, the command given by God, the ultimate principle giver, is to forsake all evil – even the law of man! This reading of D&C 98 is in line with Aquinas’ first principle of natural law: good is to be done and pursued, and evil avoided (Aquinas q94, a2, p. 47). In this sense, every individual is obligated to avoid all evil – even if it is scripted law – if the enacted law violates the rights and privileges of all mankind. President Joseph F. Smith clarified this concept when he said,
It seems to me that [D&C 98:4–7, 10–11] makes this matter so clear that it is not possible for any man who professes to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to make any mistake, or to be in doubt as to the course he should pursue under the command of God in relation to the observance of the laws of the land. [God] will hold [lawmakers] responsible if they will pass unconstitutional measures and frame unjust and proscriptive laws. . . If lawmakers have a mind to violate their oath, break their covenants and their faith with the people, and depart from the provisions of the constitution, where is the law, human or divine, which binds me, as an individual, to outwardly and openly proclaim my acceptance of their acts? (Gospel 406).
Both natural law and legal positivism argue that lawmakers are accountable for passing unjust and proscriptive laws; however, these competing theories vary according to the level of accountability ascribed to the individual when confronted with an unjust law. The legal positivist must maintain strict adherence to the law (leaving sole accountability to the lawmaker for passing unjust legislation, until the time comes when the individual may affect legislative change), but the man who acknowledges natural law takes upon himself a portion of accountability in how he responds to an unjust law. The natural law thinker will remain subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, and he will obey, honor, and sustain the law by only adhering to just laws that promote the freedom and liberty of all people. This appears to be in line with President John Taylor’s interpretation of D&C 98:4-6.
Taking this nation as an example, all laws that are proper and correct, and all obligations entered into which are not violative of the Constitution should be kept inviolate. But if they are violative of the Constitution, then the compact between the rulers and the ruled is broken and the obligation ceases to be binding. Just as a person agreeing to purchase anything and to pay a certain amount for it, if he receives the article bargained for, and does not pay its price, he violates his contract; but if he does not receive the article he is not required to pay for it (Taylor).
This reading of President John Taylor carries the natural law slogan: an unjust law is not a law. If a codified law violates the purpose and principle of the Constitution, then there is no obligation to obey it – for the obligation ceases to be binding. However, President Taylor, in keeping true with natural law principles, explains that all laws that do maintain the rights and privileges of all mankind must be followed. This reading is consistent with every passage of the Doctrine and Covenants presented in this paper.
The grammatical punctuation of the Twelfth Article of Faith is not intended as an argument in itself, but when applied to the natural interpretation of scripture it offers a consistent interpretation. For as Ezra Taft Benson said concerning this Article of Faith,
In it is a declaration requiring obedience, loyalty to, and respect for duly constituted laws and the officials administering those laws. In justifying such loyal compliance, however, the Lord also promulgated certain safeguards and conditions which must be observed if freedom and liberty are to be preserved and enjoyed. These are emphasized in primarily in the 98th and 134th sections of the Doctrine and Covenants (Benson 277).
It is necessary to comply with laws that support “that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges” of “all mankind” (D&C 98:5), for these are the “laws of the land” that we are commanded to keep in Section 58:21-23. Through using our reason, our inner moral compass, and the guidelines as laid out in scripture and prophetic utterance we are able to support a true principle in establishing thelaw of the land, and, by so doing, we will never be found in contradiction to the law of God. However, once true principle is violated, we are left unto the tempest and onslaught of the law of man – a law that we are commanded to forsake (D&C 98:7, 11). Let us be “subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates,” as they “obey, honor, and sustain” the true Constitutional law of this land, and may we never be found guilty in rising against our representatives while “thus protected” in our inherent and “inalienable rights.”
Aquinas, Saint Thomas. On law, morality, and politics. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988. Print.
Benson, Ezra Taft. God, Family, Country: Our Three Great Loyalties. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1974. Print.
Gospel Doctrine Sermons & Writings of Joseph F. Smith. New York: Deseret Books, 1999. Print.
Hinckley, Gordon B. “War and Peace.” Ensign May 2003: 78-81. Print.
Taylor, John. Journal of Discourse. Vol. 26. 1884: 350. Print.