Mormon Church on Citizenship and Founding Fathers’ Intent


Update: Originally I pointed to a quote falsely attributed to James Madison erroneously included in the Church’s statement. Since the time I posted this, the Church appears to have discovered the error and removed the quote. They added a reference to a verifiable George Washington quote, which is probably better for their case as it were. 

“And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.” George Washington

I think it’s safe to say I am very politically active in large part because of my upbringing in the Mormon Faith. My own father, who is a constitutional law professor, probably took as much interest in the Constitution as he did because of the importance placed on the document in our faith.

It is an interesting time for the Mormon Church to speak up about citizenship in a recent statement released to the public. I found the emphasis on religious freedom particularly timely. It’s an issue gripping and dividing our nation as we speak. While the Church takes no position on any individual bill right now, particularly the Arizona Bill vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer, this statement goes to lengths to emphasize the importance of not only religious freedom, but also for the need of the people of this nation to be a religious people to maintain freedom itself. No doubt Ayn Rand would totally disagree… but I digress.

I am happy that the Church has always emphasized participation in politics (without taking sides on political parties or candidates no less). No doubt that low participation rates in this country is making our democracy weaker. Certainly we need political leaders of good character and wisdom as well.

A moral and religious people…

One thing contained in the Church’s statement that warrants further pondering is the notion that our nation’s Founding Fathers believed religious institutions were vital to the proper functioning of the nation. From the Church’s statement:

“James Madison, known as the Father of the United States Constitution, affirmed this when he said, “We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.””

Great quote… only James Madison never said that. The Church cites a 20th Century work, but not an original source for the quote. In the early nineties, this quote was the subject of media scrutiny by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, which could not find the quote anywhere in the writings of James Madison. Editors of the Papers of James Madison at the University of Virginia did a thorough search of their archives for the quote as well.[1] This was their response:

“We did not find anything in our files remotely like the sentiment expressed in the extract you sent us. In addition, the idea is inconsistent with everything we know about Madison’s views on religion and government, views which he expressed time and time again in public and in private.”

Even Rush Limbaugh has admitted this was not a quote of James Madison when called out by FAIR for using it.

Indeed, Madison is much more famous for quotes such as this:

“Whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood, & the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State.”[2]

Or this:

“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”[3]

The Church’s statement uses another suspect quote from John Adams:

“John Adams, another Founding Father of the United States, declared, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.””

The sentence before this one shows Adams’ intent that moral and religious are synonymous in his lexicon.

“Avarice, ambition, revenge, and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net.”

These are behaviors… ones a moral person avoids, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. Eternal salvation under the Gospel is the role of the Church, and of course they are right to do the work to spread that salvation. However, there are a great deal of moral people with no religion whatsoever. In real, factual terms, there is no correlation between moral behavior and religious affiliation.

Clearly Adams wasn’t suggesting only religious people are moral. In fact, after devoting himself to theological study reading more than 20 volumes of writing, he wrote to Thomas Jefferson on December 12, 1816. “Romances all!  I have learned nothing of importance to me, for they have made no change in my moral or religious creed, which has, for fifty or sixty years, been contained in four short words, “Be just and good.  In this result they all agree with me.”

The quote used by the Church has been used several times before by religious writers making arguments against the Separation of Church and State. Only problem is they just don’t hold up to scrutiny and aren’t consistent with the other words spoken and written by the Founders.

Voice of the People

The Church’s statement then underscores the importance of democratic voice in our society.

“Governments that do their business by the “voice of the people” provide a greater measure of protection to the rights of their citizens because “it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right” (Mosiah 29:26). Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, believed in the voice of the people, saying, “It is rare that the public sentiment decides immorally or unwisely, and the individual who differs from it ought to distrust and examine his own opinion.” Members of the Church who are citizens in nations that do their “business by the voice of the people” bear an especially important and sacred responsibility as citizens to raise their voices for good and right causes, including the fundamental freedoms of conscience and religion.”

Government by the people is the best form of government, even if it’s not perfect. No doubt the Church is emphasizing that point. And if the voice of the people is so important, how can we be good people and not speak up? We need to have our individual and collective voices heard. That said, one should exercise caution on where you take this point. To quote James Madison, the father of the Constitution, writing to Thomas Jefferson in France from the Continental Congress on October 24, 1787: “when a majority… united by a common interest or a passion cannot be constrained from oppressing the minority, what remedy can be found…?”

Madison expressed his hope that the nation would be large enough, with enough “different interests and parties… that no common interest or passion will be likely to unite a majority of the whole number in an unjust pursuit.” In the areas of civil and religious rights, he predicted, “If [one] sect form a majority and have the power, other sects will be sure to be depressed.” In short, majorities can be dangerous, especially when they form factions. The framers knew this well and put several constitutional constraints on majorities to protect minorities. This was a major reason for the inclusion of a Bill of Rights.

Most Mormons should understand the importance of Madison’s words. After all, majorities in Missouri attempted to exterminate Mormons in the 19th Century. When we allow majorities who believe in their own moral superiority to rule the day, only the innocent are harmed.

I can image every conservative in Utah has read the Church’s statement to be an affirmation that the voters who enacted a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in Utah should be honored. Besides the inherent problem with majority tyrannies mentioned above, let’s also not forget that the Fourteenth Amendment is also the voice of the people, and in fact a broader representation of people of the entire nation. If the Courts determine (which they have in most part) that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibits states from denying civil marriage to citizens based on sexual orientation, than it is also the will of the people. Or we could simply look at polling and see that a majority of people in the country favor allowing gay couples to enter civil marriage.

I believe one of the fears is that these laws will somehow require Mormons to recognize or even perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. However, no one in the conversation about same-sex marriage is advocating that churches be required to have anything to do with same-sex marriages, and this would be a gross violation of religious freedom protected by the First Amendment. The Church is absolutely right that any government forcing practice or belief upon anyone would be wrong.


[1] Robert S. Alley, Public Education and the Public Good, 4 Wm. & Mary Bill Rts. J. 277 (1995),

[2] Madison Letter to Robert Walsh, March 2, 1819

[3] Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments in July 1785.

2 Responses to “Mormon Church on Citizenship and Founding Fathers’ Intent”

  1. Gracchi
    March 20, 2014 at 5:18 am #

    Interesting post, though it is itself, riddled with inaccuracies, mischaracterizations, and suppositions masquerading as fact. As an initial matter, your father being a ConLaw professor is immaterial to whether you yourself understand the Constitution. I’m not sure why your reference to Ayn Rand is relevant. James Madison’s views on the separation of church and state are also immaterial. It’s not clear what your point is in your meandering post. If you’re trying to make an argument for the separation of church and state, you need to understand what the Establishment Clause meant at the Founding. The Bill of Rights did not apply to the states until (more or less) the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868 (an amendment you cite, though clearly, don’t understand). Congress intended the Privileges and Immunities Clause to incorporate the Bill of Rights so that it applied to the states. However, the Supreme Court mucked up the P&I clause in the Slaughterhouse Cases, so over time (including in the recent 2nd Amendment cases) the Supreme Court has incorporated various rights in the Bill of Rights such that they apply to the States (3rd Amendment has yet to be incorporated). At the time of the Founding, the Establishment Clause applied to the federal government only. And, note the language of the Establishment Clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….” It does not say that church and state must be separated, but that Congress shall make no federal law respecting an established religion. Understood properly, this clause is a federalism clause. It says that religion is the domain of the states, not the federal government. This is supported by the fact that a number of the original 13 states had established religions. Indeed, Massachusetts had an established religion until 1833. So, this means that the Establishment Clause cannot mean what you want it to mean. Indeed, what Madison thought about the separation of Church and state is not relevant to interpreting the Establishment Clause. With the incorporation of the Bill of Rights (more or less) through the 14th Amendment, the understanding of the Establishment Clause in 1868 is much more important than 1791.

    Next, you say that the Church used a “suspect quote” from Adams. There is nothing suspect in the quote from Adams. You took a particularly tortured reading of the quote. “And” does not necessarily require “moral” and “religious” to be read together. Clearly the Church wasn’t suggesting that only religious people are moral. Indeed, nowhere is that supported in Church doctrine. The Church’s use of that statement stands. Indeed, your criticism actually shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what a republic is (note, we have a republican form of government, not a democracy–check out Book 8 of The Republic for a description of democracy). The republican government we have is devoid of normative content. It does not contemplate what the good life is, or what it means to live a virtuous life. Therefore, anything that gives individuals norms and mores is necessary in a republic–including religion, civic associations, etc.

    A big irony in your post is you have the gall to associate the Church with the tyranny of the majority, even though the Church is a religious minority. A majority is not in and of itself, tyrannical. Your very use of the term “tyranny” is misplaced. Tyrannies tend to be associated with despotic regimes, autocracy, dictatorships, and totalitarian regimes (of which two have ever been realized–Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia). Any claim that the Church is somehow tyrannical is laughable at best. Any claim that opposing SSM somehow renders government tyrannical (e.g., despotic, autocratic, etc.) is equally laughable. Your own words about majorities and “moral superiority” undermine your whole argument–especially where you cite to polling data showing the majority of Americans supporting SSM, as if that provides your position with some sort of moral superiority. But that is not uncommon in a republic devoid of normative content where the good life and virtue are not contemplated. The irony is that in a republic devoid of normative content, individuals still seek for norms and mores (often outside of religion) to guide them, and in the absence of normative content, people create norms and virtues out of freedom and equality, making freedom and equality into a sort of civic religion or public religion. The problem here is how is it that a groups collective understanding of equality is authoritative? Is it simply that because you now belong to the majority that your “morality” is now authoritative?

    You also misunderstand the 14th Amendment. Quite frankly, the liberal judges who have issued those federal decisions have completely misunderstood the law. In Windsor, SCOTUS said that marriage law is the domain of states. In Baker v. Nelson from 1972, SCOTUS (only 6 years after Loving v. Virginia) found that a challenge to Minnesota’s law prohibiting SSM was non-justiciable. That is precedent–precedent the district court judges have ignored.

    • Justin McAffee
      March 20, 2014 at 6:38 am #

      Well, I do thank you for taking the time to write out such a well thought out response. I am indeed impressed that you understand one thing that I’ve only heard one other person say (my father) that the Privileges and Immunities Clause incorporates the 14th Amendment… and essentially the Slaughter House case screwed that up. I agree. BTW, I am also fully aware that states had “established religions” and that the Establishment Clause in the Bill of Rights was a federalism provision until after the Civil War.

      None of that is germane however, and I think some of your objections were overly dramatic (no offense). I had two points, and I apologize if they weren’t clearly stated. While I may be guilty of meandering from time to time in my pontification, or failing to state a clear thesis, my intent was to be casual (because this is a blog after all).

      First, I am trying to point out that the Church’s statement unfairly represents James Madison and John Adams when it comes to the necessity of the Judeo-Christian order to the success of our political system. You say the Church made no such claim that one must be religious to be moral. I could be wrong, but when the Church said “Freedom is inextricably linked to our morality, and religious believers and institutions are essential to preserving morality,” coupled with the quotes (and misquotes) of the founding fathers, it makes it sound like the founding fathers believed religion was necessary to morality and our constitutional order and that the Church agrees. The mention of the Ten Commandments only underlines points I’ve seen made by folks like Elder Oaks who have said only religions who believe in God are really religions under the Free Exercise Clause. I wanted to set the record straight.

      My second point was only that the Church placed a lot of emphasis on government by the “will of the people”and that we must review that idea with some caution. One of your failings (and likely a failing of our own Church) is not recognizing the tyranny of our own states during the Jim Crow Era. You only recognize the ilk of Hitler and Stalin… but trust me when I say tyranny comes in many forms. As I pointed out… how about the tyranny of Missouri in the 19th Century toward Mormons? Was that not tyranny?

      I don’t appeal to a majority as authority on equal protection, though I thought it was helpful to demonstrate that essentially the statement by the Church was appealing to the authority of the will of the people. Equal Protection isn’t a societal religion as you put it. It’s the law. Personally, I think it is also moral. I find no rational basis for laws that prohibit same-sex marriage. It’s simply bigotry and discrimination… even if it is well intended by good people. I am not trying to say people who oppose the behavior are evil… but I will say they are misguided. It’s wrong to treat other people as second class citizens because you don’t agree with their behavior, unless you can show it is harmful (which you cannot with SSM). And your quip about ‘liberal judges’ making these decisions about the Fourteenth Amendment is funny, because many of the judges have been conservatives. Either way, I don’t misunderstand anything about the 14th Amendment. While dictum in Windsor says marriage is traditionally up to the states, the decision was actually grounded in the 5th Amendment’s Due Process Clause, not the 10th Amendment. In fact, the Court expressly stated that the question of whether states could prohibit SSM was not before the Court at that time. So that states rights argument isn’t flying with me. If DOMA violates Due Process, it’s hard to believe state constitutional prohibitions won’t.

      p.s. – I only brought up Ayn Rand because so many conservatives today worship her work, and I find it humorous to point out areas in which her philosophy are diametrically opposed to modern conservative thought.

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