What a year for America! Most people in this country (and the world as a whole) feel a little disoriented as we enter the final three months.
What’s next for this beleaguered country? In ancient Israel, the prophet Ezekiel drew attention to prophets as “watchmen” on the tower to help people be aware of threats in advance—and how to respond to protect and preserve the fragile foundations of a healthy society.
Even more than before, now may be a good time to heed and consider what prophet leaders in our day have to say. In what follows, we summarize ten specific messages these prophets have shared aimed toward the governing and thriving of a healthy society (see our previous summary, Prophets on Pandemic for messages specific to the pandemic).
1. Serious disagreements don’t require hatred and anger.
President Dallin Oaks acknowledged that “in a democratic government we will always have differences over proposed candidates and policies. However, as followers of Christ, we must forego the anger and hatred with which political choices are debated or denounced in many settings.”
Then he quoted one of Jesus’s teachings “well-known but rarely practiced”—“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). “What revolutionary teachings for personal and political relationships,” he remarked, before asserting, “But that is still what our Savior commands.”
President Oaks admitted, “Loving our enemies and our adversaries is not easy”— quoting President Gordon Hinckley, “Most of us have not reached that stage of…love and forgiveness. It requires a self-discipline almost greater than we are capable of.” But as one of the Lord’s two “great commandments,” it still “must be possible.”
But how? “The Savior’s teaching not to ‘contend with anger’ is a good first step” President Oaks continued—underscoring, “The devil is the father of contention, and it is he who…promotes enmity and hateful relationships among individuals and within groups. He quoted Jesus in the Book of Mormon who taught, “For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.”
It hurts to carry around that kind of anger. And unburdening ourselves of it could increase our happiness too. Elder Cook reminded people of the historical moment after Jesus’ visit to the Americas where there were “no envyings, strifes, tumults, lyings, murders,” and so forth, and “surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.”
2. More than hate, we are to cultivate love—and not just for people who think like we do.
Even more valuable than not hating others, President Oaks encouraged people “to seek to understand the power of love”—quoting Joseph Smith as saying, “It is a time-honored adage that love begets love. Let us pour forth love—show forth our kindness unto all mankind.”
In invited remarks at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 2019, President Nelson taught, “We are all connected, and we have a God-given responsibility to help make life better for those around us. We don’t have to be alike or look alike to have love for each other. We don’t even have to agree with each other to love each other. If we have any hope of reclaiming the goodwill and sense of humanity for which we yearn, it must begin with each of us, one person at a time.”
He added, “The cure for what ails us was prescribed by the Master Healer, Jesus the Christ who taught “first to love God with all our hearts and, then, to love our neighbors as ourselves” (see Matthew 22:35–39). Together, we can extend this love to all God’s children—our fellow brothers and sisters.” That means, as he said on another occasion, “expand[ing] our circle of love to embrace the whole human family.”
This theme comes up over and over in prophetic teaching. President Howard Hunter taught: “The world in which we live would benefit greatly if men and women everywhere would exercise the pure love of Christ, which is kind, meek, and lowly. It is without envy or pride….[I]t seeks nothing in return. …[I]t has no place for bigotry, hatred, or violence. …It encourages diverse people to live together in Christian love regardless of religious belief, race, nationality, financial standing, education, or culture.” President Monson declared: “As a church, we reach out not only to our own people but also to those people of goodwill throughout the world in that spirit of brotherhood which comes from the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Savior’s teaching to love everyone—including our enemies—is based on “a fundamental doctrine and heartfelt conviction of our religion is that all people are God’s children” as President Nelson put it. “We truly believe that we are brothers and sisters—all part of the same divine family.” Elder Holland added in an address at Harvard, “Every man, woman, and child who has ever lived, now lives, or will yet live so long as the earth shall last is a son or daughter of a loving and divine Heavenly Father. He is the God in whose image we were created, which is not surprising in that children are always created in the image of their parents.”
3. That’s why civility is crucial, and not to be dismissed as a small issue.
Rather than a secondary issue, civility is consistently taught by prophets as important—even what President Gordon B. Hinckley called “the hallmark of civilization.” But even twenty years ago, President Hinckley lamented that “everywhere about us we see the opposite. …Civility and mutual respect seem to have disappeared It is appalling. It is alarming. And when all is said and done the cost can be attributed almost entirely to human greed, to uncontrolled passion, to a total disregard for the rights of others.”
President Russell M. Nelson has encouraged people “to demonstrate greater civility, racial and ethnic harmony, and mutual respect.” And included in a letter sent to members of the Church by presiding leaders before the election is the encouragement, “Please strive to live the gospel in your own life by demonstrating Christlike love and civility in political discourse.”
In this same long-standing letter is the reminder that “principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties, and members should seek candidates who best embody those principles.”
This kind of recognition that goodness and truth are not reserved to one side of the argument can help our tolerance go beyond a begrudging one—to a curiosity and appreciation of truth that someone else may also be motivated by.
This isn’t easy, especially when we feel criticized in our own views. But that’s especially the time to demonstrate Christ-like humility. On that note, Elder Robert D. Hales remarked that “Some people mistakenly think responses such as silence, meekness, forgiveness, and bearing humble testimony are passive or weak. But, to ‘love [our] enemies, bless them that curse [us], do good to them that hate [us], and pray for them which despitefully use [us], and persecute [us]’ (Matthew 5:44) takes faith, strength, and, most of all, Christian courage.”
4. Christianity was an early proponent of a beautiful form of inclusive diversity that believers can wholeheartedly embrace.
President Nelson reminded people in his remarks that the Book of Mormon, which we esteem as a scriptural companion to the Holy Bible, documents the Savior inviting all to “come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he [denies] none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . all are alike unto God.”
He adds, “May I repeat that last phrase: ‘All are alike unto God.’”
In an address at Harvard, Elder Holland added that the intent of God in this plan is “universally inclusive. All are children of the same God, and all are included in His love and His grace….Everyone is covered, though it remains to be seen whether everyone cares. But if there is a failure to respond, it won’t be because God didn’t try and Christ didn’t come.”
“With our all-inclusive doctrine,” Elder Cook teaches, “we can be an oasis of unity and celebrate diversity”—pointing out that “unity and diversity are not opposites. We can achieve greater unity as we foster an atmosphere of inclusion and respect for diversity.” He went on to share an experience when he served in church leadership in San Francisco, where “we had Spanish, Tongan, Samoan, Tagalog, and Mandarin language-speaking congregations. Our English-speaking wards were composed of people from many racial and cultural backgrounds. There was love, righteousness, and unity.”
Something higher than race, class, or gender can unite us
Something higher than race, class, or gender can unite us
He concluded, “All are invited to partake of the Lord’s goodness.”
5. Efforts to appreciate diversity should not overshadow the pursuit of unity, which is even more important to seek after.
Acknowledging that “we live in a moment of particularly strong divisions,” Elder Cook points out that “the millions who have accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ have committed themselves …to live righteously and be united as never before” with “hearts and minds are knit together in unity.”
He went on to cite the Savior’s intercessory prayer recorded in the Gospel of John prior to his betrayal and crucifixion where he said “that they may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.” Elder Cook also referenced the Lord’s teaching of the early Saints during a difficult time of conflict when he said, “I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.”
But how are we to become one, we are so demographically different? Something higher than race, class, or gender can unite us—something Elder Cook came to appreciate during his time in San Francisco serving with members from numerous races and cultures speaking many different languages. During that time, he came to see the book of Romans as “the model for us even today …for unifying diverse people” by specifically encouraging different people to “follow the culture and doctrine of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Referencing that book, Elder Cook pointed out how some aspects of both Judaic and Gentile culture that conflict with the true gospel of Jesus Christ—explaining that God “essentially asks each of them to leave behind cultural impediments from their beliefs and culture that are not consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ”—noting:
The culture of the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a Gentile culture or a Judaic culture. It is not determined by the color of one’s skin or where one lives. While we rejoice in distinctive cultures, we should leave behind aspects of those cultures that conflict with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our members and new converts often come from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds….Yet we can be united in our love of and faith in Jesus Christ.
All those differences that seem so gaping in America today, then, may not be as fundamental as they appear. As Elder Cook adds, “Wards and branches in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are determined by geography, or language, not by race or culture. Race is not identified on membership records. The Savior’s ministry and message have consistently declared all races and colors are children of God. We are all brothers and sisters.”
6. Aching injustice does continue to exist and calls for peaceful efforts to resolve it.
President Oaks acknowledged “There have been injustices. In public actions and in our personal attitudes we have had racism and related grievances” and said, “This country should be better in eliminating racism, not only against black Americans, who were most visible in the recent protests, but also against Latinos, Asians, and other groups. This nation’s history of racism is not a happy one and we must do better.” In an address at Oxford University, Elder Cook agreed that “The concept that ‘all men are created equal’ has made significant strides, but …there is much yet to be accomplished.”
President Nelson similarly noted that “as a society and as a country, we have not yet achieved the harmony and mutual respect that would allow every man and woman and every boy and girl to become the very best version of themselves.” With the leadership of the NAACP, they issued a joint invitation “for all people, organizations, and governmental units to work with greater civility, to eliminate prejudice of all kinds, and focus on important interests that we have in common.”
As he put it, “Simply stated, we strive to build bridges of cooperation rather than walls of segregation.”
President Oaks reiterated, “Knowing that we are all children of God gives us a divine vision of the worth of all others and the will and ability to rise above prejudice and racism.”
When injustice occurs, President Oaks reminded people that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the “right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grief—noting, “That is the authorized way to raise public awareness and to focus on injustices in the content or administration of the laws.” He then raised concern that some “seem to have forgotten that the protests protected by the constitution are peaceful protests.” He continued:
Protesters have no right to destroy, deface, or steal property or to undermine the government’s legitimate police powers. The constitution and laws contain no invitation to revolution or anarchy. All of us—police, protesters, supporters, and spectators—should understand the limits of our rights and the importance of our duties to stay within the boundaries of existing law. Abraham Lincoln was right when he said: “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.” Redress of grievances by mobs is redress by illegal means. That is anarchy, a condition that has no effective governance and no formal police, which undermines rather than protects individual rights.
7. The Founding documents and early leaders in the United States were imperfect, but still inspired.
The United States was founded by immigrants of different nationalities and different ethnicities. Its unifying purpose was not to establish a particular religion or to perpetuate any of the diverse cultures or tribal loyalties of the old countries. Our founding generation sought to be unified by a new constitution and laws. That is not to say that our unifying documents or the then-current understanding of their meanings were perfect. The history of the first two centuries of the United States showed the need for many refinements, such as voting rights for women and, particularly, the abolition of slavery including laws to assure that those who had been enslaved would have all the conditions of freedom.
He added, “the teachings of our Savior who inspired the Constitution of the United States and the basic laws of many of our countries.”
Elder Cook: In our doctrine, we believe that …the United States, the U.S. Constitution, and related documents, written by imperfect men, were inspired by God to bless all people. He went on to a scripture noting these documents were “established and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles” with the Lord declaring: “Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another. And for this purpose have I established the constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood.”
This revelation came at a time when the Saints themselves were being driven from their homes and threatened by death.
8. Obedience to law is critical to a healthy society. But making more laws alone won’t be enough to provide greater stability, especially if we neglect supporting individuals and families.
In one of our core articles of faith, written after the early saints had suffered severe persecution from Missouri officials, Joseph Smith summarized, “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” Echoing this, later prophets added:
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 …and that all governments have a right to enact such laws as in their own judgments are best calculated to secure the public interest …and that to the laws all men owe respect and deference, as without them peace and harmony would be supplanted by anarchy and terror.
President Oaks elaborated, “Though Jesus’s teachings were revolutionary, He did not teach revolution or law-breaking. He taught a better way”—citing another revelation that states, “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.”
He clarified, “This does not mean that we agree with all that is done with the force of law. It means that we obey the current law and use peaceful means to change it. It also means that we peacefully accept the results of elections. We will not participate in the violence threatened by those disappointed with the outcome. In a democratic society, we always have the opportunity and the duty to persist peacefully until the next election.”
The importance of law leads some to focus attention on the creation of more (and more) laws in an attempt to shape human behavior. Yet Elder D. Todd Christofferson has cautioned that “At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society. Our increased reliance on laws to regulate behavior is a measure of how uncivilized we’ve become.”
He elaborated, “The societies in which many of us live have for more than a generation failed to foster moral discipline. They have taught that truth is relative and that everyone decides for himself or herself what is right. Concepts such as sin and wrong have been condemned as “value judgments.” He cited the Lord’s teaching that “Every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god” and noted, “As a consequence, self-discipline has eroded and societies are left to try to maintain order and civility by compulsion.”
Elder Christofferson continued, “The lack of internal control by individuals breeds external control by governments” illustrated by one journalist who observed that “gentlemanly behavior protected women from coarse behavior. Today, we expect sexual harassment laws to restrain coarse behavior. …Policemen and laws can never replace customs, traditions, and moral values as a means for regulating human behavior.”
As another example, he pointed to the last economic recession:
In most of the world, we have been experiencing an extended and devastating economic recession. It was brought on by multiple causes, but one of the major causes was widespread dishonest and unethical conduct, particularly in the U.S. housing and financial markets. Reactions have focused on enacting more and stronger regulation. Perhaps that may dissuade some from unprincipled conduct, but others will simply get more creative in their circumvention.
He underscored what should perhaps be obvious: “There could never be enough rules so finely crafted as to anticipate and cover every situation, and even if there were, enforcement would be impossibly expensive and burdensome. This approach leads to diminished freedom for everyone.”
Elder Christofferson then summarized, “In the end, it is only an internal moral compass in each individual that can effectively deal with the root causes as well as the symptoms of societal decay. Societies will struggle in vain to establish the common good until sin is denounced as sin and moral discipline takes its place in the pantheon of civic virtues.”
That explains the prophetic emphasis on what happens in the home. As Elder Christofferson added, “Moral discipline is learned at home. While we cannot control what others may or may not do, the Latter-day Saints can certainly stand with those who demonstrate virtue in their own lives and inculcate virtue in the rising generation.” Elder Holland likewise noted, “no community of whatever size or definition has enough resources in time, money or will to make up for what does not happen at home.”
The consequences of a society that leaves behind all personal discipline can be terrifying. As Elder Cook noted the period in the Book of Mormon when “when iniquity and division destroyed righteousness and unity. The depths of depravity that then occurred were subsequently so evil that ultimately the great Prophet Mormon laments to his son, Moroni, ‘But O my son, how can a people like this, whose delight is in so much abomination—How can we expect that God will stay his hand in judgment against us?’”
9. Walking away from faith is a central, overriding (and unacknowledged) driver of our challenges as a society—and reversing that trend is critical to any deep solution.
In his remarks at Oxford, Elder Holland expressed concern with a “cultural shift of our day” that “continues to be characterized by less and less affiliation with organized or institutional religion.” On another occasion he cited Henry Martyn Field as warning powerfully:
The loss of respect for religion is the dry rot of social institutions. The idea of God as the Creator and Father of all mankind is to the moral world, what gravitation is in the natural; it holds everything else together and causes it to revolve around a common center. Take this away and any ultimate significance to life falls apart. There is then no such thing as collective humanity, but only separate molecules of men and women drifting in the universe with no more cohesion and no more meaning than so many grains of sand have meaning for the sea.
He summarized, “In the western world religion has historically been the basis of civil society as we have known it.”
If that’s true, then it calls for a reversal of these trends to get at the root of what’s happening. That’s precisely what the prophets have proposed. After noting, “we live in a time during which things are in commotion “President Ballard said, “Many people fear the future, and many hearts have turned away from their faith in God and His Son, Jesus Christ.”
After saying to a large gathering in Boston, “I plead with you …to pray for this country, for our leaders, for our people, and for the families that live in this great nation founded by God” President Ballard shared his feeling “that America and many of the nations of the earth, as in times past, are at another critical crossroads and need our prayers.”
That was not in his prepared remarks and came spontaneously as “the Spirit prompt me to invite those present to pray for their country and their leaders.” Just this weekend, President Ballard expanded his call to “all people from every country around the world. No matter how you pray or to whom you pray, please exercise your faith—whatever your faith may be—and pray for your country and for your national leaders.”
He continued, “We stand today at a major crossroads in history, and the nations of the earth are in desperate need of divine inspiration and guidance.” It’s not in policy alone that we’ll find the resolution of our concerns, though—but only in the “peace and the healing that can come to individual souls as well as to the soul of countries—their cities, towns, and villages—through the Prince of Peace and the source of all healing, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
President Ballard continued powerfully:
During the past few months, I have had the impression come to me that the best way to help the current world situation is for all people to rely more fully upon God and to turn their hearts to Him through sincere prayer. Humbling ourselves and seeking heaven’s inspiration to endure or conquer what is before us will be our safest and surest way to move confidently forward through these troubling times.
I invite you to pray always. Pray for your family. Pray for the leaders of nations. Pray for the courageous people who are on the front lines in the current battles against social, environmental, political, and biological plagues that impact all people throughout the world: the rich and the poor, the young and the old.
The Savior taught us to not limit who we pray for. He said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”
He concluded, “Brothers and sisters, I urge you to redouble your commitment to prayer. I urge you to pray in your closets, in your daily walk, in your homes, in your wards, and always in your hearts”—admitting:
The world’s current chaotic situation may seem daunting as we consider the multitude of issues and challenges. But it is my fervent testimony that if we will pray and ask Heavenly Father for needed blessings and guidance, we will come to know how we can bless our families, neighbors, communities, and even the countries in which we live. …How great is the power of prayer, and how needed are our prayers of faith in God and His Beloved Son in the world today!
10. The voices and participation of people of faith in society today are therefore crucial.
President Ballard added an important qualification, “Praying for justice, peace, the poor, and the sick is often not enough. After we kneel in prayer, we need to get up from our knees and do what we can to help—to help both ourselves and others.”
President Monson emphasized the importance of cooperation in civic endeavors: “We have a responsibility to be active in the communities where we live, all Latter-day Saints, and to work cooperatively with other churches and organizations.” The letter sent to Saints before elections states: “Citizens of the United States have the privilege and duty of electing office holders and influencing public policy. Participation in the political process affects their communities and nation today and in the future. We urge Latter-day Saints to be active citizens by registering, exercising their right to vote, and engaging in civic affairs.”
Rather than just participating, the letter encourages work to be informed: “We also urge you to spend the time needed to become informed about the issues and candidates you will be considering.”
If religion can make such a difference, many no longer seem to be recognizing it.
If religion can make such a difference, many no longer seem to be recognizing it.
Instead of a liability, prophet leaders affirm that faith makes good citizens. As Elder Cook taught at Oxford, “Those who feel accountable to God have a responsibility to live upright lives of service to God and our fellowmen, to obey the law, and to be good citizens, neighbors, and friends in all we do. As we do so, ordinary citizens and governmental officials alike will be more inclined to see the value of religion and to respect the basic principles that allow us to freely live it.”
He added more recently “When people love God with all their hearts and righteously strive to become like Him, there is less strife and contention in society”—noting an example in the Book of Mormon where “there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people.”
If religion can make such a difference, many no longer seem to be recognizing it. Elder Cook noted that “We live in an age where significant portions of our moral heritage are not only not appreciated, but in many cases, misunderstood or even dismissed, almost with disdain” and “some of the protections contained in various constitutions which emanate from historical moral values have been eroded or undermined.” He then emphasized, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supports the religious freedom of all faiths as well as those with no faith.”
Elder Holland taught that “people of faith should resist efforts by some that would drive them from the public square.” He continued, “To counter these trends every citizen should insist on his or her constitutional right to exercise one’s belief and to voice one’s conscience on issues not only in the privacy of the home or the sanctity of the pulpit but also in the public square, in the ballot box and in the halls of justice. These are the rights of all citizens, including people, leaders, and organizations who have religious beliefs. …They must not be disenfranchised.”
On one level, this is because all voices deserve to be heard. As Elder Christofferson summarized, “All laws and government policies are based on values—religious or otherwise. Everyone has a right to be heard—’to compete’—in the marketplaces of ideas and in influencing governmental decisions. To silence one voice potentially leads to silencing all others. Religious voices are at least as deserving of being heard as any others.”
But it’s more than that. Given the unique value that voices of faith provide to our public, this kind of open participation by religious voices in the public sphere is advanced as a social good. As Elder Christofferson reiterated:
Religious participation in public life is not only part of American history and a constitutionally protected freedom, but it is also good for our nation …Churches and other religious organizations bring unique experiences and perspectives to public policy debates. They recognize corrosive social forces that threaten faith, family, and freedom. They know personally about the hardships of family breakdown, unemployment, poverty, drug abuse, and numerous other social ills. Why? Because they are on the front lines helping individuals and families work through these wrenching problems. When they speak out, they do so not for selfish reasons, like the special-interest groups that constantly lobby our public officials, but out of concern for the people they minister to, their families, and society itself. They bring a moral—often cautionary—voice to matters of social and public policy that we desperately need in this age of materialism, self-promotion, and disruptive change. The perspectives of churches and religious leaders make an irreplaceable contribution to our ongoing democratic conversation about how we should live together. Their voices are essential. And so are yours.
He added, “If you are a person of faith, you have a critical contribution to make to our country and society. Public discussions about the common good are enriched by men and women like you …Don’t be intimidated by those who claim that you are imposing your religious beliefs on others. In a pluralistic society, promoting one’s values for the good of society is not imposing them on others—it is putting them forward for consideration along with all others.
Elder Christofferson concluded, “Societies will choose and decide. Someone’s values will prevail in the end, and all of us have the right—and duty—to argue for what we believe will best serve the needs of the people and most benefit the common good. Without you, our political and social debates will lack the richness and insights needed to make wise decisions, and our nation and communities will suffer.”
It’s time for our society to decide. May our choice in this election and beyond be guided by wise principles, such as these prophets have been teaching for decades.