Michael Austin is Provost, Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Professor of English at Newman University in Wichita Kansas. In the secular world, he is known as a scholar of eighteenth-century literature and of cognitive narrative theory. In the Mormon world, he has published several books and articles on the portrayal of Mormon themes and characters in mainstream American literature. His first book for a non-academic audience, That’s Not What They Meant: Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America’s Right Wing will be released tomorrow (September 18th) from Prometheus Books.
I reverence the Constitution of the United States as a sacred document. To me its words are akin to the revelations of God, for God has placed His stamp of approval upon it. I testify that the God of heaven sent some of His choicest spirits to lay the foundation of this government, and He has now sent other choice spirits to help preserve it. –President Ezra Taft Benson, “Our Divine Constitution” (1987)
One should not expect perfection—one certainly should not expect all of his personal preferences—in a document that must represent a consensus. One should not sulk over a representative body’s failure to attain perfection. –Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “The Divinely Inspired Constitution” (Feb. 1992)
As a collective mind, “the Framers of the Constitution” (like “the Founding Fathers”) carries immense rhetorical weight, which is why such a mind gets invoked so often in contemporary political debates. To oppose “the intention of the Framers”—by, say, supporting health-care reform, or by wanting to say prayers at a high school graduation—is to go against both history and the rule of law. And for Latter-day Saints, it is even worse, as we have been taught that the Constitution was divinely inspired and that its Framers were men of God. Who would want to be on the wrong side of history, the rule of law, and God?
All of this rhetorical force disappears, however, when we simply acknowledge that the Framers were actual individuals rather than a single hive mind. One cannot humiliate one’s enemies by saying that their positions would be opposed by some of the Framers, supported by others, and probably not even understood by the rest. But say “advocating X means trashing the Constitution and spitting on the grave of the Founding Fathers,” and all of a sudden you are a patriot and your opponent is a pig.
The problem is that the only proposition that we can substitute for X with any kind of historical coherence is that the 13 colonies should not be ruled by the British. Beyond that, we get disagreement everywhere we look. The 55 men who gathered in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution were as diverse a group of human beings as could have been assembled in 1787. Their ranks included anarchists, monarchists, nationalists, anti-nationalists, slave-owners, abolitionists, Christians, atheists, and everything in between. In the end, only 39 of the delegates signed the Constitution. Some of the non-signers—such as Robert Yates, Luther Martin, and George Mason—went to their home states to lead the fight against ratification.
Even among the signers, there was not a single man who approved of everything in the final product. Some found the national government under the Constitution overbearingly strong, while others found it insufferably weak. Nearly every delegate at the convention rejected Alexander Hamilton’s plan for an executive with lifetime tenure. And James Madison tried repeatedly to approve a federal veto on all state legislation, which was rejected each time that he brought it up. By the end of the convention both men felt that the document had serious, and perhaps fatal flaws. However, Hamilton and Madison went on to become unqualified supporters of the Constitution and the principal authors of the Federalist Papers written to support it.
After the convention, the Founders continued to fight with each other about almost everything. The first battle line was the Constitution itself. Some of the most respected heroes of the revolution (Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and others) lined up with the “Anti-Federalist” faction opposing ratification. And even after the Constitution was ratified, they continued to fight with each other about many of the same things we fight with each other about today, such as the powers of government, the necessity of taxation, the national debt, the use of military force, the place of religion in the public square, and the correct definition of a “human being.” Contention over these issues was so great that, five years into the new government, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton were barely on speaking terms with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. And it only got worse after that.
And yet, we have been taught that the Constitution was designed by divine inspiration and that it’s words are “akin to the revelations of God.” And I believe that they are. America’s founding was a messy, imperfect, contentious affair. But that does not mean that it was not a divinely inspired affair. The two are not at all incompatible. This is perhaps the main point of Elder Dallin H. Oaks’ 1992 Ensign article, “Our Divinely Inspired Constitution”:
That the Constitution was ratified is largely attributable to the fact that the principal leaders in the states were willing to vote for a document that failed to embody every one of their preferences.
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In other words, one should not expect perfection—one certainly should not expect all of his personal preferences—in a document that must represent a consensus. One should not sulk over a representative body’s failure to attain perfection. Americans are well advised to support the best that can be obtained in the circumstances that prevail. That is sound advice not only for the drafting of a constitution but also for the adoption and administration of laws under it.
Clearly, Elder Oaks does not see a fractured, imperfect, compromise-driven consensus as something incompatible with divine inspiration. And neither do I. And here’s the big question: what if this is the way that divine inspiration works? What if revelation is not a matter of transferring a thought or intention directly from God to the mind of a priesthood leader, but a proposition that involves discussion, debate, negotiation, and compromise among imperfect human beings? What if, in other words, revelation is a messy, communal, and participatory affair in which we have to negotiate with each other to reach an imperfect conclusion that will nonetheless merit God’s stamp of approval because it is “the best that can be obtained in the circumstances that prevail?”
Such an understanding of divine inspiration runs counter to the way that Latter-day Saints often understand God’s voice. We want our revelations to be clear, absolute, and otherworldly—perfect in the same way that God is perfect. But life is not a series of choices between the perfectly good and the irredeemably evil. It is a game of negotiations, tradeoffs, partial goods, lesser evils, and, well, a real mess. Thus, a messy revelation—one that takes into account our own strengths and weaknesses and our willingness to act—will often be much more valuable to us than a thin sliver of absolute truth. This is what the Framers of the Constitution discovered in the sweltering summer of 1787.
Understanding America’s founding as an act of divine inspiration does not require us to whitewash and homogenize our understanding of the Founding Fathers. It may, though require us to stop whitewashing and homogenizing our understanding of divine inspiration. It may be, in fact, that inspiration is always (or at least often) a matter of debate, discussion, and compromise among flawed human beings who are doing the best that they can in unbearably difficult situations—and who, guided by a divine master, can accomplish marvelous works and wonders that future generations will understand, correctly, as miracles.