Preaching America without offending the world

Our pal Aaron R has noted that while “the D&C teaches that the [US] Constitution is inspired,” such rhetoric is “conspicuously absent in British Mormon religious discourse.” He further notes that Armand Mauss has recently argued that “it these types of doctrines which inhibit Church growth in some areas and he subsequently calls for reinterpretations of these doctrines.”

I have had my own run-ins with hyper American patriotism in what is supposed to be an international church. Nonetheless, I do not believe there is a need for Mormonism to downplay the inspired nature of the Constitution. The mistake is in making it Exhibit A in American exceptionalism, as if because the American founding was inspired, nothing else comes close. There is a way to proclaim 1776 without alienating the world, and President Obama on his visit to London just nailed it. Witness:

Centuries ago, when kings, emperors, and warlords reigned over much of the world, it was the English who first spelled out the rights and liberties of man in the Magna Carta. It was here, in this very hall, where the rule of law first developed, courts were established, disputes were settled, and citizens came to petition their leaders.

Over time, the people of this nation waged a long and sometimes bloody struggle to expand and secure their freedom from the crown. Propelled by the ideals of the Enlightenment, they would ultimately forge an English Bill of Rights, and invest the power to govern in the elected parliament that’s gathered here today.

What began on this island would inspire millions throughout the continent of Europe and across the world. But perhaps no one drew greater inspiration from these notions of freedom than your rabble-rousing colonists on the other side of the Atlantic. As Winston Churchill said, the “…Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.”

And this is not just an Anglo-American project:

[W]e have learned better than most that the longing for freedom and human dignity is not English or American or Western — it is universal, and it beats in every heart . . .

[W]e believe not simply in the rights of nations, but the rights of citizens. That is the beacon that guided us through our fight against fascism and our twilight struggle against communism. And today, that idea is being put to the test in the Middle East and North Africa. In country after country, people are mobilizing to free themselves from the grip of an iron fist.

I recommend the entire speech.


  1. This is fantastic, RJH; thanks for sharing.

    Sadly, in America’s current climate, where patriotism is measured by one’s allegiance to exceptionalism, I’m afraid it will fall on deaf ears in the states.

  2. I appreciated your comments (and John’s) yesterday and in this post, especially as they pertain to answering my initial question regarding what is it about the US Constitution that applies to other nations. I even went and re-read some Locke this morning and listened to parts of Obama’s speech.

  3. Good Post – Whatever you may think of Obama’s politics this was a great speech.

    I believe that from the Magna Carter to more recent bills of freedom globally that inspiration plays a part in correlating and legislating them. The American Constitution is inspired, but no more so than most other bills of freedom. So why do we always hear about how wonderful and inspired this is?

  4. Yes, this appears to have been an excellent speech on the matter. Unfortunately, I agree with Ben here. From all the rhetoric I’ve seen coming out of Tea Party channels back in the states, I am not seeing much by way of appreciation for or even awareness of the actual roots and pillars of our inspired Constitution.

    For one thing, the principle of toleration that informs the First Amendment really is best served by a “wall of separation” between church and state. A robust secular public sphere is essential for real religious pluralism to thrive. But Tea Party activists and pundits are arguing that there is no such thing as a wall of separation between church and state. The historical revisionism involved appears to be aimed at modern notions of “political correctness” and also appear to be blatantly motivated by a desire to achieve some kind of privileged status for American Evangelical Christianity (over say minority religions in our polity such as Islam). But our system if designed to prevent the government or its institutions from giving such preference to one dogma over the other.

    The existence of the religious toleration principle, as structurally incorporated into our system through the mechanism of the separation of church and state in the First Amendment, does not mean that individuals, whether they work in government or elsewhere in the public sphere, or in private industries etc., cannot be guided by or speak of their religious influences and beliefs. We have a structural or institutional separation of church and state in the United States, not a social or personal one. The French notion of laïcité is neither appropriate nor desirable in the American social order as our freedoms and philosophies derive from the English Enlightenment and Institutions, as expressed in Locke’s toleration principle. But every American is better off if the government and its institutions do not favor one particular religious dogma or institution over others.

  5. I meant to say “The historical revisionism involved appears to be aimed at expressing dissatisfaction for modern notions of “political correctness” . . . .

  6. Mark B. says:

    Jon McNaughton knows, RJH, that you are not only a pinko but an apostate as well.

  7. angelaisms says:

    john f., I have no difficulty at all in making the assertion that you have no idea what the Tea Party is actually about.

  8. angelaisms,
    That could only be if you assert, undoubtedly rightly, that there is no cohesive “Tea Party” to be tagged. But if you go by the loudest voice’s self-description, john f. is right on.

    And RJH, great post.

  9. angelaisms says:

    Odd. I’ve been involved in the Tea Party since its inception — I’ve read books and listened to radio/speeches/interviews by various prominent members of the movement; I’ve been to rallies and have even given a speech at one (at the state capitol, no less), and I’ve come up with this: Tea Party is about smaller government, individual responsibility, and individual freedom. That’s it. This seems to be a rather far cry from the theocratic intolerance that john f. seems to think we embody.

    I look back and count myself fortunate that I grew up in a small Oregon town that had a particularly virulent anti-Mormon preacher in one of the larger local churches — all the, “My pastor says you’re going to hell,” I got at school was pretty decent training for standing up now as a member of the Tea Party.

    And yes, it was a good post. The Magna Carta/English Common Law was to the U.S. Constitution what the Reformation was to the Restoration.

  10. So Tea Party pundits and politicatians are not inveighing against political correctness, the supposed persecution of Christians and the non-existence of a wall of separation between church and state? That is good to learn from an official source.

  11. britt k says:

    I’m closer to a teapartier…but I really enjoyed the speech-especially the first half. I like to see the president quoting Winstin Churchill and the speaker of the house of commons quoting Abraham Lincoln. I like the respect and appreciation of seeing the good in others and recognizing their wonderful contributions. The tea partiers I know are all homoeschoolers and we do study the origins of the constitution…and origins of principles of freedom in different cultures. It is important to not just read madison and Adams and Jefferson but read who they read: montesquieu or Blackstone, Rousou or Locke…

    I think the media does an excellent job of creating division. Why seek to understand when mocking is so much easier? It’s fun to say stupid, racist teapartier..or that other word more commonly applied.

    I do think the constitution is inspired and part of an amazing resurgence of republics and democracies in world history. We do have an wonderful amount of freedom in America.-it’s worth celebrating.

    That said we are not the only true and living nation. I do sometimes wonder if some people think there is a critical missing adjective in describing the kind of law we should obey honor and sustain .

  12. Mark Brown says:


    Now you’re just being coy. Your own blogroll is full of Palin- and Beck-love and one of the running themes of both their circus acts is that the constitution really doesn’t call for a separation of church and state and that Christians are the most persecuted people in the U.S.

    Of course, I can totally understand why you would want to distance yourself from Palin and Beck, but you cannot deny that they figure prominently in the tea party. When Bachmann or either one of the Pauls have the decency to say a good word about this speech, I’ll believe you. but until then, you’re just blowing smoke and you know it.

  13. strange typos — let me try to ask that again:

    Are you saying that Tea Party pundits and politicians are not inveighing against political correctness, the supposed persecution of Christians and the existence of a wall of separation between church and state?

    Although you are an anonymous blog commenter, I am willing to accept your word for it but it makes me wonder where I would have gotten that impression in the first place.

  14. Love it. All this cross-continental love gives me the warm fuzzies.

    I am sure lots of people have had this experience, bit sitting through SS lessons in Japan and Kenya talking about all of us gathering in Missouri are pretty weird.

  15. Great post. Great speech.

  16. Peter LLC says:

    USA! USA! Best President EVAR!

  17. 14: ESO, when in the last 20 or so years has a SS lesson featured that as a discussion topic? Jokey one-line asides, maybe, but more than that??

    Nice way to frame all of this, Ronan, thanks. I need to work it out in my mind until I can recall and present it this way as needed.

  18. Ardis (#17): It was mentioned every week in my home ward SS.

    Ok, it was all by one guy. Who was like 95. And a little out there.

    Point taken.

  19. Love the Magna Carta! Every time we’d drive to stake conference my parents would point out the field where the Magna Carta was signed.
    As an American, I appreciate the political foundation we got from the British, without it we wouldn’t have come up with our constitution or been culturally prepared to use it. I can believe the US Constitution inspired while still thinking other governments have good stuff and can even be inspired too.

  20. Ardis: 1997 and 2002, respectively. I am not saying it was great content, or anything I would have highlighted, just saying I have sat in classes with those discussions and, not only did I (all American and pioneery) find them pretty bizarre, I am sure many a new or non member in Asia and Africa would, too. Kind of hard to argue with a teacher about teaching what they find in scriptures, though. Or had been taught by “their” missionaries.

  21. Wonderful speech. I don’t know if I’ve heard it stated better – ever. Thanks for sharing it.

    I would hope that everyone could grant the points of the speech regardless of their politics, but, sadly, I know that’s not possible.

  22. Wall Street Journal Republican says:


    Since you are a tea-partier, I assume you meant “homeschoolers”?

  23. Curse the English! We never escaped from miserable ideas of Hobbes and Locke. They were blessed to move on.

    Just kidding…sort of.

    Amen to the post!

  24. britt k says:

    22-I’m not a tea partier..but I agree with some of the platform and know quite a few tea partiers. That’s what I meant by “I’m closer to a tea partier”.

    And yes that’s a typo. Go all freud if you’d like. It’s fun. It’s easier if you first take cocaine, but, still fun without.

  25. nobody special says:

    I can recall hearing native stake president of a European nation bearing testimony of the principles embodied in the founding and US constitution.

    This says nothing about the current state of affairs in the USA. And ironically, the tea partiers who get maligned as neo-repubs are quite cogniscient that praise for some of the principles in the US constitution has nothing to do with praise for what the USA is doing right now.

    In fact, that’s pretty much the point of the tea-partiers, to focus on constitutional principles and less on ever-growing decrees.

    But in its best spirit, it’s praise for what the USA should be, and in some respects is, once you get passed the mountain of crap that’s been added by well-meaning, but ever-controlling, bureaucrats.

    In some respect, I think people on one side of the spectrum admire this speech because it is coming from their guy. Certainly, anyone can point to people who are crass in how they praise the important principles in the US Constitution, which didn’t condense out of thin air, but were the result of foundations laid generations earlier.

    Pres. Obama was doing what he does best, saying things that you would be hard pressed to disagree with, until he starts trying to implement policy.

  26. Great post. My mission president did a good job pulling out the best parts of Russian culture and history as a spiritual heritage. I didn’t see anything though, that would tie America’s divinity with the East.

    I liked Obama’s speech, and he could easily tie England and America together. I think the idea of freedoms can be used to tie peoples together, but can you see more definitive ideas in Mormon discourse that allow for an inspired America? Religious freedom is an obvious one, but I’m not sure it does enough for some countries. FREX, Russia has a fervent religious history of thinking the New Jerusalem will be/was in Moscow. It’s not easy to reconcile the New Jerusalem being in America.

  27. “Pres. Obama was doing what he does best, saying things that you would be hard pressed to disagree with, until he starts trying to implement policy.”

    Actually what he is best at is passing into law those policies. No wonder people get so cranky about him. 2012!

  28. A fine speech. He almost makes you forget how much he hates the British, Britain, and everything about it.

  29. gst,
    Funny. The fact that we tortured his grandfather might have something to do with it.

  30. And you shot my great-great-great-great grandfather’s wig off at Concord bridge. Seriously. Bastards.

  31. re # 28, so Obama does have something in common with Tea Partiers after all! I say this because my observation has been that the most strident Tea Partiers among FB friends (mostly non-LDS people from my past growing up in TX) are constantly posting status updates about how London bankers are orchestrating the world’s downfall and have been since circa 1600s and how the British Empire pretty much personified evil because of the Queen and Colonel Sanders with his wee beedy little eyes.

  32. Sure, john, but our differences aren’t anything that a crappy box of region 1 DVDs from Costco and an iPod pre-loaded with Barack Obama’s Greatest Oratorical Hits won’t smooth over.

  33. Mark B. says:

    It’s easy to poke fun at the notion of an inspired constitution by pointing out all the clauses that were included solely to protect slavery. But that’s low hanging fruit (and they’re all gone now, so if the inspiration is continuing, I suppose we can all breathe a sigh of relief that they finally got that right). Instead, why not cut our “constitution is inspired” teeth on clauses like:

    “In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction.”

    Really? That was inspired? Why does the Almighty care about such things?


    “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, [to vote for president]”

    Which means that presidential Electors could have been appointed by the governor, if that’s what the legislature chose to do (and in fact what was done in several states until almost the mid-19th Century). So, rule by the oligarchy? Is that inspired?

    The fact is that the Doctrine & Covenants does not say, and the language cannot fairly be read as suggesting, that the constitution is “inspired.” The closest it comes is 101:80:

    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.

    If you think that “I established” means “I inspired” then you’d better also turn “[I] redeemed … by the shedding of blood” into “I fired all those muskets and cannons, etc.”

  34. John Mansfield says:

    “London bankers” sounds like a euphemism, or circumlocution, or dog whistling, or something. Maybe ad hominem fallacy?

  35. London bankers is actually code for Jew.

  36. “I think people on one side of the spectrum admire this speech because it is coming from their guy.”

    I think many people on one side of the spectrum won’t let themselves admire the speech because it is not coming from their guy. Of the two, that is the more discouraging.

    I admire it because it’s a great speech.

  37. Excellent post and great comments.

    I’ll sign up for follow-up comments because I want angelaisms and nobody special to give mind-blowing responses; and dang it, I just believe they will.

  38. S.P. Bailey says:

    Nobody, regardless of politics, would deny that Obama has mad teleprompter skillz.

  39. Karen H. says:

    @nobody special: “Pres. Obama was doing what he does best, saying things that you would be hard pressed to disagree with, until he starts trying to implement policy.”

    Nobody Special, welcome to the difference between politics and policy. The fact of the matter is, Americans are pretty homogenous in their pride for country, value of freedom, respect for the rule of law, and concern for responsible government. Good politicians appeal to those common values. When they stop being candidates and settle down to the business of governing, they have to focus on the “how” i.e. policy. Reasonable people disagree on the how…

  40. KerbearRN says:

    Karen– DITTOS!
    oh, oops… Wrong loudmouth icon…

  41. Yay, British Heritage! Yay, President Obama!

    Without going into complex analysis here, may I simply suggest what is important is the PRINCIPLE of Constitutional government, people working together to govern themselves so that we are not in bondage one to another (i.e., the “divine right of kings” or the obvious slavery – but then that can take many forms.) It is not the specific words or context of our US Constitution, however important they may be, or “American Exceptionalism.”

    To think of this in a slightly different way, a comment by a Brazilian missionary companion burned into my soul long ago. He said, “Do you know why the United States is such a blessed, wealthy, nation? So that it can afford to send its sons [and daughters] around the world to preach the gospel.”

    American exceptionalism like the Abrahamic Covenant is not about any prideful superiority of culture, economics, politics or doctrine, but the opportunity and obligation of service towards our fellow human beings. President Obama gets this.

  42. Carlos U. says:

    It was a good speach. It’s also backtracking. He said pretty much the opposite before Start at 3:15 if you want to skip what comes before.

    But better late than never.

  43. I love this analysis of patriotism given by President Kimball no long after the end of the Vietnam War and during America’s bicentennial year. The topic, interestingly enough, is idolatry: