This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights.
When the U.S. Constitution was approved in 1787, it contained few personal guarantees, and some of the states refused to ratify it without a specific bill of rights.On Sept. 25, 1789, Congress sent a proposed Bill of Rights of 12 amendments to the states for ratification. Two years later on Dec. 15, 1791, 10 of the 12 proposed amendments became part of the Constitution. The first eight amendments contain the fundamental rights and freedoms of all citizens, and the 9th and 10th amendments forbid Congress to adopt laws that would violate these rights.
Each year, the period beginning Sept. 17 and ending Sept. 23 is designated as Constitution Week. In observance of that week, the Church News takes a look at what the Bill of Rights means to the Church and its members.
This fall, Americans celebrate the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution's "Bill of Rights," which is the primary source of the religious liberty and the freedom of expression that have enabled both the restoration and the promulgation of the gospel.
The U.S. Senate also begins its hearings this month on President Bush's nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to become only the second black American to be a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Judge Thomas' views about the Bill of Rights will be among the stormiest issues in these hearings, because, as we approach the 21st century, the Bill of Rights will be among the most significant intellectual battlegrounds for determining both the role of the Supreme Court and the meaning of the Constitution in American life.
To more fully appreciate the Bill of Rights, let us consider the basic political theory on which both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution rest. That theory embodies two grand concepts – natural rights and the social contract – borrowed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison from the inspired writers of the European Enlightenment: (See illustration below.)
As Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, it is "self evident" that all individuals are "created equal" and that they "are endowed by their Creator" with certain "inalienable rights;" rights so inherently natural that they literally cannot be taken or even given away. Among these rights are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," property and religion.
Under natural rights theory, people originally existed in a "state of nature," possessed of God-given rights, but vulnerable to natural dangers. Thus, a group of free persons might voluntarily create a government to protect each person's right to pursue happiness and meaning in life. They would give their state "limited powers" – enough to function – in exchange for the state's promise to "protect" each of them.
This agreement between the people and the government is "the Social Contract." Because the king of England had violated this contract, the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that the people were exercising their "right of revolution."
The Constitution, adopted by the American colonies in 1789, clearly embodied the Social Contract, creating a government having only those powers specifically delegated to it by "we, the people of the United States." The people otherwise retained all their natural rights.
The Constitution originally omitted any reference to natural rights, because the framers believed the people retained all rights except those explicitly given the state in the Constitution. Some feared that adopting a formal statement would compromise any right they did not think to mention. However, to secure the Constitution's ratification, the framers agreed that the first Congress under the new government should adopt a declaration of rights. In 1791 this process resulted in adoption of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution as the "Bill of Rights."
These amendments prohibit the state from interfering with each person's natural right to religious and political liberties, freedom of expression, fair procedures in criminal proceedings, private property, and other rights. For members of the Church, the most important freedoms are contained in the First Amendment, which protects all of the rights discussed in the following four articles: religion, speech, the press, and right of assembly.
Early in our Church history, various state governments (notably Missouri) violated the saints' religious freedom; however, the Constitution restricted only the federal government.
Thus, although Joseph Smith called himself "the greatest advocate of the Constitution there is on earth," he found (one) fault: [the ConstitutionT provides no means of enforcing its sentiments." The Prophet's interest in federal supremacy to prevent state violations of individual rights was a major reason for his brief campaign for president of the United States.
As history shows, it took a bloody Civil War and three new constitutional amendments to begin applying natural rights theories against the states. Even then, not until the 20th century did the Supreme Court interpret the Constitution to prevent states form violating First Amendment liberties.
The Lord has revealed that the Constitution was created by "wise men whom [HeT raised up unto this very purpose." (D&C 101:80.) Nowhere in the Constitution is this divine influence more evident than in the First Amendment. It is "first" because it draws on the same wellsprings of thought that give free agency a pre-eminent place in our theology. Among the most glorious of all ideas is the truth that each personality is unique, free, and eternal. The "just and holy principles" the Constitution maintains are "according to the moral agency which [the Lord hasT given unto [every manT." (D&C 101:77-78.)
This right of each person to define the meaning of his or her own life also preserves the most fundamental spiritual, political, and intellectual freedoms. Its protection in the Constitution also allowed the Restoration to occur in the United States. For this very reason, America was kept hidden from the post-apostasy world to become the gospel's host nation of the fullness of times – the strong, free foundation from which the Lord could extend His kingdom to all the world.
The spirit of the First Amendment and the strength of a democracy is that there is no one to "tell us what to do" with our lives. Hence, the First Amendment forbids the use of state power to coerce the inculcation of religious doctrine. But at the same time, because of this very freedom, Americans have come to live in a vacuum of meaning and moral authority.
Simply being free is, for many, an end in itself, and the result is an increasingly materialistic, hedonistic culture.
When the rich young ruler earnestly wanted direction for his life, he asked the Savior, "Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" And the Savior taught him what he needed to know. In today's free society, where do we turn with the same question? The weakness of a democracy is that there is no one to "tell us what to do" with our lives. I thank God not only for a Constitution that makes us free, but also for the gospel, which tells us what to do, thereby filling our freedom with content and meaning.