The new year is a time for beginnings and resolutions, and that is especially true in civil government. In fact, January in the United States might appropriately be regarded as the inauguration season. This month, of course, George W. Bush will be inaugurated for his second term as president of the United States. On a state and local level, government officers around the country likewise take their oaths of office in January.
All of this provides occasion to ponder again how we as Latter-day Saints should behave with regard to government and civil authority. In this, we can look to the example set by the leaders of Christ's church in former days. The apostle Paul touched on this subject when he wrote his epistle to Titus, who had been given pastoral authority over the saints living in Crete:
"Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers," he wrote, "to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work,
"To speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men" (Titus 3:1-2).
This concept was reiterated in latter days when the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote: "We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law" (Articles of Faith 1:12).
In an Aug. 1, 1831, revelation through Joseph Smith, the Lord instructed His people: "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, until he reigns whose right it is to reign, and subdues all enemies under his feet" (Doctrine and Covenants 58:21-22).
For the purpose of modern application, let us consider the above counsel from Paul to Titus in three distinct parts:
"Be subject to principalities and powers, . . . (and) obey magistrates."
Civil officers who earnestly carry out their duties to serve the public are entitled to respect and support from those whom they govern.
Those who assume a role to safeguard and advance the public well-being perform noble work. King Benjamin, himself an exemplary statesman, taught his people, "When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God" (Mosiah 2:17).
"Be ready to every good work."
Latter-day Saints should do more than just be subject to governments and civil authority. As the Brethren have instructed, we should be actively engaged — as voters, participants in the political process and, where possible, candidates for appointed and elected office.
This presupposes the need to choose reliable sources of information by which to inform ourselves about current affairs and public issues. There is no honor or virtue in choosing deliberately to keep oneself in ignorance. On the contrary, it amounts to an abdication of responsibility in a democratic society such as those enjoyed by Church members in many parts of the world. Without a knowledge base we cannot carry out the scriptural injunction to seek diligently for good, honest and wise public officials (see Doctrine and Covenants 98:9-10).
"Speak evil of no man, . . . be no brawlers, but gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men."
In promoting good public policy and opposing the bad, we must be careful not to give place in our souls for rancor, incivility and discourtesy. Referring to American society, President Hinckley wrote: "There are issues that demand our earnest, inspired attention. But there is too much of fruitless carping and criticism in America. . . . If we will turn our time and talents away from vituperative criticism, away from constantly looking for evil, and will emphasize instead the greater good, America will continue to go forward with the blessing of the Almighty and stand as an ensign of strength and peace and generosity to all the world" (Standing for Something, New York: Three Rivers Press, p. 117).
In this inauguration month, we extend our best wishes to those who are assuming public office and urge good men and women to join hands in furthering the public good through government.