Sunday, April 11, 2010

Of the People, By the People and For the People

I've been on vacation this week with my family, and we travelled to Washington, DC, via Gettysburg. As a result, I've been more reflective about my country, its founding fathers and principles, and about my own political views.

This is my sixth trip to Washington DC, and my third in the last fifteen years (we've come about every five years with our kids; the last two at home are 13 and 9). For this trip and the last we stopped in Gettyburg on our way to DC, and this time, after a brief stop in Gettysburg, we ended up on the Mall in Washington the same day.

So we stood at sunset in the Lincoln Memorial, and reviewed together the words chiseled into the south wall of the monument, the text of Lincoln's Gettysburg address. Just hours before we had driven the self-guided tour across the fields of Gettysburg where thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers gave their lives in an astounding show of valor, and where the Union armies finally began to turn the war in favor of the north.

Lincoln's words on that occasion, elegant in their brevity, remind me of the source of our nation's strength, and cite the conflict that divided them: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."

He concludes indicating that the ground which they were dedicating as a cemetery had already been hallowed by the blood of the fallen, and suggests instead: "It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

At stake for Lincoln was the fate of the Union. In a presentation given in the National Museum of American History (one of the Smithsonians), we listened to a film which suggested for Lincoln his first priority was preservation of the Union, and all else came second to that priority as he prosecuted the war, and has he wrote and signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

In Lincoln we had, as happens through history, a man forged for a particular point in time, a man who rose to a challenge and faced it and led his nation through it. It was not without pain and sacrifice, as his Gettysburg address makes clear. And it was not without controversy, as his own assassination demonstrated. But through it our nation survived.

Today we find our public discourse mired in discontent. A duly elected president and members of a duly elected congress are enacting a health care plan they campaigned on. Yet there are those who feel their liberty is at risk because of government interference in their lives, and because of the implicit tax that the new health care legislation places on those who would otherwise choose not to be covered (and the actual tax increase on some to help pay the cost). Some feel that the political brinksmanship under which this new plan has been enacted diminishes its legitimacy (though the methodology is legal and has been used before). And to hear some commentators tell it, we are either on the road to ruin economically because of run-away costs (or their potential) or because of the loss of basic freedoms or both. There is stark argument about whether there is a right to health care, and whether there is a right to be free of it.

Indeed, I would not be surprised to see either side quote Lincoln to support their view. But for me the point of remembering Lincoln in this instance is that no war is needed. There is an established political process – in fact several – that will allow us to move forward peacefully (even if the discussions are rancorous). First, midterm elections will soon be upon us and voters once again will have the chance to exercise their franchise, just as they did when electing the present congress and president. Second, the court's check-and-balance of the legislature will allow some to test the correctness of the measure at hand and how it came to be.

I'm grateful to live in the country I do, knowing that this matter will sort itself out. The debate will continue to be vigorous, and I hope that the debate may proceed on its merits (though I am not so naïve as to believe it will limit itself to the merits of the matter, Elder Cook's counsel notwithstanding).

Mormons teach that there are blessings for those who live righteously, and the Book of Mormon promises that is especially so for those who live on the American continent. As a result, members of the LDS church have passionate views about politics. I've expressed before that there are not political litmus tests for worthiness, and I believe that is so. I also personally do not generally favor citing religious views to support political positions. But I am glad to know my fellow saints will engage in the debate with their countrymen. And I'm grateful to live in a country where the engagement of the citizenry continues to encourage a government of the people, by the people and for the people.


  1. Excellent post! I wish more people had your reasonable approach to this issue. All too often, I think, we forget that a true republic is founded on honest debate.

    I've missed your comments!

  2. This post is inspired in part by the constant complaints of one of my co-workers who travelled with me to Asia earlier this year. You would have thought the nation was ready to blow away like burnt ash to hear him talk.