What is the Proper Role of Government Regarding Agency, Morality & Vices?

Agency, Vices and the Proper Role of Government: A Mormon Perspective on Liberty, Government, and Legislating Morality

Written/compiled by John Benson


“Mormonism” is the Gospel of Liberty, for it opens the door of freedom, and throws off the fetters of bondage. I bear my testimony to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed by the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Elder Ezra T. Benson


In my search for understanding correct principles and calling for righteous dominion of government in relation to the laws of man, and enforcement thereof; in support of agency and freedom, it is my desire to stand up for and promote truth and Liberty.

Book: Agency Vices and the Proper Role of Government

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In this writing I am attempting to illustrate the just and righteous relation of earthly government and its responsibilities, if any, in regards to debauchery and vices (i.e. gambling, liquor, pornography, prostitution, etc.). I approach this primarily based on the teachings of the prophets and apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as other notable individuals. I recognize the potential inherent fallacies in such an “appeal to authority”, nevertheless, I present the following for your consideration.

While this book does not attempt to present the historical statistical data regarding the impact of vices and debaucheries on a community, many of the statements contained within are presented based on the evidence of such influences.

Most of the statements contained within this book encompass the following topics:

  • Government regulation of vices and debauchery
  • Do debauchery and vices violate the rights of others?
  • Should a distinction be made between public and private vices?
  • The effect of vices and debaucheries on a community
  • Moral agency and liberty
  • Freedom versus license
  • The proper role of government
  • and more

In some cases I have quoted large portions of talks and articles, in order to maintain the context in which the statements were given, and not to leave out anything relevant and important. As such, for added emphasis, I have bolded certain parts of each statement.


William Blackstone:

Let a man therefore be ever so abandoned in his principles, or vicious in his practice, provided he keeps his wickedness to himself, and does not offend against the rules of public decency, he is out of the reach of human laws. But if he makes his vices public, though they be such as seem principally to affect himself, they then become by the bad example they set, of pernicious effects to society; and therefore it is then the business of human laws to correct them

(The Absolute Rights of Individuals. 1753)

George Washington:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports… And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.

(Washington’s Farewell Address. 1796)

John Locke:

The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings, capable of laws, where there is no law there is no freedom. For liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others, which cannot be where there is no law; and is not, as we are told, ‘a liberty for every man to do what he lists.’ For who could be free, when every other man’s humour might domineer over him? But a liberty to dispose and order freely as he lists his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property within the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.

(Two Treatises of Civil Government. 1689)

James Q. Wilson:

Without Liberty, Law loses its nature and its name, and becomes oppression. Without Law, Liberty also loses its nature and its name, and becomes licentiousness.

(Lectures on Law. 1790)

David O. McKay:

I mentioned Communism in its war against individual liberty and free enterprise as surreptitiously sowing poisonous seeds within the body politic. It is also from within, morally speaking, that our cities become corrupt, not from outward, open assaults on virtue, but from insidious, corrupt actions of trusted individuals. Our government, as you know, has recently uncovered a gambling ring that covers a twenty billion dollar business in vice. Many large cities in the United States are connected with it and contaminated by it.

Too many of these city officials license darkened rooms wherein men and women, and not infrequently teenage boys and girls, may guzzle beer and whiskey and indulge in other vices sought by persons of low ideals. For the permission and perpetuation of such dens of iniquity in our cities, the public is not entirely free from blame. However, those who are elected to office – commissioners, peace officers, trusted servants of the people – are most directly responsible.

Generally speaking, these men are honest in their intentions and actions to enforce the laws and if possible to eradicate, at least to reduce to a minimum, the evils upon which the underworld thrives. One or two, or a half a dozen unprincipled men, however, can frustrate the most earnest efforts of the upright officials. For example, officers informed that minors are permitted to enter a certain “joint” will find when they get to the place that the proprietor has been “tipped off” and seemingly everything is within the law.

If and when appreciation for such “tips-off,” and other favors, is expressed in secretive payments of money, those participating in the graft may meet in a room, a club, or in a private residence, ostensibly to play a social game of poker and under this guise divide their ill-gotten gains. Thus do our cities, as individuals, become corrupt from within.

Such exploitation of the poor unfortunates whose thoughts and desires lead them only to gratify their appetites, indulge their passions to exist by deceit, cunning, and crime, are among the corruptions that Peter says “are in the world through lust.”

Let us always remember that, “there is no vice so great but we can kill and conquer it if we but will”.

(The Transforming Power of Faith in Jesus Christ. April 1951)

Heber J. Grant:

In conference encouraging government prohibition of liquor…

With the intelligence with which God has endowed me, I believe, beyond the peradventure of a doubt that more evil, suffering and crime has come into the world by the use of intoxicating liquors, and more misery has been brought into homes of the people, many, many times over, than was ever caused by slavery. I believe that the greatest financial, the greatest moral problem that is before the people of the United States today is this liquor problem. I regret exceedingly that the first state-wide “white” spot upon the map of the United States was not made by the State of Utah.

(LDS General Conference. April 1914)

Heber J. Grant:

Again, in conference, arguing for government prohibition of alcohol…

I believe that it will require the force of the whole people, men and women, applied at the ballot box, to effectually blot out of existence the great curse to the country, ‘The laws that license and permit the sale of alcohol as a beverage.’ I deny the right of the government to sell to one citizen the privilege to tempt another to commit crime. I doubt the policy of those laws that seek to raise a revenue by the sale of that which debases the people, it is the prolific source of crime and pauperism, and costs the country annually a thousand times more than the revenue received therefrom. I deny the justice of those laws that on one page of the statute books legalize that which promotes crimes and makes criminals, and on the next, provide severe penalties to be administered to those they have tempted to transgress. This little volume [larger than our large edition of the Doctrine and Covenants] is presented to the public to promulgate those views. They may be thought radical, and perhaps are so; but they are the result of long years of experience in our criminal courts, and are but a feeble expression of my abhorrence of the vice of intemperance, and the laws that encourage and promote it.”

(LDS General Conference. April 1916)

Stephen L. Richards:

Is there an established way or order? Under the law the answer must be yes – at least to the extent that the law covers the ways of life. The Ten Commandments is not a legal document, but its principles are all incorporated into the law by means of penalties prescribed for infraction of these commandments, at least so far as violations of the commandments may be manifest in social behavior.

Would it not be a great gain in winning respect for the law to make it more clear that the laws of the land in the main have their origin in divine pronouncements, and that in the main they win approval only as they conform to such generally accepted standards of morality and righteousness? Is that not the vital distinction between democracy and communism? The test of democratic law has always been, and will continue to be, is it right in accordance with revealed principles of righteousness? The test of communistic law seems to be, is it effective in the maintenance of controls superimposed by arbitrary authority? It seems to be of no concern that there is no conformity to divine principles of human conduct, and no recognition of divinity as well.

Could we help wayward youth if we confronted each one with wayward tendencies with these forthright questions: “Are you a communist and an anarchist? Is it your purpose to overthrow the government and forfeit all the safeguards, the rights, and liberties derived from our ancestors who fought so valiantly and made so many sacrifices for the free society we now enjoy? Are you an atheist? Do you believe there is no divine source of right and wrong? Would you like to see this country of ours, and other peace-loving democratic countries, turned over to communistic domination and dictatorship? You should know that vice and crime in sufficiently extended proportions can do that without a single foreign bomb being exploded in our territory. Vice and crime are rebellion. They can bring on war as devastating as that between states, and they have able and clever leadership, for their general is the father of lies, the author of clever seductions and enticements, the deceiver, the adversary, the opponent of all that is good and virtuous. That leader is Satan, given power to tempt humanity in mortality that they may develop resistance and strength. They who follow his lead, though they may think themselves tough, are weaklings without resistance. They are without vision. If they had vision, they could see and understand the gravity and the futility of their offenses, and they would be able to see prison walls stronger and more impenetrable than those built of steel and concrete which will separate them from all the finer things of life-family, friends, the love of God and fellow men.

Washington said that morality and religion were the firmest props of government. I say morality – private morality – is indispensable to a good society rounded on happy homes in nations of freedom. One of the disappointments that has come to me in the observation of our political life is that all too frequently our citizens are prone to tolerate private immorality in public office, and that by comity neither side will accuse the other. I do not make this indictment general, but I firmly believe that there are a sufficient number of cases of hypocritical living in public affairs, and a sufficient number of instances of infidelity in the homes of the land, exposed and unexposed, as to have furnished an example for youth which has not been encouraging. The need of the hour is for good example and good teaching, and teaching is very difficult without the fortification of example.

I humbly pray that all the forces at our command, the home, the church, the school, the government, and the exemplars of the nation, shall all combine to show wayward youth the right way, which is God’s way.

(The Wayward. LDS General Conference. April 1957)

Robert D. Hales:

I would also like to pose the problem that the total freedom of one person may be an oppression of another’s freedom. And I ask this question: Should we tolerate an individual’s saying, printing, and doing whatever he wants (and say that he deserves freedom) without bounds or restraints of any moral sensibilities? Let’s think about that for a moment. That does not seem to be an easy question, but the answer is easy. A justice of the Supreme Court summed the problem up this way, in essence, after the court had worked for weeks trying to come up with a definition of pornography: We cannot agree on what the legal definition of pornography is, but show it to us and we know what it is…

…When a person sitting next to you on an airplane asks, “Do you mind if I smoke?” it is easy to say, “I really would.” The shock on his face comes from the fact that he usually has the cigarette out and a match lit. But when you exercise your rights, he pauses, and then you can start telling him why you do not smoke and explaining a few of your own beliefs. He will enjoy it. Nobody wants to offend knowingly, but smoking is a conditioned reflex…

Too often we think of free agency as something that lets us do what we want. We know that this idea is not true; we have found that out in life

Oh, my brothers and sisters, the commandments of our Heavenly Father are there for one reason; they are there for one purpose – to save us from those things that will ultimately destroy us.

Brothers and sisters, let us ask ourselves about moral laws. Why are they there? They are there for one reason: to protect us. Do you realize what happens in your life when you get diverted on moral issues? Your whole eternal progress changes. You have to wait until you can repent and come back, and valuable time is lost in your progression. There is nothing as dangerous as a fallen lighthouse.

(Freedom and Personal Liberty. BYU, 6 July 1975.)

Ezra Taft Benson:

Only a moral and religious people deserve or will defend their freedom.

Edmund Burke stated it well when he said:

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites—in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity;—in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption;—in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon the will and appetite is placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

(America’s Challenge. God, Family, Country: Our Three Great Loyalties. 1974)

D. Todd Christofferson:

Let us pause and note that freedom of choice is the freedom to obey or disobey existing laws – not the freedom to alter their consequences. Law, as mentioned earlier, exists as a foundational element of moral agency with fixed outcomes that do not vary according to our opinions or preferences. Elder Dallin H. Oaks observed in a devotional talk here that “we are responsible to use our agency in a world of choices. It will not do to pretend that our agency has been taken away when we are not free to exercise it without unwelcome consequences.

(Moral Agency. BYU, 31 January 2006)

Neal A. Maxwell:

Q: But clearly we cannot legislate morality!

A: No, we cannot pass a bill declaring all individuals righteous and assume that all people will then meet celestial criteria. But legislation can clearly affect the climate in which individual morality either flourishes or declines.

Q: Is such climate-building basically all that a legislative body can do, morally?

A: No, for legislative and executive departments can mandate certain minimum standards of behavior. That is much more than tone-setting. Murder and child-beating are thus not only unacceptable but illegal and punishable as well.

What we are seeing now in so many situations is a more rigorous setting of standards for commercial relationships, but also a simultaneous, cheek-by-jowl retreat from standard setting in personal behavior. This is somewhat like building more lifeboats and de-emphasizing swimming lessons. Rescue work involves both, but prevention by self-discipline is more efficient and less costly than correction by external controls. Living one preventive principle is better than a hundred remedial governmental programs.

To assume that because all things cannot be legislated, therefore nothing can be legislated, is a dangerous delusion. Take something as simple as child labor laws, which helped to correct some of the grim abuses in child labor decades ago. Now, ironically, we are in a situation in which there are often too few chances for youth to work. Parenthetically, our very affluence has created many incentives not to work; more and more idlers are eating bread that belongs to workers. The secular way in which we seek to solve one problem perpetually creates another. Work is a basic need, not only economically but also spiritually. Sometimes we are too clever by half.

Incidentally, those who say dogmatically that morality can’t be legislated turn about and say dogmatically that total welfare can be legislated! In the long run, the welfare state operates against human welfare, particularly our precious agency, but the pathology may take a few decades to become visible. I’m reminded of the vaunted guns of Singapore, which “guaranteed” the security of that port city. The trouble was, the guns fired seaward only, and Singapore was taken by land. Such myopia is not the exclusive property of military planners, but among all planners without principles.

(LDS General Conference. April 1999)

M. Russell Ballard:

To remove religious influence from public policy simply because some are uncomfortable with any degree of moral restraint is like the passenger on a sinking ship who removes his life jacket because it is restrictive and uncomfortable.

Religion represents society’s conscience, and must speak out when government chooses a course that is contrary to the laws of God.

I believe [Washington] would have been troubled to see a time when citizens are forbidden to pray in public meetings; when people claim that “you can’t legislate morality,” as if any law ever passed did not have at its heart some notion of right and wrong; when churches are called intruders when they speak out against public policy that is contrary to the commandments of God; when many people reject the correcting influence of churches if it infringes on daily living; when religion is accepted as a social organization but not as an integral part of national culture; when people bristle if representatives of churches speak in any forum except from the pulpit.

Indeed, some people now claim that the Founding Fathers’ worst fear in connection with religion has been realized; that we have, in fact, a state-sponsored religion in America today. This new religion, adopted by many, does not have an identifiable name, but it operates just like a church. It exists in the form of doctrines and beliefs, where morality is whatever a person wants it to be, and where freedom is derived from the ideas of man and not the laws of God. Many people adhere to this concept of morality with religious zeal and fervor, and courts and legislatures tend to support it.

We see a sad reality of contemporary life when many of the same people who defend the right of a pornographer to distribute exploitive films and photos would deny freedom of expression to people of faith because of an alleged fear of what might happen from religious influence on government or public meetings.

(Religion in a Free Society. Freedom Festival, Provo, UT. 5 July 1992)

James E. Faust:

All immoral behavior directly impacts society. Even innocent people are affected. Drug and alcohol abuse have public consequences, as do illegitimacy, pornography, and obscenity. The public cost in human life and tax dollars for these so-called private choices is enormous: poverty, crime, a less-educated work force, and mounting demands for government spending to fix problems that cannot be fixed by money. It simply is not true that our private conduct is our own business. Our society is the sum total of what millions of individuals do in their private lives. That sum total of private behavior has worldwide public consequences of enormous magnitude. There are no completely private choices.

Second, adults and children need to know that public and private morality is not outmoded. We need to love our children enough to teach them that laws, policies, and public programs with a moral and ethical basis are necessary for the preservation of a peaceful, productive, compassionate, and happy society. Without the qualities and characteristics of integrity, honesty, commitment, loyalty, respect for others, fidelity, and virtue, a free and open society cannot endure.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks recently responded to those who say, “Don’t legislate morality.” Said Elder Oaks: “I suppose persons who mouth that familiar slogan think they are saying something profound. In fact, if that is an argument at all, it is so superficial that an educated person should be ashamed to use it. As should be evident to every thinking person, a high proportion of all legislation has a moral base. That is true of the criminal law, most of the laws regulating family relations, businesses, and commercial transactions, many of the laws governing property, and a host of others”.

(Will I Be Happy?. Ensign, May 1987)

First Presidency Letter (1886):

There are now in the city some six Brothels, forty Tap Rooms, a number of Gambling Houses, Pool Tables, and other disreputable concerns, all run by non-Mormons.

But for the presence of those who are constantly making war upon us, our city would be free from the contaminating influences of houses of prostitution, gambling houses, dram shops and other such death-dealing concerns, and the taxes would be greatly reduced. But, as it is, the “Mormons” are found to pay a liberal tax in support of the laws against the lawlessness of their non-tax paying enemies. Every other town, city and county in the Territory, and all the jails and the Utah penitentiary, show even a much cleaner record in favor of the “Mormons” than the foregoing exhibit portrays.

(Epistle to Saints in General Conference. March, 1886)

Dallin H. Oaks:

So what does it mean when a person says, “Don’t try to legislate morality“? There is ample room for debate on the wisdom of most legislation, whether it has a moral base or not. Some legislation is unwise or undesirable because it is an excessive interference with liberty or because it will be impossible or expensive to enforce. But the mere statement that we should not legislate morality contributes nothing to reasoned public discourse.

I conclude this discussion of public policy arguments against gambling with several moral objections. Law is concerned about morality, and there are serious legal-moral objections to state lotteries. I quote five of these objections from a publication of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Commission:

It is a moral issue when the state decides to derive income from an activity which is a highly regressive form of taxation that affects poor people more extensively than affluent people.

It is a moral issue when a state decides not only to tolerate gambling but to get in the business of planning games, engaging in promotional activities… and targeting its citizens through extensive marketing analyses in the hopes of creating new gamblers…

It is a moral issue when a state adopts a form of gambling which in all probability will increase the extent and the amount of illegal gambling.

It is a moral issue when a state adopts a form of gambling that will draw off large amounts of money, especially from the poor people for whom the state supposedly has a responsibility to provide assistance.

It is a moral issue when a state engages in naive projections and adopts financial planning that amounts to putting a shoddy patch on a state’s long-term financial problems.

To summarize: That governments would tolerate gambling is regrettable; that governments would promote gambling is reprehensible.

So what should Latter-day Saints do about gambling? They should not participate in any way, and they should encourage others, especially their family members, not to participate.

What should Latter-day Saints do about state-sponsored lotteries, present or proposed? The First Presidency answered that question in their statement last fall: “We urge members of the Church to join with others with similar concerns in opposing the legalization and government sponsorship of lotteries.

If members of our Church do not oppose immoral and pernicious practices, who will? If not now, when? We can make a difference! May God help us to do so.

(Gambling Is Morally Wrong and Politically Unwise. March 1987)

Published in The Contributor:

The state, as we view it in its organized condition, consists of all classes without regard to beliefs or even morality of conduct, and its authority in a federal or a republican form of government, that which is derived from the people over which the government extends. Such a government can be no more perfect than the source of its authority. The combined wisdom of man in the highest development of humanity has not been able to offer perfection either in law or administration to its subjects.

The church, established upon the revelations of God, and by His authority, must have precedence over all other organizations affecting the welfare of humanity. All other governments can have no legitimate object or purpose but to aid and assist man in keeping the divine law; and to encourage and even coerce obedience to laws in unison with the divine law, but in no case to hinder, much less to prohibit the keeping of any divine law, ordinance, or precept. These facts accepted it is not difficult to determine the duties devolving upon state governments and their rights in relation to their subjects.

It is said there must be no union between church and state, but this is in one sense a false statement not consistent with the facts. False theories entertained lead to false conclusions. The state is a community invested with authority to compel right and justice to be done. The fact that there are men in all communities who will not voluntarily perform either their personal or social duties, who will both disregard and violate the rights of others, makes the state a necessity. It has within its jurisdiction all these individual members who constitute the church, and each of whom belongs to the community. There must of necessity be a union of interests, which should in all consistency demand a concert of action, all tending to the development, culture and perfection of the human soul, which never can be attained without a knowledge of that higher law, so productive of intelligence, civilization and religion. It then becomes the duty of the state to encourage the highest possible development of its subjects, in their appreciation and discernment of right and wrong, rewarding the right and punishing the wrongdoer as determined by the highest law revealed to man.

No state has a right to enforce a law contrary to God’s law so long as its subjects recognize Him in their faith and acts as the Creator and moral governor of this universe. He has created man subject to law, clothed him with rights, and laid upon him duties. He must obey God’s laws and discharge his duties, or suffer penalties if he does not. If all men obeyed the laws of the divine government, no other government would be necessary. The object of all earthly governments would be attained under the divine government. There would be no wrongs to right, no duty to enforce, no rights to forcibly defend; the recognition of every right, the performance of every duty would be universal, no rights violated, no wrongs committed.

Rights and duties do exist independent of the state; they are rights and duties coming from God. The state must recognize these rights and duties, must maintain the one and enforce the other. Right and justice as determined by divine law, are derived from God. The admission of a God in morality implies all this and nothing less than this. St. Paul recognizes all civil authority as being ordained of God; all authority having a legal standpoint as coming from Him must therefore exist by divine appointment and for a specific purpose. The state is not absolute or arbitrary. Its duty is to protect men in the enjoyment of those inalienable rights with which God has clothed them to enable each to perform his whole duty. The state is under law as well as the individuals of which it is composed. There is a law higher than the state, the law of God, by which it must be governed if it will continue legitimate. This illustrates the correct view of what is called the higher law, and this law the state, can no more violate than individuals. If God has laid certain duties on individuals, on the family, on the community, these duties must be performed, nor can the state interfere to prevent their being discharged; if it could, then through its action all of God’s laws might be got rid of and humanity be freed from duty to God. If the law of God says “thou shalt not steal”, “thou shalt not commit murder”; the state must declare the same things; it cannot enact that man shall steal and murder; it must not legislate in opposition to divine law. So in relation to all of man’s duties, and this morality involved by keeping or not keeping the law given for man’s moral regeneration and perfection.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were declared by the Constitution our fathers framed to be among the inalienable rights of men. This pursuit of happiness demands liberty of conscience, without which no man’s moral or spiritual nature can be developed. Any infringement upon the right of conscience is followed with the penalty of unhappiness and misery. The state can pass no law, nor require any act of its citizens, that shall deprive them of any liberty of conscience. It was in view of this important fact that the amendment to the Constitution was so framed as to prohibit any action on the part of Congress that should prevent the free exercise of conscience in all matters of religious faith. This right and liberty of conscience is a God given right to enable man to perform his duty to God. The state cannot perform that duty for him, nor legally restrain him from doing all that His God requires. This he must do or forfeit God’s favor. God’s law to man is “Multiply and replenish the earth;” and He reveals the laws and ordinances by which it shall be done. The state has no right to enact that it shall not be done, or that it may be done in any other way than that which He has ordained. The duties and rights between husband and wife cannot be lawfully changed or impaired; no civil power can create in either the right to violate marital duties which are established by the divine law.

(The Contributor. Volume 5, 1884)

Edwin Brown Firmage:

The Latter-day Saint belief in man’s uncreated individuality and in the sanctity of his agency – an agency so sacrosanct that God himself will not infringe upon it – denies the legitimacy of force as a means of attaining the community’s ends. Man’s goal is seen as being the perfection of his individuality in the image of his Heavenly Father, until he is able to enjoy a celestial community. The attainment of such a goal, however, can only be accomplished by loving persuasion, not by force.

(Ensign. June 1976)

Milton Bennion:

Free agency means that a man may serve either God or the devil, without external compulsion. How can a man be compelled to serve the one or the other? It must, in the nature of the case, be a matter for free choice. He has his free agency to commit all sorts of crime, even to murder. But he will very soon learn that he has no legal right to do so.

(Concerning the Education of Young Men. Improvement Era. April 1906)

Rulon S. Wells:

There is no virtue in doing good under compulsion and likewise there is no vice in doing evil under compulsion. And, furthermore, if we had no knowledge of good and evil, sin would be impossible. Where there is no law there can be no condemnation. We are only responsible for that which we do in the exercise of our free agency, and according to the light or knowledge of good and evil, which has been given us.

(LDS General Conference. April 1935)

John Taylor:

The legislators of all civilized nations have seen the necessity of sustaining these things, and consequently have passed, generally, very rigid laws for the protection of female virtue, and the support of the marriage contract. Hence Acts have been passed and enforced, disinheriting those who were not born in wedlock. This, in some instances, has produced a salutary effect. Ministers of the various churches have also used their influence, in a great measure, in support of virtuous principles. These have had their effect in assisting to stem the torrent of iniquity. But as the nations themselves have forsaken God, how can they expect to stop this crying evil; for the very legislators who pass these laws are in many instances guilty themselves; and when kings, princes, and rulers, corrupt themselves, how can they expect the people to be pure? for no matter how rigid law may be, corrupt persons will always find means to evade it. And, indeed, so far have these abominations gone, that it seems to be an admitted fact, that these things cannot be controlled; and, although there are laws relative to matrimonial alliances, yet there are some nations, called Christian, who actually give licence for prostitution, and all the degradation and misery associated with it.

(The Government of God. 1852)

Brigham Young:

Well, I will say that our religion is nothing more nor less than the true order of heaven—the system of laws by which the Gods and the angels are governed. Are they governed by law? Certainly. There is no being in all the eternities but what is governed by law. Who is it who desires to have liberty and no law? They who are from beneath. This is what Lucifer, the Son of the Morning, wanted.

He wanted to save the world without law, to redeem the [p. 281a]world without order. There must be law, order, rules and regulations; there must be a system of government; and, to have a kingdom of God on the earth, there must be a king, and subjects to rule, and territory for those subjects to dwell upon. These things comprise the kingdom of God, the embryo of which is now being formed by the Latter-day Saints, by the will of the Father, by the power of God; and they will endure and truth will prevail, and we need not be afraid as to the result.

Well, I will say that our religion is nothing more nor less than the true order of heaven – the system of laws by which the Gods and the angels are governed. Are they governed by law? Certainly. There is no being in all the eternities but what is governed by law. Who is it who desires to have liberty and no law? … There must be law, order, rules and regulations; there must be a system of government. ..and they will endure and truth will prevail, and we need not be afraid as to the result.

(Journal of Discourses Vol. 14. July 3, 1870)

Hyrum Andrus:

Joseph Smith held that there was a limit to what the state could successfully accomplish, or what man should attempt to accomplish through the state. “The laws of men may guarantee to a people protection in the honorable pursuits of this life, and the temporal happiness arising from a protection against unjust insults and injustices,” he wrote of the state; “and when this is said, all is said, that can be in truth, of the power, extent, and influence of the laws of men, exclusive of the law of God.”

Nephite prophets were not confused on the basic principles of freedom and government. It was not the function of the state to legislate righteousness or establish social and economic justice, except as it had an indirect bearing on these objectives by the maintenance of freedom and civil justice. By teaching the law of God and applying it to the social and economic areas of society, Nephite prophets sought to raise a true standard of spiritual, moral, and social precepts that would persuade the people by an inward motivation to reform society according to Christian principles. When Alma, as High Priest over the Church and Chief Judge over the Nephite nation, confronted a situation of “great inequality among the people,” he did not seek a solution through the state, though being Chief Judge he could have. Instead, he resigned his political office in favor of “a wise man” who would “enact laws … and … put them in force according to the wickedness and the crimes of the people.” In this action, he shored up the state in its role of establishing freedom and civil justice. Alma then went “among the people of Nephi, that he might preach the word of God unto them, to stir them up in remembrance to their duty, and that he might pull down, by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among his people, seeing no way that he might reclaim them save it were in bearing down in pure testimony against them.”

Man was not to be free merely out of respect for another’s diverging opinions. This was not freedom, but tolerance. Man was to be free because God gave him agency as a principle concomitant to the life within him. “We deem it a just principle, and it is one the force of which we believe ought to be duly considered by every individual, that all men … have the privilege of thinking for themselves upon all matters relative to conscience,” Joseph Smith wrote. “Consequently, then, we are not disposed, had we the power, to deprive any one of exercising that free independence of mind which heaven has so graciously bestowed upon the human family as one of its choicest gifts.” In full accord with the Prophet, Brigham Young said: “The Creator has given agency to every son and daughter of Adam, and he does not infringe upon our agency. We are at liberty to believe in him and in his son Jesus Christ, or to let it alone.”

But freedom was not license. Though man would not be forced to do right, he was subject to the penalty of broken law. “Many are disposed through their own wickedness ‘to do as I damned please,'” Brigham Young observed, then added: “and they are damned.”

The volition of the creature is free, to do good or to do evil; but we are responsible to God for our acts, as man is responsible to man if he breaks the laws which man enacts. When we boast of our independence to act, it would be well for us to remember that we are bounded by these limits; if we transcend them and violate the laws of God, and man, we shall sooner or later be made to suffer the penalty without any reference to our choice whether we are willing to suffer that penalty or not. Hence, true independence and freedom can only exist in doing right.

…the Prophet reflected the philosophy of freedom within the kingdom of God. Brigham Young declared:

Go into the world … and tell them plainly that the law of God is going to be the law of the land, and they would be terrified… But tell them that the law of liberty, and equal rights to every person, would prevail and they could understand that, for it is according to the Constitution of our country

The Holy Priesthood and the laws thereof .. will secure the rights of men… You can believe in one God, or in three gods, or in a thousand gods; you can worship the sun or the moon, or a stick or a stone, or anything you please… They can do as they please, so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of their fellow beings.

(Doctrines of the Kingdom: The Government of God)

Spencer W. Kimball:

God will not be mocked. His laws are immutable. True repentance is rewarded by forgiveness, but sin brings the sting of death.

We hear more and more each day about the sins of adultery, homosexuality, and lesbianism. Homosexuality is an ugly sin, but because of its prevalence, the need to warn the uninitiated, and the desire to help those who may already be involved with it, it must be brought into the open.

It is the sin of the ages. It was present in Israel’s wandering as well as after and before. It was tolerated by the Greeks. It was prevalent in decaying Rome. The ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are symbols of wretched wickedness more especially related to this perversion, as the incident of Lot’s visitors indicates.

There is today a strong clamor to make such practices legal by passing legislation. Some would also legislate to legalize prostitution. They have legalized abortion, seeking to remove from this heinous crime the stigma of sin.

We do not hesitate to tell the world that the cure for these evils is not in surrender.

“But let us emphasize that right and wrong, righteousness and sin, are not dependent upon man’s interpretations, conventions and attitudes. Social acceptance does not change the status of an act, making wrong into right. If all the people in the world were to accept homosexuality, … the practice would still be a deep, dark sin.” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, Bookcraft, p. 79.)

As we think back upon the experiences of Nineveh, Babylon, Sodom and Gomorrah, we wonder—will history repeat itself? What of our world today? Are we forgetting in our great nations the high and lofty principles which can preserve the nations?

(The Foundations of Righteousness. Ensign. November 1977)

Ezra Taft Benson:

We must defend our youth, in the interests of this nation which God has blessed above all others. We must rise to this task, stand up and be counted on the side of decency. We must show by our lives and actions that we possess the virtues that made America great.

There will be those who will cry “censorship” and “suppressing of freedom of information.” To these people there does not seem to be any difference between liberty and license – but there is a real difference. It is not a denial of liberty to forbid the sale of narcotics or alcohol to children, and neither is it a denial of liberty to ban the distribution of filthy, obscene, character-destroying materials.

(LDS General Conference. October 1959)

Ezra Taft Benson:

There is a conspiracy of evil. The source of it all is Satan and his hosts. He has a great power over men to “lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken” to the voice of the Lord (Moses 4:4). His evil influence may be manifest through governments; through false educational, political, economic, religious, and social philosophies; through secret societies and organizations; and through myriads of other forms. His power and influence are so great that, if possible, he would deceive the very elect (see Matthew 24:24). As the second coming of the Lord approaches, Satan’s work will intensify through numerous insidious deceptions.

(LDS General Conference. April 1978)

Ezra Taft Benson:

Many parents, in and out of the Church, are concerned about security against a cascading avalanche of wickedness which threatens to engulf Christian principles. I refer to bold and stark “best sellers” that exploit adulterous confessions, open declarations of atheism, so-called “gay rights,” and other vulgar displays of debauchery. When decent people resist such encroachments into their community, accusations are made that civil liberties authorized by the Constitution are being curbed. And sometimes these fallacious arguments are upheld by the courts. Concerned people rightfully ask, “Is there no protection?” (“Latter-day Temples: Beacons to a Darkened World,” Jordan River Utah Temple Groundbreaking, 9 June 1979.)

…The nations of the earth continue in their sinful and unrighteous ways

There has developed in this country, I am sorry to say, a species of so-called “broadmindedness” which tolerates anything and everything. It is high time right-thinking citizens showed they are fed up with such false broadmindedness. I for one fail to see where this so-called “tolerance” of evil has made society any better or individuals any happier. We cannot steer a safe course without a compass. We cannot build an enduring society except on principles of righteousness. (So Shall Ye Reap, pp. 202-3.)

(The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson. January 1988)

David B. Haight:

Perhaps we have been intimidated by those who claim that producing, distributing, and using obscene materials is a basic right to be defended. This is not true. Even under the divinely inspired constitutional principles of this land, obscenity is not condoned nor protected. The United States Supreme Court has clearly held that criminal prosecution of those who produce and distribute obscene materials does not violate their First Amendment rights (Miller V. California, 413 US 15 [1973]).

This spreading evil has been aided by a failure to enforce laws designed to prohibit or regulate it.

(LDS General Conference. October 1984)

D. Todd Christofferson:

The societies in which many of us live have for more than a generation failed to foster moral discipline. They have taught that truth is relative and that everyone decides for himself or herself what is right. Concepts such as sin and wrong have been condemned as “value judgments.” As the Lord describes it, “Every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god” (D&C 1:16).

As a consequence, self-discipline has eroded and societies are left to try to maintain order and civility by compulsion. The lack of internal control by individuals breeds external control by governments. One columnist observed that “gentlemanly behavior [for example, once] protected women from coarse behavior. Today, we expect sexual harassment laws to restrain coarse behavior.

Policemen and laws can never replace customs, traditions and moral values as a means for regulating human behavior. At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society. Our increased reliance on laws to regulate behavior is a measure of how uncivilized we’ve become.

(Moral Discipline. Ensign, November 2009)

Robert D. Hales:

Although the devil laughs, his power is limited. Some may remember the old adage: “The devil made me do it.” Today I want to convey, in absolutely certain terms, that the adversary cannot make us do anything. He does lie at our door, as the scriptures say, and he follows us each day. Every time we go out, every decision we make, we are either choosing to move in his direction or in the direction of our Savior. But the adversary must depart if we tell him to depart. He cannot influence us unless we allow him to do so, and he knows that! The only time he can affect our minds and bodies—our very spirits—is when we allow him to do so. In other words, we do not have to succumb to his enticements!

We have been given agency, we have been given the blessings of the priesthood, and we have been given the Light of Christ and the Holy Ghost for a reason… In these latter days, as in the times of old, we must avoid being acted upon by acting for ourselves to avoid evil. The Holy Ghost will prompt us.

But if we ignore those promptings, the light of the Spirit will fade. Our agency will be limited or lost, and we will lose the confidence and ability to act. We will be “walking in [spiritual] darkness at noon-day.” Then how easy it is to wander into strange paths and become lost! How quickly we are bound in the chains of sin spoken of by Lehi to his rebellious sons. For example, if we make choices that put us deeply in debt, we will lose our agency to meet our wants and needs or to save for that inevitable rainy day. If we choose to break the law, we may be put in prison, where our agency is so limited that we cannot choose where we go, who we see, or what we do. Spirit prison is very much like that. Therefore, to retain our agency we must daily walk in the light of our Lord and Savior and follow the path of obedience. It is the only path that leads to our Father in Heaven.

(To Act for Ourselves:The Gift and Blessings of Agency. LDS General Conference, April 2006)

Sterling W. Sill:

Unless we deliberately distort our own intelligence, turn off our reason, and smother the whispering of the Spirit, we cannot help but know right from wrong and good from evil. We are intelligent people.

We can all know that we ought to honor our parents and that we ought to obey God rather than man. No one has a right to do wrong. We are not free to conduct ourselves as we please. What we do is the business of every other person in the world. We distort our own intelligence and deceive ourselves when we sin against our own conscience. Many of our most serious sins are not written in the statute books. For example, just think what great errors we make when we sin against reason, against intuition, and against instinct. And one of our greatest sins is when we sin against knowledge.

In order to keep our freedom, we must place out of bounds all those things that would enslave us. James says: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7.) Sometimes people bring disaster upon themselves when they fail to distinguish between freedom and irresponsibility, not recognizing that the right kind of freedom has limitations on it. For example, freedom of the press does not give anyone the license to commit libel against his neighbor. Freedom of the seas does not give anyone a pirate’s license to take the treasures of others, not does it entitle anyone to sink ships or destroy lives. A very important part of liberty consists in understanding where freedom ends and license begins.

A marriage certificate does not entitle one to ruin the success or destroy the happiness of his marriage partner. When one brings children into the world, he is not free to desert or neglect them. Actually, no one is ever given any right to do wrong. God has said, “For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.” (D&C 1:31.) He is completely bound by his own laws of righteousness. He said, “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say . . .” (D&C 82:10), and when we obey the laws of God, we begin to become free as God is free.

As we obey the laws of health, we free ourselves from disease. As we obey the laws of success, we free ourselves from failure. As we obey the laws of God and heaven, we free ourselves from the bonds of Satan and the torments of hell. Even Satan is not free, and sometime when he feels the full shock of the backfire of evil, he will discover he has paid a bitter price for his rebellion and sin.

(Wealth of Wisdom. 1977)

Boyd K. Packer:

…“Tell me,” she said, “how you are able to control your youth and build such character as we have seen in your young men?”

I was interested in her use of the word ‘control’. The answer, I told them, centered in the doctrines of the gospel. They were interested; so I spoke briefly of the doctrine of agency. I said we develop control by teaching freedom. Perhaps at first they thought we start at the wrong end of the subject. A four-star general is nothing if not a disciplinarian. But when one understands the gospel, it becomes very clear that the best control is self-control.

It may seem unusual at first to foster self-control by centering on freedom of choice, but it is a very sound doctrinal approach.

Some who do not understand the doctrinal part do not readily see the relationship between obedience and agency. And they miss one vital connection and see obedience only as restraint. They then resist the very thing that will give them true freedom. There is no true freedom without responsibility, and there is no enduring freedom without a knowledge of the truth. The Lord said, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31–32.)

The general quickly understood a truth that is missed even by some in the Church. Latter-day Saints are not obedient because they are compelled to be obedient. They are obedient because they know certain spiritual truths and have decided, as an expression of their own individual agency, to obey the commandments of God.

We are the sons and daughters of God, willing followers, disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and “under this head are [we] made free.” (Mosiah 5:8.)

Those who talk of blind obedience may appear to know many things, but they do not understand the doctrines of the gospel. There is an obedience that comes from a knowledge of the truth that transcends any external form of control. We are not obedient because we are blind, we are obedient because we can see. The best control, I repeat, is self-control.

The general knew then why we teach our children the doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ and where they get the resolute determination to protect individual freedom.

(Agency and Control. LDS General Conference, April 1983)

Marion G. Romney:

Just as following wrong alternatives restricts free agency and leads to slavery, so pursuing correct alternatives widens the scope of one’s agency and leads to perfect liberty. As a matter of fact, one may, by this process, obtain freedom of the soul while at the same time being denied political, economic, and personal liberty…

Freedom thus obtained – that is, by obedience to the law of Christ – is freedom of the soul, the highest form of liberty. And the most glorious thing about it is that it is within the reach of every one of us, regardless of what people about us, or even nations, do. All we have to do is learn the law of Christ and obey it. To learn it and obey it is the primary purpose of every soul’s mortal life.

(The Perfect Law of Liberty. LDS General Conference, October 1981)

Orson F. Whitney:

I know what your thoughts are. You are wondering, Is it possible that God will compel men to be saved? No. Compulsion is the doctrine of Lucifer; it is the doctrine of the German Kaiser, who stands upon the devil’s ground, compelling men to do his bidding. The doctrine of Jesus Christ is freedom, free agency, the right of choice. He is the God of freedom, his gospel is “the perfect law of liberty;” he is the God of this land, the land of liberty, and the only King who will ever rule over it. Read the Book of Mormon and be convinced.

(LDS General Conference, October 1917)

Joseph F. Smith:

What Is Liberty?

Let me tell you. It is simply the liberty of all mankind to worship God in righteousness; that is what it is; for all mankind to have the liberty to do right, the liberty to do good, the liberty to pursue happiness, in honor, in virtue and in uprightness. But it cannot for one moment descend in any degree to license or to infringement upon the rights of others. No man has any liberty to impose upon his brother, to rob or to steal, to lie or to bear false witness, or to injure or wrong his fellowmen.

We are not trying to defend the liberty of mankind to be drunken, to be debauchees, to advocate crime, to interfere with the rights of others. This is not liberty. The law of nations, as well as the law of God, prohibits it, and it cannot exist except it exist contrary to the laws of righteousness and contrary to the principles of liberty that we are willing to fight for and that we are striving for.

(LDS General Conference, April 1918)


As referenced throughout this book, civil and religious leaders alike have asked for individuals to call upon government to legislate debauchery and vices, such as prostitution, pornography, gambling and liquor. This book has also addressed the concepts of agency, freedom, liberty, and that man’s laws should mirror God’s law. Some, after reading this, may still choose to disagree on certain points and fortunately, you are free to disagree.

I propose that it is well within the righteous dominion of government to enact laws outlawing vices and that such regulations help to preserve our liberty and agency; not destroy agency or compel, coerce or force in any manner of unrighteousness.

Now, to ease some concerns and bring in a reminder of the reality regarding man-run government:

“I believe we Americans should use extreme care before lending our support to any proposed government program. We should fully recognize that government is no plaything. As George Washington warned, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence – it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master!” It is an instrument of force and unless our conscience is clear that we would not hesitate to put a man to death, put him in jail or forcibly deprive him of his property for failing to obey a given law, we should oppose it.” (Ezra Taft Benson – The Proper Role of Government)

Government is an instrument of force, and force – being a tool – is not necessarily good or bad, but can be used for wicked or righteous purposes. It is our duty, as citizens and as disciples of Christ, to always be found on the side of righteousness, and in supporting only those laws which uphold the principles of freedom and maintain the rights of man (D&C 98:5).

Ezra Taft Benson also stated that “heaven disapproves of force, coercion and intimidation”. This statement seems to contradict the possibility that government force can be used righteously. It seems to imply that because “heaven disapproves of force” and because “government is force” that heaven disapproves of government. We know that conclusion is not true. It is often in the seeming conflicts that we come across the greatest lessons. Ezra Taft Benson also stated that “every person has the right to defend – even by force – his person, his liberty, and his property”. I believe we can resolve the supposed contradiction by understanding that force, as a defensive measure, and especially in enacting the law of retribution, is justified, whereas preemptively force is not justified. Likewise, Ezra Taft Benson taught that it is wrong for government to “redistribute the wealth or force reluctant citizens to perform acts of charity against their will”.

Perhaps a simpler way to understand the principles revealed in this book is to state that a government can rightfully enforce laws punishing sins of commission (evil actions) but not sins of omission. Punishing the sin of murder, theft, deception, and debauchery, but not punishing someone for their lack of charity. Government force should operate defensively and therefore should not punish inaction, except in cases where there exists another clear responsibility, even an unwritten contract, to perform a certain duty, such as the responsibility of parents to provide for their children.

Where do we draw the line in what actions shall be punished by force of government? Fortunately under this republic established by our Constitution, the people and representatives of each state, and of each community, have reserved to themselves the power to make such decisions. Although it is not always convenient to relocate, we are also free to choose which state or local government we want to be subject to.

Book: Agency Vices and the Proper Role of Government

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Furthermore, legislating, regulating, or outlawing vices (as defined by the community) and proscribing a punishment to those who violate such laws, is not unrighteous dominion, or compulsion, and is not a destruction of agency. You are free to do as you please, you have agency to make a choice for good or evil, but there are inescapable consequences to all actions – and in some cases those consequences have been defined by society, and righteously done in accordance to God’s divine law. Government is not going to put a camera in your bedroom (let’s hope it doesn’t to get to that point) to make sure you aren’t doing evil acts in the privacy of your home, but if your vices are made public, you may face the consequences of the law (with due process of course). By obeying the law, your agency and freedom will be expanded. You are free to do as you choose, free to violate the law, but not free from the consequences. Only in choosing to obey righteous laws will you experience true Liberty and expanded agency.

Remember, the best form of control is self-control. What is the best way to achieve the desired results of a community free from sin and vice? Let us consider D&C 121:41-42:

“No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge…”

Let’s say we agree on the above points. How far should we go? What should we do? What laws should we support? This is where I believe it is important to take the correct approach and allow such issues to be handled at the lowest level of government that can possibly handle it. The greatest responsibility lies on the individual and families and then local governments. The State should only be called upon to get involved in those things that can’t be handled by the family or local government. The Federal government should be limited to those few powers granted to it in the Constitution.

For a better understanding of the proper role of government please refer to the talk by Ezra Taft Benson.


Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty

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