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Achieving those unalienable rights

Posted: Wednesday, September 06, 2000

Editor's note: This column was not available for publication as scheduled last Friday.

There is an often-quoted statement in the Declaration of Independence attributed to the thought and pen of Thomas Jefferson. He declares "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed, by their creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness..." As we progress into the fall presidential political process I have been reflecting on the importance of these "unalienable rights." I listen to the speeches of political candidates in terms of how they plan to ensure that these rights are supported and sustained. So far I have heard a great deal about prosperity and its importance, but little about happiness.

In our society we enjoy great prosperity. All but the most destitute among us live princely lives in comparison with the citizens in many nations of the world. Our prosperity enables us to live lifestyles of affluence and indulgence. Consequently, there is a great inequality that becomes the engine that powers "the pursuit of happiness" in terms of what money can buy. There is a long shopping list that may include expensive clothes, beautiful jewelry, cars and trucks, homes and many other acquisitions. We compare what we have against what others have. If we have less there is motive to acquire more. However, the pleasure we derive from our affluence is only fleeting. The pursuit of pleasure cannot bring lasting happiness.

What is "happiness" if not pleasure? A 19th-century American prophet, Joseph Smith, answers this question in these terms: "Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof; if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God." Rather than being physically, financially or emotionally based, this definition of happiness would invoke the development of virtuous character attributes.

We live in a day of modern Pharisees and Sadducees. Anciently, Pharisees tended to teach the observance of a multiplicity of ceremonial rules, and to encourage self-sufficiency and spiritual pride. In the treatment of questions of religious observance, the Sadducees, on the other hand, held to the letter of the Mosaic law. They taught complete freedom of will in moral action. The Savior counseled his disciples to be wary of the doctrine of both. That counsel applies even today.

Part of the reason for the Savior's counsel was because there was a lack of understanding. He taught his disciples that there are two basic laws from which all others flow. These are the foundation principles of the pursuit of happiness. He taught, "Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord; And thou shall love the Love thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself."

When the focus of our lives centers in God and the Savior, we build a foundational strength of character. As life progresses, that strength of character, our eternal mentors' and our own, is the wellspring from which flows our ability and capacity to serve others. It is this capacity for service that connects us with others and ultimately is the greatest happiness to be found in life.

Unlike many other countries of the world, in our county we have the freedom to pursue happiness. Scripture declares that mankind are "that they might have joy." Thomas Jefferson knew that when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. He knew that all mankind are "endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." I am grateful beyond measure that I live in such a land and can choose those who will serve as champions of those basic and foundational principles.

H.F. "Britt" Gibson is the public affairs director in Juneau for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.



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