“The Constitution is, in short, a limitation on government. It accomplishes its governmental-authority-confining mission in two basic ways, and, with the exception of the Thirteenth Amendment, every provision of the Constitution, in my opinion, falls into either one or the other of these two categories of limitations on governmental power.
“The first category is the obvious one. The Constitution contains some fairly obvious, though not always specific, prohibitions concerning what government—federal, state, or local—can do to its citizens. Some of the most prominent are protections for the criminally accused, such as the privilege against self-incrimination, protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to counsel, and jury trial. The best known of the noncriminal protections are contained in the First Amendment, most of whose guarantees pertain to some form of free expression, and include freedom of speech and press, freedom of assembly, and the free exercise of religion. (Interestingly enough, the only nonexpression right contained in the First Amendment is a structural provision, the so-called establishment clause, which deals with relationships between governments and religious organizations.) And although the original Constitution was criticized by the anti-Federalists for its lack of a bill of rights, it actually contained several important limitations on government designed solely to protect individual rights, such as the prohibitions against bills of attainder and ex post facto laws, the habeas corpus guarantee, and the contracts clause.
“The other way that the Constitution limits governmental powers is more subtle, not as well known, but equally important and equally effective. It consists of a combination of two separate structural provisions. They are structural provisions in that they protect the individual against governmental power not by overtly prescribing what government cannot do, but rather by creating separate governmental units that compete for government power. By spreading the powers of government among several separate entities and by making each a competitor with the others, there is a lesser likelihood that any of those entities can ever acquire power in sufficient measure to become oppressive…”
Rex E. Lee was president of Brigham Young University when this devotional address was given on 15 January 1991.
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Rex E. Lee
President of Brigham Young University
Rex E. Lee, Devotional Address given at Brigham Young University, January 1991