Viewpoint: Freedom of Religion Is Freedom of the Soul

  • 9 February 2015

The eleventh article of faith claims for Latter-day Saints “the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience.”

Article Highlights

  • When religious liberty is protected in laws, it blesses society with substantial practical benefits.
  • Just as no one should be denied privileges based on race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, no one should be persecuted for following their religious conscience.

“I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination, who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.” —Joseph Smith

The principle of religious freedom secures for individuals the right to choose a faith they can fully exercise in their homes, in places of worship, and in the public square.

Religious freedom secures for religious organizations the right to organize, teach, and minister according to cherished tenets.

It also entails the right of individuals to choose no faith at all.

Genuine religious liberty provides the framework for what the Doctrine and Covenants calls “the freedom of the soul” (D&C 134:4)—a freedom so basic it gives to life meaning, purpose, and dignity. Liberty of the soul is an element of the agency we have all been given to distinguish between good and evil while demonstrating faith in our Heavenly Father. It provides the framework for men and women of diverse faiths to peacefully coexist and cooperate as they live out their moral convictions in their homes and their communities, subject to reasonable limits of public health and safety.

The eleventh article of faith claims for Latter-day Saints “the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience.”

It further admonishes respect for other faiths by allowing “all men the same privilege” of worshipping freely: “Let them worship how, where, or what they may.”

Latter-day Saints have a special appreciation for the importance of religious freedom. A legal and cultural environment of free competition for adherents among churches provided the conditions for the Restoration of the gospel. And it was in the quest for genuine religious freedom that our pioneer forebears sought refuge from intimidation and violence in the Great Basin of the western United States.

That historic quest for liberty should connect the Saints to the cause of others conscientiously seeking free exercise of religion.

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination, who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 345).

This is the paradox of religious freedom: in order to protect our own freedom of conscience, we must learn to tolerate, respect, and defend the rights of others to believe in tenets and precepts with which we might personally disagree.

Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has instructed: “In our increasingly unrighteous world, it is essential that values based on religious belief be part of the public discourse. Moral positions informed by a religious conscience must be accorded equal access to the public square. … Religious faith is a store of light, knowledge, and wisdom and benefits society in a dramatic way when adherents engage in moral conduct because they feel accountable to God” (“Let There Be Light!Ensign, Nov. 2010, 29).

Little wonder then that when religious liberty is protected in laws, constitutions, and culture, it blesses society with substantial practical benefits. Scholars Brian Grim and Roger Finke have demonstrated the direct correlation between protections of religious liberty and increased social stability, economic prosperity, better health, and the protection of other civil and human rights (see Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied).

Sadly, we see some alarming developments in contemporary society where individuals and organizations, often seeking to avoid a requirement contrary to their religious convictions, are intimidated, retaliated against, or coerced because of their conscientious objection to a secular standard (“Lack of Explicit Protections for Religious Americans Underscores Need for Nondiscrimination Laws,” Deseret News, Jan. 29, 2015).

Sometimes this intimidation is made through the means of so-called nondiscrimination laws that on their face seem important for protecting fairness but sometimes fail to balance the free exercise of religion.

Sadly, the potential for conflicts between religious liberty and nondiscrimination principles are exacerbated when advocates for nondiscrimination paint people of faith as bigots, and when people of faith fail to appreciate the brutal history of discrimination against the basic human rights of marginalized groups, such as gays and lesbians.

In a recent address to university students, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained: “Accusations of bigotry or animus leveled at those who promote an adverse position have a chilling effect on speech and public debate on many important issues. Both freedom of speech and freedom of religion are jeopardized when their advocates are disparaged as being motivated by hatred” (“Hope for the Years Ahead,” Utah Valley University’s Constitutional Symposium on Religious Freedom, Apr. 16, 2014).

Just as no one should be denied housing, employment, common carriage, or public services because of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, no one should be intimidated, mocked, silenced, or persecuted because they are following their religious conscience.

Where there is a felt need to expand the reach of governmental power, such as through antidiscrimination protections, people of good will should work together with civility, tolerance, and respect to also protect cherished religious freedoms.

Finding the right balance in any given circumstance may vary based on the situational history and institutions, but the principles at play are well articulated in Doctrine and Covenants 134, which reads in part:

“We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul” (verse 4).