Freedom of religion strengthens society, and people of faith should unite in its defense, according to Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In an interview provided prior to a speech at the Chapman University School of Law in Orange, California, and also in that speech given on February 4, 2011, Elder Oaks defended the right to free exercise of religion.
Religious freedom is a subject he has addressed several times and which other prophets and apostles have also addressed (see “Discourses and Resources” below).
Religious community must unite
“The religious community must unite to be sure we are not coerced or deterred into silence by . . . intimidation or threatening rhetoric,” Elder Oaks said. “Whether or not such actions are anti-religious, they are surely antidemocratic and should be condemned by all who are interested in democratic government,” he said. “There should be room for all good-faith views in the public square, be they secular, religious, or a mixture of the two. When expressed sincerely and without sanctimoniousness, the religious voice adds much to the text and tenor of public debate.”
He warned of “recent evidences of a narrowing definition of religious expression and an expanding definition of the so-called civil rights of ‘dignity, autonomy,’ and ‘self-fulfillment’ of persons offended by religious preaching.” He also pointed to “an alarming trajectory of events pointing toward constraining the freedom of religious speech by forcing it to give way to the ‘rights’ of those offended by such speech.”
He asked, “What has caused the current public and legal climate of mounting threats to religious freedom? I believe the cause is not legal but cultural and religious. I believe the diminished value being attached to religious freedom stems from the ascendency of moral relativism.
“More and more of our citizens support the idea that all authority and all rules of behavior are man-made and can be accepted or rejected as one chooses. Each person is free to decide for himself or herself what is right and wrong. Our children face the challenge of living in an increasingly godless and amoral society.”
He cautioned that “moral relativism leads to a loss of respect for religion and even to anger against religion and the guilt that is seen to flow from it. As it diminishes religion, it encourages the proliferation of rights that claim ascendency over the free exercise of religion.
Belief in Moral Absolutes
“The founders who established this nation believed in God and in the existence of moral absolutes—right and wrong—established by this Ultimate Law-giver. The Constitution they established assumed and relied on morality in the actions of its citizens. Where did that morality come from and how was it to be retained? Belief in God and the consequent reality of right and wrong was taught by religious leaders in churches and synagogues, and the founders gave us the First Amendment to preserve that foundation for the Constitution.”
He said that the “preservation of religious freedom . . . depends on the value we attach to the teachings of right and wrong in our churches, synagogues and mosques. It is faith in God—however defined—that translates these religious teachings into the moral behavior that benefits the nation. As fewer and fewer citizens believe in God and in the existence of moral absolutes taught by religious leaders, the importance of religious freedom to the totality of our citizens is diminished. We stand to lose that freedom if many believe that religious leaders, who preach right and wrong, make no unique contribution to society and therefore should have no special legal protection.”
Elder Oaks made four major points in his speech:
“1. Religious teachings and religious organizations are valuable and important to our free society and therefore deserving of their special legal protection.
“2. Religious freedom undergirds the origin and existence of [the United States] and is the dominating civil liberty.
“3. The guarantee of free exercise of religion is weakening in its effects and in public esteem.
“4. This weakening is attributable to the ascendancy of moral relativism.”
A Fundamental Right
Elder Oaks said that “religious persons should insist on their constitutional right and duty to exercise their religion, to vote their consciences on public issues, and to participate in elections and in debates. . . . These are the rights of all citizens and they are also the rights of religious leaders and religious organizations. In this circumstance, it is imperative that those of us who believe in God and in the reality of right and wrong unite more effectively to protect our religious freedom to preach and practice our faith in God and the principles of right and wrong He has established.”
Interview and Transcript
Read Elder Oaks’s complete message on newsroom.lds.org.
He said that this proposal “does not require any examination of the doctrinal differences among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, or even an identification of the many common elements of our beliefs. All that is necessary for unity and a broad coalition along the lines I am suggesting is a common belief that there is a right and wrong in human behavior that has been established by a Supreme Being. All who believe in that fundamental should unite more effectively to preserve and strengthen the freedom to advocate and practice our religious beliefs, whatever they are.”
In calling for such a coalition, Elder Oaks said it would not need to be associated with a particular religious group or political party. In an interview prior to the speech, he said, “What unites us in religion is far more important than what divides us in the capacity to speak up for religious freedom.”
Discourses and Resources
During his speech at Chapman University, Elder Oaks quoted from a conference address given by Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who said that “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.” Read Elder Cook’s article in the November 2010 Liahona.
Other prophets and apostles have also spoken on the subject of religious freedom and the need for religious discussion.
President Thomas S. Monson said, “As a church we reach out not only to our own people but also to those people of good will throughout the world in that spirit of brotherhood which comes from the Lord Jesus Christ.” Read the entire article, “Religious Values in the Public Square,” on Newsroom. He also said: “We should not be sequestered in a little cage. We should eliminate the weakness of the one standing alone and substitute it with the strength of working together to make this a better world.” Read a news report about the press conference where President Monson made this comment.
Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke in Boston, Massachusetts, on the subject of religious freedom in June 2010. Read excerpts from his speech. In an address to the World Congress of Families in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Elder Nelson said that, “Religious liberty is essential if we are to raise up righteous children. Morally responsible families will not marginalize religious liberty, they will nurture and protect it.” Read entire text.
And in an address given in Kiev, Ukraine, Elder Nelson said: “Major religions proclaim the existence of a Creator—God—whose power and will are superior to any human construct, including the laws of man. Adherents of faith groups can feel secure in their right to follow divine direction only if a nation’s laws allow freedom of religious expression. Those same laws also protect the rights of others to believe, or not to believe, as they choose. . . . Fundamental religious rights include: the right to believe or disbelieve; the right to worship, either alone or with others; the right to assemble for religious purposes; the right to own or occupy property for the purpose of worship; the right to perform religious ceremonies; the right to possess and distribute religious media; and the right to establish rules for fellowship in a religious society” (“Freedom to Do and to Be,” an address given at the International Scientific and Practical Conference on “Religious Freedom: Transition and Globalization,” Kiev, Ukraine, May 27, 2004.
A collection of selected beliefs and statements on religious freedom, including many statements from prophets and apostles, is available at newsroom.lds.org.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is uniquely qualified to address the topic of religious freedom. Prior to his calling as an apostle in 1984, he served as a justice on the Utah Supreme Court from 1981–1984, as legal counsel to the Illinois Constitutional Convention Bill of Rights Committee in 1970, as a professor at the University of Chicago Law School from 1961–1971, as law clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren of the United States Supreme Court from 1957 to 1958, and as Editor-in-Chief of The University of Chicago Law Review from 1956–1957. He also served as Chairman of the Board of the Public Broadcasting Service from 1980–1985, as a board member from 1977–1985, and as president of Brigham Young University from 1971–1980.