The liberty principle for this Freedom Friday concerns religious liberty and why it is essential to pursue it worldwide. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including some of my ancestors, have been persecuted for their religious beliefs from the beginning of the Church of Jesus Christ in April 1830.
President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ spoke about religious freedom on Wednesday, July 20, 2022, at the 2022 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit in Rome, Italy. The title of his presentation was “Pursuing Religious Liberty Worldwide.” He began his talk by declaring that Latter-day Saints, Catholics, and other minorities in the United States have been persecuted because of their religious beliefs.
For me personally, religious liberty is not academic. In 1838, my third great-grandmother Oaks and her family lost most of their property when the Missouri state militia drove our members, then mockingly known as “Mormons,” out of that state. A few years later, Illinois state authorities stood by while a lawless element burned homes and drove Church members from that state as well. In 1844, my wife, Kristen’s, second great-grandfather, Hyrum Smith, was murdered by a mob who opposed his religion. In 1893, my great-grandfather Harris was sent to prison in the Utah Territory for his religious practices, and my great-aunt was the first woman imprisoned for hers. I am one of many Latter-day Saints whose DNA includes a desire for religious freedom, felt as fundamental as the marrow in our bones.
Leaders and members of the Church of Jesus Christ seek to bring religious freedom to all people and have done so from the beginning. The Prophet Joseph Smith made the following statement in 1843:
I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am … 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 the denominations.
Though having different doctrines, Catholics and Latter-day Saints stand shoulder to shoulder in defending religious freedom. Recently, Cardinal Francis E. George, then president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke to a large audience at Brigham Young University. He began his presentation by declaring his personal gratitude for this improved relationship: “after 180 years of living mostly apart from one another, Catholics and Latter-day Saints have begun to see one another as trustworthy partners in the defense of shared moral principles and in the promotion of the common good of our beloved country.”
George concluded his remarks: “that Catholics and Mormons stand with one another and with other defenders of conscience and that we can and should stand as one in the defense of religious liberty. In the coming years, interreligious coalitions formed to defend the rights of conscience for individuals and for religious institutions should become a vital bulwark against the tide of forces at work in our government and society to reduce religion to a purely private reality.”
Oaks said that he was speaking at the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit “in furtherance of our enthusiastic support for such ‘interreligious coalitions’ to defend religious freedom for all people. During the earlier persecution of our Church, we have learned that the best remedy for religious persecution that affects us is to join in efforts to reduce religious persecution that affects others.” He called “for a global effort to defend and advance the religious freedom of all the children of God in every nation of the world.”
Oaks noted that “Organized religion and personal freedom of religion” are being facing serious challenges. At the same time, “Religious liberty is declining in popularity with governments and their citizens.” He continued:
Religion is under siege by secularism, authoritarianism, and political correctness, all of which seek to replace or weaken the influence of its teachings. Globally, there are many government restrictions on religious liberty. More significant in the long run may be the deteriorating attitudes of individuals toward religion….
Doubtless there are many causes of this deterioration. Whether cause or effect, the education of the rising generation has surely played a role. In the United States we have observed a diminishing coverage of religion in school textbooks and curricula. Two decades ago, a report of the American Textbook Council observed that “The strength of religion in shaping human thought and action is not often explained, and its role as a motivating agent of culture, politics, and ethics often remains under-examined.”
One observer wrote that school textbooks “create[e] the impression that religion and faith have little to do with the development of U.S. History.”
What are the religious freedoms or liberties that concern us? For faith communities, the United States Constitution guarantees freedom of association and the right to assemble; the right to determine new members; the right to select leaders and important employees, including in related organizations; and the right to function as an organization. For individual believers, essential rights include religious expression and exercise and freedom from religious discrimination.
Oaks suggested that the various religions – Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, Latter-day Saints, and other faiths – can “join forces to confront religious challenges” without examining “doctrinal differences” or identifying “their many common elements of belief.” He then said, “All that is necessary for unity is our shared conviction that God has commanded us to love one another and has granted us freedom in matters of faith.”
Later in his talk, Oaks declared that “Religious teachings and the religiously motivated actions of believers benefit society and deserve legal protection.” One of the ways that religion benefits society is in giving humanitarian assistance for “hunger, disease, and lack of education to mention only a few” of the many needs.
Religious liberty enables believers and faith communities to provide this aid to society’s neediest members. Most religions exhort their believers to give to the poor. Most also teach their believers that they are accountable to God for this duty. Religions also play a vital role in contributing to social stability. Societies are not held together primarily by law and its enforcement, but by those who voluntarily obey the unenforceable because of their sense of accountability to God….
Religious freedom is essential for true liberty. Our beliefs are core to who we are. If government or individuals deny freedom to believe, to speak of our beliefs publicly, and to share our beliefs with others, society itself will suffer.