Defending the Faith: Mormonism committed to religious freedom

Published: Thursday, Nov. 10 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

Some, in this political season, have suggested that Latter-day Saints seek to establish a theocracy. They misunderstand us utterly.

While the church maintains its right to speak out on what it considers moral questions (as other churches and people of faith have done, on issues such as slavery and civil rights), we'll never attempt to impose Mormonism by force. To do so would be to repudiate both our scriptures and our distinctive understanding of the very meaning and purpose of life.

Years ago, I was invited to engage in a "Mormon-Muslim dialogue" at a public university in a nearby state. (The organizers, a campus Islamic group, had originally sought a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, but settled for me.)

Having already participated in — and enjoyed — several such events by then, I prepared a nice little opening statement about shared beliefs and common values. As I hope I've demonstrated over the past three decades or so, I have enormous respect for the Islamic tradition.

For various reasons, though, as the date for this particular gathering drew near, I began to grow suspicious. Something felt funny.

And, sure enough, when I arrived at the university auditorium, I found a table heavily laden with anti-Mormon pamphlets.

A professional Muslim "evangelist" had been brought in from Toronto. He was obviously geared up for an adversarial confrontation, and I quietly scrapped my prepared statement.

Even worse, virtually no Latter-day Saints were there, because the local LDS institute of religion was sponsoring its annual dance that night. The audience was composed almost equally of Muslims and Evangelicals.

Pretty soon, though, I realized that the approach chosen by my opponent — he was certainly no "dialogue partner" — was an attack on the deity of Christ, carefully constructed from the Bible itself.

I thought at first that this was a stroke of good fortune. True, I would have to improvise very quickly, mostly on my feet, to respond to a challenge for which I hadn't specifically prepared. But, I reasoned, the Evangelicals in the audience would instantly realize that, on this topic, I was defending their position too, and they would rally to my side for at least this one debate.

Wrong. To my surprise, virtually every audience comment during that very long evening was directed at me, and hostile. But that's another story.

Near the program's end, an audience member asked how things would change if Islam became the dominant American belief. My opponent replied that all false religions would be outlawed, leaving Islam as the only legal faith.

Asked to respond, I answered that I hardly knew what to say. His position seemed chilling and extreme to me, radically foreign to traditional Islam. The vast majority of American Muslims, I was (and remain) confident, would reject such coercion.

Angrily, he turned to me and snarled, as nearly as I can remember, "Don't lie! Don't pretend that, if you had the power, you wouldn't ban all non-Mormon religions!"

But that's precisely what I say. We would not.

Not only does the 11th of our 13 canonized Articles of Faith declare that "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may," but our unique scriptural texts teach that a kind of battle was actually waged in a grand council, before the creation of the world, over the question of human agency. All premortal humans attended; we participated in the arguments. Lucifer, or Satan, sought to compel human obedience rather than permit free decisions that would allow the possibility of sin. His plan was rejected; he rebelled, and, accordingly, was cast out of heaven. (See Moses 4:1-3; Abraham 3:22-28.)

I'm unaware of any other sacred texts, in any religious tradition, in which the commitment to human freedom is so explicit, so fundamental.

In other words, Latter-day Saints don't regard freedom of choice as merely a temporary practical compromise required by a fallen, ungodly, but passing world order. It's an eternal principle, basic to our theology. Coerced "conversion" is no conversion at all (see 2 Nephi 2:11), and contributes nothing to salvation or a saving faith.

Incidentally, in the parking lot afterwards, the leader of that Muslim student group apologized for the "ambush." He had delegated the planning of the event to someone he didn't know well, and he regretted it.

My experiences in interfaith dialogue with Muslims since that time have been, without any significant exception that I can recall, pleasant and rewarding, and I continue to reject the idea that warfare between Christians and Muslims, whether hot or cold, is inevitable.

Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org.

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