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Friday Minute: Friday Minute: Religious conscience in public debate

Published: Friday, May 6 2011 5:30 a.m. MDT

God’s critics frequently refuse to accept the same burden of proof they demand of believers.

In law, a foundational evidentiary protection is known as the burden of proof. A litigant asserting a particular fact must establish it by a "preponderance of evidence" in civil matters and "beyond a reasonable doubt" in criminal cases. Once a litigant meets his burden of proof, the burden shifts to the party opposing the evidence.

However, when public life affects religious conscience, opponents of faith will not accept their burden of proof. Despite the overwhelming evidence of God in their lives, naysayers reject proof of deity without a corresponding willingness to produce their own proof that God can’t help us. They use the First Amendment as a sword, not as the protecting shield for which it was intended.

Korihor and the burden of proof

In the Book of Mormon, a man named Korihor was one such naysayer. He accused those who looked forward to the coming of Jesus Christ as being "led away" by "a frenzied mind" and the "traditions of your fathers" (Alma 30:16).

Alma, the chief judge and religious leader, understood the burden of proof in defending against Korihor’s alluring but misguided assertions.

Korihor "did rise up in great swelling words before Alma" (Alma 30:31). When Korihor denied the existence of God, Alma placed the burden of proof squarely where it belonged – on the one asserting a position contrary to the overwhelming established evidence.

Alma said, "And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you ye have none, save it be your word only" (Alma 30:40).

Alma then pointed to the overwhelming proof of deity in our lives, including God’s word, the Earth, its inhabitants, and the very motions of the planets which "do witness that there is a Supreme Creator" (Alma 30:44).

Having met his burden of proof, Alma demanded Korihor’s opposing proof. True to form, the natural man in Korihor refused to accept his share of the burden. Instead, he demanded a sign. When struck dumb for sign seeking, Korihor admitted his deceit and was forced to go about begging for food, ultimately meeting an ignominious death. (Alma 30:58-59).

The public square

In our day, men and women of good conscience are conflicted about the role of God and religion in public life, particularly on moral issues.

Others, however, are like Korihor, refusing to accept the established evidence that God in our private lives improves public life. Instead, these naysayers reject their burden of proving that religious conscience doesn’t provide balance and benefit on questions of moral consequence.

Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve said, "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" (Elder Quentin L. Cook, "Let Their Be Light!" Ensign, November 2010).

One example of refusing the burden of proof

With all its flaws and joys, marriage between a man and a woman has been tested in the crucible of time and experience and "is essential to (God’s) eternal plan" ("The Family: A Proclamation to the World").

Proponents of alternative marriage have no evidence that such arrangements are healthy for children or beneficial to society, yet they want government to "take their word for it" (see Elder Dallin H. Oaks and Elder Lance B. Wickman, "Same Gender Attraction," Public Affairs Interview, lds.org, Newsroom, 2006).

Law and behavior

The burden of proof for any moral question in public life is clearly on those advocating it. Once established in the proving ground of history, the burden then shifts to those opposing a religious conscience in public life.

As religious conscience and the moral high-ground are removed from public debate, there are few checks and balances to the moral low-ground. The result is that governments are faced with an increasing futility in regulating any behavior.

Alma confounded Korihor, not only as a skillful jurist but as a humble prophet whose life became a testament to honoring God, both privately and publicly. Man-made institutions focus on conduct, but God focuses on the motives that drive conduct. Effective self-government is unattainable without the moral underpinning which supports it.

While the burden of proof assures fairness in evidentiary matters, the proof of God’s wisdom, especially on bedrock moral issues in the public forum, is no burden at all.

William Monahan is a 1980 graduate of BYU Law School. He practices law and teaches law and ethics. A former Phoenix stake president and current high councilor for the Queen Creek Arizona Chandler Heights Stake, he is active in Interfaith and a U.S. Air Force veteran.

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