Joe Cannon: Mormons are entitled to defend their freedom of religion

Published: Saturday, Oct. 3 2015 10:02 p.m. MDT

This past week, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church raised a strong voice of warning in defense of religious freedom. His words were elegant, articulate and unambiguous. Those who see his talk solely, or even primarily, as a reaction to the Proposition 8 battle in California and its aftermath either have not read the talk or willingly wish to minimize its importance.

Elder Oaks' remarks were a call to action to his largely Latter-day Saint audience. But, as he noted, his words would be "instantly put before a wider (and) very diverse audience." Indeed, his words were a call to action to all lovers of religious liberty and defenders of faith.

Some listeners took exception to small, isolated aspects of his remarks. Like the scribes and Pharisees of old, these critics strained at a gnat and ignored the camel of the real and present threats to religious freedom to which Elder Oaks' whole remarks were addressed.

Elder Oaks is enormously well qualified to address religious freedom issues. He wrestled with these issues as president of a religious university and, indeed, was a national leader in the cause of church-related colleges and universities. He labored over constitutional issues as a justice on the Utah Supreme Court and was widely considered during that time to be a potential choice for a spot on the U. S. Supreme Court.

In addition to all this, Elder Oaks is a senior official in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It is fair to say that no other religious group in the history of the America has greater standing to rise to the defense of religious liberty than do the Latter-day Saints.

Violations of religious liberty, persecution, the denial of many civil rights and even death were the lot of Latter-day Saints from even before the founding of the church, extending, at least, nearly a century later. Indeed, that the LDS Church is headquartered in Utah stands as stark witness to the fact that from the beginning the church was driven from pillar to post eventually leaving the United States to be free of such persecution.

Without meaning to merely dredge up old grievances, it might be interesting to some to note just how significant were the violations of religious liberty. The Latter-day Saints were driven from New York to Ohio to Missouri and to Illinois, eventually fleeing to Utah. An extermination order was issued by the governor of Missouri against the Mormons. And later, while under the supposed protection of the state of Illinois, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered.

Once the Mormons came to Utah, it was only a short time before persecution began anew. Latter-day Saints even endured the federal government sending an army to occupy the territory. In his book, "Divided by God," law professor Noah Feldman recounts a number of government actions taken against the Mormon Church. "The Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 ... disincorporated the Mormon Church and rescinded the suffrage of women in Utah. Hundreds went to jail for their faith." Feldman notes that "the Supreme Court upheld laws banning polygamists from voting or holding office in Utah and another that required voters in the new Idaho territory to swear they were not members of any group that advocated polygamy." During this period, the U.S. Congress expelled Utah's duly elected territorial delegate and later refused to seat a duly elected congressman.

In the midst of these persecutions, George Q. Cannon, a leader of the Mormon Church, former editor of this newspaper, and prisoner of conscience, spoke in defense of religious freedom. "Grant to Congress and the Courts the power to define the rights of conscience, and the limit beyond which faith shall not be carried into action, and religious liberty is practically at an end. The battles for spiritual freedom, which have been so nobly fought in generations past, and which have been gained by the sacrifice of so much precious blood, will, so far as we are concerned, have been fought in vain."

All liberty, unless zealously defended, is only one generation away from extinction. Elder Oaks was right to raise his voice in defense of religious freedom.

Joseph A. Cannon is editor of the Deseret News. E-mail: cannon@desnews.com

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