Elder Dallin H. Oaks’ lifelong interest in religious freedom comes from both professional and ecclesiastical angles.
More than a half-century ago, his first publication as a young law professor at The University of Chicago was an edited book of talks entitled The Wall Between Church and State that included issues of religious freedom.
Today, as a senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, his interest and advocacy in matters of religious freedom extends from his call to teach and testify of Jesus Christ and His restored gospel.
The apostle drew from both perspectives in his March 25 keynote address at the 2016 Mormon Studies Religious Freedom Conference at California’s Claremont Graduate University. The gathering is sponsored by the Howard W. Hunter Foundation and features a number of constitutional and religious scholars examining the question: What does it mean to be religious and free in the 21st century?
Elder Oaks began by declaring that religious teachings and religiously motivated acts are valuable to society. They deserve legal protection.
“This point of course contradicts the contention that religion is mostly a matter of history without significance in modern times, or, more ominously, that religion is irrational and discriminatory and therefore should be diminished in both public expression and influence,” he said. “Far from relics of the past, religious principles and religious believers are a vital present and future force everywhere.”
Media attention to religion, he added, often focuses on atrocities of extremists “purportedly acting in the interest in Islam.” They are, in fact, on the fringe of anything that might claim to be “religion.” Moreover, history’s bloodiest conflicts had no connection to religion, he noted.
“The genocide of the Holocaust, the Stalinist purges, the Cultural Revolution in China, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, and the ethnic cleansings in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Central Africa have been primarily motivated by secular ideologies and political, ethnic, or tribal differences, not by religious rivalries.”
In truth, religion and its practitioners “have motivated enormous good in the world,” said Elder Oaks.
“Many of the most significant moral advances in Western society have been motivated by religious principles and persuaded to official adoption by pulpit-preaching,” he said. “Examples include the abolition of the slave trade in England and the Emancipation Proclamation in this country. The same is true of the Civil Rights movement of the last half-century. These great advances were not motivated and moved by secular ethics or persons who believed in moral relativism. They were driven primarily by persons who had a clear religious vision of what was morally right.”
It was George Washington who declared in his farewell address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Religion protects democracy, noted Elder Oaks. It works as a buffer, protecting individual believers and their organizations “against the powerful impositions of government.”
Some say that secular ethics and morality can substitute for religion.
“I maintain that the teachings and free practice of religion are essential to a free and prosperous society,” he said. “I also maintain that religious values and political realities are so inter-linked in the origin and perpetuation of this nation that we cannot lose the influence of religion and religious bodies in our public life without seriously jeopardizing our freedom and prosperity.”
Religions “that teach right and wrong,” he added, make indispensable contributions to society “and should therefore have special legal protections.”
An apparent shift to secularism in the United States can lead to a loss of respect or even anger toward religion. “With the diminishing of public esteem for religion, the guarantee of free exercise of religion seems to be weakening. Religion is surely under siege by the forces of political correctness that seek its replacement by other priorities.”
Recent decisions by the United States Supreme Court have signaled the importance of the free exercise of religion. But some American scholars contend a religious message “is just another message in a world full of messages” and not something to be given special protection. Others call for churches to “abandon their objectionable beliefs and actions” by revising their doctrines.
Some have even attempted to intimidate persons with religious-based points of view from influencing or making laws, said Elder Oaks. The exercise of religion, they contend, is limited to the privilege of worship in protected spaces such as homes, churches, synagogues or mosques. Beyond such spaces, religious believers and organizations have no First Amendment protection, including free speech.
Elder Oaks cited the Church’s legal lobbying at the Utah Legislature last month.
“After the Church’s public statements questioning the merits of two separate bills, one on medical marijuana and the other on hate crimes, a survey asked whether these Church statements helped or hurt the legislative process. Among many responses, both pro and con, were some that questioned the Church’s right to speak on the question at all.”
So, he asked, how should religious persons and their organizations lobby or enter the debate on public issues?
“They should not be required to forego or deny their religious or other beliefs or motivations, but they should be counseled to be prudent,” he said. “ They will usually be most persuasive in political discourse by framing arguments and explaining the value of their positions in terms understandable to and subject to debate with those who do not share their beliefs. All sides should seek to contribute to the reasoned discussion and compromise that are essential in a pluralistic society.”
In such a society, people must learn to live peacefully with laws, institutions and persons who do not share their most basic values. Seek a cease-fire in the “cultural wars” and refrain from labeling adversaries with such epithets as “godless” or “bigot.”
“Of course we will have differences that must be resolved,” he said. “But those differences must not be allowed to obscure the undeniable reality that we are fellow-citizens who need each other and who can resolve our differences through mutual respect, mutual understanding, and, where necessary, by compromise or by the rule of law.”
Foremost among those who must submit to the law are public officials who enforce and interpret laws.
“All such officials take an oath to support the constitution and laws of their jurisdiction. That oath does not leave them free to use their official position to override the law to further their personal beliefs — religious or otherwise. Government officers must exercise the defined responsibilities of their public offices according to the principles and within the limits of civil government.”
The first step toward a cease-fire in the culture wars, he added, is to try to understand one another’s point of view. Second, avoid leading out with non-negotiables or extreme positions. Both sides should seek balance — not total victory.
While believers revere divine law, they should also acknowledge that civil law is ordained of God. It was Christ who directed “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
“So taught, we must, to the extent possible, obey both systems of law,” he said. “When there are apparent conflicts, we must seek to harmonize them. When the two prove to be truly irreconcilable, we should join with others of like mind in striving to change the civil law to accommodate the divine. In all events, we must be very measured before ever deciding — in the rarest of circumstances — to disregard one because we feel compelled by the other.”
And to those for whom the ideal of non-discrimination rivals or exceeds religious freedom: “Please respect the laws that provide unique protections for believers and religious institutions.”
The favored constitutional treatment of religion, speech, press and assembly, he said, “is based on their paramount significance in the founding of our nation and the necessity of protecting them to perpetuate all of Americans’ freedoms.”
Elder Oaks concluded with a continued call for civility.
“We all lose when an atmosphere of anger or hostility or contention prevails. We all lose when we cannot debate public policies without resorting to epithets, boycotts, firings, and other intimidation of our adversaries. We need to promote the virtue of civility.”
Elder Oaks answered questions for about 20 minutes after his address.
The audience was invited to write questions on slips of paper that were gathered by ushers and taken to Patrick Mason, Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies, who moderated the Q and A, and then posed the questions to Elder Oaks.
He addressed the role of the church in speaking for religious freedom, legal decisions that might affect the practice of religion and religious liberty in America, the Church’s vast humanitarian support for refugees, especially in the Middle East, and an urgent plea to families and church members to see the good in the world and avoid cynicism.
Elder Oak’s wife, Sister Kristen Oaks, spoke the next day, March 26, about “A Time to Choose.”
She began by quoting Henry B. Eyring who said, “We live in a time when we can believe that many things are happening to us or something is happening for us.”
She urged women to see their lives as being guided by the Lord, even in times of travail and troubles. She spoke of being a convert and the challenges she faced when deciding to become baptized and then serve a mission.
At these and other points in her life she has had to ask herself “Where do I stand?” She chose to stand firm in her faith — with kindness and civility to others.
• Janet Kay Hemming contributed to this report.
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