PROVO, Utah — Although social and political trends are creating ugliness in presidential politics and infringing on religious liberty and academic freedom, Mormons should remain hopeful and gracious, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said Tuesday at a BYU devotional.
"I am convinced that a worldwide tide is currently running against both religious freedom and its parallel freedoms of speech and assembly," which he said are fundamental guarantees vital to the missions of BYU and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns and operates the university.
The campus devotional, which drew more than 12,000 to the Marriott Center, was the second major address on religious freedom delivered by Elder Oaks in four days. On Saturday at a special LDS regional conference in Texas, he said church members "must be committed to maintaining the free exercise of religion." A full text of that talk is available at mormonnewsroom.org.
"In our current cultural and political atmosphere," he said Tuesday, "we are distressed to see official and private infringements on free speech, free association and the free exercise of religion that pose threats to our free and open society."
Elder Oaks, who was BYU's president from 1971-80 and now is a member of the university's board of trustees, provided eight examples of those threats, most of them related to higher education. He also quoted Elder Kim B. Clark, the LDS Church's commissioner of education, who said in a recent speech that BYU and its values are under attack.
Civility and hope
While Elder Oaks noted that the months before a presidential elections always provoke political divisiveness, "the divisions and meanness we are experiencing in this election, especially at the presidential level, seem to be unusually wide and ugly."
Elder Oaks said students should remember they have a responsibility to become informed about issues and candidates and to independently exercise their right to vote.
"We should also remember not to be part of the current meanness," he said, adding that "today, I say that if the church or its doctrines are attacked in blogs and other social media, contentious responses are not helpful. They disappoint our friends and provoke our adversaries. When our positions do not prevail, we should accept unfavorable results graciously and practice civility with our adversaries."
LDS Church leaders regularly remind BYU students to maintain hope for the future. Three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, another former BYU president, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Twelve, encouraged students not to be paralyzed by reports of terrorism.
Elder Oaks shared a personal example, describing how he moved forward and enrolled in his first freshman term at BYU 66 years ago even though his Utah National Guard artillery unit had been alerted it was headed into action in the Korean War. While awaiting orders, he paid the $45 tuition and joined 4,500 other BYU students on campus. He completed his education without his unit ever mobilizing.
"Every generation has challenges that can cause discouragement in those without hope," he said, mentioning terrible conflicts and "extreme moral and policy divisions" in today's world. "The future is always clouded with uncertainties — wars and depressions being only two examples. While some abandon progress, you of faith should hope on and press on with your education, your lives, and your families."
Examples of threats
Elder Oaks said that when he gave his first BYU devotional, as BYU's new president in August 1971, his oldest daughter was a new freshman. On Tuesday, the devotional audience included his oldest great-granddaughter. The 45-year gap between the two talks highlighted the trends that challenged a free and open society, he said. Religious freedom is declining because of a decline in faith in God and because those who no longer value religion see it as competing and colliding with other human rights and values.
His eight examples of threats to religious liberty centered on higher education and included a California proposal to deny state funds to students at private colleges and universities that rely on religious exemptions from Title IX nondiscrimination requirements.
Also on his list was what he called a more common and more personal challenge to free speech — labeling opposing arguments as "hate speech" or "bigotry." For the second time in four days he said his Webster's dictionary defines "bigot" as "a person who is utterly intolerant of any creed, belief or opinion that differs from his own." "Who," he asked, "fits that description in this contest of motives and opinions?"
He also expressed concern about institutionalized free speech zones, which make the majority of many American college campuses into restricted speech zones.
Elder Oaks praised the University of Chicago's committee on freedom of expression, which released a report two years ago that he said promotes the values of free and open discourse.
"As some universities continue to cave into pressures for prohibition and academic censorship," Elder Oaks said, "I fervently hope that most will follow the principles stated in that persuasive Chicago report."
The Chicago report acknowledged that universities may restrict expressions "directly incompatible with the functioning of the university," and Elder Oaks discussed BYU's unique religious mission.
He said BYU limits some speech, but the limits are narrow, clear and well-publicized. The honor code prohibits speech that is dishonest, illegal, profane or unduly disrespectful of others. Limitations on BYU faculty apply to expression that "seriously and adversely affects the university or the church," he added, such as contradicting church doctrine or attacking the church or its general leaders.
"In many ways," Elder Oaks said, "academic freedom at BYU exceeds that at many colleges and universities that pretend to have unqualified academic freedom and then apply or submit to the kinds of exceptions I described earlier."
He closed by encouraging students and church members to act in five ways — 1) concentrate on what they have in common with others; 2) strive for mutual understanding and treat all with goodwill; 3) exercise patience; 4) speak out for religion and religious freedom; 5) trust in God and his promises.
Next Tuesday, BYU will host a forum assembly address by Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary for President George W. Bush at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Fleischer recently released his handwritten notes from that day. A Republican, he also recently expressed reservations about Donald Trump but said he would vote for him over Hillary Clinton.