Empowering Women's Freedom of Religion and Belief

Thank you for that very kind introduction. I am honored and humbled to be with you this afternoon and in celebration of International Women's Day.

I believe that women "have been blessed with a unique moral compass," 1 and that women possess "special spiritual gifts and propensities" to sense human needs, to comfort, teach, and strengthen. 2 Accordingly, each of our communities depend upon ordinary women for human flourishing as they perform their unique roles as leaders, teachers, nurturers, healers, and peacemakers.

For those ordinary women upon whom we depend, let us grapple, today, with a profound problem. One that is too often overlooked by contemporary observers, commentators, and journalists.

It is this— nationalizing cultures that are hostile to minority religious beliefs and secularizing cultures that are antagonistic to religion generally, when coupled with government restrictions on religious institutions and religious exercise, have devastating effects on society generally and on women specifically.

Social scientists have shown 3 that to the extent societies and governments restrict religious freedoms, social conflict increases. Such conflict and ensuing violence always harm the most vulnerable, including women and children. It destabilizes economies and households. It increases inequality, including gender inequality. And it keeps women from using their innate gifts to cultivate peace.

The historical record and the empirical data are clear: efforts to maintain social order by forcing homogeneity of belief, or restricting beliefs, always backfire, resulting in conflict and the tragic destruction of human potential.

So today, I want to explore with you what this problem means, in particular for women, what it suggest about what is needed for women to flourish, and then invite you to envision a world in which women cultivate, use, and expand their natural gifts, empowered to participate in a global sisterhood of peacemakers.

If ordinary women are to accomplish their unique daily peacemaking roles, they themselves need to be inspired, nurtured, healed, empowered, and taught about their divine potential. This wellspring will come from their ability to seek daily, if not hourly, inspiration in the way their conscience dictates. They must be able to live according to their highest aspirations and values, and to gather, share, and organize for mutual support. This, of course, is what robust freedom of religion and belief affords - the assurance to women, men, and children that they can live conscientious moral lives with mutual support of fellow believers while affording that same dignity to their neighbors.

So, imagine with me what would happen if every woman felt empowered within her sphere of influence to live out the full measure of her special gifts and propensities for nurture, care, healing, teaching, and leading.

Imagine what would happen if we, as women in leadership roles, could unleash the full power of women to transform their personal inspiration into organized action. What could happen in homes, in schools, in congregations, in communities, and in nations? What would happen with efforts to end poverty, eliminate hunger, assure public health, provide education, and reduce inequalities?

And imagein the opposite — a reality in far too many communities —a world where women live in fear of social persecution and official restrictions stifle their expression of conscientious belief and prevent them from assembling to worship and organize to provide mutual support. In such an environment, women's collective capacity to address complex problems and lift society is vastly diminished, and individual hopes and aspirations are dashed


While freedom of religion and belief is stabilizing and empowering, it is not without its complexities.

I recognize that cynical reliance on freedom of religious practice and belief has been used to justify horrific acts against women such as genital mutilation and honor killings. These acts in religion's name fail to acknowledge the seamless dignity of all human rights. The World Conference on Human Rights states unequivocally that "[a]ll human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent." 

On this point, I concur with my predecessor, the seventeeth Relief Society General President, Jean B. Bingham. When she spoke at the European Parliament in 2017, she noted: "It is entirely possible to protect religious freedom but punish the perpetrators of harmful practices against women... The principle of religious freedom does not condone crime, including crimes against women. In fact, faith can be, and often is, a vital comfort to those who are victimized, who are disproportionately women." 

I also recognize that passionate religious belief has been used to recruit and radicalize populations, including women, into extremist positions that threaten stability and peace. There are no simple answers to this concern, and I won't pretend to resolve them today. But these concerns seem most prevalent where social norms have frayed, where scarcity and conflict are the baseline, and where the full spectrum of human rights are threatened.

These extreme situations are not a reason to restrict religious freedom. Instead, we should recognize them as a warning sign that we need to better understand the plight of women so affected. We must better communicate with and actually empower our sisters in these desperate situations to reach across social divisions to solve problems. 

In almost all instances, when society or governments restrict women from living out their rights of conscience, we can expect poorer outcomes within the home, with public health, with education, and with civil society. By extension, when religious freedom for women is protected, we can expect better outcomes in all those domains. But the fruits from such freedom go far beyond mere material well-being because religion and spirituality constitute what is richest in humanity.

Religion and spirituality connects us with the divine, finding expression through art, music, poetry, scripture, prayer, and devotions. And through these expressions, they connect us to one another. I believe that our shared womanhood provides yet another sacred connection.

As women, we exist in an oft unspoken global sisterhood. The tides and seasons of our biology and the universality of the way we bear, and nurture humanity connect us wordlessly across cultural divides, language barriers, and political chasms. They create a common experience when no other obvious bridges may exist.

Because of the connectedness of women, and of humanities' highest aspirations, I submit that the religious freedom of women is a key component to global peace. Our implicit sisterhood creates an ability to build on common ground, which forms the basis of peace — a peace that is more than mere coexistence in the absence of war — but something much more beautiful and powerful, bringing individuality into a unified whole.


I make that bold claim not out of wishful thinking, but from my lived experience as the current president of the Relief Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one of the world's largest and oldest women's organizations. The Relief Society now consists of nearly 8 million women organized within more than 30,000 congregations across the globe. I have seen how this faith-based organization inspires women to unite in providing consistent acts of service within their homes and communities. I have seen what our women do when they are able to express their fullest selves and connect with others through our joint sisterhood. I have seen women elevation one another in the midst of poverty. I have seen women care for, feed and nurture children who are not their own. I have seen women care for, feed and nurture children who are not their own. I have seen women stand to protect others from the ravages of war. When it lives up to its high aspirations, our sisterhood provides the practical means of fulfilling Jesus Christ's admonition to love our neighbors as ourselves, thereby providing the conditions for lasting peace and human flourishing.

Let me provide some specific examples.

In the last decade, during the refugee crisis in Europe, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints across Europe pooled their time, talent, and treasure to assist many of the displaced peoples flooding into Europe because of regional conflicts, human rights abuses, and devastating economic hardship. Particularly noteworthy was the way the Relief Society members in the UK and France were moved to provide consistent, meaningful material and organizational support, regardless of ethnicity or religious background, in order to alleviate desperate conditions in the migrant camps.

Although they came from different countries, cultures, and faith traditions, the common bond of faith was a critical aspect of why this support was particularly meaningful. Latter-day Saint women were attuned to the importance of honoring and accommodating the religious commitments of these refugees. Knowing the importance of their own faith-based commitments, Latter-day Saint women who helped to organize relief in these camps assured that religious prohibitions and preferences in food were provided for and labeled clearly; that clothing and personal items provided were culturally appropriate and avoided symbols of imagery that might offend certain belief systems; that separate spaces were provided for different faith groups to observe religious practices; and that communal living arrangements respect religious requirements.

Such responsiveness is not uncommon or unique for the sisters in our organization. In the Philippines, Latter-day Saint women concerned about the high prevalence of malnutrition in their communities and how it was affecting their own families learned more about the devastating lifelong consequences of malnutrition. Moved by their love and united by their faith, leaders of local congregations moved to action. With strong engagement from the women of the Relief Society, leaders learned about the most common causes of malnutrition. Congregations hosted nutritional screenings in Church buildings for member families and their neighbors and then taught parents about good nutrition and referred those in need to local medical and community services that would provide treatment. These local efforts have been complemented with the Church's humanitarian support for organizations that treat malnutrition and promote good nutrition throughout the Philippines. What started as a local Church-led project to help member children has rippled far beyond those Filipino congregations. This effort is currently being implemented in over a thousand congregations in 12 countries. More than 14,000 children have been screened for malnutrition. Additional congregations are scheduled to launch child nutrition efforts in the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, and Asia in the coming months.

Indeed, drawing in no small part from the inspiration of this initiative, the Relief Society leads a church wide humanitarian initiative to address the basic needs of women and children. We collaborate with other global organizations to prioritize maternal and newborn care, child nutrition, immunizations, and education throughout the world.

While we can and will use our global reach to scale these women-inspired efforts, I believe that the most important and impactful work of women continues to be done when we care for our own children, teach a friend to read, patiently address the needs of an elderly neighbor, prepare a meal for the sick, or cry with a sister who is grieving.

I strive to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. I believe He came to earth to save humanity from sin and death, and to lift us in our sorrow and distress. His daily discipline, however, was always to reach out to those in anguish one-by-one: in private conversations with the socially outcast Samaritan woman at the well; pausing to comfort the hemorrhagic woman in the crowd; privately healing the young daughter of Jairius. In trying to emulate Jesus, I recognize that while my current work involves broad organizational efforts to improve conditions generally for women and children around the world, Christ's most important requirement for me as His disciple is to recognize immediate individual needs around me and respond with patience and love. I do that best when I am motivated spiritually, and when I can freely unite with others in meaningful ways to address concerns.

So, my call to action today is simple and personal. While we must act justly and responsibly in our roles as women leaders, let us not neglect the individuals within our immediate circle of care. I urge you to pause with me for a moment and connect, however you do that, with your highest source of inspiration and then wait quietly for guidance about whose life you can meaningfully improve today with an act of compassion. Write it down. And do it.

I hope that simple exercise will help us recognize that our greatest success will be in unleashing the power of our global sisterhood by unleashing the power of women as expressed through faith and conscience. Women who express such faith, from any faith tradition or spiritual background, will then undoubtedly serve those around them.

This service, especially when rendered alongside other women of faith and across cultural divides, will empower the peacemaking capacity of our global sisterhood.

Women's engagement in their congregations and families and communities will create a wave of empathy and compassion. The sisterhood of women, unburdened by prejudice and oppression, can unite across boundaries through the simplest of acts.

Now, for us in this room, from our unique vantage as women leaders, we can and must also assess and address concerns at a societal level. We can and must seek for ways to remove unnecessary burdens and restrictions on women. We can and must stand together fro freedom of religion and belief.

We cannot, however, reach every person in the world no matter how well funded our programs, well penned our policies, or well developed our diplomacy.

But through our global sisterhood, we can reach every single soul.

Empowering women's freedom of religion and belief helps us to achieve our highest aspirations. Reaching across faith boundaries builds peace and empower our global sisterhood. Friends, we can achieve what no government can: a global sisterhood of peacemakers.

  1. Russell M. Nelson, "Spiritual Treasures," October 2019.

  2. Russell M. Nelson, "Sisters' Participation in the Gathering of Israel," October 2018.

  3. Brian J. Grim & Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied, Cambridge University Press, 2011.