Good morning. I feel honored to address this unique group of people today. I commend you for the work you do in behalf of human rights in our society.
The world is a fragile place. The ground beneath our feet seems to shift and shake, and we have few solid places where we can retreat. A global pandemic continues to threaten our health and social cohesion. Economies falter and unemployment rises. The racial harmony we seek breaks down. Unrest in our streets spreads fear and uncertainty. People do not have the courage to speak their minds for fear of being canceled. People are trusting less and less in their leaders and fellow citizens. The political process has moved away from civility, resembling a battle over identity instead of a pursuit of principle and truth.
The most deep and true things about us are our faith and our relationships. But in the midst of this anxiety, it seems that we don’t see each other.
On the surface, we seem to be losing our way. But wherever you go, carefully stop and look. Glimpse beyond the fear and isolation that have become part of our lives. What do you see? The dignity of human action is all around us. Suffering is a common experience of humankind. In times of crisis, ordinary people become extraordinary. Physicians care for the sick, congregations stock food banks, volunteers feed the poor, humanitarians alleviate the destruction of natural disasters and neighbors take care of neighbors in distress. Moral heroes always appear on the front lines of tragedy.
Our Universal Human Dignity
Dignity is the principle upon which human rights stand. Societies flourish when both law and culture recognize, respect, and protect the value of each person. The many religious and cultural differences across the globe only enhance that dignity.
It is a universal birthright. Everyone possesses dignity simply by being human, regardless of religion, race, gender or nationality. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that dignity is the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”1 Therefore, we have the right to life, liberty, security, equal protection of the law, and the freedom of thought, speech and religion. These rights put all of us on a similar moral footing and endow our lives with meaning.
Human dignity is a common denominator between religious traditions around the world. But not everyone enjoys these rights. Various Christian communities have been driven from their homes in the Middle East. Rohingya Muslims continue to be persecuted in Myanmar. Attacks against Jews have risen worldwide. Prisoners of conscience from the Baha’i faith languish in prison. The Yazidis experience unprecedented brutality at the hands of terrorists in Iraq. And in a million unseen ways, human beings deny each other basic dignity in public and private life.
Reciprocity and Respect
A common regard for humanity enables a common support of rights. Rights stem from dignity, and dignity results from rights. Both feed off each other in a legal and cultural symbiosis. Law enacts a standard of behavior. But only culture can encourage it. We need to see a reflection of ourselves in each other — our dreams, hopes, hurts, fears and despairs. Otherwise, we all become strangers and foreigners. Our differences are often used as barriers to divide us, when they are actually an opportunity to enrich our lives. Dignity is a moral obligation we feel toward people, not merely a legal requirement we comply with.
We discover our dignity in relating with others.
Everyone wants to be known, seen and recognized. We want our efforts to make a difference and our struggles to be acknowledged. The demand for respect is as ancient as society itself. Human dignity is not some airy concept, understood only by philosophers and theologians. It is a practical mode of interaction between people. International relations begin with human relations. Peace begins with respect for the uniqueness of each person.
A Declaration of Human Dignity
Fortunately, people are doing something to spread the word. A group of legal scholars, practitioners and activists from around the world came together to reassert the primacy of human dignity and reinvigorate human rights discourse. In 2018, the Punta del Este Declaration on Human Dignity celebrated this concept as “the core of the panoply of human rights.” The document has been discussed in academies across continents and calls for leaders and politicians to promote a more even implementation of human rights. Human dignity for all reminds us that human rights are universal, complementary, indivisible, nonnegotiable and interrelated.2
Protecting what we most value requires articulating and repeating true ideas.
Conflict and tension are inevitable in a world as complex as ours. But a reverence for human dignity is a necessary starting point. It “presupposes respect for pluralism and difference.” The declaration urges a reciprocity, whereby “rights include accompanying obligations and responsibilities, not just of states but also of all human beings.” Only upon this foundation can mutual trust exist.
Consider my home country, Brazil. While undergoing a dynamic shift over the years from Roman Catholicism to Pentecostal, Protestant and other churches, the population has managed to avoid broad sectarian conflict. Researcher Brian Grim said, “Given the level of religious switching in Brazil, it is particularly notable that … there have been no reported incidents of hostility over conversions or proselytism.”3 Though far from perfect, tension has been managed through dialogue between the various religious communities.
A Constant Amid Flux
The concept of human dignity may vary from culture to culture, but it acts as a constant amid a volatile and changing world. Human rights smooth out the imbalances of privilege, wealth and opportunity. And those rights must be universally applied. Otherwise, justice becomes reduced to who is in power at the moment.
Dignity is about knowing who we are as human beings. The search for ultimate meaning, whether as an individual or in community, is a sacred prerogative. No one can impose that path on us; we must define it for ourselves. In all times and in all places, every person matters.
The Value of Human Rights
Historically, human rights are a fairly new thing. It wasn’t until 1948, in the aftermath of World War II, that leaders from different nations, cultures, religions and political systems came together to establish standards of human rights that apply to everyone, everywhere. Such rights have always been inscribed in our deepest hopes and aspirations for life, including the right to life, liberty, security, equal protection of the law, and the freedom of thought, speech and religion.
But we often take human rights for granted, as if they have always been around and always will be around. These rights speak for themselves but cannot defend themselves. That is our task. We believe our rights come from God, but the care of those rights is up to us. This divine origin is important, because if rights become simply what the majority of people want, then they are nothing more than a power play or mere opinion. But time, wisdom and practice show that they are grounded much more deeply.
As Alexander Hamilton, one of the founders of this nation, wrote: “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”4
Rights are only as reliable as the people who exercise them are. The fair enforcement of rights depends upon a society prioritizing compassion and cooperation. If a society does not treat one another as equals, under the law and as dignified fellow citizens, then those rights will skew to only a few.
The Positive Influence of Religion
Religious freedom is important because religion itself is important. Prayers and meditations dignify our most solemn public ceremonies. Political leaders often invoke God’s blessing in times of crisis. Religious rituals mark life’s pivotal moments of birth, coming of age, marriage, death and many moments in between. Our understanding of human rights stems from religious ideals.5
Observing the course of history shows that human beings are religious by nature. Religion offers a framework by which people find meaning, belonging and identity — whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or any other. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, religion gives us “a feeling of participating in something vast and consequential.”6
And this religious participation flows into the public sphere. The acclaimed sociological study titled American Grace found that religious observance is linked to higher civic involvement. Religious observance also connects to trust and correlates with the neighborly virtues of charitable giving, volunteerism and altruism.7 This research also shows that religious people are “more generous neighbors and more conscientious citizens than their secular counterparts.”8 This altruistic attitude expresses itself in seemingly small actions.
Churches and congregations of all kinds bring communities together. They provide a setting for people to serve those who they would not normally serve and to talk with people they would not normally talk with. This is one of the reasons why Rabbi Sacks calls religion “the most powerful community builder the world has known.”9
Striving to live a spiritual life broadens our perspectives and ennobles our everyday struggles. All the great religions serve as bulwarks against the forces of despair, chaos and feelings of insignificance. The world’s sacred literature inspires us to feel deeper and look higher, to lead lives of goodness and simplicity. Religion teaches us to overcome the weaknesses within us and fight the injustices outside us. Along these lines, Rabbi David Wolpe said that religion “can go into a world in which there is a great deal of pain and suffering and loss and bring meaning and purpose and peace.”10
Of course, religious people are not perfect. We see this in acts of extremism in recent years. We also see it in instances where religious institutions have had to learn from their mistakes. But despite the imperfections of religious individuals and institutions, the religious experience provides a road map for making sense of life. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a fellow leader in my church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said, “Religion has no monopoly on moral action, but centuries of religious belief, including institutional church- or synagogue- or mosque-going, have clearly been preeminent in shaping our notions of right and wrong.”11
We cannot simply create new values and morals from our own ideas or reason. They have to be given to us by God, who embeds them in our nature. Whether inherited from religious teachings or grounded in practical experience, all societies have some moral basis. Trace the pedigree of our moral understandings and you will find religion at the roots.12 Secular historians Will and Ariel Durant wrote, “There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.”13
For all of its accomplishments, insights and wonders, the secular approach cannot provide the hope and moral vision that religion can. We can all, acting on the traditions that have shaped us, show society a better way, a more hopeful way, out of our current situation.
For many of these reasons, religious freedom is given special protection in the law. It is often referred to as the “first freedom.” It is characterized this way because it enables and protects other human freedoms, like freedom of speech.
The Glue of Civil Discourse
No one can really preach about civility, because every one of us has room to improve. We can only hope to persuade both ourselves and others.
The words we use can either unify or separate us. Envious, insecure, vindictive, self-assured language does more lasting damage to conversation and social trust than almost anything else. But polite, confident, straightforward, empathetic language can win the respect of our interlocutors. People remember words and how they are spoken.
Nevertheless, speaking civilly is not the same thing as speaking without conviction. It is absolutely vital that we encourage a society that allows everyone to express their beliefs as long as they are honest, legal and don’t do material harm. This right exists even if the things we say come across as lacking or incorrect. Some have called this the right to be wrong.14 Civil discourse means a grown-up, earnest, rigorous exchange of ideas, not a diluted, vague, insincere avoidance of disagreement.
The problem we face today is that we have gone past the point of being uncivil. We have reached the point of being contemptful. In so many cases, we find ourselves not merely disagreeing with each other, but despising each other. Arthur Brooks, a social scientist, said: “America is developing a ‘culture of contempt’ — a habit of seeing people who disagree with us not as merely incorrect or misguided but as worthless. This is causing incredible harm to our country. One in six Americans has stopped talking to close friends and family members over politics since the 2016 election.” The solution he proposes is not civility alone, but love.15
How do we find this love within ourselves? It is not through isolation or attempts to purify ourselves from the error of others. Actually, we find it through spending more time listening to people who are different from us. Let’s not feel so threatened by a difference of opinion. Let us instead respect the sincerely held beliefs of our neighbors, and by doing so, you may find your own beliefs strengthened. Something as simple as speech and words can have a decisive effect on the health of civilization. We need to learn to both not give offense and not take offense. It is significant that countries with more religious freedom have more peace. And countries with less religious freedom have less peace.16
Cooperation and Connection in Times of Crisis
A crisis always exposes our lack of connection in society. But it also reveals our yearning for togetherness. Whether it is a global pandemic, a natural disaster, a personal tragedy or economic collapse, the fabric of society is tested. We never feel so lonely or helpless as when we lose our possessions or our health. But conversely, we never feel so loved or connected to the world than when we help those in trouble or receive help in time of great need.
Religious organizations provide the networks and social ties that make this possible. One example that illustrates this mutual reliance happened a few years ago. When a local mosque in Bellevue, Washington, was destroyed by arson, a neighboring congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offered its chapel to their Muslim friends as a place to gather and pray. It was provided as long as they needed it, free of charge. Shams Pirbhai, an Islamic Center board member, said: “It was a surprise, and it was very heartwarming. … That means a lot to me and to our whole congregation.” When asked why they offered the building, a local Latter-day Saint representative said: “It’s really very simple. It’s just neighbors helping neighbors. Jesus said, ‘Love your neighbor.’ They’re right next door. How can it be more obvious than that?”17
A lot of small actions like this add up to build social trust, strengthen friendship among society and ensure that we defend each other’s religious freedom.
Thank you very much.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 10, 1948.
Dignityforeverone.org, “Punta del Este Declaration on Human Dignity for Everyone Everywhere,” December 10, 2018.
Brian Grim, “Brazil: A Lesson in the Peaceful Navigation of Religious Change,” Religious Freedom Project, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, Georgetown University, June 1, 2015.
Alexander Hamilton, The Farmer Refuted, 1775, 5.
See newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org, “Civil Society: Faith in the Public Square.”
Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning (New York: Schocken Books, 2011), 101.
Robert A. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).
American Grace, 444.
Jonathan Sacks, “The Moral Animal,” New York Times, December 23, 2012.
“Why Faith Matters: Rabbi David J. Wolpe,” lecture given at Emory University, October 21, 2008.
Jeffrey R. Holland, “Bound by Loving Ties,” BYU Devotional, August 16, 2016.
See newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org, “The Quest for a Common Moral Framework.”
Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History (New York: Simon and Schuster), 1996, 51.
See Kevin Seamus Hasson, The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America (New York: Image), 2012.
Arthur Brooks, “More Love, Less Contempt,” BYU commencement address, April 25, 2019.
See “Five Key Questions Answered on the Link Between Peace and Religion,” Institute for Economics and Peace, in conjunction with the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, 17–18.
Komonews.com, “Church Takes in Bellevue Muslim Community after Arson,” January 20, 2017.