Why would a leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints be invited to speak about religious liberty at a Notre Dame symposium in Rome? From its beginning in the United States in 1830, our Church and its members have experienced religious persecution. Catholics and other minorities in the United States have suffered persecution as well.
For me personally, religious liberty is not academic. In 1838, my third great-grandmother Oaks and her family lost most of their property when the Missouri state militia drove our members, then mockingly known as “Mormons,” out of that state. A few years later, Illinois state authorities stood by while a lawless element burned homes and drove Church members from that state as well. In 1844, my wife, Kristen’s, second great-grandfather, Hyrum Smith, was murdered by a mob who opposed his religion. In 1893, my great-grandfather Harris was sent to prison in the Utah Territory for his religious practices, and my great-aunt was the first woman imprisoned for hers. 1 I am one of many Latter-day Saints whose DNA includes a desire for religious freedom, felt as fundamental as the marrow in our bones.
In 1843, our first prophet, Joseph Smith, expressed our feeling about this.
I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am … ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination.”2
Almost two centuries later, a large audience at Brigham Young University welcomed Cardinal Francis E. George, then president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He began his landmark address by declaring his personal gratitude that
after 180 years of living mostly apart from one another, Catholics and Latter-day Saints have begun to see one another as trustworthy partners in the defense of shared moral principles and in the promotion of the common good of our beloved country.
Later, he concluded:
that Catholics and Mormons stand with one another and with other defenders of conscience and that we can and should stand as one in the defense of religious liberty. In the coming years, interreligious coalitions formed to defend the rights of conscience for individuals and for religious institutions should become a vital bulwark against the tide of forces at work in our government and society to reduce religion to a purely private reality.3
I am here in furtherance of our enthusiastic support for such “interreligious coalitions” to defend religious freedom for all people. During the earlier persecution of our Church, we have learned that the best remedy for religious persecution that affects us is to join in efforts to reduce religious persecution that affects others. I will return to that theme later, but for now—from Rome, this great cradle of the Christian faith—I call for a global effort to defend and advance the religious freedom of all the children of God in every nation of the world.
II. Religious Liberty Faces Serious Challenges Worldwide
Organized religion and personal freedom of religion currently face serious challenges. Religious liberty is declining in popularity with governments and their citizens. Religion is under siege by secularism, authoritarianism, and political correctness, all of which seek to replace or weaken the influence of its teachings. Globally, there are many government restrictions on religious liberty.
More significant in the long run may be the deteriorating attitudes of individuals toward religion. For example, a 2021 Pew Center global survey of individuals in 17 economically advanced nations found only 15% who mentioned religion or God as a source of meaning in their lives.4
Doubtless there are many causes of this deterioration. Whether cause or effect, the education of the rising generation has surely played a role. In the United States we have observed a diminishing coverage of religion in school textbooks and curricula. Two decades ago, a report of the American Textbook Council observed that
The strength of religion in shaping human thought and action is not often explained, and its role as a motivating agent of culture, politics, and ethics often remains under-examined.5
One observer wrote that school textbooks “creat[e] the impression that religion and faith have little to do with the development of U.S. History.”6
What are the religious freedoms or liberties that concern us? For faith communities, the United States Constitution guarantees freedom of association and the right to assemble; the right to determine new members; the right to select leaders and important employees, including in related organizations; and the right to function as an organization. For individual believers, essential rights include religious expression and exercise and freedom from religious discrimination.
In defense of these rights, we should be united. At this symposium last year, Elder Quentin L. Cook gave this apostolic challenge:
Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, Latter-day Saints, and other faiths must be part of a coalition of faiths that succor, act as a sanctuary, and promulgate religious freedom across the world.7
When leaders join forces to confront religious liberty challenges, they do not need to examine doctrinal differences or identify their many common elements of belief. All that is necessary for unity is our shared conviction that God has commanded us to love one another and has granted us freedom in matters of faith.
III. The Background of Religious Liberty
Religious liberty has a long and troubled background, from the time it did not exist anywhere in the world to current circumstances, in which most countries recognize the principle but still contest how it should be applied.
Religious liberty became an issue in various American colonies established by refugees from religious persecution over 400 years ago. For example, Catholics gathered and settled in Maryland when the British Empire was officially hostile to Catholicism. As religious refugees, Puritans established the Massachusetts Bay Colony. However, Puritans soon disclosed the limits of their concept of religious liberty: it did not apply to those who disagreed with their doctrine. Baptists and Quakers were banished from their colony, and a few Quakers who returned were hanged.8
From this American perspective, I see three key events in the modern development of religious liberty. The first was the 1787 United States Constitution, adopted after American independence from Britain. Its First Amendment, added four years later, prohibited government sponsorship or domination of religion and assured the freedoms of religious exercise, speech, press, and the right to assemble and petition for the redress of grievances. Appropriately, all these basic civil liberties have been included in the constitutions of all states in the United States.
Despite original and ongoing controversies about the application of these liberties, most Americans consider them icons of freedom based on divine inspiration. In a recent nationwide survey, 55% said they believed the United States Constitution was inspired of God, and 62% believed in the inspired origin of the First Amendment.9
For the members of my Church, the divine inspiration of the basic principles of the United States Constitution is a matter of religious faith.10 In modern revelation God declared that He “established” the Constitution of the United States “for the rights and protection of all flesh.”[11 Whether or how its inspired principles should be applied in other nations is for them to decide.
Unfortunately, the ideas of free exercise and government neutrality toward different religions grew slowly in the United States. Before the twentieth century, when the U.S. Constitution’s national guarantees were finally held to protect citizens from state action, state governments frequently violated religious freedom. For example, in 1838 the governor of the state of Missouri ordered that the members of my faith “must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state.”12 Succeeding decades witnessed other state repression or favoritism among religions. In the 1870s, after Catholic parochial schools were established in partial response to the predominantly Protestant teachings and practices of tax-supported public schools, many states adopted so-called Blaine Amendments. These amendments prohibited the use of any public funds to support private religious schools, which, of course, were predominantly Catholic.13 Vestiges of these controversial laws continue in some states.
From the American perspective, a second key event in the development of religious liberty was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Most significantly, Article 18 declares:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.14
Importantly, this declaration opens with an affirmation that resonates with the doctrine of many religions.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.15
My third key event in the development of religious liberty was the 1965 Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae).18 This declared the root principle that each person, made in the image and likeness of God, has inherent dignity and is therefore created to be free and to enjoy religious freedom. In addition to stressing the religious freedom of individuals, Dignitatis Humanae also recognized that individuals practice religion in community with one another. This freedom for organizations is vital to Catholics and all other religions that sponsor schools, medical care, and other social service organizations.
The Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom has been described as a tipping point for religious freedom internationally. An experienced Catholic observer, my friend Professor Mary Ann Glendon, has explained:
Catholic leaders take their bearings on religious freedom mainly from the teachings of Vatican II as expounded [subsequently] by Saint Pope John Paul II, [who said that] ‘Religious freedom, an essential requirement of the dignity of every person, is a cornerstone of the structure of human rights, and for this reason, an irreplaceable factor in the good of individuals and of the whole of society as well as of the personal fulfillment of each individual.’19
Pope John Paul II committed his heartfelt efforts to the defense of religious freedom, speaking as a religious leader to a worldwide audience. All who are committed to the free exercise of religion are indebted both for Dignitatis Humanae and for John Paul II’s vision and advocacy.
IV. The Value of Religious Liberty
Religious teachings and the religiously motivated actions of believers benefit society and deserve legal protection.
For example, there are many needs for humanitarian assistance—hunger, disease, and lack of education to mention only a few. Religious liberty enables believers and faith communities to provide this aid to society’s neediest members. Most religions exhort their believers to give to the poor. Most also teach their believers that they are accountable to God for this duty.
Religions also play a vital role in contributing to social stability. Societies are not held together primarily by law and its enforcement, but by those who voluntarily obey the unenforceable because of their sense of accountability to God. In his talk at this symposium last year, my fellow apostle Elder Quentin L. Cook spoke of this. “Accountability to God,” he said, “is a powerful force for good and strongly supports democracy.”20 He illustrated that fact with Harvard Professor Clayton M. Christensen’s impressive teaching that most Americans “voluntarily choose to follow the law” not just because of its official enforcement but because they believe “they [a]re accountable to God.”21
Here are a few other examples and recommendations to illustrate the truth that the teachings and practice of religion are of unique value to a free and prosperous society. Some are drawn from recent writings of my fellow apostles in our worldwide ministry, others from Professor W. Cole Durham, an expert on international religious freedom.
I begin with Professor Durham’s crucial insight that the freedoms of religion and belief are foundational to other important rights in at least four ways.22 (1) Historically, many other civil rights emerged as expansions of protections originally provided for religious freedom. (2) Philosophically, religious freedom protects the belief systems from which other freedoms derive their meaning. (3) Religious institutions provide the motivation and moral support that translate religious and moral ideals into the communal practices on which related freedoms depend. (4) Finally, the freedoms of religion and belief are empirically foundational to healthy democracies. We now have good evidence that a country’s protection of religious freedom correlates with a functional democracy and with other social goods, such as economic freedom, per capita gross domestic product, higher literacy rates, and better health and education.23
The late Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth taught that religion is “the most powerful community builder the world has known. … [It is also] the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age.”24
History teaches that religious freedom holds societies together through a shared assurance that all will be secure in following their own foundational beliefs. As one of our apostles recently taught in Chile:
For centuries, people fought over religious differences, often with government suppressing one religion in the name of another. Religious liberty has allowed people of diverse religious traditions to live together in peace and friendship despite profound disagreements. … Governments that protect religious freedom have fewer social conflicts and greater levels of social cohesion.25
When citizens learn to live together with respect—despite important religious differences—they are also more likely to live peacefully with others with whom they have important secular differences. Critics who condemn religion as the source of great atrocities in the past should remember that the mass killings of the last century were not done in the name of religion. The unspeakable crimes of the Holocaust, the Stalinist purges, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, and the ethnic cleansings in Central Africa were primarily motivated by ethnic, political, or tribal differences, not by religious rivalries.26 Indeed, those regimes were overtly hostile to religion. Similarly, while public attention focuses on religious extremists’ current atrocities in a few parts of the world, leaders of the very faiths they invoke have forcefully condemned their violent acts.27 Violent extremism is no part of the religious freedom we advocate.
Speaking from a religious perspective, I maintain that followers of Jesus Christ have a duty to seek harmony and peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus taught, “for they shall be called the children of God.”28 The Apostle Paul similarly urged Christians to “follow after the things which make for peace,”29 and “[i]f it be possible … live peaceably with all men.”30
Religion and persons of faith bless society with a precious and unique moral conscience. In our recent worldwide conference, another of our apostles declared:
If religion is not there to help with shaping character and mediating hard times, who will be? Who will teach honesty, gratitude, forgiveness, and patience? Who will exhibit charity, compassion, and kindness for the forgotten and the downtrodden? Who will embrace those who are different yet deserving, as are all of God’s children?31
Teachings based on faith in God—however He is understood—have always contributed to moral actions that benefit the entire nation.
V. Pursuing Religious Liberty
Let us now consider ways religious institutions and believers can strengthen religious liberty worldwide. I have four brief suggestions.
1. Our responses to governmental laws and our relations with potential adversaries will be helped if we accept the twin realities (1) that we are all fellow citizens who need each other and (2) that we are all subject to law.
In responses to government, we should remember Jesus’ charge to “render [give] … unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.”32 Even religious rights cannot be absolute. In a nation with citizens of many different religious beliefs or disbeliefs, the government must sometimes limit the rights of some to act upon their religious beliefs when doing so is necessary to protect the health, safety, and welfare of all. In addition, some other citizens may even have competing constitutional rights against which some religious liberties must be balanced.
Our efforts to resolve challenges to religious liberty will be strengthened if we do not always seek total dominance for our own positions. Some accommodations may be necessary as we strive to honor legitimate laws and respect other persons’ highest ideals and human experiences. Conflicting claims are best resolved by seeking to understand the experiences and concerns of others, and by good faith negotiations. None of this requires any compromise of our core religious principles, but rather a careful examination of what is really essential to our free exercise of religion, in contrast to what other believers consider really essential to their beliefs. In this way we learn to live peacefully with some laws we dislike and with some persons whose values differ from our own.33
2. The most serious violations of religious freedom are not merely discrimination but persecution. Much religious persecution, in the United States and probably worldwide, has been one or more religious groups persecuting others. The mob that murdered Joseph Smith, the first prophet and president of my Church, was led by a man known as a “sometime” Protestant minister.34 The Blaine Amendments mentioned earlier were promoted by predominantly Protestant lawmakers opposing predominantly Catholic schools. Protestants have suffered their own share of persecutions. Occurrences of antisemitism, Islamophobia, and persecution of Christians are current examples of serious violations of religious freedom.
In human history, religious persecution is so common that it can seem irreversible. However, examining this issue in light of global statistics identifies something that can be done. A Pew study suggests that where 70% or more of the population belongs to a single dominant religion, there tend to be social hostility and high restrictions on religious freedom. Yet, no country where Catholicism has over 70% of the population exhibits this pattern in recent years.35 This surely reflects the impact of Dignitatis Humanae, but it also suggests that religious leaders and institutions can play a vital role in averting religious persecution.
In every country, religious leaders can play an important role in discouraging the use of state power to cause or support religious persecution. We hope and pray that the religious duties of religious leaders will incline them to oppose the use of state- or religion-supported coercion on the sacred subjects of religious choice and activity. Further, we who live under laws that promote religious freedom need to use our persuasive powers to encourage religious liberty for those not so favored.
3. The preservation of religious liberty ultimately depends on the understanding and support of the general public. And that, in turn, depends on the value the public attaches to the teachings of churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship and what believers do with those teachings.
If the foundation of religious liberty is weakening, it is likely in part because the benefits conferred on society by religious organizations and religiously motivated people are not sufficiently known and acknowledged. We need to address that deficiency on a wider front than preaching, lobbying, and litigating. Religious institutions and believers must teach and act to make the beneficial public effects of religious teachings and practices more visible to nonbelievers. And we need more believers to practice their religious faith more visibly by serving others.
We should serve others in ways that help them understand that our voluntary service is motivated by our religious beliefs. As Jesus taught, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”36 As more of our service genuinely benefits society and is clearly motivated by our religious beliefs, this will be recognized by the general public.
Our Church is striving to benefit others. Sometimes we act independently, but more commonly in cooperation with others such as Caritas, UNICEF, Red Cross, or Red Crescent. For example, in 2021, our Church delivered 80 million pounds of food for hungry people and improved clean water and sanitation sources in 47 countries. In 2021, we helped respond to 199 emergency projects in 61 countries and territories devastated by natural disasters. Often, this aid was more than supplies or funding, but included volunteered time and service by thousands of our members. Such personal efforts are an important public manifestation of the religious motivation that drives humanitarian assistance—a freewill offering, born out of love for God and neighbor. Relief following disasters is only one of the multiple efforts that added up to 6.8 million hours of volunteer service rendered by our members in 2021. Also, our Church’s highly esteemed family history programs, FamilySearch and RootsTech, are widely used by nonbelievers as well as believers to provide tools for strengthening family ties and social networks.
Religious communities can offer something governments—however well financed—cannot provide: large-scale person-to-person kindness and empathy to accompany material assistance.
The religiously motivated practices of one denomination can benefit society generally. As they do, the value and strength of the religious freedom that makes them possible is more evident and easier to support generally.
4. Finally, as declared by so many religious leaders, we must unite and find common ground for defending and promoting religious liberty. This is not a call for doctrinal compromises, but rather a plea for unity and cooperation on strategy and advocacy toward our common goal of religious liberty for all. Speaking to an audience in his native Brazil, an apostolic colleague described it this way:
Religious freedom is as much a duty toward others as it is a right for oneself. … We gain freedom by supporting the freedom of those we deem to be our adversaries. When we see that our interests are tied to the interests of everyone else, then the real work of religious freedom begins.37
With the love and mutual respect taught by divine commandments, we need to find ways to learn from one another and to reinforce the common commitments that hold us together and promote stable pluralistic societies. We should walk shoulder to shoulder along the path of religious freedom for all, while still exercising that freedom to pursue our distinctive beliefs.
On behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I testify of the divinity of our Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ, and as one of His apostles, I invoke His blessings on all who seek to serve God, including those who seek to advance religious freedom. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
- In re Belle Harris, 4 Utah 5 (1884).
- Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2007), 345.
- Francis E. George, “Catholics and Latter-day Saints: Partners in the Defense of Religious Freedom,” Brigham Young University Speeches (Feb. 23, 2010), 8.
- Laura Silver, Patrick van Kessel, Christine Huang, Laura Clancy, and Sneha Gubbala, “What Makes Life Meaningful? Views From 17 Advanced Economies,” , Nov. 18, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2021/11/18/what-makes-life-meaningful-views-from-17-advanced-economies/.
- G. T. Sewall, , (1995), 16.
- M. H. Romanowski, “Addressing Christianity in American History: Are Textbooks Improving?” , vol. 14, no. 2 , 21, 23–24.
- Quentin L. Cook, “Tone Deaf to the Music of Faith,” (address given at the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit, June 28, 2021).
- Michael W. McConnell, “The Origins and Historical Understanding of Free Exercise of Religion,” , vol. 103, no. 7 [May 1990] 1409, 1422–23.
- Kelsey Dallas, “The State of Faith,” , April 2022.
- Dallin H. Oaks, “Defending Our Divinely Inspired Constitution,” , May 2021.
- Doctrine and Covenants 101:77. The United States Constitution is the oldest written constitution still in force today. It has been a model for many others. Today, all nations but the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Israel have written constitutions. See Mark Tushnet, “Constitution,” in (2012), 222.
- Lilburn W. Boggs letter to John B. Clark, Oct. 27, 1838, Mormon War Papers, Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City, Missouri, sos.mo.gov/archives/resources/Mormon.
- Steven K. Green, (2010), 294–302, 308–16.
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18, https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights.
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- Chapter IV: Human Rights, in “Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary-General,” https://treaties.un.org/Pages/Treaties.aspx?id=4&subid=A&clang=_en.
- See, e.g., the European Convention on Human Rights, American Convention on Human Rights, African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.
- https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651207_dignitatis-humanae_en.html. Dignitatis Humanae (1965),
- Mary Ann Glendon letter to Dallin H. Oaks, March 14, 2022.
- Cook, “Tone Deaf.”
- Quoted in Cook, “Tone Deaf.”
- Ideas and quotations attributed here to Professor Durham are based on his writings in my possession.
- For more extensive documentation on this point, see Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, (2010).
- Jonathan Sacks, “The Moral Animal,” https://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/24/opinion/the-moral-animal.html , Dec. 23, 2012,
- D. Todd Christofferson, “Religious Liberty: The Basis of a Free and Just Society” (address given at Religious Liberty Symposium, October 29, 2021, Santiago, Chile.
- See, e.g., Karen Armstrong, (2014); and Meic Pearse, (2007).
- See, e.g., Joe Parkinson, “Muslim Leaders Condemn Attack, Warn on Anti-Islamic Sentiment in Europe,” wsj.com/articles/muslim-leaders-condemn-attack-warn-on-anti-islamic-sentiment-in-europe-1420654885. , Jan. 7, 2015,
- Matthew 5:9.
- Romans 14:19.
- Romans 12:18.
- Ronald A. Rasband, “To Heal the World,” , May 2022, 93.
- Matthew 22:21; and Luke 20:25.
- Dallin H. Oaks, “Going Forward with Religious Freedom and Nondiscrimination,” BYU Studies Quarterly vol. 61, no. 1 (2022), and lecture at University of Virginia.
- Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill, Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith (1975), 58.
- "Global Restrictions on Religion Rise Modestly in 2015, Reversing Downward Trend,” Pew Research Center, Apr. 11, 2017, discussed in Brett G. Scharffs, “Islam and Religious Freedom: The Experience of Religious Majorities and Minorities,” Notre Dame Law Review, vol. 93 (2018) 78, 82.
- Matthew 5:16.
- Ulisses Soares, “Religious Freedom the Architecture of a Healthy Society,” Deseret News Weekend, March 25, 2022, A13 (also address given at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Religious Freedom Symposium; emphasis added).