Religious Freedom: Protecting the Good Religion Does

1. Introduction

As I mentioned in the first plenary session, I feel truly privileged to be here. I’ve been enlightened, and often amazed, by what I’ve heard. Just knowing about the great good so many of you are doing inspires me and gives me hope that by working together toward common goals we can make a real difference in the lives of millions of people.

And it must indeed be together that we work, and yet also in our own distinctive ways. That is sometimes a challenge, because we often come from very different religious and philosophical perspectives. From what I’ve learned here, however, I am even more convinced than ever that a pluralistic framework that welcomes many different approaches is the best way to serve those in need. And I of course include religious approaches in that pluralistic framework. Religious organizations and faith communities have a vital role to play in alleviating poverty and helping people live healthier, happier and more productive lives. For that and many other reasons, religious freedom remains essential to our efforts.

I’d like to speak for a few minutes on religious freedom and how critical it is for preserving and encouraging all the good religion does. In so doing, I don’t mean for a moment to detract from the enormous good that nonreligious persons and institutions provide to society. I only mean to emphasize that religion — and therefore religious freedom — remain essential to achieving our shared objectives.

2. Religious Freedom Protects the Good Religion Does

It may seem odd to us here, but it is becoming increasingly common for people to think that religion and religious freedom are some kind of burden on society. That is simply not true. Religion is fundamental to societal well-being, and freedom of religion benefits not only believers but all of society, whether they know it or not. Therefore, all have an interest in protecting this freedom, whether they are believers or not.

I’d like to touch on just two of the great benefits of religious freedom and offer some supporting statistics from studies that have been done around the world.

First, religious freedom protects other fundamental rights. The freedom to express beliefs about God, which took centuries of struggle to establish, also supports the right to express opinions about morality, society, politics, literature, art, science or virtually any other subject. The hard-won religious rights to peacefully assemble for worship or to print religious literature also support the rights to assemble for political, social, cultural and familial reasons or to print books or newspapers addressing a host of subjects.

Requiring government to treat people equally despite their different religions has strengthened the imperative of treating people equally despite differences in race, color, national origin, sex and so forth. There are many other examples.

The English historian Lord Acton observed that “religious liberty is the generating principle of civil (liberty).”1 Protecting and respecting religious freedom serves as a training ground for protecting and respecting other human rights and freedoms. It teaches us that government has limits: that there are aspects of life that are so sensitive and personal that the coercive jurisdiction of the state must yield to the jurisdiction of the sacred and individual conscience. Religious freedom teaches us to see the inherent dignity of each person. It teaches us first to tolerate, then to respect, and then to love our neighbor.

I fear that if our societies fail to vigorously protect and respect religious freedom, then we will lose not only religious freedom but many other freedoms too.

The second benefit I want to highlight is that religious freedom allows religion to perform the vital function of promoting civic virtue, providing for the less fortunate, and nurturing strong families and communities. There is a rich scholarship addressing the social benefits of religion freely exercised. Here are just a few of the benefits scholars have identified:

  • Countries with strong religious freedom tend to be more stable and prosperous. A recent study found that religious freedom is one of three factors significantly associated with global economic growth.2 It is associated with many positive social and economic effects, “ranging from better health care to higher incomes for women.”3 By contrast, lack of religious freedom leads to increased violence,4 political corruption,5 strife and national unrest.6
  • Apart from a minuscule number of people that use religion to justify violence, the free exercise of religion also promotes a better society: Religious conscience encourages the virtues and habits of good citizenship that are necessary for a free society. Honesty. Duty. Moral self-discipline. Sacrifice for family and country. Compassion and service toward others. Civic engagement. Religion inspires individuals to develop praiseworthy character traits, and such people become more engaged and responsible citizens and more effective contributors to the welfare of their own communities and the nation.
  • For example, studies have shown that —
  • Religiously involved people are less likely to be violent;7 when people in a community are more religious there tend to be fewer homicides and suicides.8
  • Greater attendance at religious services seems to lower rates of both minor and major crimes better than government welfare programs.9
  • Religious people are more likely to belong to community organizations, serve as leaders in an organization, and participate in local civic and political life; 10 “religiosity is, by far, the strongest and most consistent predictor of a wide range of measures of civic involvement.”11
  • As this conference underscores, religious people and institutions are tremendous sources of humanitarian aid; they volunteer in the community at much higher rates than those without religion. By one estimate, people of faith are 40 percent more likely than nonreligious people to give money to charities and more than twice as likely to volunteer their service to community organizations.12 Highly religious people are more likely to volunteer not only for religious causes but also for secular ones.13
  • Religious volunteers provide crucial services for the most vulnerable: food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, schools for the uneducated, and medical care for the sick. More than 90 percent of those who regularly attend worship services donate to charity, and nearly 70 percent of them volunteer for charitable causes.14
  • Numerous international studies have shown that regularly and sincerely practicing religion is “associated with greater marital stability, higher levels of marital satisfaction, and an increased likelihood that an individual will be inclined to marry.”15 Attending religious services is the single most important predictor of marital stability.16
  • Children are safer and thrive better in the context of religious homes and regular religious practice. They are less likely to experience or engage in anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, sadness,17 delinquent or illegal behavior,18 pornography,19 drug and alcohol abuse,20 and other addictive behaviors.21 Religious youth have reduced rates of depression22 and suicide.23

I am not for a moment suggesting that religion is the only source of virtue within society, or that secular people cannot be highly moral. My point is simply that very often religion does the hard work of inculcating the habits and mores necessary for free and healthy societies to exist.

Religious freedom teaches us to see the inherent dignity of each person.

An experience of a Church colleague of mine illustrated the point I’m making. Recently, he visited a country that for many decades has had almost no religious freedom. In a meeting with one of their high-ranking government officials, he was told that the government has realized that on its own it can’t build a sense of right and wrong in people, or teach them how to live virtuous lives. They need religion.

Society benefits enormously from the good that faith in God can provide.

3. How Religious Freedom Protects the Good Religion Does

And that brings me to my final point: Without the freedom to practice our faith, including serving those in need in the way our faith directs, the Church and its members — and many other faith communities — could not effectively serve the poor and do the great work they do in society at large. Our faiths are central to what we do and how we do it.

Religious liberty enables each faith-based group to serve in a way that is consistent with its deepest beliefs and motivations. Each religious community has its own unique approach to serving, which reflects its unique doctrines, its unique religious practices, and its unique way of loving and caring for people. Each reaches the poor and needy in different ways. Without religious freedom, religious groups would face the terrible choice of serving in ways that violate their beliefs, which would rob their service of the faith that gives it life and power, or forsaking the divine mandate to care for the poor. Faith and freedom provide the fertile soil wherein the religious purposes of our programs can flourish. Without religious freedom, these programs could not exist, and far fewer people would be helped.

In saying all this, I do not discount the vast and critical contributions of numerous non-religious groups. Poverty and suffering seem almost endless. There is room for as many individualized approaches to serving as there are groups and people willing to serve — whether religious or secular. No one has a monopoly on service or love. All of us have a critical role to play.

That reality should lead policy makers to embrace a pluralistic approach to poverty and aid programs rather than a one-size-fits all model. To the greatest extent possible, policy makers should let faith groups be true to their religious mission; let non-religious NGOs be true to their vision; and then let people choose the religious or secular approaches that best address their needs. Policy makers should resist the urge to force religious groups to conform to secular values.

Some argue that if government money is involved then secular government values must control. While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not take government money, it nevertheless strongly supports the religious freedom of all groups, regardless of whether they partner with government or serve entirely on their own. It is shortsighted to simply invoke the existence of government funding to justify suppressing a faith group’s religious mission. That will only rob the group of its motivation and power to serve effectively.

For these and many other reasons, freedom to serve according to the tenets of our diverse faiths is simply vital and must be protected. Faith and freedom are the life-blood of our many efforts to serve.

4. Conclusion

The two great commandments of Christianity are what motivate members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: The first great commandment, Jesus taught, is to love God. The second is to love our neighbor as ourselves.24 This is why we serve.

We love God as the spiritual Father of all mankind. We believe it is His work and His glory to lift and refine all His children, and that we are called to assist in this great effort. We recognize that all blessings — all abundance, everything we have — comes from Him. Whatever material things God blesses us with are a sacred stewardship. As the Bible teaches, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.”25 We believe that each of us will one day stand before God to give an accounting of what we have done with our time and resources on this earth. Our sincere desire is to follow the pattern of Jesus Christ, who, the scriptures say, “went about doing good.”26 Doing good for others, serving them, sacrificing to care for their needs — these are all ways we demonstrate our love for God and our gratitude for His blessings. As the Book of Mormon explains, “when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.”27

Love of God leads to love of neighbor. We embrace people of all backgrounds as fellow children of God. We see individuals and families that struggle to recover from war and natural disasters, or to overcome intergenerational poverty, not as strangers but as our friends, as our spiritual brothers and sisters, as family. We want to lift them and help them break the cycle of poverty and dependency, to become self-sufficient and free, and to lead lives of dignity and respect. Our efforts to encourage and build self-reliance in individuals, families, and communities arise from the profound spiritual truth that every person has eternal worth.

In short, our faith in Jesus Christ who died, was resurrected, and lives today — who teaches us that everyone is worthy of our love and support — it is this faith that inspires and guides all that the Church and its members do. It is the fire that burns within us and the light that guides our path as we love, lift, and help others. I am confident that every religious community here today would say much the same thing.

Even so, we need not agree on all the reasons why we serve. Let there be many reasons why we do good! And we need not always agree on how it is best to serve. Let there be many different approaches reaching people in all their wondrous diversity! But I trust that we can all agree on respecting the freedom — especially religious freedom — that we all need to serve according to the dictates of our conscience.

Thank you.

  1. Selected Writings of Lord Acton, ed. J. Rufus Fears (1985), 47.

  2. See Brian J. Grim, Greg Clark, and Robert Edward Snyder, “Is Religious Freedom Good for Business? A Conceptual and Empirical Analysis,” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, vol. 10 (2014), article 4, 1.

  3. Luigi Guiso, Paola Sapienza, and Luigi Zingales, “People’s Opium? Religion and Economic Attitudes,” Journal of Monetary Economics (2003), 227.

  4. See Roger Finke and Jaime Dean Harris, “Wars and Rumors of Wars: Explaining Religiously Motivated Violence,” in Religion, Politics, Society, and the State (2011), 53.

  5. See Seymour Martin Lipset and Gabriel Salman Lenz, “Corruption, Culture, and Markets,” in Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (2000), 112.

  6. See Brian J. Grim, Vegard Skirbekk, and Jesus C. Cuaresma, “Deregulation and Demographic Change: A Key to Understanding Whether Religious Plurality Leads to Strife,” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, vol. 9 (2013), article 13, 1.

  7. See David Lester, “Religiosity and Personal Violence: A Regional Analysis of Suicide and Homicide Rates,” Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 127 (Dec. 1987), 685, 686.

  8. See David Lester, “Religiosity and Personal Violence,” 685, 686.

  9. See Byron R. Johnson, David B. Larson, Spencer De Li, and Sung Joon Jang, “Escaping from the Crime of Inner Cities: Church Attendance and Religious Salience among Disadvantaged Youth,” Justice Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 2 (June 2000), 377.

  10. See Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace, 454–55; see also Pippa Norris, “Does Praying Together Mean Staying Together? Religion and Civic Engagement in Europe and the United States,” in Joep de Hart, Paul Dekker, and Loek Halman, eds., Religion and Civil Society in Europe (2013), 285 (demonstrating a positive correlation between religious observance and civic engagement in Western Europe).

  11. Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, 454–55.

  12. See Arthur C. Brooks, “Compassion, Religion, and Politics,” The Public Interest, Fall 2004, 61.

  13. See Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, chapter 13. See also, René Bekkers and Pamala Wiepking, “Who Gives? A Literature Review of Predictors of Charitable Giving,” Voluntary Sector Review, vol. 2, no. 3 (Nov. 2011),

  14. See Arthur C. Brooks, “Religious Faith and Charitable Giving,” Policy Review, Oct.–Nov. 2003,; see also Putnam and Campbell, American Grace.

  15. Patrick Fagan, “Why Religion Matters Even More: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability,” Dec. 18, 2006,

  16. See David B. Larson, Susan S. Larson, and John Gartner, “Families, Relationships and Health,” Behavior and Medicine (1990), 135.

  17. See Byron R. Johnson, Ralph Brett Tompkins, and Derek Webb, “Objective Hope—Assessing the Effectiveness of Faith-Based Organizations: A Review of the Literature,” Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society (2002),

  18. See Johnson, Larson, De Li, and Jang, “Escaping from the Crime of Inner Cities.” (Disadvantaged black youths in the inner city who attend religious services regularly are 57 percent less likely to deal drugs and 39 percent less likely to commit crime generally.)

  19. See Nicholas Zill, “Quality of Parent-Child Relationship, Religious Attendance, and Family Structure,” Mapping America (2009), 48,; see also Mapping America publications on U.S. patterns of viewing X-rated movies (Mapping America, 37–39) and adultery (Mapping America, 73–75),

  20. See Marvin D. Free Jr., “Religiosity, Religious Conservatism, Bonds to School, and Juvenile Delinquency Among Three Categories of Drug Users,” Deviant Behavior, vol. 15 (1994), 151.

  21. See William J. Strawbridge, Sarah J. Shema, Richard D. Cohen, and George A. Kaplan, “Religious Attendance Increases Survival by Improving and Maintaining Good Health Behaviors, Mental Health, and Social Relationships,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine, vol. 23, no. 1 (2001), 68; Johnson, Tompkins, and Webb, “Objective Hope—Assessing the Effectiveness of Faith-Based Organizations.”

  22. See Loyd S. Wright, Christopher J. Frost, and Stephen J. Wisecarver, “Church Attendance, Meaningfulness of Religion, and Depressive Symptomatology Among Adolescents,” Journal of Youth & Adolescence, vol. 22, no. 5 (1993), 559.

  23. See Johnson, Tompkins, and Webb, “Objective Hope—Assessing the Effectiveness of Faith-Based Organizations.”

  24. See Matthew 22:36–40.

  25. Luke 12:48.

  26. Acts 10:38.

  27. Mosiah 2:17.