The Foundational Contribution of Religion to Society

"Religious freedom is a marker for other freedoms in society that temper the natural impulses that are counter to a prosperous, thriving, and progressing society."

Elder Dale G. Renlund

We are delighted to be here and applaud the ambitious aims of this conference. Freedom of religion and freedom of worship are principles we value and embrace whole-heartedly. As was mentioned, both Ruth and I are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Our 16 million members live in 190 countries, nations and territories, speak over 120 different languages and worship in nearly 30,000 congregations around the world. Like many religions, our Church has a specific tenet that asserts our right to worship but also recognizes that others have the same right as well. This Article of Faith states, “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of o own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”1

Sister Renlund

Religion and religious freedom are not only good for an individual but also benefit society. The benefit to the individual is clear through the exercise of an individual’s moral agency – the ability to choose to believe and act according to the dictates of conscience.

Some of the benefits of religion to society are just as obvious and are found in religious charity, education, and humanitarian aid. These contributions are quantifiable and may, in and of themselves, justify religion in society. Other societal benefits, however, may be overlooked or minimized. For example, religion and religious freedom contribute to the moral compass individuals bring with them as they come together groups. The moral compass brings civility and trust to society.

Elder Renlund

Perhaps an analogy would be helpful to illustrate this point. Let me compare religious freedom to the medicines necessary to help the human body learn to accept a transplanted heart. In my prior profession, I participated in the care of over a thousand heart transplant recipients. My academic research interest was in the use of medicines to suppress the immune system to prevent the rejection of a transplanted heart. Suppressing the immune system is difficult because it is hard to trick the human body into not doing something it is programmed to do.

Imagine that you are a patient who is dying with severe heart failure. The only possible hope to prolong your life is to receive a heart transplant.

As you await a suitable donor heart, your kidneys, liver, and lungs begin to fail. Then the miraculous happens. A suitable donor is found. Your diseased heart is removed and the donor’s heart is sewn into place in your chest.

This new heart starts pumping beautifully. Your kidneys, liver, and lung begin to recover. Within two days, you are off all life support and you are feeling great. However, your body begins to do what it is programmed to do. Your immune system recognizes the new heart as being foreign to your own self. Your system does not recognize the heart as being you. Interpreting this as an invasion, your immune system mounts an offensive against your new heart. Immune cells invade. These cells recruit other cells and antibodies from your immune system. Initially, the heart muscle becomes a little swollen and a little stiffer. However, over the course of 2 – 3 weeks, your natural immune system mortally injures the very thing that is sustaining your life, your new heart. Your kidneys, liver, and lungs again begin to fail and you eventually die. But, your death could be prevented.

Heart transplant specialists have medicines to block the cascade of events that cause rejection and kill a transplanted heart and the recipient. Early after heart transplantation, the amount of immunosuppression needed is large because the immune response is so vigorous. However, as time goes on, the immune response becomes less vigorous and the amount of immunosuppression can be decreased. This phenomenon is known as immunological tolerance. The patient’s immune system becomes more and more accepting of the tissue from their donor. Patients can live reasonably normal lives. Many of my former patients send me thank you notes on the 25th  anniversary of the heart transplant. For these patients, immunological tolerance has allowed them to accept a foreign tissue as if it were self.

Sister Renlund

Compare the immune response prompted by a transplanted heart to the natural response of dissimilar individuals and groups in society. History has shown that the natural response of people is to ostracize and reject those they identify as being different than they. These negative interactions begin with groups defining themselves as “us” and classifying those outside of their group as “them.” Sociologically, there are many reasons why this happens. Over time, this rejection process and “us” versus “them” mentality can progress to the point that we view those “others” as a threat. It then becomes easy to de-humanize and be uncivil and hateful. Distrust and suspicion are fostered. Tolerance, civility, and fairness then diminish in all aspects of public life.

Don’t get me wrong, our immune system is a wonderful thing. Like the heart, it keeps us alive too. But in this analogy, we compare our immune system to our natural defense mechanism to protect the interests of our group. Our immune system is like our human instincts to intolerance, conformity, and rejection of differences. But religious freedom provides a better way.

This unchecked, societal rejection process can manifest itself in many forms: ridicule, harassment, bullying, exclusion, and isolation. Sometimes, it can lead to armed conflict and war. In extreme cases, it can lead to genocides perpetrated by so-called civilized countries and supposed enlightened peoples. In the end, it is self-destructive, just like the unchecked immune system in a heart transplant recipient. And just as in the case of heart transplantation, there are interventions, the societal equivalent of immunosuppressive medicines, to prevent societal self-destruction. These societal “medicines” must necessarily include the mechanisms for social dialogue and understanding provided by both religion and religious freedoms.

Elder Renlund

Religious beliefs, teachings, and practices bring needed medicine to a society that would otherwise be aggressive and sick. Consider three medicines that religion offers societies, three ways to control the unrestrained, self-interest based, natural response. The three medicines are first, the concept of an authority higher than self; second, a code of moral conduct; and third, that aspects of the moral code can change the hearts of individuals so that they act with selflessness.

The first medicine is the concept of an authority higher than self. A belief in God, a Supreme Being called by various names in different faith traditions, suggests that we are all God’s creations and that we owe our creator allegiance and gratitude. Many religions express these related concepts in various ways. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint expresses it this way, “All human beings – male and female – are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny.”2

When we believe we are sons and daughters of God, or even that we were created by the same Supreme Being, we then recognize that we have a shared humanity, an inherited spark of the divine, and we are able to recognize that divine spark in others. By extension, we have a relationship with and a responsibility to others in the world, who can be viewed as our spiritual brothers and sisters. As stated centuries ago by Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, “People are either your brothers in faith, or your brothers in humanity." And Jesus Christ gave this direction to His followers, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you.”3 This concept provides the foundational understanding of our relationship to others on this planet and restrains the natural impulse to compete exclusively in an “us” versus “them” dichotomy. Rather, it engenders trust and mutual respect. From this understanding, a code of moral conduct is derived.

Sister Renlund

This is our second medicine, a common code of moral conduct. This second medicine derives from a belief in a God who places expectations on the behavior of His creations. Most religions have such a code that provides moral teachings. This moral code is made up of two elements, one that is actionable and one that is aspirational. For instance, the actionable element of this statement, “thou shalt not kill,”4 prohibits the taking of life. The aspirational aspect of this same statement is to develop respect and reverence for human life. Similarly, the teaching, “thou shalt not steal,”5 describes an action to be restrained, but also suggests a characteristic to develop — respect for the property of others.

The aspirational elements of moral codes help men and women develop certain societally desirable characteristics, such as empathy, generosity and charity. Religious texts and the practices of many religions precede civil law in upholding the sanctity of life and the rights of individuals. A code of moral conduct provides strong medicine in today’s societies. When the moorings to these moral codes are weakened or lost, a cascade of events is unleashed that causes societies to devolve into divisiveness and distrust. As we will discuss later, civil laws are ineffective in legislating every aspect of moral conduct. A truly civilized, well- functioning society depends on an accepted code of moral conduct that is based on a belief system that teaches that there is something greater than self.

Elder Renlund

The third medicine that religion provides to intervene in the natural, negative impulses in society is that the aspirational aspects of the moral code change the hearts of individuals so that they act with selflessness. Let’s look at the example of Jesus Christ, who said, “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”6 Whether one views Jesus as divine or not, we can all learn from this saying and from His example. His life demonstrated how this saying is both actionable and aspirational.

His mortal ministry was characterized by love, compassion, and empathy. He did not disdainfully walk the dusty roads of Galilee and Judea, flinching at the sight of those who did not follow His teachings. He did not dodge them in abject horror. No, He ate with them. He helped and blessed, lifted and edified, and replaced fear and despair with hope and joy.7

Sister Renlund

This Golden Rule is not unique to Christianity. It is found in most faith traditions. Let’s consider several. Around 500 B.C., Confucius was reported to have taught, “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself."8

Elder Renlund

From Hindu tradition: “One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma.”9

Sister Renlund

From Jewish tradition: On one occasion, Hillel the Elder, a Jewish Rabbi who lived in the first century before Christ, was challenged to explain the book of scripture known as the Torah in a very short period of time. He quoted from the Torah, “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Then Hillel said, “That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah, the rest is commentary. Go forth and study.”10

Elder Renlund

Mohammed taught in several different ways the following, "Wish for your brother, what you wish for yourself."11

This concept is the perfect example of what religion brings to a society. Governments cannot legislate that people should be nice, fair, thoughtful, and kind. But religious mores encourage it. Religions admonish their adherents to develop unselfish characteristics. Wherever good people of faith go, they bring these characteristics into their societies. Simply consider the influence of the countless charitable people of faith you personally know.

Sister Renlund

We have explored the way religion brings frequently unrecognized benefits to societies by changing the hearts of people who believe in God, recognize a moral code for their lives, and aspire to live with others in peace and harmony. As good as these things are, the absence of religious freedom in a society leads to oppression. And who does the oppressing? Anyone who cannot accept legitimate differences. We see this in the form of government restrictions, religious intolerance, and social hostilities. For the positive effects of religion to be realized in societies, religious freedom is required. All people of faith must vigorously protect not only their own right to religious freedom but the rights of others to this freedom as well. 

The founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith, declared, “I am just as 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 who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.”12

Elder Renlund

Other faiths have expressed similar sentiments. We applaud all who defend the rights of others to pursue their religious beliefs, and we are grateful for their efforts. We believe that societies should create space and protection for everyone to live according to their conscience without infringing on the rights and safety of others. When the rights of one group collide with the rights of another, the principle to follow is fairness for all. In our opinion, religious freedom is not only good for societies; it is good for the individual religions themselves. Religious freedom sets people of faith free to do good.13

We love the way this is expressed in the Qu’ran, “We have designed a law and a practice for different groups. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good.”14 Think of that! This could be a very healthy competition – religious communities competing to be the kindest, most respectful, the most compassionate, and the humblest. Fortunately, the highest laws of many nations create space and protection for individuals to believe as they choose and to outwardly express those beliefs openly without fear of any public reprisal.

Sister Renlund

Yet, there is a tendency to stifle people with certain beliefs from expressing what is considered socially or politically incorrect. Barack Obama, former President of the United States, said, “Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.” Similarly, people of faith are wrong to ask other believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square.

Elder Renlund

Religious freedom is a marker for other freedoms in society that tempers the natural impulses that are counter to a prosperous, thriving, and progressing society. True freedom of religion is won on city blocks and small-town streets, in our workplaces, and our homes. It is won as people of faith go about doing good, as Jesus did.15

We can all do something, even if it does not seem like much. As stated in the Hadith, “Whoever witnesses an injustice or wrong doing should change its course by his hand. If he or she cannot do that, then by his words. If he or she is unable to do that then by their hearts. This would be the weakest of acts of faith.”16

Sister Renlund

Yes, we can all do something, even if it does not seem like much. The equivalent of immunological tolerance brings about societal tolerance. We contribute to societal tolerance when our discourse is civil.

I was a trial lawyer in the United States for 23 years. I worked with others who strongly held different opinions than I did. The remarkable thing is that two lawyers who are fierce adversaries in the courtroom can sit down calmly together and eat lunch. I learned early in my career to disagree without being disagreeable. I would say to the opposing lawyer something like, “I can see that you and I are not going to agree on this issue. I like you. I respect your opinion. I hope you can offer me the same courtesy.” Most often, this allowed for mutual respect and friendship.

Elder Renlund

We contribute to societal tolerance when we reject hate speech.

Sister Renlund

We contribute when we stand up for another’s right to worship.

Elder Renlund

We contribute when we reject demonizing whole religions because of the actions of a few.

Sister Renlund

We contribute when we reject xenophobia.

Elder Renlund

We contribute when we do not judge others based solely on outward characteristics.

Sister Renlund

I cherish the religious freedom that I have. I raise my voice in support of religious freedom in all its glorious ramifications. I treasure the right to live my life as an authentic Mormon, believing as my conscience dictates, worshipping as I choose, and freely sharing my faith with others, without fear of reprisal. I love the God I worship and I love the right to do so.

Elder Renlund

Let me explain why religious freedom and societal tolerance are important to me. As a teenager living in Europe in the 1960s, I felt that I was repeatedly picked on and bullied because I was an American and because I was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some of my schoolmates treated me as though my religion were an affront to the nations in which I lived because it differed from state- sponsored religion. Later, in various countries across the world, I have had small glimpses into the ugliness of prejudice and discrimination suffered by those who are targeted because of their faith. Because of these first-hand experiences, I believe that ridicule, harassment, bullying, exclusion and isolation, and hatred toward others is repugnant. And, it is not pleasing to the God I love and worship.

Thank you for this remarkable opportunity. It has been a pleasure to be part of this ongoing discussion of religious freedom.

  1. [1] Articles of Faith 1:11.

  2. The Family: A Proclamation to the World. 

  3. John 13:34.

  4. Exodus 20:13.

  5. Exodus 20:15.

  6. Matthew 7:12.

  7. See Luke 15:1–2.

  8. Confucius (c. 500 BC).

  9. Brihaspati, Mahabharata (Anusasana Parva, Section CXIII, Verse 8).

  10. Leviticus 19:18; Shabbath folio:31a, Babylonian Talmud.

  11. Hadith 13. "Wish for your brother, what you wish for yourself" or "Love for your brother what you love for yourself."

  12. History of the Church, 498–99 (1991) (discourse given by Joseph Smith on July 9, 1843, in Nauvoo, Illinois; reported by Willard Richards).

  13. Paraphrase of a statement made by Brian J. Grim in an Area Committee Meeting, March 1, 2017.

  14. Qu’ran 5, 48.

  15. Acts 10:38.

  16. Hadith.