Why We All Have a Stake in Protecting Religious Freedom

Whether you’re religious or not — whether you initially recognize it or not — everyone has a stake in protecting religious freedom.

I feel privileged to address this important gathering, which includes so many who contribute so much to our community. Thank you to Francisco Sotelo and all of the board members and officers of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for extending the invitation to be here today. My special greetings to honorary consul of Peru David Utrilla, vice-consul of Mexico Luis Franco, and Derek Miller, president and CEO of World Trade Center Utah. It is a privilege to speak at the same session as Ms. Monika Mantilla, president and CEO of Altura Capital Group. It’s an honor for me to be here with all of you today.

 As I’ve reviewed the agenda for this convention, I can see that you have many opportunities to learn and benefit from the inspiring stories of others. You come from varied backgrounds. Some of you come from families that have contributed to the social fabric of Utah for generations. Others of you perhaps just recently arrived in Utah, and you’re now becoming comfortable with a new language and a new culture and already contributing your talents to the state.

Indeed, Hispanic-owned businesses are making an impressive contribution to our culture and to our economy. According to one recent Stanford University study, Latinos in the United States owned an estimated 3.3 million businesses in 2012 (the most recent year for which firm numbers are available), nearly triple the number in 1997.1 By contrast, the tally for non-Latino- owned businesses during that same period stayed largely flat.

In Utah there are over 10,000 Hispanic-owned businesses, contributing more than a billion dollars to the state’s economy every year. 2 And according to a survey cited by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development in March, the Wasatch Front is a “top 10 leader in the U.S. for minority-owned businesses.” 3 Increasingly, as the former CEO of US West and Australia’s Telstra Corporation, Sol Trujillo, observes, “When you think about Latinos, think about entrepreneurs. When you think about entrepreneurs, think about Latinos.” 4

Each of you here contributes to the economic vitality and well-being of the communities in which you live and work. You provide for your own families and you also employ others. As you do this, you’re increasing opportunity for everyone. All of this is a testament to your dreams and the hard work and determination that are turning those dreams into reality. May I express to all of you a heartfelt thank-you.

But we should pause for a moment to consider the conditions that make achieving those dreams more likely. Certainly, government has a role in creating the right conditions for business. Indeed, as business people, some of you likely pay close attention to things like monetary policy. You factor in taxes as you consider your bottom line. And you watch for changes in regulations—not only to be sure you’re in compliance but to be sure you understand how they affect your ability to operate.

But for business to flourish, another set of conditions is also necessary—conditions resulting from the broader culture, affirming what we collectively value and what we’re willing to protect. Building upon a significant body of research already in existence, a groundbreaking study released in 2014 by researchers at Georgetown University and Brigham Young University identified one of those conditions, and that’s the presence of religious freedom. 5 The study looked at GDP growth for 173 countries in 2011, controlling for two dozen different financial, social, and regulatory influences, and found that the presence of religious freedom in a country is one of only three factors significantly associated with global economic growth.6 In short, what this study found—and others like it—is that freedom of religion or belief is good for business. It contributes to better economic and business outcomes.

Additional analysis by Brian Grim—one of the authors of the study, who also serves as chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith—cites a number of ways in which religious freedom does this. 7 I’ll mention three in particular:

First, the presence of religious freedom is associated with lower levels of corruption. Corruption has a corrosive effect on society, weakening public trust in leaders and institutions and impoverishing entire economies. The absence of corruption, on the other hand, is often cited as one of the key ingredients necessary for sustainable economic development. A comparison of data available through the Pew Research Center finds that eight of the ten countries listed as most corrupt in the world are also the countries identified by Pew as having high or very high governmental restrictions on religious freedom.

While a causal relationship between religious freedom and lower levels of corruption isn’t yet directly supported by the research, the research does suggest that protecting religious freedom may be a significant contributing factor to lower levels of corruption. Certainly we can identify one plausible connection in the fact that religions teach basic values of honesty, trustworthiness, and looking after the welfare of others. A critical mass of individuals who are free to practice such virtues and to encourage others to do the same can have a positive anti-corruption influence over time.

Second, Grim points to a growing body of research clearly demonstrating that the existence of religious freedom in society fosters peace. Mostly that’s because the protection of religious freedom helps reduce incidents of religion-related violence and conflict. And in societies where religious freedom is not respected and protected, the result is often sadly the opposite: there’s an increase in violence, and there are more frequent conflicts disrupting the everyday economic activities essential for business to flourish. As Grim points out, “Religious hostilities and restrictions create climates that can drive away local and foreign investment, undermine sustainable development, and disrupt huge sectors of economies.”

Third, religious freedom encourages broader freedoms. Significant empirical evidence points to a strong correlation between the presence of religious freedom and other freedoms, along with “a variety of positive social and economic outcomes ranging from better health care to higher incomes for women.” While correlation is not necessarily causation, there seems to be strong evidence that the freedoms available in a society—religious freedom, freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of speech—tend to all “rise or fall together.”

While these studies do not suggest that religious freedom alone is the main antidote to poor economic performance, they do suggest that religious freedom is highly correlated with economic success. Where religious freedom is respected and protected, society overall is more stable, safe, and prosperous.

Anyone in business would be wise to take notice of this relationship. The very social conditions strongly correlated with the existence of religious freedom are also the very social conditions that business itself requires for it to flourish. Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. And when we protect the ability of individuals and institutions to remain true to their core beliefs—and to act upon those beliefs—lots of other good things can happen.

We should therefore be concerned about some other numbers and trends that are more troubling—that tell us there’s a rising tide of restrictions on religious freedom across the world. According to the Pew Research Center, fully 77 percent of the world’s people currently live with high or very high religious restrictions. 8 Equally troubling, a report issued just this month by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom finds that in 2015, levels of religious freedom declined significantly across the world. 9

At the same time, the world is becoming more religious. According to a 2015 study in Demographic Research, social scientists were wrong to predict the demise of religion. The study and a related Pew Research Center report forecast that people who identify as religiously unaffiliated will drop to just 13 percent of the world’s population in 2050. 10 This is significantly lower than the peak in the 1970s under communism, when nearly one in five people were religiously unaffiliated. The notion held by many that religion is mostly a matter of history without significance in modern times is a parochial view only narrowly relevant to a few societies, mostly in the West. It doesn’t hold true for the vast majority of people across the globe.

In this country, we continue to benefit from broad religious freedom protections. But we can no longer take the existence of those protections for granted. At its most basic, religious freedom means the right to choose, change, declare, and act upon your faith. It includes the freedom to worship, but it is much more than that. It is the right to “exercise” or practice your religion without interference from government, subject to government’s responsibility to protect the health and safety of all its citizens in a pluralistic society. It also includes protecting the ability of religious institutions to pursue their mission and define their identity as religious communities consistent with their beliefs and doctrine without fear of retribution or punishment by those in power.

While most people pay lip service to religious freedom, it is the application of that freedom that creates controversy. “Threats to religious freedom typically arise when religious people and institutions seek to say or do something—or refuse to say or do something—that runs counter to the philosophy or goals of those in power. . . . Religious freedom, while generally supported in principle, is often vigorously opposed in practice.” 11

While there’s no question in this country that the First Amendment protects religious people in important ways, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints know from our own history that legal protections alone—even when written into the Constitution—aren’t always enough. Those protections must have the broad support of society as well. 

But American society is becoming more secular and religious affiliation is waning, which means that an increasing number of Americans have no direct experience with organized religion and no appreciation for its role in everyday life. That’s cause for concern because the culture ultimately protects through law what it values. And for more and more Americans, religion is something they value less.

There is also a tendency among Americans to apply religious freedom protections selectively—withholding those protections from some groups while granting them to others. A recent poll bears this out, revealing that while Americans place a high priority on preserving the religious freedom of Christians, they’re less inclined to protect the religious freedom of other faith groups, “ranking Muslims as the least deserving of the protections.” 12 Charles C. Haynes, vice president of the Newseum Institute and founding director of the Religious Freedom Center, recently observed: “Something has changed in America. Attacks on religious freedom, intimidation of reporters, assaults on peaceful protesters are now a ‘winning’ formula at the polls. To say the least, this does not bode well for the future vitality of First Amendment freedoms.” 13

Whether you’re religious or not—whether you initially recognize it or not—everyone has a stake in protecting religious freedom. That’s because protecting religious freedom protects the space we all need to live according to our most deeply held beliefs and values, where we’re free to act according to belief or conscience. The space in society not primarily motivated by profit or politics we often refer to as civil society. Certainly the exercise of religious belief or conscience belongs in this space. But so do a host of other voluntary activities and associations where people get together to solve problems or meet needs that aren’t otherwise being met. It’s this part of society where people can live and act based upon what’s most important to them, and it’s largely defined by the rights enshrined in the First Amendment. Those rights all work together. That means you can’t weaken one right without also weakening the others: the right to freedom of speech, the right to a free press, the right to assembly, the right to free association, and the right to petition our government when we have grievances. 

The space afforded us in civil society is one reason why there’s generally calm when we change governments. That’s not how it works in many parts of the world. But here and in other Western democracies, you don’t see people packing their bags or loading up their vehicles to flee somewhere else when a new political party or leader takes power, because people by and large can continue on with their lives as they did before. They have the space to do so.

So what should be our approach to protecting religious freedom when religious rights are perceived to conflict with rights that others say are important to them? First, we should remember that protecting religious freedom protects the space we all need to live according to our most deeply held beliefs and values, where we’re free to act according to conscience. All people—even those who aren’t religious—have a stake in protecting religious freedom for this reason. In most cases this approach will require earnest engagement, civil dialogue, and even compromise. Given the divisions in our culture and politics, this will not be easy. However, an approach seeking “fairness for all” can be an effective way forward.

This approach runs counter to a troubling tendency—perhaps most evident in social media—for people to reduce others to caricatures when they disagree. A “fairness for all” approach goes beyond this, asking people to try to understand the concerns and needs of others even when they disagree. My colleague Elder Dallin H. Oaks, who has spoken very insightfully on this subject, reminds us that on the big issues dividing us, “both sides should seek a balance, not a total victory.” 14 It’s too easy to simply dismiss those with whom we disagree as bigots. That betrays an unwillingness to engage with or seek to understand the other side. Most of the time people with whom we disagree have sincerely held beliefs and a reasonable basis for holding those beliefs.

In a free and open society, we should assume we’ll always have differences—sometimes deep differences. The question for us, then, is how do we live together with those differences?

While religion and business generally operate in two completely different spheres—and

while they meet very different needs and fulfill very different purposes—there is one area of similarity in regard to this question I would like to mention. Commerce has often served as a vehicle for fostering the exchange of new ideas and ways of doing things and for forging common ground where once there was only difference. Indeed, much of the development and progress of civilization can in very significant ways be attributed to the role of commerce and trade. Commerce requires people to look past their differences to find areas of shared benefit and mutual concern, where the focus is more on what people have in common and what they can accomplish together. What was once foreign becomes more familiar. 

Where there’s freedom of religion, similar things can also happen. I think of our own missionaries, for example—both those who are young and those who are more advanced in years—sent quite literally to the far reaches of the globe. They’re required to leave behind what’s familiar and comfortable. Very often they’re required to learn a new language and adapt to a culture very different from their own. But in the process of sharing what’s most dear to them, they learn to love people who were previously strangers, and for them the foreign gradually becomes familiar. They come away from their experience changed spiritually, but they come away changed in other ways too. They come to more fully understand the scriptural declaration that “all are alike unto God.” 15

Through both commerce and religion, we need more of these experiences. While we recognize our differences—and work to make room for all people to live true to the beliefs and values that define who they are—we should never lose sight of what we have in common. The Father of us all would want us to know that we are His children. If we can remember that truth, everything else will come more easily.

  1. See “State of Latino Entrepreneurship: Research Report 2015,” Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative (2015), 9.

  2. Figures according to the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce as of 2014; see “Ogden Businessman to Take on U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Top Position,” Standard Examiner, Mar. 2, 2016.

  3. “Utah Cities among Best in Nation for Minority-Owned Businesses” (news release from the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development), Mar. 28, 2016.

  4. In George Anders, “Economic Growth’s New Driver: It’s All about Latino Entrepreneurs,” Forbes, Nov. 12, 2015.

  5. 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).

  6. The other two factors were monetary policy and a previous five-year history of GDP growth.

  7. Brian J. Grim, “7 Reasons Why Religious Freedom Is Good for Business,” Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, May 26, 2014.

  8. See Peter Henne, “Five Key Findings about Global Restrictions on Religion,” Pew Research Center, Feb. 26, 2015.

  9. See United States Commission on International Religious Freedom 2016 Annual Report, Apr. 2016.

  10. See Conrad Hackett and others, “The Future Size of Religiously Affiliated and Unaffiliated Populations,” Demographic Research, vol. 32 (Apr. 2015), 830.

  11. D. Todd Christofferson, “A Celebration of Religious Freedom” (address given at an interfaith conference in São Paulo, Brazil, Apr. 29, 2015).

  12. Rachel Zoll and Emily Swanson, “AP-NORC Poll: Christian-Muslim Split on Religious Freedom,” The Associated Press—NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, Dec. 30, 2015.

  13. Charles C. Haynes, “Trump and the Future of the First Amendment,” Newseum Institute, Mar. 3, 2016.

  14. Dallin H. Oaks, “The Boundary between Church and State” (address given at the second annual Sacramento Court/Clergy Conference, Oct. 20, 2015).

  15.  https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bofm/2-ne/26?lang=eng&id=33#32