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Elder Russell M. Nelson: Freedom to Do and to Be

Elder Russell M. Nelson: Freedom to Do and to Be

International Scientific and Practical Conference, "Religious Freedom: Transition and Globalization"

Organized by International Religious Liberty Association and International Academy for Freedom of Religion and Belief with the assistance of the State Committee of Ukraine for Religious Affairs, Ukrainian Association of Researches of Religion and Religious Studies Department of the Institute of Philosophy of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

As indicated in those kind introductory remarks, my professional career as a cardiac surgeon brought me into contact with fellow physicians in many countries. My first visits to Kiev and Moscow occurred nearly four decades ago. In 1966, Mrs. Nelson and I came to those and other cities with medical specialists representing the American Heart Association. We taught much; we learned much, sharing experiences in the newly emerging field of open heart surgery.

Personal background

Through the many intervening years, I have served as a visiting professor of surgery in various nations, with opportunities to meet not only with doctors, but also with citizens of those nations and their leaders.

My 40-year focus on medicine and surgery changed in 1984 when I was called away from my profession to render full-time service in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a member of its Council of the Twelve Apostles. I might explain that, because the Church does not have a professional clergy, we as members participate voluntarily in various Church responsibilities as requested.

Mention has also been made of my having served on a committee appointed by the President of the United States of America to evaluate freedom of religion throughout the world. This gave me and 19 other members of that committee an opportunity to suggest how the government of the United States might structure its policies to encourage better compliance with internationally accepted standards of freedom of religion around the world. Our recommendations were not intended to impose American values upon others, but to learn how we could support the efforts of others in implementing ideals that they had already accepted, and which had become the standard among civilized nations.

Principles of medical science can apply to the purpose of our conference. With human heart transplantation, the healing process can be complicated by allergic reactions or outright rejection. Likewise, the expression of the ideals of human rights cannot be easily "transplanted" from one nation to another. Certain universal human rights must be sustained, but great care and judgment are needed in their implementation. Our discussions here need to identify fundamental principles applicable to all social systems. Then, if a healthy system is to emerge, we need to adapt to local circumstances.

While visiting more than 100 nations of the earth both as a doctor of medicine and in my current assignment, I have had many opportunities to meet with government officials such as Professor Viktor Bondarenko here in Ukraine and many others. I know something of the complexity of the issues that you face, and I have come to feel great appreciation for your service. I know how important your work is to the life of my own religious community and to the life of every other religious group. In the unsettled conditions of our times, it takes great wisdom and courage to make correct judgments concerning religious freedom for all people.

Physical and spiritual aspects of life

There are many sincere and honorable individuals throughout the world. They worry about physical survival. But they also want education and opportunity to pursue worthy goals that will enable them to do their work well.

Meanwhile, they demand even more of themselves. While they strive to do life's work, they also labor to become the kind of human beings they want to be. They want to be honest. They want to be trusted. They want to be people of integrity, fidelity, and moral purity. Many parents honor their privilege of parenthood and regard their personal reproductive power as a sacred trust. They treasure their children as heaven-sent. They hold fast to their religious ideals and teach those values to their children.

They understand that each person is a dual being, comprised of both a physical body and a spirit. They seek balance in their lives, never neglecting the spiritual while pursuing the physical. They know that they must develop both physically and spiritually in order to attain their full potential.

At this conference, we are also concerned with spiritual matters-with freedom of choice, conscience, and with religious rights. These concepts are especially challenging for nations in transition to new forms of constitutional law.

Laws of God and man

Major religions proclaim the existence of a Creator-God-whose power and will are superior to any human construct, including the laws of man. Adherents of faith groups can feel secure in their right to follow divine direction only if a nation's laws allow freedom of religious expression. Those same laws also protect the rights of others to believe, or not to believe, as they choose.

Some nations may acknowledge these rights only to obtain accreditation in world organizations which demand such laws as a condition of membership. Others of nobler purpose extend these rights out of concern for their citizens who are believers, or out of respect for God, from whom these rights are derived.

Fundamental religious rights include: the right to believe or disbelieve; the right to worship, either alone or with others; the right to assemble for religious purposes; the right to own or occupy property for the purpose of worship; the right to perform religious ceremonies; the right to possess and distribute religious media; and the right to establish rules for fellowship in a religious society.1

Governments are established for the benefit of their citizens, who should be equally protected and equally obligated under the law, be they believers or nonbelievers.2 Our Creator and Judge holds government leaders accountable for their acts in relation to their citizens, both in making and administering laws for the good and the safety of the people.3

Such civil and criminal statutes of a nation apply uniformly to all within its borders. Statutes establish standards that protect human life, morality, decency and dignity. Those laws not only regulate secular affairs, but they also secure the free exercise of conscience and the protection of human rights.4

Many religious confessions share common values. They teach that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us.5 In some societies this is called the Golden Rule. It is a standard for human relationships that can unite people, promote peace, and bring good will to society.

Religion teaches values. Living by those values becomes a way of life that strengthens the individual and the family. By protecting family connections, strength and stability will come to communities and nations. The best forum for teaching religious beliefs to children is the family, not the school system. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children" and "to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions."6

Religion facilitates the development of character. It helps to make bad men good and good men better. Religion, coupled with tolerance, brings civility, charity, compassion, obedience, and self-restraint to society.

Change and repentance

For values to enrich a nation, individuals should be free to change their lives and adopt those values. Adherents to major religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam follow a prophetic voice. The prophetic voice calls for change-improvement-in the lives of followers so that they may become all that God wants them to be.7

In biblical language, that process of change is described as repentance. One prophet revealed how personal change comes about. He explained that "the natural man (meaning the physical man without any spiritual inclination) is an enemy to God, . . . and will be, forever . . . , unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and (puts) off the natural man and (becomes) . . . as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, (and) full of love."8

Such a change has made me a different person than I would have been without my faith. It requires me to strive to live a constantly improving life, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. My faith gives me hope. And it assures me that each blessing comes not by chance but by obedience to the law upon which that blessing is predicated.9

Freedom of religion

For any person to be blessed by divine law, he or she must be free to obey that law. Similarly, if a religion is to be free, it must be free in its own sphere of ethics and morality. It must be free to encourage its members to be faithful and productive members of their communities. To maintain these standards, each religion must be free from governmental interference in matters of doctrine and organization.10

Each religion should be free to propagate itself among present and future generations, so long as it does not use coercive or fraudulent means. Its practices should not interfere with the peace of society. Each religion has a right to present its message in an orderly way to all who are interested.11 How can we have freedom of religion if we are not free to compare honestly, to choose wisely, and to worship according to the dictates of our own conscience?12 While searching for the truth, we must be free to change our mind-even to change our religion-in response to new information and inspiration. Freedom to change one's religion has been emphasized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.13 One's religion is not imposed by others. It is not predetermined. It is a very personal and sacred choice, nestled at the very core of human dignity.

Therefore, care must be exercised to assure that government remains truly neutral in matters of religion, not only in lip-service and constitutional guarantees, but also in impartial application of the law.14 Individuals and institutions are naturally inclined to seek preference over others, but the state must not yield to those inclinations. To discriminate in favor of one religion, using non-religious labels such as "culture" or "history," is to discriminate against others. If the state allows dominance of any one religious institution over another, discrimination results, allowing unequal treatment and regrettable restriction of other religious societies.

Thomas Jefferson, the author of the American Declaration of Independence, wrote that men are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.15 The pursuit of happiness is not possible without the ability to pursue personal purpose in life and to seek knowledge of one's relationship to the Divine.

Who has not at some time asked: "What is the purpose of life?" "Why am I here?" "Where am I going?" "Is there life after death?" Answers to these questions do not come from research laboratories or from legislative chambers; they come only from God. Religion provides a way for Him to communicate these answers to honest seekers of truth.

Responsibilities of religious communities

Religious communities bear responsibilities. Each must be able to set rules for membership and behavior. Religious societies have a right and a responsibility to deal with their members for improper conduct. Those societies can withdraw from members the fellowship of the organization. Religious freedom allows the right of individual followers of a faith to exit from that faith.

Every religious group, while perhaps a majority somewhere, is also inevitably a minority somewhere else. Thus, religious organizations should and do show tolerance toward members of other religious denominations.

All citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, have a responsibility to the country that grants them citizenship. The religious community of which I am a part teaches its members to obey, honor and sustain the law, wherever they live.16

God's influence in our lives

The message I would leave with you on this occasion is one that comes from my heart: God lives! He has not died or gone on vacation, nor has He lost interest in His children. There is no direction in which we can turn, no philosophical shield behind which we can hide, no parliamentary edict we can assert which will evade God's exacting gaze, or excuse us from obedience to His commandments.

Nations that cultivate freedom of religious expression will produce finer individuals, changed for good. Their families will be stronger and more secure. They will be better citizens who honor the laws of the land, who are more charitable, more peaceful and prosperous.

The link between personal righteousness and a nation's prosperity is illustrated in the Old Testament account of the temple built in Jerusalem during the days of Solomon. After that temple was dedicated, the Lord appeared to Solomon and accepted the temple as His holy house.17 Then He announced the conditions by which that temple could be a blessing to them. He said, "If my people . . . shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land, (and not send pestilence among them)."18

The Lord has taught plainly and repeatedly that if people keep His commandments they will prosper.19 As delegates to this conference, we can correctly conclude that if we want favorable conditions for our fellow citizens-even protection from pestilence and plagues-our people must be free to learn the commandments of God and obey them.

As we honor freedom of choice and human rights, we realize that with every choice comes accountability. With every right comes responsibility. Politics and religion will always approach issues from different platforms. Politics is based on negotiation; religion is based on truth and faith. The world of politics is one of compromise. That process can succeed as long as non-negotiable truths and correct principles are honored and upheld.


Fellow delegates, I honor you in your positions of trust. On this occasion, you have heard an Apostle's perspective. You are free to apply those insights as you choose. Prophets and Apostles have been teaching moral and spiritual lessons for a very long time. Their voices will ever call for the freedom of an individual to do and to be all that one ought to do and to be. God lives and loves us, and He will bless us according to our deeds and the righteous desires of our hearts.

Your work is important. It is difficult and demanding; it requires much sacrifice. But it is worth the effort. Your impartial provision for religious voices in society will bring joy to your people, here and hereafter.

I pray for the blessings of Almighty God to attend us now in this conference and later as we return to our various countries-that we may harness the power of truth to bless the lives of our fellow citizens-that everyone may be free to do and to be all that is within their divine potential. As an Apostle of the Lord, I so bless you and express my heartfelt gratitude for you, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief ("1981 Declaration"), Article 6.

1981 Declaration, Articles 2 and 3.

See Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 134:1.

Allowance is also made for differences in religious practices, including styles of dress and days of worship. (See International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 18(1).

See New Testament, King James Version of the Bible (KJV), Matthew 7:12 ("Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets"-Christianity); The Analects of Confucius 15:23 ("What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others"-Confucianism); Mahabharata 5:1517 "This is the sum of duty: do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you"-Hinduism); Talmud, Shabbat 31a What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man-Judaism); Udanavarga 5:18 "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful"-Buddhism); Dadistan-i Dinik 94:5 ("That nature only is good when it shall not do unto another whatever is not good for its own self"-Zoroastrianism); Forty Hadith of an-Nawawi 13 ("Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself"-Islam); Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh 71:26 ("Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself"-Bahai); Sutrakritanga 1.11.33 ("Aman should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated"-Jainism); Guru Arjan Dev 259, Guru Granth Sahib ("Don't create enmity with anyone as God is within everyone"-Sikhism).

Article 26, paragraph 3.

See Book of Mormon, 3 Nephi 27:27.

Book of Mormon, Mosiah 3:19.

See Doctrine and Covenants 130:20-21.

Concluding Document of the Vienna Meeting of the representatives of the participating states of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), (1989), Principle 16(d).

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Articles 18-19; European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Articles 9-10.

A tenet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints states: "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may." (The Pearl of Great Price, Articles of Faith 1:11.)

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18, paragraph 1; European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Article 9, paragraph 1; see also U.N. Human Rights Committee General Comment No. 22 (48) on Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ("freedom to 'have or to adopt' a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, including, inter alia, the right to replace one's current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views, as well as the right to retain one's religion or belief").

Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia v. Moldova (European Court of Human Rights, App. No. 45701/99, 13 December 2001), para. 116 ("the State has a duty to remain neutral and impartial").

See the United States Declaration of Independence.

See The Pearl of Great Price, Articles of Faith 1:12.

See Old Testament, KJV, 2 Chronicles 7:12.

See Old Testament, KJV, 2 Chronicles 7:13-16.

See Old Testament, KJV, Deuteronomy 4:1; Ezekiel 20:8; Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 2:20; 4:14; 2 Nephi 1:9; Jarom 1:9; Mosiah 1:7; 2:22, 31; Alma 9:13; 36:1; 37:13; 38:1; 48:25; 50:20; Helaman 3:20.

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