President Oaks champions blessings of religious freedom in address to students in Rome

President Dallin H. Oaks waves goodbye after speaking on religious freedom at Sapienza University in Rome, Italy, on Dec. 14, 2021. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
President Dallin H. Oaks, center, speaks on religious freedom at Sapienza University in Rome on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Paolo Naso, professor of political science and journalism, left, and President Dallin H. Oaks shake hands at Sapienza University in Rome, Italy, on Dec. 14, 2021. President Oaks spoke on the essential role of religious freedom. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Freedom of religion and belief is an essential condition for a free society — the oldest of all internationally recognized fundamental rights.

The right to freely practice one’s religious faith, added President Dallin H. Oaks on Tuesday, Dec. 14, to an audience at Rome’s La Sapienza University, can be seen “as the grandparent of all the other rights.”

The first counselor in the First Presidency was in Italy, in part, to advocate for religious freedom across the globe. It is a message he has championed often — including an historic address at the University of Virginia on Nov. 12.

Though sometimes neglected in this secular age, freedom of religion is not neglected by the Church.  

“For us, religious freedom is a fundamental feature of our religious doctrine,” said President Oaks. “The restoration of the fullness of Christian doctrine teaches us that God created and put His children on earth to grow spiritually by making right choices between good and evil consistent with His commandments. 

“Freedom of choice is, therefore, fundamental to God’s plan.”

Latter-day Saints, he noted, welcome the “great statement” in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“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.”

Though often praised as a lofty ideal, President Oaks said that the importance of freedom of religion or belief has often been overlooked or neglected.

“This is in part because it has not been adequately understood. Some, viewing freedom of religion through secular filters, have seen it as a vestige of what they see as a now-outdated religious age.

“In contrast, its continuing, even increasing, importance has been recognized by numerous scholars and experts working on freedom of religion or belief at the international level.”

President Dallin H. Oaks, center, speaks on religious freedom at Sapienza University in Rome on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021.
President Dallin H. Oaks, center, speaks on religious freedom at Sapienza University in Rome on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Recent years have witnessed renewed attention to freedom of religion and belief, reflecting the growing recognition that relegating these issues to political backburners allows important challenges to fester and ultimately to cause deep social problems.

“We need a broader and deeper understanding of these fundamental rights.”

President Oaks then cited the writings of his friend and religious freedom expert, law professor W. Cole Durham, who taught that the freedoms of religion and belief are foundational for other important rights in at least four respects:

  1. They are historically foundational because so many other rights emerged as additional supports or expansions of legal protections originally provided in the name of religious freedom. 
  2. They are philosophically foundational because they protect the belief systems and world views on which other ideas are rooted and from which they derive their meaning.
  3. They are institutionally foundational because they foster institutions that protect the vision, motivation, and moral support that translate religious and moral ideals into personal and communal practice. They often overlap with other rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of association, and rights to nondiscrimination, but their sum is greater than any of these individual parts.
  4. The freedoms of religion and belief are empirically foundational. 

Writes Durham: “We now have extensive empirical evidence that a country’s performance in protecting religious freedom correlates not only with the protection of other key rights, but also with other social goods, such as economic freedom, higher per capita gross domestic product, better incomes for women, gender equality, higher literacy rates, better health and education, and consolidation of democracy.”

Protecting freedom to engage in religious persuasion correlates with increased social stability.

“Indeed, the key to stability and harmony is not homogeneity in religious or other foundational beliefs, but shared assurance that everyone will be secure in following his or her foundational beliefs,” said President Oaks.

President Oaks also drew upon the recent insights of two of his fellow Apostles, Elder Quentin L. Cook and Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Taught Elder Christofferson: “Religious liberty promotes pluralism and peace. 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. … The history of religious freedom demonstrates that respect begets respect. Governments that protect religious freedom have fewer social conflicts and greater levels of social cohesion.”

Read more: Elder Christofferson gives 6 reasons societies should protect religious freedom

When people learn to live together with respect and unity — despite important religious differences — they are also more likely to live peacefully with those with whom they have important secular differences.

“While some believe that religious freedom protects forces that divide society, history teaches that these guarantees are forces that hold society together,” said President Oaks. “The key to stability is not a homogeneous society unified in basic values, but the protection of rights for all to live together with their distinctive beliefs. 

“That respect is the best protection against violence in the name of religion.”

Followers of Christ, President Oaks added, have a duty to resolve conflicts and seek harmony and peace.

Elder Christofferson has also taught that freedom of religion allows diverse faith communities to provide critical services to society and its most disadvantaged members.

“Indeed, freedom of religion or belief not only allows such services; it undergirds and protects the beliefs and institutional mechanisms that make such communal actions both possible and likely,” said President Oaks.

Elder Cook, meanwhile, has taught that “accountability to God for our relationships with each other is a powerful force for good and strongly supports democracy. Being accountable sustains and blesses the values that are most important for social unity.”

Read more: Society has become ‘tone deaf to the music of faith,’ says Elder Cook during religious liberty summit. Here’s the solution

Freedom of religion advances countless social goods by protecting and fostering religious inspiration, altruism and public service. Significantly, the humanitarian efforts of religious-based organizations can do things beyond what others can do, said President Oaks.

He cited three “great advantages” that magnify the Church’s own impact in humanitarian service.

First, the service traditions of Latter-day Saints offer a resource of committed and experienced volunteers. “For example, last year our volunteers donated over 6 million hours of labor in our welfare and humanitarian projects, not counting missionary service and what our members did privately.”

Second, through members’ financial contributions to humanitarian causes and through the Church’s supplementary contributions, the Church “comes to the table” with its own funding. 

“This means that where needed, we have the ability to operate immediately and independent of official bureaucracies and appropriations to provide rapid responses to time-sensitive problems. At the same time, we are also eager to coordinate our efforts with individual government agencies, and with the United Nations and other agencies for the greatest impact.”

Third, the Church is a global grassroots organization that can be mobilized immediately. “For example, in response to the continuing worldwide problem of refugees, we regularly send messages to our members through our various organizations reminding them of the fundamental Christian principle of helping the poor, the vulnerable, and the ‘stranger’ in our midst.”

When religious persons have freedom to exercise their faith, the resources for private treatment of important social needs are increased enormously, taught President Oaks.

“Religious organizations can often access and treat social needs more effectively than the United Nations, national governments or other institutions operating alone. And where freedom of religion is assured, the teamwork of religious organizations and public agencies can prove exemplary for providing and administering needed relief.”

Meanwhile, in the humanitarian sphere, freedom of religion or belief can prompt creative new approaches to continuing problems.

The Church’s humanitarian organization and its JustServe volunteer initiative provide platforms to foster self-reliance and service opportunities to persons in all faiths or nor faith.

“For us, religious freedom is a fundamental feature of our religious doctrine.”

Although relatively small when measured against global needs, the Church’s conventional humanitarian programs, operating under the umbrella of religious freedom protections, have been able to make sizable contributions. 

“From 1985 to the present, as our Church has grown in numbers and international presence, Latter-day Saint Charities has provided over two and a half billion U.S. dollars in aid in 203 countries and territories,” said President Oaks. “In doing so, it has collaborated with governments and many interfaith organizations to provide life-saving emergency supplies and sustainable longer-term relief.”

The Church leader cited many global examples of such charitable efforts, including 575 COVID-19-related projects this year in 74 countries.

Humanitarian aid, he added, is not used to provide incentives for the Church’s missionary efforts.

Despite their demonstrable societal advantages, organized religion and freedom of religion are facing unparalleled challenges.

“Particularly in highly developed countries, both are declining in the significance attached to them by citizens and their governments,” he said. “Religion is under siege by the combined forces of political correctness, secularism, relativism, and authoritarianism that seek to replace religion with other priorities. Globally, restrictions on religious freedom have reached a new high.”

Additionally, there are shifts in the attitudes of individuals toward religion.

“A 2021 Pew Research Center survey in 17 countries asked 19,000 adults, ‘What makes life meaningful?’ In countries outside the United States, religion did not appear as one of the top ten sources of meaning in life. In the U.S., only 15% of the respondents mentioned religion or God as a source of meaning in their lives.”

President Oaks taught that the two great commandments — to love God and to love one’s neighbor — direct how believers in the freedom of religion should relate to one another and to those with whom they differ on important priorities.

“As we contend for freedom of religion ourselves, we must also respect the similar claims of others. At a practical level, both believers and non-believers need one another if we are to live peacefully in our pluralistic societies.”

Living in a pluralistic society means accepting some laws “we dislike” and learning to live peacefully “with some persons whose values differ from our own.”

“We should not expect or seek total dominance for our own positions, but in the exercise of mutual respect should seek fairness for all,” said President Oaks. “This, of course, requires that we seek to understand the experiences and concerns of others.”

Freedom of religion and belief, he urged, requires not only the importance of standing up for one’s own rights  — but, at a deeper level, recognizing the rights of others as well.

“Sometimes what is realistically possible is only a relatively small step, but it is a good beginning because it shows respect. We need to begin to achieve understanding, but more is obviously necessary.”

President Oaks concluded with a teaching from Elder Cook: “So, what can be done to prevent society’s tone deafness [that threatens to drown out] the beautiful music of faith that can bless us all? … 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.”

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