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Offering a historic address in Rome, Italy, President Oaks calls for a global effort to ‘defend and advance’ religious freedom


ROME, Italy — From this significant city that is the great cradle of the Christian faith, President Dallin H. Oaks called for “a global effort to defend and advance the religious freedom of all the children of God in every nation of the world.”

Offering a keynote address at the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit in Rome, Italy, on July 20, President Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, asked religious leaders to “unite and find common ground for defending and promoting religious liberty.”

“This is not a call for doctrinal compromises but rather a plea for unity and cooperation on strategy and advocacy toward our common goal of religious liberty for all,” he said during the second annual Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit, hosted by the Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Initiative.

During the three-day conference, faith leaders addressed the summit’s theme, Dignitatis Humanae — the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom that spelled out the Catholic Church’s support for the protection of religious liberty and set the ground rules for how the faith would relate to secular states.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, and Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles participated in the inaugural Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit in 2021, held on the University of Notre Dame’s campus in Indiana. This year’s summit in Rome underscored the Religious Liberty Initiative’s global reach.

“Why would a leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints be invited to speak about religious liberty at a Notre Dame symposium in Rome?” questioned President Oaks. “From its beginning in the United States in 1830, our Church and its members have experienced religious persecution. Catholics and other minorities in the United States have suffered persecution as well.”

President Oaks said that for him personally, religious liberty is not academic. Detailing the persecution of early Latter-day Saints, including members of his own family line, President Oaks said, “I am one of many Latter-day Saints whose DNA includes a desire for religious freedom, felt as fundamental as the marrow in our bones.”

President Oaks said he participated in the conference to defend religious freedom for all people. “During the earlier persecution of our Church, we have learned that the best remedy for religious persecution that affects us is to join in efforts to reduce religious persecution that affects others.”

President Oaks’ address marked the second time in less than a year that he has delivered an important address on the topic of religious liberty. On Nov. 12, 2021, President Oaks called on religious leaders and organizations to come together and seek peaceful resolution to the “painful conflicts between religious freedom and nondiscrimination” in a historic address offered from the Dome Room of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. He expanded on that important subject from Rome, addressing the topic, “Pursuing Religious Liberty, Worldwide.”

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President Dallin H. Oaks of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks during the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome on Wednesday, July 20, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Challenges worldwide

During his address in Rome, President Oaks said organized religion and personal freedom of religion currently face serious challenges. “Religious liberty is declining in popularity with governments and their citizens,” he said. “Religion is under siege by secularism, authoritarianism and political correctness, all of which seek to replace or weaken the influence of its teachings. Globally, there are many government restrictions on religious liberty.”

More significant in the long run may be the deteriorating attitudes of individuals toward religion, he said, referencing a 2021 Pew Center survey of individuals in 17 economically advanced nations that found only 15% mentioned religion or God as a source of meaning in their lives.

There are many causes of this deterioration, said President Oaks. The education of the rising generation has surely played a role, noting that in the United States there is diminishing coverage of religion in school textbooks and curricula. 

“What are the religious freedoms or liberties that concern us?” he continued. “For faith communities, the United States Constitution guarantees freedom of association and the right to assemble; the right to determine new members; the right to select leaders and important employees, including in related organizations; and the right to function as an organization. For individual believers, essential rights include religious expression and exercise and freedom from religious discrimination.

“In defense of these rights, we should be united.” 

President Oaks said when leaders join forces to confront religious-liberty challenges, they do not need to examine doctrinal differences or identify their many common elements of belief. “All that is necessary for unity is our shared conviction that God has commanded us to love one another and has granted us freedom in matters of faith.”

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Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome on Wednesday, July 20, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Background of religious liberty

President Oaks said religious liberty has a long and troubled background, from the time it did not exist anywhere in the world to current circumstances in which most countries recognize the principle but still contest how it should be applied. 

President Oaks identified three key events in the modern development of religious liberty.

The first was the 1787 United States Constitution, adopted after American independence from Britain. Its First Amendment, added four years later, prohibited government sponsorship or domination of religion and assured the freedoms of religious exercise, speech and press, and the right to assemble and petition for the redress of grievances. 

President Oaks said the second key event in the development of religious liberty was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Most significantly, Article 18 declares: “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.”

President Oaks identified the third key event as the 1965 Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae). “This declared the root principle that each person, made in the image and likeness of God, has inherent dignity and is therefore created to be free and to enjoy religious freedom,” he said.

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The Colosseum in Rome on Wednesday, July 20, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The value of religious liberty

President Oaks said religious teachings and the religiously motivated actions of believers benefit society and deserve legal protection.

Religious liberty enables believers and faith communities to provide aid to society’s neediest members, addressing issues such as hunger, disease and lack of education. “Most religions exhort their believers to give to the poor,” said President Oaks. “Most also teach their believers that they are accountable to God for this duty.”

Religions also play a vital role in contributing to social stability, he added. “Societies are not held together primarily by law and its enforcement, but by those who voluntarily obey the unenforceable because of their sense of accountability to God.”

History teaches that religious freedom holds societies together through a shared assurance that all will be secure in following their own foundational beliefs, said President Oaks. 

“When citizens learn to live together with respect — despite important religious differences — they are also more likely to live peacefully with others with whom they have important secular differences,” he said. “Critics who condemn religion as the source of great atrocities in the past should remember that the mass killings of the last century were not done in the name of religion. The unspeakable crimes of the Holocaust, the Stalinist purges, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, and the ethnic cleansings in Central Africa were primarily motivated by ethnic, political or tribal differences, not by religious rivalries. Indeed, those regimes were overtly hostile to religion. Similarly, while public attention focuses on religious extremists’ current atrocities in a few parts of the world, leaders of the very faiths they invoke have forcefully condemned their violent acts.”

President Oaks emphasized that violent extremism is not part of the religious freedom he advocates.

“Speaking from a religious perspective, I maintain that followers of Jesus Christ have a duty to seek harmony and peace…,” he said. “Religion and persons of faith bless society with a precious and unique moral conscience.” 

President Oaks said teachings based on faith in God — however He is understood — have always contributed to moral actions that benefit the entire nation.

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President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talks with Stephanie Barclay, director of the Religious Liberty Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, during the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome on Wednesday, July 20, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Pursuing religious liberty

In conclusion, President Oaks offered four suggestions of ways religious institutions and believers can strengthen religious liberty worldwide. 

1.  “Our responses to governmental laws and our relations with potential adversaries will be helped if we accept the twin realities — one, that we are all fellow citizens who need each other, and two, that we are all subject to law,” he said.

2.  The most serious violations of religious freedom are not merely discrimination but persecution, said President Oaks. “Much religious persecution, in the United States and probably worldwide, has been one or more religious groups persecuting others.” 

3.  The preservation of religious liberty ultimately depends on the understanding and support of the general public, said President Oaks. 

“If the foundation of religious liberty is weakening it is likely in part because the benefits conferred on society by religious organizations and religiously motivated people are not sufficiently known and acknowledged,” he said. “We need to address that deficiency on a wider front than preaching, lobbying and litigating.”

Religious communities can offer something governments — however well-financed — cannot provide: “large scale person-to-person kindness and empathy to accompany material assistance.”

4.  Finally, as declared by so many religious leaders, “we must unite and find common ground for defending and promoting religious liberty,” said President Oaks.

“With the love and mutual respect taught by divine commandments, we need to find ways to learn from one another and to reinforce the common commitments that hold us together and promote stable pluralistic societies. We should walk shoulder to shoulder along the path of religious freedom for all, while still exercising that freedom to pursue our distinctive beliefs.”

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President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife, Sister Kristen Oaks, are interviewed at the Rome Italy Temple visitors center in Rome on Tuesday, July 19, 2022.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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