What a great time to be alive at the dawn of a new century. As the nations of the earth turn from their celebrations of a new year and prelude to a new decade, new century and new millennium, it is good to reflect on the freedoms slowly making their way across nation after nation. More and more, people are resolving their differences through mediation and compromise than through warfare.
In a report released last month, the National Defense Council Foundation found that 65 nations have some sort of conflict raging within their borders (Deseret News, Dec. 30, p. A2). But in another study, researchers found almost 60 percent of the world's population live in free societies, where basic rights and religious freedom flourish (ibid, Dec. 21, p. A2). Freedom House a pro-democracy group based in Washington, D.C. remarked that whereas 100 years ago, no nation on earth had universal voting rights for its citizens, now 119 of 192 nations have elected representatives. The group could find only 18 nations in which civil liberties were suppressed last year by the military or their rulers.
With newfound political freedom comes renewed hope that religious liberties are gaining ground, also. The apostle Paul in his epistle to the Corinthians wrote, "Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." (2 Cor. 3:17.)
President Gordon B. Hinckley said, "Religion and the free exercise thereof, the right to worship God according to one's own conscience how precious and treasured a boon it is. How necessary that it be safeguarded. Established religion becomes the guardian of the conscience of the people, the teacher of moral values, the defender of belief in the Almighty, the bridge between God and man. No people will live for long in freedom without it." (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, p. 232-33.)
As the people of the earth look ahead to a future that will no doubt include continued advances in medicine, technology and communication, what really underlies all those advances is the freedom among peoples to work together to solve problems. We cannot advance, both individually and collectively, if we harbor hatred toward others. Hatred is the forerunner to war. Likewise, we cannot deny others their rights and expect to retain our own.
In one of the more interesting responses gathered about what people expect during the coming millennium, the Pew Foundation found that 44 percent of Americans said they believe Jesus Christ will return to Earth (see Newsweek, Dec. 18, p. 35). While 44 percent is less than a majority, it is a significant number of Americans if the sampling holds true.
It also means that the gospel message taught by Christ and His followers two millennia ago is still strong today. The Savior's message of love and freedom flourishes still. The light of the gospel shines brighter each year and touches more and more individuals with its warmth.
One of the fundamental lessons taught throughout the Book of Mormon is that when political freedoms are denied to individuals or usurped by wicked leaders, religious liberty also suffers. The Nephites and Lamanites continually fought wars over just this principle. If the banner of liberty is not raised by people of faith and good will, political oppression soon follows. And without political freedom upheld by the rule of law, religious freedom becomes moot, also.
The 134th section of the Doctrine and Covenants clearly spells out the role of government in people's lives and in the religious framework that encompasses it:
"We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul." (D&C 134: 4.)
May we join with others to preserve liberty so the Spirit of the Lord may abide there, too.