Elder Oaks warns of rising secularism, champions religious freedom


All who believe that humans are endowed with a God-given conscience to choose right and wrong must unite to preserve and strengthen their freedom to advocate and practice their religious beliefs.

That was a central message in Elder Dallin H. Oaks’ address Thursday, April 23, to the Argentina Council for Foreign Relations.

In a speech entitled “Challenges to Religious Freedom,” Elder Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, spoke of the importance of advocating religious freedom at a moment when secularism defines many corners of the globe. The Church leader began by noting that religious freedoms are anchoring fundamentals of the United States Constitution.

“Foremost among those fundamentals is the vital founding principle that the government should not endorse or establish a particular religion, and that the government should guarantee the free exercise of religion by all of its citizens,” he said.

The U.S. Constitution, he added, treats freedom of religion as a “cornerstone of American democracy.” Included is the provision that there shall be no religious test for public office, and that the government shall make no law establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

The idea that the free exercise of religion must protect actions as well as beliefs is also declared in the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom” and in the United Nations Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Elder Oaks said religious teaching and the religiously motivated actions of believers remain valuable to society. They deserve special legal protections. “This, of course, rejects the assumptions of some secularists that religion is mostly a matter of history that has minimal significance in modern times,” he added. “Far from relics of the past, religious principles and religious believers are a vital present and future force everywhere.”

Many of the most significant moral advances in Western society have been motivated by religious principles — including the abolition of the slave trade and the Civil Rights movement in the United States.

“These great advances were not motivated and moved by secular ethics or persons who believed in moral relativism. They were driven primarily by persons who had a clear religious vision of what was morally right,” he said.

The teaching and free practice of religion, he added, are key to a free and prosperous society. The apostle repeated a statement he made four years ago at a law school lecture at Chapman University’s School of Law: “Religious values and political realities are so interlinked in the origin and perpetuation of [the United States] that we cannot lose the influence of religion in our public life without seriously jeopardizing our freedoms.”

Religious freedom is not just the concern of religious persons. Non-believers also have a strong interest in religious freedom because it allows for peace and stability in a pluralistic world. “The protection of conscience is a vital ingredient for stability because it helps people from a wide spectrum of beliefs feel assured that their deepest concerns and values are respected and protected,” he said.

Elder Oaks noted that his assertions about the value of religion and its qualification for special legal protection may sound naive and dated to some in the United States.

“Mine is a nation that has moved strongly towards secularism, and I am told that yours has also,” he said. “With secularism comes a disconnect from belief in God and the consequent reality of an absolute right and wrong. Faith in God and the idea of ultimate divine accountability to Him is replaced by moral relativism, which leads to a loss of respect for religion and even to anger against religion and the guilt that is seen to flow from it.”

The Church leader spoke of the growing number of declared “non-believers” in the world. In the United States, for example, there is diminished mention of religious faith and references to God in public discourse. Organized religion is on the decline and some U.S. scholars contend that a religious message “is just another message in a world full of messages — not something given unique or special protection.”

Meanwhile, powerful secular interests in the United States are challenging the way religious beliefs and the practices of faith-based organizations stand in the way of their secular aims.

“We are alarmed at the many — and increasing — circumstances in which actions based on the free exercise of religion are sought to be swept aside or subordinated to the asserted ‘civil rights’ of officially favored groups.” Cultural changes also threaten religious freedom, observed Elder Oaks.

“Today an increasing and influential group deny or doubt the existence of a God and insist that all rules of behavior are man-made, to be accepted or rejected as one chooses because there is no such thing as right and wrong. We live in an increasingly godless and amoral society.”

While the work of science has made innumerable improvements in life, it has also contributed to the rejection of divine authority as the ultimate basis of right or wrong by those who have substituted science for God, he added.

God, he declared, is “the Ultimate Law-giver” and the source of absolute truth that distinguishes good from evil.

“The ascendancy of moral relativism weakens religious freedom because it encourages the proliferation of rights that claim ascendency over the constitutionally guaranteed free exercise of religion,” he said. It’s essential that nations and multi-national organizations are unified in support of religious freedoms — but that’s not enough. “The preservation of religious freedom depends upon public understanding of and support of this vital freedom,” he said. “It depends upon the value the public attaches to the teachings of right and wrong in churches, synagogues and mosques.

“Believers and non-believers must be helped to understand that it is faith in God — however defined — that translates religious teachings into the moral behavior that benefits the nation.” Elder Oaks concluded with a call for civility. “We should love all people, be good listeners, and show concern for the sincere beliefs of others. We should be wise in explaining and pursuing our positions and in exercising our influence. We should seek the understanding and support of non-believers.”

[email protected] @JNSwensen

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