“Whether you’re religious or not — whether you initially recognize it or not — everyone has a stake in protecting religious freedom,” Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles declared.
Elder Christofferson spoke to entrepreneurs and other business and community leaders gathered for the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Annual Convention held on Friday, May 20, at the Sheraton Salt Lake City Hotel.
Elder Christofferson noted that freedom of religion is a fundamental human right. “And when we protect the ability of individuals and institutions to remain true to their core beliefs — and to act upon those beliefs — lots of other good things can happen.”
As such, all should be concerned about data reported by the Pew Research Center, which found that 77 percent of the world’s people currently live with high or very high religious restrictions.
“In this country, we continue to benefit from broad religious freedom protections,” he said. “But we can no longer take the existence of those protections for granted.”
Elder Christofferson went on to define religious freedom as “the right to choose, change, declare and act upon your faith. It includes the freedom to worship, but it is much more than that. It is the right to ‘exercise’ or practice your religion without interference from government, subject to government’s responsibility to protect the health and safety of all its citizens in a pluralistic society.”
It also includes protection of religious institutions to define their identity consistent with their beliefs and doctrine without fear of retribution, he continued.
Elder Christofferson said there’s a space in society — largely defined by the rights found in the First Amendment — where people can live and act based upon what’s important to them. Because all those rights work together, “you can’t weaken one right without also weakening the others: the right to freedom of speech, the right to a free press, the right to assembly, the right to free association, and the right to petition our government when we have grievances.”
Elder Christofferson addressed how individuals should approach protecting freedom of religion when religious rights are perceived to conflict with rights others say are important to them.
“First, we should remember that protecting religious freedom protects the space we all need to live according to our most deeply held beliefs and values, where we’re free to act according to conscience,” he said. “Everyone — even those who aren’t religious — has a stake in protecting religious freedom for this reason.”
A “fairness for all” approach can be effective but requires engagement, civil dialogue and compromise, which isn’t always easy, he said.
“This approach runs counter to a troubling tendency — perhaps most evident in social media — for people to reduce others to caricatures when they disagree. A ‘fairness for all’ approach goes beyond this — asking people to try to understand the concerns and needs of others. Even when they disagree.”
Elder Christofferson quoted his fellow Apostle Elder Dallin H. Oaks who said, “Both sides should seek a balance, not a total victory.”
Dismissing those you disagree with as bigots betrays “an unwillingness to engage with or seek to understand the other side,” Elder Christofferson observed. “Most of the time people with whom we disagree have sincerely held beliefs and a reasonable basis for holding those beliefs.”
Those who live in a free and open society should assume there will be others who have differences. “The question for us then is how do we live together with those differences?” Elder Christofferson asked.
In answer, Elder Christofferson explained that historically commerce has helped in the forging of common ground where once there was only difference. “Indeed, much of the development and progress of civilization can in very significant ways be attributed to the role of commerce and trade.”
Elder Christofferson noted that commerce requires individuals to find areas of shared benefit and mutual concern — “where the focus is more on what people have in common and what they can accomplish together.”
“Where there’s freedom of religion, similar things can happen,” he said and offered the example of the Church’s missionary force sent to the far reaches of the world.
Noting that missionaries of all ages leave behind comfort and familiarity to adapt to a culture different from their own, Elder Christofferson said, “They learn to love people who were previously strangers and for them the foreign gradually becomes familiar.”
Not only are they changed spiritually, but they come to understand that “all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33).
“Whether through commerce or through religion, we need more of these experiences,” Elder Christofferson said. “While we recognize our differences — and work to make room for all people to live true to the beliefs and values that define who they are — we should never lose sight of what we have in common.
“The Father of us all would want us to know that we are His children. If we can remember that truth, everything else will come more easily.”
Also in his remarks, Elder Christofferson discussed how religious freedom or belief is good for business. Citing a study done by researchers from Georgetown University and Brigham Young University in 2014, Elder Christofferson highlighted three ways in which religious freedom contributes to better economic and business outcomes.
First, it is associated with lower levels of corruption. The corrosive effect of corruption can weaken trust in leaders and institutions and impoverish entire economies, Elder Christofferson said. However, individuals who are free to practice basic values encouraged by religious teachings — honesty, trustworthiness and looking after the welfare of others — “can have a positive anti-corruption influence over time.”
Religious freedom can also help foster peace, Elder Christofferson continued.
“Mostly that’s because the protection of religious freedom helps reduce incidents of religion-related violence and conflict,” he explained and quoted Brian Grim, one of the authors of the study, who wrote, “Religious hostilities and restrictions create climates that can drive away local and foreign investment, undermine sustainable development, and disrupt huge sectors of economies.”
The third way in which freedom of religion allows business to flourish involves its link to other broader freedoms including a variety of positive social and economic outcomes ranging from better healthcare to higher incomes for women.
“Where religious freedom is respected and protected, society overall is more stable, safer and more prosperous,” Elder Christofferson said.