Amid a “current ugliness” in the political arena and growing criticisms in institutions of higher learning, Church members must act civilly and press forward with hope in the future, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles declared during a campus devotional at Brigham Young University on Sept. 13.
Forty-five years after giving his first devotional address, in 1971, Elder Oaks spoke to more than 15,000 people in the Marriott Center, focusing his remarks on elections, hope and freedom.
“This opportunity comes at a unique time,” he said. “I am the only General Authority assigned to address this BYU audience between the beginning of school this fall and the election Nov. 8.”
One’s right to vote
Recognizing the thousands of students who will soon have their first opportunity to vote, Elder Oaks encouraged listeners to participate in a civil way in the election.
“The few months preceding an election have always been times of serious political divisions, but the divisions and meanness we are experiencing in this election, especially at the presidential level, seem to be unusually wide and ugly,” he said. “Partly this results from modern technology, which expands the audience for conflicts and the speed of dissemination.
“Today, dubious charges, misrepresentations, and ugly innuendos are instantly flashed around the world, and the effects instantly widen and intensify the gaps between different positions.”
Despite the current political climate, the First Presidency always reminds Church members of their responsibility to become informed about the issues and candidates and to independently exercise their right to vote, Elder Oaks said.
“Voters, remember, this applies to candidates for the many important local and state offices, as well as the contested presidential election.”
Elder Oaks spoke of focusing on doctrine and applying it to the differences each person faces in diverse circumstances in the Church, in family and in public. It is through living “in the world but not of the world” and avoiding contention — while still maintaining a commitment to the truths of the gospel — that individuals can be an example of civility, he said.
He said it is crucial for people to trust in God and His promises and hold fast to the vital gospel teaching of hope.
“When we trust in the Lord that all will work out, this hope keeps us moving,” he said. “Hope is a characteristic Christian virtue.”
Elder Oaks spoke of the vital constitutional guarantees that government authority shall make no laws or regulations “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”
“Those rights are fundamental to our constitutional order — not just to protect citizens against repressive government action but also to foster the cherished open society that is the source of our freedom and prosperity.”
He said for many years he has paid close attention to the social and legal trends that are vital to fulfilling the Church’s mission and accomplishing the educational mission of BYU.
“I am convinced that a worldwide tide is currently running against both religious freedom and its parallel freedoms of speech and assembly,” he said. “I believe religious freedom is declining because faith in God and the pursuit of God-centered religion is declining, worldwide. If one does not value religion, one usually does not put a high value on religious freedom. It is looked at as just another human right, competing with other human rights when it seems to collide with them.”
Elder Oaks said freedoms of speech and assembly are also weakening, because many influential persons see them as colliding with competing values they now deem more important.
He reviewed examples of threats to free speech in higher education today.
“Free speech has always been highly valued in education, but open inquiry and communication are currently being replaced on too many campuses by a culture of intellectual conformity and the silencing or intimidation of opposition,” he said. “This culture even includes formal or informal punishment of those with political views not currently in favor.”
College campuses are constantly being faced with threats to free speech. Examples include denying funding to students of private colleges and universities that rely on religious exemptions, policy debates filled with accusations of “hate speech,” and intolerance or censorship of any creed, belief or opinion that differs from what is politically correct.
Institutions of higher education are faced with pressures to conform — especially when faced with accreditation — and have to deal with public shaming, boycotts and other actions of punishment and intimidation.
“Although often invoking the popular rhetoric of equality and rights, those who employ these tactics erode the vital protections of freedom of thought, speech, religion and assembly, and diminish our country’s beacon light of freedom to the world,” he said.
Elder Oaks spoke of the “unique religious mission and of the method of learning” inherent at BYU. BYU’s Academic Freedom Policy says that “individual freedom of expression is broad, presumptive and essentially unrestrained.”
The special responsibilities of BYU include some limits on academic freedom, Elder Oaks explained. But limitations are common to all universities; BYU’s are related to its unique mission and are well publicized.
“And so, I have spoken of elections, hope and freedom,” he said. “In these distressing times our freedom and hope can be fostered by five actions: One, we must concentrate on what we have in common with our neighbors and fellow citizens. Two, we must strive for mutual understanding and treat all with goodwill. Three, we must exercise patience. Four, we should all speak out for religion and the importance of religious freedom. And five, we must above all, trust in God and His promises.”
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