SAN JOSÉ, COSTA RICA
Religious beliefs, teachings and practices bring “needed medicine” to societies that would otherwise be aggressive and sick.
That was the anchoring message shared by Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Ruth L. Renlund, during their combined presentation June 9 at a religious liberties symposium in San José, Costa Rica.
The symposium included participants from a variety of nations and religious traditions who gathered to examine global and local issues affecting religious liberties.
The Renlunds focused their remarks on the foundational contribution of religion to society.
As a cardiologist, Elder Renlund participated in the care of over a thousand heart transplant recipients. The donated hearts, he explained, offered each transplant patient the possibility of prolonged life.
But in the days and weeks following a heart transplant, the body’s natural response is to activate its immune system to reject and kill the new heart — and its recipient.
Heart transplant specialists use immunosuppressive medicines to prevent the body’s immune system from killing the transplanted organ.
Over time, the immune system’s response becomes less vigorous — a phenomenon known as immunological tolerance. Most patients can then live reasonably normal lives.
“Immunological tolerance has allowed them to accept a foreign tissue as if it were self,” said Elder Renlund.
The immune response prompted by a transplanted heart can be compared to the natural response of dissimilar individuals and groups in society, observed Sister Renlund.
“History has shown that the natural response of people is to ostracize and reject those they identify as being different than they,” she said. “These negative interactions begin with groups defining themselves as ‘us’ and classifying those outside of their group as ‘them.’ ”
Distrust and suspicions are fostered. Soon tolerance, civility and fairness diminish in public life. Unchecked societal rejection can result in ridicule, harassment, bullying, exclusion, and even war and genocide.
Just as immunosuppressives are used in heart transplantations, societal “medicines” are necessary to prevent societal self-destruction.
Elder and Sister Renlund identified three medicines that religion offers societies to control the “unrestrained, self-interest based, natural response.”
First medicine: The concept of an authority higher than self.
Belief in a Supreme Being suggests that all humans are God’s creations and that God is owed allegiance and gratitude.
“When we believe we are sons and daughters of God, or even that we were created by the same Supreme Being, we then recognize that we have a shared humanity, an inherited spark of the divine, and we are able to recognize that divine spark in others,” Elder Renlund said. “By extension, we have a relationship with and a responsibility to others in the world, who can be viewed as our spiritual brothers and sisters.”
This concept engenders trust and mutual respect, deriving a code of moral conduct.
Second medicine: A common code of moral conduct.
“This second medicine derives from a belief in a God who places expectations on the behavior of His creations,” said Sister Renlund.
Such expectations provide a moral code that offers people daily direction. The moral code consists of two elements — one that is “actionable” (such as “thou shalt not kill”) and another that is “aspirational.” Following the latter element develops desirable characteristics such as empathy, generosity and charity.
A truly civilized, well-functioning society, she added, depends on an accepted code of moral conduct that is based on a belief system that teaches that there is something greater than self.
Third medicine: The aspirational aspects of a moral code that cause individuals to act selflessly.
Elder Renlund examined the life of Jesus Christ, who said: “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do you even so to them.”
The Savior’s mortal ministry was characterized by love, compassion and empathy. He helped, blessed, lifted and edified others — replacing their fear and despair with hope and joy.
The Golden Rule is not unique to Christianity. It’s found in most faith traditions.
The absence of religious freedom in society leads to oppression from anyone who cannot accept legitimate differences, declared Sister Renlund.
“We see this in the form of government restrictions, religious intolerance and social hostilities,” she said. “For the positive effects of religion to be realized in societies, religious freedom is required. All people of faith must vigorously protect not only their own right to religious freedom but the rights of others to this freedom as well.”
Elder Renlund expressed gratitude for all faiths and individuals who defend the rights of others to pursue their religious beliefs.
“We believe that societies should create space and protection for everyone to live according to their conscience without infringing on the rights and safety of others,” he said. “When the rights of one group collide with the rights of another, the principle to follow is fairness for all.”
True freedom of religion, he added, “is won on city blocks and small-town streets, in our workplaces, and our homes. It is won as people of faith go about doing good, as Jesus did.”
Sister Renlund referenced her own experience as a trial lawyer in the United States. She often worked with attorneys who held vastly different opinions, but even the fiercest courtroom adversaries often sat down calmly together for lunch.
“I learned early in my career to disagree without being disagreeable,” she said.
Contribute to societal tolerance, they said, by rejecting hate speech, standing up for other’s rights to worship, rejecting xenophobia and by not demonizing whole religions because of the actions of a few.
Elder Renlund spoke of his own experience of being picked on as a teenager living in Europe in the 1960s because he was a Mormon and an American.
“Because of these first-hand experiences, I believe that ridicule, harassment, bullying, exclusion and isolation, and hatred toward others is repugnant. And it is not pleasing to the God I love and worship.”