It’s unlikely when Elder D. Todd Christofferson was called to the ranks of the General Authority Seventies 25 years ago that a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles would be invited to play a key role in a high-profile, global gathering of religious leaders.
But much has changed over the past quarter-century, the Apostle told the Church News after returning home from the G-20 Interfaith Forum in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
For one thing, the demographics of the Church have changed dramatically. When Elder Christofferson was called to be a General Authority “the majority of Church members still lived in the United States and Canada. In a 25-year period, the balance has shifted.”
But the Church’s global profile stretches beyond mere membership statistics.
In communities around the world “there are local members who are becoming prominent in the communities,” he said. “It’s the Church coming out of obscurity.”
Elder Christofferson presented a pair of addresses to the gathering, which included religious leaders and faith-based social activists from the world’s 20 leading economies.
His Sept. 26 talks focused on the Church’s efforts to establish self-reliance.
His plenary address the next day, Sept. 27, focused on the essential role that religious freedom plays in a society’s economic and social development.
Participating in such conferences allows Church leaders such as Elder Christofferson and his fellow Interfaith Forum presenter Sister Sharon Eubank, first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, to become better connected with “co-religionists” who share their commitment to religion and its capacity to strengthen individuals, families and communities.
The Church continues to grow in both size and influence, but there are still many religious leaders who are just being introduced to the Church, its guiding tenets and its worldwide efforts to improve lives.
“They are always surprised at the range of things that we have underway in humanitarian work, self-reliance programs and responding to emergencies and disasters,” he said.
The G-20 Interfaith Forum, which develops faith-based suggestions for G-20 political leaders, marks “the perfect opportunity” for leaders such as Elder Christofferson and Sister Eubank to form new friendships while tapping new opportunities to influence religious programs on a world stage.
In a religious freedom address delivered in Spanish, Elder Christofferson declared that religious organizations and faith communities have a vital role to play in alleviating poverty and helping people live better lives.
“For that and many other reasons, religious freedom remains essential to our efforts,” he said. It is critical in preserving and encouraging “all the good religion does.”
Oddly, it is becoming increasingly common for people to think that religion and religious freedom are a burden on society. That’s simply not true, he said.
“Religion is fundamental to societal well-being, and freedom of religion benefits not only believers but all of society, whether they know it or not. Therefore, all have an interest in protecting this freedom, whether they are believers or not.”
Elder Christofferson touched on two of the key benefits of religious freedom.
First, religious freedom protects other fundamental rights.
“The freedom to express beliefs about God, which took centuries of struggle to establish, also supports the right to express opinions about morality, society, politics, literature, art, science or virtually any other subject,” he said. “The hard-won religious rights to peacefully assemble for worship or to print religious literature also support the rights to assemble for political, social, cultural and familial reasons or to print books or newspapers addressing a host of subjects.”
Requiring government to treat people equally despite their different religions has strengthened the imperative of treating people equally despite differences in, say, race, color, national origin or sex.
“Protecting and respecting religious freedom serves as a training ground for protecting and respecting other human rights and freedoms. It teaches us that government has limits: that there are aspects of life that are so sensitive and personal that the coercive jurisdiction of the state must yield to the jurisdiction of the sacred and individual conscience.”
Religious freedom, he noted, teaches the inherent dignity of each person. “It teaches us first to tolerate, then to respect, and then to love our neighbor.”
Second, religious freedom allows religion to perform the vital function of promoting civic virtue, providing for the less fortunate and nurturing strong families and communities.
Drawing upon several sources, Elder Christofferson noted a few benefits of freely exercised religion:
• Countries with strong religious freedom tend to be more stable and prosperous.
“A recent study found that religious freedom is one of three factors significantly associated with global economic growth. It is associated with many positive social and economic effects, ranging from better health care to higher incomes for women.
“By contrast, lack of religious freedom leads to increased violence, political corruption, strife and national unrest.”
• The free exercise of religion also promotes a better society, he said.
“Religious conscience encourages the virtues and habits of good citizenship that are necessary for a free society: Honesty. Duty. Moral self-discipline. Sacrifice for family and country. Compassion and service toward others. Civic engagement.”
• Studies have also shown religiously involved people are less likely to be violent, reducing homicides and suicides. Greater attendance at religious services seems to lower crime rates.
• Religious people and institutions are “tremendous sources” of humanitarian aid, volunteering in the community at much higher rates than those without religion. Meanwhile, religious volunteers provided crucial services for vulnerable communities such as the homeless and the sick.
• Attending religious services is the single most important predictor of marital stability. And children are safer and thrive better in the context of religious homes and regular religious practice
“I am not for a moment suggesting that religion is the only source of virtue within society, or that secular people cannot be highly moral,” he said. “My point is simply that very often religion does the hard work of inculcating the habits and mores necessary for free and healthy societies to exist.”
Elder Christofferson said he does not discount the “vast and critical” contributions of numerous non-religious groups. “There is room for as many individualized approaches to serving as there are groups and people willing to serve — whether religious or secular. No one has a monopoly on service or love. All of us have a critical role to play.”
Religious freedom, he added, also facilitates inter-faith understanding, cooperation and partnerships.
“Much of my Church’s humanitarian work is done in coordination with other faith-based groups, such as Catholic Relief Services and the global Caritas Network, Muslim Aid, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, and the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, to name a few.”
Members of the Church, he concluded, are motivated by the two great commandments: first, to love God; and second, to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.
“This is why we serve.”
The Church’s efforts to encourage and build self-reliance in individuals, families, and communities arise from the profound spiritual truth that every person has eternal worth, he said.
“And everyone is worthy of our love and support.”
On Sept. 27, Sister Eubank addressed the topic of how religious communities make positive contributions to protecting and empowering women and discussed the leadership opportunities women are given in local Church congregations.
On Sept. 28, she participated in a panel discussion on advancing the work of religiously affiliated humanitarian organizations. She was asked how religious communities can make a positive contribution to protecting and empowering vulnerable women.
“I am part of the general leadership of the Relief Society in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has 176 years of experience answering this question,” she said.
The Relief Society mandate is to build faith, strengthen families and provide relief from poverty while safeguarding basic human rights.
“The Relief Society has 33,000 presidencies around the world made up of three women each who provide leadership and participate in the governing council of each congregation,” she said. “This lay assignment may be the first time a woman has had a voice in her community and an expectation to lead out. Or she may be very experienced and influential.”
Sister Eubank was also asked how religious communities, cooperating with government, can increase women’s participation in economic, social and political systems.
A single thing would change the landscape drastically. It would be to do more to prevent violence against women. It is the threat of violence from families, from extreme religious elements, and the inability of governments and local congregations to address the violence that keeps women from participating.”
Sister Eubank said she was “extremely well received” at the forum.
She noted the high regard forum members shared for Elder Christofferson and his practical counsel and direction.
Sister Eubank’s vast experience in the worldwide charitable efforts has earned her the respect and regard of her fellow religious leaders.
“She represents the Church well,” Elder Christofferson said.