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,” said Elder D. Todd Christofferson on Thursday at the G20 Interfaith Forum in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The Apostle’s remarks on religious freedom marked the second time in as many days that he participated in the day’s plenary sessions. Religious freedom, he declared, is critical for preserving and encouraging “all the good religion does.”
Protecting religious freedom
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 service 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 practices.
“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 democratic societies to exist.”
How religious freedom protects the good that religion accomplishes
Without the freedom to practice faith, the Church and its members — and many other faith communities — could not effectively serve the poor and do the great work they do in society at large, he said.
“Religious liberty enables each faith-based group to serve in a way that is consistent with its deepest beliefs and motivations. Each religious community has its own unique approach to serving, which reflects its unique doctrines, its unique religious practices, and its unique way of loving and caring for people. Each reaches the poor and needy in different ways.”
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.”