Sister Jones shares 7 things to ‘be’ when participating in civil dialogues about religious education and freedom

If a person is willing to look closely at all the sides of a disagreement or conflict, they will usually find that each side has a legitimate and defensible viewpoint, shaped by its stake in the outcome. More often than not, the differing sides are neither better nor worse than one another, but simply different, said Sister Joy D. Jones

And in order to disentangle the interests of the various sides, “it takes time, care, and honesty. … Safety comes in engaging, not avoiding,” said the Primary general president.

Speaking at a devotional event in Holladay, Utah, sponsored by the Salt Lake chapter of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society on Sunday, Sept. 22, Sister Jones touched on how ordinary citizens — parents, students and neighbors — can help shape their societies and communities, particularly regarding religious expression, by engaging in civil dialogues.

Offering a simple guide for how ordinary people can participate in civil dialogues and influence their communities in simple but profound ways, Sister Jones offered seven things to “be” before entering such discourses:

  • Be informed
  • Be civil
  • Be sincere
  • Be clear
  • Be natural
  • Be meek
  • Be patient
Sister Joy D. Jones greets Primary children prior to a Sunday night devotional in Holladay, Utah on Sept. 22, 2019.
Sister Joy D. Jones greets Primary children prior to a Sunday night devotional in Holladay, Utah on Sept. 22, 2019. Credit: Aubrey Eyre

Speaking about the shifting dynamics surrounding religious freedom in an increasingly secularized world, Sister Jones reminded those in attendance that how they react to societal conflicts “determines what kind of a society we will live in — whether we splinter apart into our own warring groups or flourish together as citizens seeking the common good.”

In a globalized world where differing religions, peoples, cultures and worldviews collide and interact in new ways everyday, people — regardless of their faiths or beliefs — have a responsibility to learn about and understand one another so that they can interact with respect and create positive communities and societies, she said. 

Quoting from Elder Patrick Kearon, a member of the Presidency of the Seventy who spoke earlier this year at BYU’s Religious Freedom Annual Review, Sister Jones said, “Healthy societies run on trust, confidence, and a sense of safety. With freedom of religion and belief, people feel safe in their deepest convictions and can express and exercise them publicly. The great enemy of religious freedom is estrangement and alienation. When a society or government divides people based on what they believe, how they think, the words they say, whom they worship, or the manner in which they worship, common ground is lost, and life together becomes a battle. The test of a pluralistic society is to achieve unity without diminishing the diversity within it.”

Following Sister Jones’ address, she was joined by her husband, Brother Robert B. Jones; Dr. Ryan Gardner, a professor of religious education at BYU-Idaho; and David Garner, a lawyer representing K-12 and post-secondary education institutions, in a panel discussion with the audience about ways to initiate and engage in civil dialogue to help protect religious freedom and foster religious literacy.

One of the best ways to understand a people, nation, or neighbor and to create a sense of unity is to understand their religion, Sister Jones explained. 

Dr. Ryan S. Gardner, a professor of religious education at BYU-Idaho speaks as part of a panel discussion following a devotional with Sister Joy D. Jones in Holladay, Utah, on Sept. 22, 2019.
Dr. Ryan S. Gardner, a professor of religious education at BYU-Idaho speaks as part of a panel discussion following a devotional with Sister Joy D. Jones in Holladay, Utah, on Sept. 22, 2019. Credit: Aubrey Eyre

“We call this religious literacy,” she said.

In learning about religions and their histories, the purpose of religious literacy is to understand societies and people, Gardner explained. 

Through experience, he said, he has come to learn that “religious literacy is a cornerstone principle of viable, genuine, sustainable religious freedom.” 

Citing a few examples, he noted that even the Supreme Court has commented on the valuable role that studying religion has in education. Even so, in many cases, educational systems  — both governmental and non-governmental — have fought against the inclusion of curriculum regarding religion and religious history.

In such instances, the work of parents, administrators, teachers and students who are informed and willing to stand up and speak out about the importance of including education about religion has been a critical part of defending this key component of education, he said.

When living among “people who have immeasurably different opinions, experiences, upbringings, beliefs, personalities, and politics,” Sister Jones said, too often people feel threatened by differences to the point where the fear of their differences threatens them even more than their actual differences. 

Sister Joy D. Jones greets a young Primary child prior to a Sunday night devotional in Holladay, Utah on Sept. 22, 2019.
Sister Joy D. Jones greets a young Primary child prior to a Sunday night devotional in Holladay, Utah on Sept. 22, 2019. Credit: Aubrey Eyre

As a response, “we either connect ourselves with people or protect ourselves from people,” she said.

While the most natural human response is to become defensive against differences and to focus on protection, it is the connective mindset that really keeps civilization going. Goodwill is a work in progress, she said, and societal harmony is often more of a negotiation than it is a victory for any one side.

“Majorities have the moral responsibility to treat their outnumbered brothers and sisters with respect as well as kindness,” she said. “We, as Latter-day Saints, often view ourselves as on the receiving end of mistreatment, but we can also be on the offending end. Don’t let the power of being in a majority make you complacent, and don’t let the imbalance of being in a minority make you resentful. In either situation, we can act as disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Engaging in civil discourse can be difficult, Sister Jones said, but by doing so, “we can connect with those who disagree, be firm in our rights, empathize with those around us, and develop a broader perspective.”