OXFORD, ENGLAND — There is no better demonstration “of the great benefits associated with religious liberty than for devoted members of various faiths who feel accountable to God to model principles of integrity, morality, service and love,” said Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on Oct. 23.
“As others see the goodness of individuals and families — goodness that is founded in strong faith and character — they will be much more likely to speak up in defense of the religious freedoms that allow us to be who we are.”
Speaking at Pembroke College at the University of Oxford — and returning to the land where he served as a young missionary — Elder Cook addressed the topic, “The Impact of Religious Freedom on Public Morality.”
“Those who feel accountable to God have a responsibility to live upright lives of service to God and our fellowmen, to obey the law, and to be good citizens, neighbors and friends in all we do,” Elder Cook said. “As we do so, ordinary citizens and governmental officials alike will be more inclined to see the value of religion and to respect the basic principles that allow us to freely live it.”
Invited to Oxford to offer a keynote address as part of the university’s Quill Project — an effort focused on constitutions across the world — Elder Cook highlighted the preservation of religious freedom and religious conscience and the advocation of public morality based on religious beliefs in the public square.
This is an age where significant portions of moral heritage are unappreciated, misunderstood or dismissed, he said. “Accordingly, some of the protections contained in various constitutions which emanate from historical moral values have been eroded or undermined.”
Quoting Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, Elder Cook addressed the diminished role of faith, moral values, and religion in the modern era.
“If there is one thing the great institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning,” wrote Lord Sacks. “Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide us as to how to use that power. The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make those choices. The liberal democratic state gives us freedom to live as we choose but refuses, on principle, to guide us as to how to choose….
“The result is that the 21st century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.”
Elder Cook said he is deeply concerned that faith, accountability to God, and the religious impulse are often viewed as being opposed to serious academic pursuits. “I am equally concerned that the foundations which have historically supported faith, accountability to God, and the religious impulse are increasingly being marginalized in a secular world and derided and even banished from the public square.”
Elder Cook referenced Magna Carta, calling it “profound in terms of its influence on the laws of historical British Commonwealth countries, as well as the American Constitution.”
Magna Carta served as an important precursor to the broad protections of religious freedom that came centuries later, he said. “It helped establish as early as 1215 that deference should be afforded to churches in the governance of their internal religious affairs,” said Elder Cook. “Today, the spirit of Magna Carta lives on in individual liberties and religious freedoms Great Britain secures to churches, religious organizations, and individuals.”
Magna Carta’s requirement that proceedings and prosecutions be according to “the law of the land” was a forerunner of “due process of law” and ultimately the adoption by Parliament of the English Bill of Rights in 1689.
Further, a provision which established “The Committee of Twenty-five,” evolved, and by 1230, a representative assembly called Parliament, convened.
In addition to Magna Carta, both Great Britain and the United States are the beneficiaries of the concepts and principles established by English Common Law, said Elder Cook. In approximately 1600 Sir Edward Coke produced the consolidation of the English law in written form. “Coke seized upon Magna Carta, ‘as the embodiment of good laws.’ ”
Based on precedent, Coke’s Common Law was principle-based reasoning from individual situations, adapted to changing circumstances. “This increase in rights, one by one, set the stage for the major assertions contained in the Declaration of Independence, by the colonies that became the United States, which contains the seminal words ‘… all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,’ ” said Elder Cook.
He said the recognition that individual rights “are part of the design of a loving Creator” is part of the theology of his faith and many other faiths. “It is not government which has the disposition and power to grant these protections and rights — they are derived from our Creator.”
Freedom of religion and freedom of speech are both the heart and the foundation of a representative democracy, said Elder Cook. “Freedom to believe in private and to exercise belief and speech in the public square are essential to protecting unalienable rights. Natural law or even a belief that we are accountable to God is not in fashion in much of the legal world today.”
It was primarily for reasons of religious conscience and discrimination that some 80,000 people left England between 1629 and when England’s Civil War began in 1640, he said. Of those 80,000, approximately 21,000 migrated to New England in the United States.
“Among these 21,000 immigrants were the ancestors of both of my parents’ genealogical lines,” he said, “My mother’s Kimball ancestor arrived in what is now Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1634. My father’s Cook ancestor arrived in what is now Salem, Massachusetts in 1638.”
Both Catholics and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who thrive in the United States today, were persecuted in early American history even after the founding of the new nation, Elder Cook said. Still, most of the founding fathers in the United States were committed to religious freedom.
Religious conscience and an emphasis on public morality also played an important role in England and Great Britain in the period before and after the American Revolution, Elder Cook said.
For example, William Wilberforce, one of Elder Cook’s personal heroes who accomplished much to increase public morality and abolish slavery, felt a responsibility to God for his actions. “He proposed bill after bill in Parliament and spent his life to put a stop to slavery,” said Elder Cook. Slaves were emancipated in Great Britain the week before Wilberforce died on July 29, 1833.
In the United States, it is interesting that the residents in the colonies where the practice of religion had been a principle reason for their settlement were a driving force against the institution of slavery, said Elder Cook.
“It is clear, that in the creation of the constitution deeply religious people, particularly from the North, provided a foundation of public morality to that seminal document and the Bill of Rights which followed.”
Slavery was not resolved in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights and compromises with respect to slavery were made to accomplish their passage, he said. “However, the Constitution did not imbed acceptance of the morality of slavery into Federal law.”
James Madison recorded that the language was changed to make it clear that enslavement was pursuant to the laws of some states, not Federal law. “According to Madison this was at the insistence of those who thought that the original wording might have been read as suggesting that the Federal Government endorsed the morality of slavery.”
The opposition to slavery accelerated in the mid 1800s and included many people from different religious backgrounds, he said.
After the Civil War in 1865, the 13th Amendment ended slavery; the 14th Amendment promised citizenship to former slaves, and the 15th Amendment guaranteed black men the right to vote.
In 1837, Elder Cook’s great-great-grandfather, Heber C. Kimball, became the first missionary called from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to serve in Britain.
“Heber C. Kimball and the missionaries who accompanied him found that Britain respected religious freedom and had a multiplicity of religions despite the legally favored status of the Church of England,” Elder Cook said. “There was, of course, much opposition and discrimination, but very little from the government itself.”
The missionaries found England’s moral reforms had resulted in many moral and righteous people who were committed to following the teachings of Jesus Christ. They had considerable success.
“It is estimated that between 1837 and 1841 approximately 7,500-8,000 people became members of the Church,” said Elder Cook.
“Religious freedom and public morality require constant vigilance,” said Elder Cook. “The contributions from people of faith have benefited and blessed society in so many ways.”
The Church, he emphasized, “supports the religious freedom of all faiths as well as those with no faith.”
British and United States citizens must continue to be part of a coalition of countries and faiths “that succor, act as a sanctuary, and promulgate religious freedom across the world,” he said.