The world seems to be a fragile place, given a global pandemic, economic uncertainties, racial disharmony, a cancel culture, embattled political processes and decreased trust in leaders and peers.
“The most deep and true things about us are our faith and our relationships,” said Elder Ulisses Soares of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in an address on religious freedom broadcast Oct. 28. “But in the midst of this anxiety, it seems that we don’t see each other.”
But a closer look reveals the dignity of human action all around, with ordinary people becoming extraordinary — physicians treating the sick, congregations stocking food banks, volunteers feeding the poor, humanitarians alleviating the destruction of natural disasters and neighbors caring for neighbors.
“Moral heroes always appear on the front lines of tragedy,” said Elder Soares.
Religious freedom and religion itself are critical to fostering the foundational principles of human dignity and human rights, with the fruits of religious freedom including increased civil discourse and compassion and connection during times of crisis, he said.
Elder Soares’ prerecorded remarks served as the opening keynote address for the 2020 Annual DFW Summit on Religious Freedom, with the Oct. 28-30 event streamed online for an hour each of the three mornings. Other scheduled sessions will focus on the results of recent Supreme Court decisions as well as religious freedom in the military, education and the Hispanic community.
Universal human dignity
Dignity is the principle upon which human rights stand. Societies flourish when both law and culture recognize, respect and protect the value of each person, and the many religious and cultural differences across the globe only enhance that dignity, Elder Soares said.
Human dignity is a universal birthright, regardless of religion, race, gender or nationality. It is a common denominator between religious traditions around the world, although religious persecutions continue worldwide.
“And in a million unseen ways, human beings deny each other basic dignity, in public and private life,” he said.
A common regard for humanity enables a common support of rights, as rights stem from dignity, and dignity results from rights, he continued. Law enacts a standard of behavior, but only culture can encourage it.
“We need to see a reflection of ourselves in each other — our dreams, hopes, hurts, fears and despairs. Otherwise, we all become strangers and foreigners. Our differences are often used as barriers to divide us, when they are actually an opportunity to enrich our lives.
“Dignity is a moral obligation we feel toward people, not merely a legal requirement we comply with. We discover our dignity in relating with others.”
A call for human dignity
“Protecting what we most value requires articulating and repeating true ideas,” Elder Soares said, calling reverence for human dignity “a necessary starting point,” and a necessary foundation of a reciprocity where rights include accompanying obligations and foundations.
He pointed to his native Brazil, noting that while experiencing a dynamic shift over the years from Roman Catholicism to Pentecostal, Protestant and other churches, the population has managed to avoid broad sectarian conflict. “Though far from perfect,” he said, “tension has been managed through dialogue between the various religious communities.”
Human dignity serves as a constant in a changing world, with human rights — when universally applied — smoothing out imbalances of privilege, wealth and opportunity.
“Dignity is about knowing who we are as human beings,” Elder Soares said. “The search for ultimate meaning, whether as an individual or in community, is a sacred prerogative. No one can impose that path on us; we must define it for ourselves. In all times and in all places, every person matters.”
The value of human rights
Standards of human rights first were established in the World War II aftermath by leaders of nations, cultures, religions and political systems, he said.
“These rights speak for themselves but cannot defend themselves,” Elder Soares said. “That is our task. We believe our rights come from God, but the care of those rights is up to us. This divine origin is important, because if rights become simply what the majority of people want, then they are nothing more than a power play or mere opinion. But time, wisdom and practice show that they are grounded much more deeply.”
And rights are only as reliable as the people who exercise them are, he added.
Religion’s positive influence
Religious freedom is important because religion itself is important, and the course of history shows that human beings are religious by nature, the Apostle said.
“Religion offers a framework by which people find meaning, belonging, and identity — whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or any other. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, religion gives us ‘a feeling of participating in something vast and consequential.’ ”
Churches and congregations of all kinds bring communities together, while striving to live a spiritual life broadens one’s perspectives and ennobles everyday struggles, Elder Soares said. “Religion teaches us to overcome the weaknesses within us and fight the injustices outside us.”
He acknowledged that religious people and institutions are not perfect, given acts of individual extremism in recent years and instances of institutions having to learn from their mistakes.
“But despite the imperfections of religious individuals and institutions, the religious experience provides a road map for making sense of life,” he said.
Quoting fellow Apostle Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, he then added: “Religion has no monopoly on moral action, but centuries of religious belief — including institutional church- or synagogue- or mosque-going — have clearly been preeminent in shaping our notions of right and wrong.”
Elder Soares emphasized that values and morals aren’t created by ideas or reason but are “given by God, who embeds them in our nature. … Trace the pedigree of our moral understandings, and you’ll find religion at the roots.”
Putting ‘civil’ in discourse
The words one uses can unify or separate, cause lasting damage or win respect, the Apostle said, adding “people remember words and how they are spoken” and that one can speak both civilly and with conviction.
“Civil discourse means a grown-up, earnest, rigorous exchange of ideas, not a diluted, vague, insincere avoidance of disagreement. … The problem we face today is that we have gone past the point of being uncivil. We have reached the point of being contemptful. In so many cases, we find ourselves not merely disagreeing with each other, but despising each other.”
Civility, then, should reflect a love for others — found through spending more time listening to people who are different than oneself, Elder Soares said.
“Let us not feel so threatened by a difference of opinion. Let us instead respect the sincerely held beliefs of our neighbors, and by doing so, you may find your own beliefs strengthened. … We need to learn to both not give offense and not take offense.”
Connecting in time of crisis
While a crisis exposes society’s lack of connection, it also reveals a yearning for togetherness, Elder Soares said. “We never feel so loved or connected to the world than when we help those in trouble or receive help in time of great need.”
He cited a Latter-day Saint congregation in Bellevue, Washington, that offered its chapel — at no cost, as long as needed — to Muslim friends for gathering and prayer when arson destroyed the local mosque.
“A lot of small actions like this add up to build social trust, strengthen friendship among society, and ensure that we defend each other’s religious freedom.”