Religious liberty is at the core of what it means to be human

Those of all faith traditions “need to unite all over the globe. … We have a lot to learn from each other on religious liberty”

The following is Part 2 of a three-part series. Part 1 is titled, “Why does Religious Liberty Matter?” Part 3 will feature an interview with President Dallin H. Oaks.

ROME, Italy — Religious liberty comes to the very core of what it means to be a human, said Thomas B. Griffith, a former federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and a Latter-day Saint.

“Humans yearn for freedom. Humans are inquisitive,” he said. “We want to know the truth. And we want to pursue the truth and in all spheres of life. To human beings, matters of faith are core to their identity.”

Conducting an interview with the Church News during the 2022 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit held in Rome, Italy, in July, Griffith said any just society is going to be one that recognizes that fundamental element of what it means to be a human — the freedom to think, to debate, to pursue ideas, to worship.

“Religious liberty isn’t just one strand of a larger mosaic; it gets to the very core of what it means to be a human,” he said.

Mona Polacca, a representative of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, is a living testament of Griffith’s words.

Wearing colorful, traditional clothing and standing comfortably in the bright sun outside the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Polacca listed all that is sacred to her — “the elements like the water, the air we breathe, the sun and Mother Earth.”

She spoke passionately about preserving a way of life for the generations that will follow her. 

Last year, an Indigenous sacred site in Arizona, called Oak Flat, was threatened by mining excavation. The destruction of Oak Flat would have left an empty crater where religious gatherings and ceremonies once took place. Polacca said the sacred site offered a spiritual connection with the land not found anywhere else on earth.

“The Oak Flat Stronghold is not just a place but a home to spiritual powers …,” she told Notre Dame. “For centuries, Oak Flat has remained an active place where Indigenous people come to pray, harvest and gather where holy beings reside and holy springs flow.”

The Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Initiative fought for and secured religious freedom protections for the Indigenous sacred site.

Speaking of her own “spiritual practices and beliefs,” Polacca addressed religious liberty at the Notre Dame summit as “the sacredness of life” and “a history that we should take guidance from.” 

It’s a connection that defines her humanity. 

The sun sets at the Rome Italy Temple in Rome on Tuesday, July 19, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The right to pursue meaning

Stephanie Barclay, director of Notre Dame’s Religious Liberty Initiative, said people of faith, as well as those of no faith, should care about religious liberty. “Really the core of what it means to be human, to have dignity, is for government to give individuals space to pursue whatever it is that gives them deepest meaning in life and to seek answers to life’s most important questions for themselves,” she said.

Religious liberty, she continued, often acts as “a canary in the mineshaft” that operates as an early warning signal when government starts to encroach too much on liberties of all types. “That is a signal that government is often acting in ways that are going to be harmful for the entire citizenry.”

Empirical data and scholarship support the notion that countries that support religious liberty also have better national security, more economic prosperity and more peace, she said.

Barclay said religious groups often serve the most vulnerable in society. “If you care about the vulnerable among us, those that need to be served and lifted up, then we should care about protecting the religious ecosystem that makes it possible to do so much of that good work.”

Human beings have more in common than what divides them. “We all want to be able to pursue the questions that matter to us most, to be able to live with dignity and flourish as human beings,” she said.

President Dallin H. Oaks of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints talks with Cornel West, Dietrich Bonhoeffer professor of philosophy and Christian practice, Union Theological Seminary, during the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. In the center is Robert P. George, Princeton University professor of jurisprudence and politics. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

A matter of life and death

Cornel West, an American philosopher, political activist and social critic, said he can’t conceive of what it means to be human without wrestling with what it means to be “one in pursuit of structures of meaning and value that provide some way of justifying my move from womb to tomb.”

Referencing past U.S. history, West spoke of descending from a people who lived during a time it was “against the law for Black people to worship God without white supervision. And this is under one of the most enlightened constitutions of modern times.”

Religious liberty “is not a matter of abstract academic discourse, it is a matter of life and death. It’s a matter of dignity and sanctity. It’s a matter of integrity. And in our attempt to be in solidarity with one another.”

God’s love of all His children is deeper and prior to human judgment. It is “deeper than race, it is deeper than gender, it is deeper than sexual orientation, it is deeper than any of the human constructions that we know. And that to me is another reason why religious liberty is so very important.” 

The colosseum in Rome on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. Faith leaders gathered in Rome for the 2022 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit, held July 20-22, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Core to humanity

Robert P. George, a professor and director of the James Madison Program at Princeton University, said asking questions about the meaning of life is core to humanity. “Answering these questions honestly, not with self-deception, not with wishful thinking, but answering these questions honestly, is also part of who we are as human beings. It’s intrinsic to our nature.”

Living life with authenticity and integrity — in light of the best answers to those great questions of meaning, value and purpose — is also central to who people are as human beings. “So if we are to be fully what we can be as human beings, if we are to be ourselves, if we are to realize our natures, then we need to be able to be free to ask those questions, to answer them honestly, and to live with integrity and authenticity in light of our best answers.”

Dignity, he said, is implicated in the raising of those questions and answering those questions, and of living in line with the answers. “And that’s why we say that respect for religious freedom is required by the dignity of the human person.”

Many will disagree on the answers to those great questions, he continued. “But at a minimum, we agree on the importance of the questions. … And we all agree in all the great traditions of faith, that it is important to live with authenticity and integrity, in light of your best answers. That’s a lot of agreement. That’s a lot of agreement about what it means to be a human being. That’s a lot of agreement about human nature, the human good, human dignity. We can work with that.”

George praised President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, for his call for global efforts to preserve religious liberty. “Whether you are [a Latter-day Saint], whether you are Catholic as I am, whether you are Muslim, whether you are Jewish, we need to unite all over the globe. … We have a lot to learn from each other on religious liberty.”

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