President Dallin H. Oaks: ‘We have got to think about religious freedom for all the children of God’

President Oaks speaks about the importance of religious freedom from the Rome Italy Temple Visitors’ Center

The following is Part 3 of a three-part series on religious freedom. Part 1 is titled, “Why does Religious Liberty Matter?” and Part 2 is titled, “Religious liberty is at the core of what it means to be human.”

ROME, ITALY —  President Dallin H. Oaks has spoken about religious freedom for much of his 38-year Apostolic ministry.  

It is a subject he has been prepared to address, said the first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

He served as a law clerk for the United States Supreme Court — becoming familiar with the essential judicial branch of government. 

His work as a law professor for a decade at the University of Chicago gave him opportunities to think and sometimes write on that subject. 

As president of Brigham Young University, he contended for religious liberties for the Church-owned university. 

And while serving as a justice on the Utah Supreme Court, he concluded that the best way to approach religious liberty is to balance competing interests — including nondiscrimination and religious freedom.

“So as I look back on my professional life, I see that I have been led through a series of experiences that have enlarged my view,” he said. 

Last month, President Oaks offered a powerful and historic address in Rome, calling for “a global effort to defend and advance the religious freedom of all the children of God in every nation of the world,” during the 2022 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit

President Oaks talks with a man in a white suit.
President Dallin H. Oaks of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints talks with Notre Dame Law School Dean G. Marcus Cole during the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

During the three-day conference, held in a land of deep religious significance for many, faith leaders addressed the summit’s theme, Dignitatis Humanae — the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom.

President Oaks’ address marked the second time in less than a year that he has delivered an important address on the topic of religious liberty. On Nov. 12, 2021, President Oaks called on religious leaders and organizations to come together to seek peaceful resolution to the “painful conflicts between religious freedom and nondiscrimination” in a historic address offered from the Dome Room of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.

On July 20, he expanded on that important subject in Rome, addressing the topic, “Pursuing Religious Liberty, Worldwide.”

President Oaks’ remarks were met with great enthusiasm and referenced by other speakers during the three-day conference — including remarks offered by Justice Samuel Alito, an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States; Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard Law School professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See — the jurisdiction of the pope in Rome and the sovereign city-state known as the Vatican City; and G. Marcus Cole, the founder of Notre Dame’s Religious Liberty Initiative. 

In an interview at the Rome Italy Temple Visitors’ Center the evening before the address, President Oaks said members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should care about religious liberty, because a fundamental part of the plan of salvation is the ability to choose. 

“Religious liberty is a precondition for that essential quality of mortal life, created by God, our Eternal Father,” he said. “The whole purpose and the essential environment of the Church depends upon freedom of choice.”

President Oaks said understanding religious liberty properly requires balance.

There are some who think religious liberty should dominate every other consideration. And there are some who think it is dominated by other considerations — both legally and policy wise. 

The answer, he emphasized, lies in the middle ground. 

Four ways to strengthen religious freedom

During a historic speech offered to the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit on July 20, President Dallin H. Oaks offered four ways religious institutions and believers can strengthen religious liberty worldwide. 

1.   “Our responses to governmental laws and our relations with potential adversaries will be helped if we accept the twin realities — one, that we are all fellow citizens who need each other, and, two, that we are all subject to law,” he said.

2.   The most serious violations of religious freedom are not merely discrimination but persecution, said President Oaks. “Much religious persecution, in the United States and probably worldwide, has been one or more religious groups persecuting others.” 

3.   The preservation of religious liberty ultimately depends on the understanding and support of the general public, said President Oaks.  

“If the foundation of religious liberty is weakening it is likely in part because the benefits conferred on society by religious organizations and religiously motivated people are not sufficiently known and acknowledged,” he said. “We need to address that deficiency on a wider front than preaching, lobbying and litigating.”

Religious communities can offer something governments — however well-financed — cannot provide: “large scale person-to-person kindness and empathy to accompany material assistance.” 

4.   Finally, as declared by so many religious leaders, “we must unite and find common ground for defending and promoting religious liberty,” said President Oaks.

“With the love and mutual respect taught by divine commandments, we need to find ways to learn from one another and to reinforce the common commitments that hold us together and promote stable pluralistic societies. We should walk shoulder to shoulder along the path of religious freedom for all, while still exercising that freedom to pursue our distinctive beliefs.”

“The most effective representation of religious liberty is a representation that stands up for people of faith or no faith,” he explained. 

Because of the persecution suffered by early Latter-day Saints, including his own ancestors, President Oaks said religious liberty is part of his DNA. “For me, that gives religious liberty a priority and a motivation,” he explained.

“The only way to make progress on religious freedom worldwide is for people who enjoy religious freedom to think about the circumstances of people who are not religious, who are not believers, who haven’t yet seen the importance or can’t enjoy religious freedom in the country where they live,” he said. “We have got to think about religious freedom for all the children of God. And if we don’t, we’re falling short of what our divine Father in Heaven expects us to do.”

Following recent periods of political strife in the United States and other countries, President Oaks said “there are obviously serious concerns and doubts” in the hearts of many people about their own governments or about the trends they see in governments worldwide. 

“I think what I would say to those who are overcome with such doubts is, ‘Trust in the Lord.’ There is a God in heaven. And He watches over all of His children in every nation. When we’ve done all we can within the conditions of our own government, the Lord is going to make up the difference for the benefit and blessing of His children in His own good time.”

During the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit, President Oaks called for a united effort to promote religious freedom. 

“We should do more to teach the public generally about the advantages everyone has when religious people have freedom to pursue their doctrinal interests and their commanded service to God. Everyone benefits when we have that freedom, but we need to make a better effort to teach that essential fact than any of us has done individually in the past.”

Religious freedom is not just the right to believe, it is the right to carry our beliefs into action, he said. “And it is also the right to meet together to have organizations that teach and advocate the religious principles that benefit society as a whole.”

President Oaks asked those who wonder why religious freedom is important, or who haven’t thought seriously about religious freedom, to think about:

“Where would society be, where would our lives be, where would our religion be, if we did not have religious freedom?” he said. “If we didn’t have religious freedom, we would not have the right to choose what to believe, the right to choose what to do because of our beliefs.

“Where would the absence of those rights lead? Think of that.”

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