‘Small light makes a big difference,’ says President Johnson at Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit

With more than 30 years of legal experience, Relief Society General President Camille Johnson presents at international summit in London

LONDON, England — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints desires to be a “light” and “leaven” in every nation, even in environments hostile to religious faith, said President Camille N. Johnson, Relief Society general president, while participating on a panel with global faith leaders on Thursday, July 13, at the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit in London, England.

“When it is darkest, even a small light makes a big difference,” President Johnson said. “So, we believe the Savior’s injunction — that His followers should be a light — applies to us, especially in times of darkness.”

Discussing Jesus Christ’s parables about salt and leaven, President Johnson observed, “Salt and leaven can make a big difference in small doses, but only if they retain their distinctive character and savor.”

Rabbi Alex Goldberg of England’s University of Surrey addresses a panel during the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit in London, England. on July 13, 20213. Joining him in a panel discussion are Relief Society General President Camille N. Johnson and Bishop Matthew Kukah, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto in Nigeria. Professor Mahan Mirza moderated the panel. Each panelist addressed the topic, “Religious Responses to the Rise of Autocracy.”  | Matt Cashore, University of Notre Dame

The three-day conference was held at the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple, a storied legal society in London where the likes of Mahatma Gandhi once studied and that dates back to the Knights Templar. 

Some 60 scholars and experts from various nationalities and institutions presented during the conference. In addition to her full-time Church service, President Johnson has more than three decades of experience practicing law as a civil litigator.

Members of the Relief Society seek to live out their mission of bringing relief the world over through collaborative humanitarian efforts, President Johnson continued. This includes global initiatives to meet the “needs of all young children and their mothers,” regarding nutrition, immunizations, education and maternal and newborn care. “We let our light shine globally and, like salt and leaven, seek to address the needs of those in need of relief who live in our own homes and neighborhoods.”

President Johnson spoke on the closing day of the conference. Her panel included remarks from Rabbi Alex Goldberg of England’s University of Surrey and Bishop Matthew Kukah, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto in Nigeria, each speaking to the subject of the panel, “Religious Responses to the Rise of Autocracy.” Professor Mahan Mirza of the University of Notre Dame moderated the panel.

President Johnson shared greetings with the group from President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “who enjoyed his participation in the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit in Rome last year. On that occasion, President Oaks emphasized that we ‘must unite and find common ground for defending and promoting religious liberty. This is not a call for doctrinal compromise, but rather a plea for unity and cooperation on strategy and advocacy toward our common goal of religious liberty for all.’” 

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Relief Society General President Camille N. Johnson participates in panel discussion during the Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Summit in London on July 13, 2023. | Matt Cashore, University of Notre Dame

An introduction to the Relief Society 

President Johnson described the origins of the Relief Society, which has grown into one of the largest and oldest global women’s organizations but dates back to “a time of extreme poverty and persecution of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” President Johnson explained, “The Relief Society was established to provide relief, both temporal and spiritual, to the early Saints and their neighbors.

“Picture with me women, in various degrees of deficiency and deprivation, trying to lift the burdens of other women, men and children in similar degrees of scarcity and suffering. But even in those early difficult times, pioneer accounts are filled with rejoicing in the sisterhood and joy they found in serving each other.

“Indeed, in providing relief, the members of Relief Society found their own divine relief.”

Today, President Johnson explained, members of the Relief Society are motivated by faith in and love of God and their neighbors. “They teach in their congregations and at home. They courageously defend morality and families. The members of Relief Society have always ‘expect[ed] extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.’

“Protecting religious liberty in a rapidly evolving society is surely an extraordinary occasion and a pressing call.”

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Relief Society General President Camille Johnson speaks at the Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Summit in London, England. | Matt Cashore, University of Notre Dame

The Church desires to serve all

Church members believe they have a message for “all people in all places,” and as such, Latter-day Saints live under many types of government and legal structures, President Johnson said.

The Church believes in “the universal right to the free exercise of conscience and believe[s] all people and institutions should be able to express publicly their views on issues facing society.” The Church also believes in “honoring and sustaining the law” in all the countries in which it operates and thus seeks to maintain political neutrality to carry out its work and humanitarian efforts.  

This means, President Johnson continued, “acting pursuant to law even in places where severe limits are placed on the Church’s operations.” President Johnson shared the Church’s latest statement on political neutrality, released in June 2023. “The Church does not seek to elect government officials, support or oppose political parties or, generally, take sides in global conflicts. The Church is neutral in matters of politics within or between the world’s many nations, lands and peoples.” The Church as an institution does, however, reserve “the right to address issues it believes have significant moral consequences or that directly affect the mission, teachings or operations of the Church.”

President Johnson explained this policy allows the Church, and the Relief Society, to extend care and relief to “all people in all circumstances regardless of their interest in the gospel, political persuasion or membership in any specific faith, party or tribe.”

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Participants gather at the Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Summit in London. | Matt Cashore, University of Notre Dame

Humanitarian efforts

President Johnson quoted the Book of Mormon to describe the Church and the Relief Society’s commitment to humanitarianism:

“And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need” (Alma 1:30). 

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sponsors humanitarian work “in extremely complex settings around the world, including places with autocratic rulers, failed governments and countries controlled by factions,” President Johnson explained. 

She continued, “In 2022, the Church’s efforts to care for those in need included more than $1 billion in expenditures, 6.3 million volunteer hours and 3,692 humanitarian projects in 190 countries and territories, according to the Church’s Annual Report on ‘Caring for Those in Need.’

“Wherever we are in the world, religious believers should seek to be light, leaven and salt,” President Johnson concluded. “We should try to pursue principles of political neutrality and take care to protect our institutional independence and integrity.”

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