Sarah Jane Weaver: What I learned from a Catholic dean about the necessity of religious liberty and the power of prayer

Dean G. Marcus Cole of Notre Dame Law School is not a constitutional law scholar and did not spend his career in the fight for religious liberty. He’s a business lawyer, a scholar of financial law, who taught venture capital and financial regulation at Stanford Law School for 22 years.

But one day, while living in California, he picked up a newspaper and noticed a photograph of a group of nuns — in habits — on the front page.

“I hadn’t seen nuns in habits since the 1970s, so it caught my attention,” he recalled. “They had been approached by a group of young women who wanted to join their order, and they didn’t have enough room in their convent. So they hired an architect to draw up plans for an expansion of their convent, and they submitted those plans to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. The county saw the plans, and decided the land and open space were ‘too valuable to be used for something like prayer.’”

Speaking June 28 during the inaugural Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit, Cole said he was outraged — and helpless.

“It was at that time,” he said, “that I started thinking about religious liberty as the most important fundamental freedom in our lives, and one that is taken for granted by far too many.”

For many years, Cole, a Catholic, gave his frustration to God in prayers.

“Great change,” he said, “starts with a prayer.”

Take for example the civil rights movement in the United States, he said. “It began in the Black churches across this country. Churches like Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, and St. Augustine Catholic Church in New Orleans.”

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Or the fall of the Berlin Wall, he added. “In 1982, at the height of the cold war, St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, East Germany, began organizing prayers for peace each week. These weekly vigils grew beyond the capacity of the church, and poured out into the square, spreading to other cities across East Germany, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.”

The world is in need of prayer, he said.

Since becoming president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in January 2018, President Russell M. Nelson has repeatedly asked Latter-day Saints to pray.

“My advice today is very simple,” he said in Guatemala in August 2019. “Please keep the commandments of God. Remember to pray to Him every morning and night. Pray with your families. Pray in private. Pray to our Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. In doing so, He will direct you for good in everything you do.”

One month later, President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, also asked Latter-day Saints to turn to prayer.

Concluding a busy, three-day visit to New England — an area rich in Church and U.S. history — President Ballard pled with local Latter-day Saints to “join a new movement” by inviting their neighbors, colleagues and friends to pray for the United States, its leaders and its families.

“Our nation was founded on prayer, it was preserved by prayer, and we need prayer again,” he said. “I plead with you this evening to pray for this country, for our leaders, for our people and for the families that live in this great nation founded by God. Remember, this country was established and preserved by our Founding Fathers and Mothers who repeatedly acknowledged the hand of God through prayer.”

Last year as the COVID-19 pandemic intensified across the globe, President Nelson on two different occasions asked Latter-day Saints to pray.

“Let us prayerfully plead for relief from this global pandemic,” he said.

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Cole joined  Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Catholic archbishop of New York; Dr. Jacqueline Rivers of The Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies; and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of the Congregation Shearith Israel in calling for the right to pray and other religious freedoms during the religious liberty summit.

Speaking during the event, Cole said religious liberty is “the most important fundamental freedom in our lives, and one that is taken for granted by far too many. … Let us unite in pleading for healing throughout the world.”

Cole said the late U.S. President Lyndon Johnson once said that “instead of winning an argument, he would much rather win a convert.”

“Those of us who understand the fundamental importance of religious liberty to our survival and to our souls must persuade, and we must win converts. … As a Christian and as a Catholic, I ask myself, how can I do this, if I cannot witness my faith, through my actions and my words? In short, we must defend religious freedom, in the United States and around the world, because our very souls depend upon it.”

The path forward is one he joins President Nelson and President Ballard and so many others in promoting.

“Great change,” he said, “starts with a prayer.”