Recently, a devout member of another confession that I deeply admire (whom I have chosen not to identify) gave a talk about religious freedom. In that talk, he described a battle between believers and invidious government bureaucrats who are seeking to exercise total control over ever aspect of the believer’s life. His remarks were substantially similar to conservative blogger Erick Erickson who in a wide-spread post entitled “You Will Be Made to Care” wrote that “[t]he secular left in America has its own religion — the state. Worship of the state and the self cannot tolerate dissent or competition, and therefore is moving aggressively to shut down, silence, and drive from the town square any competing ideas.”
Having spent the past several weeks preparing to teach a lesson on religious freedom at Church, it struck me how that rhetoric and perspective differed from the teachings of leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We are often seen as fellow travelers in the battle for religious freedom. But while we often fight the same battles, we Mormons truly have a peculiar take on religious freedom.
Ending the Culture War
So often, when members of other faiths speak of religious freedom, it is described as a war launched against believers by non-believers. Hence, the well-renowned Catholic lawyer Phyllis Schlafly titled her book criticizing the Obama Administration “No Higher Power: Obama’s War on Religious Freedom.” Such martial rhetoric is pervasive.
To be sure, leaders of the LDS Church will often use sharp rhetoric. For instance, Elder Cook explained that “[t]here has always been an ongoing battle between people of faith and those who would purge religion and God from public life.” And the Church’s site on religious freedom speaks of an “assault” on people of faith.
Yet, our leaders have called for a “case-fire” in the culture wars over religious freedom. And along with that “cease-fire” has come a very deliberate and pronounced effort to avoid demonizing and creating false caricatures of those we disagree with.
Elder Oaks’s address at Claremont Graduate University in March 25, 2016 provides the template for this effort. He emphasizes that the goal is to “to learn to live peacefully with laws, institutions, and persons who do not share our most basic values.” He sets out several principles that form the basis of that ceasefire.
First, we must “refrain from labeling our adversaries with such epithets as ‘godless’ or ‘bigot.'” Such rhetoric automatically shuts down conversation and any efforts to seek mutual understanding. Ironically, those using such labels often fit the definition of a bigot as “a person who is utterly intolerant of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from his own.” Rather than using such labels, we have must see “that we are fellow citizens who need each other and who can resolve our differences through mutual respect, mutual understanding, and, where necessary, by compromise or by the rule of law.”
Second, we must “try to understand the other side’s point of view.” That involves truly understanding where others are coming from. For people of faith dealing with questions of anti-discrimination laws, it even involves an “appreciat[ing] the brutal history of the basic human rights of marginalized groups, such as gays and lesbians.” You are not likely to hear a traditional member of the culture war acknowledge that history let alone try to empathize with it!
Third, we must “avoid leading out with nonnegotiables or extreme positions.” Instead, “both sides in these controversies should seek balance, not total victory.”Thus, believers “should not assert the free exercise of religion to override every law and government action that could possibly be interpreted to infringe on institutional or personal religious freedom.” We live in an extremely litigious culture where every dispute triggers a lawsuit. As a lawyer involved with religious freedom matters, I am in the trenches in these vital disputes. And yet, lawsuits will never lead to an end of the acrimony and fighting. There will always be winners and losers as long as the court rooms are the battlefields. That is not the way that the Lord would have us resolve our disputes.
Freedom for all
In another crucial respect, Mormon teaching about religious freedom is distinctive. We situated our views on religious freedom in the midst of the plan of salvation and the vital significant of moral agency. As such, we understand that religious freedom is not just a “license” to act however we wish, but a blessing that extends to all mankind. Elder Lance Wickman the Church’s General Counsel put it much more eloquently than I can:
Some well-meaning people speak of religious liberty as if it should be a license to do almost anything their religious sensibilities prefer. Some invoke their “conscience” to demand broad freedoms for what are mostly just personal preferences informed by religion. But for us, who understand the basic principles of the restored gospel, religious freedom is much more than that. It protects our agency, our divine right to choose to follow Jesus Christ. It secures our right to exercise faith, repent, make and keep sacred covenants, raise our children in the faith, worship together, and preach the gospel. But our fundamental freedoms also protect the right of others to make a different choice. Moral agency—that right to choose Christ or not—is the great crucible of this mortal experience. Law—religious liberty—exists to preserve and protect it, for us and for all.
Or if you don’t want to read all of that, even more succinctly: “Our ‘conscience,’ therefore, finds expression in securing our own fundamental choices about how to live, not in opposing theirs.”
In other words, the choice to follow the Savior (or not) is not really a choice unless it truly is a choice. We would not want to live in a society where faith or secularism were the only options, because that would deprive us of genuine choice.
Beyond Tolerance and Towards Mutual Respect
If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend this video that the LDS Church has used to teach members how to dialogue with those that may disagree with us.
I recommend the whole thing, but for my last point, I want to fast forward to the very end:
Samantha, the protagonist of the video emphasize the need for mutual respect. The person she is speaking with notes that she will “respect your right to believe what you want so long as it does not infringe on my right to believe what I want. Samantha responds that she “thinks we can do better than that.” She emphasizes that “we can stand up for each other” and defend each other’s rights even though “we have religious and philosophical differences.”
In essence, that is the revolutionary truth that the Apostles are teaching us. We can do more than simply tolerate one another. When we stop seeing each other as adversaries and instead recognize that we are all children of God striving to follow the light of Christ within us, we can rise above mere tolerance. Instead, we can find common ground and stand up for one another. We can show true empathy. I have been touched by examples of the Church doing that, such as the Utah Compromise or expressing support for a pro-LGBTQ concern raising awareness of suicide prevention.
Some will ask whether it is naive and foolish to find such places of common ground when our efforts will at times not be reciprocated or when we will be taken advantage of. My response, is that the Savior demanded of us that we turn the other cheek and walk that extra mile when asked to do so. If we act in good faith and with compassion, then we set an example that will hopefully influence others. But even if not, doing so is our duty as disciples of Jesus Christ. Mormons must be ambassadors of good will and move beyond tolerance and towards mutual respect.