Mormons have peculiar views on religious freedom

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.

 

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Looking up with Reverence

I have fallen desperately behind in my efforts to blog as part of the General Conference Odyssey. I am going to start up again, but I am not going to make an effort to catch up in posts. Instead, I am going to continue with the group. This week we are writing about the Sunday Morning Session of the October 1977 conference:

In that session, President Hunter gave a really thought provoking talk about prayer. He first spoke about how in the modern era “prayerful devotion and reverence for holiness is” seen as “unreasonable or undesirable, or both.” Yet, we all have great need for prayer. Unfortunately, it is only “[p]erilous moments, great responsibility, deep anxiety, overwhelming grief” that can  ” shake us out of old complacencies and established routines will bring to the surface our native impulses.” In those moments of trial, it is easy to turn to God.

Yet, “[i]f prayer is only a spasmodic cry at the time of crisis, then it is utterly selfish.” We begin to see God “as a repairman or a service agency to help us only in our emergencies.” We therefore do not really develop a relationship of love and trust.  On the other hand, President Hunter speaks of the real risk of becoming far too casual in our prayers.

President Hunter explained that Jesus purposefully began his prayer with “Hallowed by thy name” to show his great reverence towards God. “Unless that reverent, prayerful, honorable attitude toward God is uppermost in our hearts, we are not fully prepared to pray.” Instead, “We do well to become more like our Father by looking up to him, by remembering him always, and by caring greatly about his world and his work.” These attributes of “[p]rayer, reverence, worship, devotion, respect for the holy—these are basic exercises of our spirit and must be actively practiced in our lives or they will be lost.”

I love that reminder. It is so easy to lose sight of God and to lapse into casual prayer. We must approach the throne of God with reverence and awe and yet approach regularly and with confidence.

Spiritually Powerful and Articulate Women

Sister Eubank recounted Spencer W. Kimball’s glorious promise to the women of the Church that they will be the source of much of the major growth that will come to the Church in our day. It is a glorious promise and prophecy.

“Finally, my dear sisters, may I suggest to you something that has not been said before or at least in quite this way. Much of the major growth that is coming to the Church in the last days will come because many of the good women of the world … will be drawn to the Church in large numbers. This will happen to the degree that the women of the Church reflect righteousness and articulateness in their lives and to the degree that the women of the Church are seen as distinct and different–in happy ways–from the women of the world.

“Among the real heroines in the world who will come into the Church are women who are more concerned with being righteous than with being selfish. These real heroines have true humility, which places a higher value on integrity than on visibility. …

“… It will be … female exemplars of the Church [who] will be a significant force in both the numerical and the spiritual growth of the Church in the last days.”

I have seen many of these good spirit touched women in my life – whether in or out of our Church. My incipient faith in Christ as a teenager and my ultimate conversion to the Gospel came because of the earnest prayer and fervent faith of devout women who believed in God and in his son Jesus Christ. I am married to such a beautiful daughter of God who quietly lives her faith and allows it to touch others even as she does not realize it. I am so grateful for the influence of such women in my life. I pray that one day those good women that are not yet members of our Church will be led by the source of all goodness into the fullness of the Gospel of Christ.

One thing that really stood out to me was President Kimball and Sister Eubank’s emphasis on being articulate in our faith and testimony of Christ. Being articulate is not something we hear about a lot in Church, and I think it’s even less frequently applied to women for some reason or another.

I liked Sister Eubank’s pithy description: “Being articulate means to clearly express how you feel about something and why.” I also loved her emphasis that we can be articulate even if we lack perfect knowledge or struggle in faith. She urged us to “Tell them why you believe, what it feels like, if you ever doubted, how you got through it, and what Jesus Christ means to you. Our doubts and our experiences can help us more fully articulate the Gospel message that we feel and know.

Ultimately, true articulateness in sharing the Gospel is a gift of the spirit because the spirit can bridge gaps of understanding a lead to mutual comprehension. We need not be world class orators to be articulate on spiritual things. We simply need to prayerfully attempt to share the things that we know and feel. The spirit will fill the gaps of our awkwardness and lack of understanding. He will help us to be and become articulate in our witness of Christ.

Knowing we are Children of God

Sister Joy Jones the Primary President spoke about how coming to know we are a child of God can change our perspective and our life.

She began quoting the conversion story of one sister who explained that “‘When I found the gospel, I found myself.’ She discovered her worth through divine principles. Her value as a daughter of God was revealed to her through the Holy Ghost.”

I could relate to that experience. When I first gained my testimony of the Gospel, I was filled above all with my sense of eternal worth in the eyes of God. I knew how much he loved me and could see, for just an instant, what he could make of me.

I also recently read of the poet Maya Angelou and her powerful Christian faith. She related an experience when she first came to know of the love of God for her personally that transformed her

Maya Angelou was in a vocal class in 1955 when she experienced a spiritual turning point. She was reading aloud from H. Emilie Cady’s classic Lessons in Truth, the book she had selected for the class, when the instructor asked her to read a passage over again.

Angelou felt she looked foolish, being asked to read it again. As a young aspiring dancer in a room full of serious singers, she was already self-conscious, plus she was the only student of color and the youngest in the class.

So when the instructor, Frederick Wilkerson, asked her to repeat that line, “God loves me,” she said it louder and more strongly. In that instant, she knew she was a child of God, and had to leave the room. Once away from the others, she started weeping because of what she realized.

“God loves me … this God that made the leaves, the stars and rivers … and you, loves me, Maya Angelou.”

It was humbling, Angelou would later recall. Those words gave her a newfound freedom to go out and do good things and to do them well.

“That’s why I am who I am, because God loves me, and I’m amazed at it,” she said in a 2003 TV interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2013

Truly that knowledge changes us and transforms everything.

What really struck me about Sister Jones’s message is that she makes it clear that remembering our divine identity requires work and diligent effort. It is not simply passive knowledge we can store away somewhere in the back of our mind, but a knowledge that we must refresh and keep vital.

Sisters, let’s not be confused about who we are! While it is often easier to be spiritually passive than it is to put forth the spiritual effort to remember and embrace our divine identity, we cannot afford that indulgence in these latter days.

We cannot forget and instead must continually remember our divine heritage and try to fully internalize what that means for us.

Healing the Breach

Isaiah’s promise that followers of God can be “repairers of the breach” has always resonated with me. There are so many “breaches” in our world and lives that need repairing. Most glaringly is the breach or gap between us and God caused by the fall and by our own fallen and sinful state. But our relationships we others often have “breaches” as well that create conflict, tension, and misunderstanding.

So of course, I loved Sister Marriot’s talk on that great theme. She emphasized that we simply cannot love the way we need to without God’s help.

Sister Marriott first set out the challenge that we face in mortality:

It is now, with our mortal limitations, that the Father asks us to love when loving is most difficult, to serve when serving is inconvenient, to forgive when forgiving is soul stretching. How? How will we do it? We earnestly reach for Heavenly Father’s help, in the name of His Son, and do things His way instead of pridefully asserting our own will.

As Sister Marriott emphasizes, we simply cannot do it alone: ”Independently forcing ourselves to have humility and trying to make ourselves love others is insincere and hollow, and it simply doesn’t work. Our sins and pride create a breach–or a gap–between us and the font of all love, our Heavenly Father.”

Instead, we need the healing and cleansing power of the atonement of Jesus Christ. We need his divine love in our hearts. We need to see our brothers and sisters as he and Heavenly Father see them.

“Only the Savior’s Atonement can cleanse us of our sins and close that gap or breach.

We want to be encircled in the arms of our Heavenly Father’s love and guidance, and so we put His will first and with a broken heart plead that Christ will pour streams of cleansing water into our pitcher. At first it may come drop by drop, but as we seek, ask, and obey, it will come abundantly. This living water will begin to fill us, and brimming with His love, we can tip the pitcher of our soul and share its contents with others who thirst for healing, hope, and belonging. As our inner pitcher becomes clean, our earthly relationships begin to heal.”

Isaiah spoke of those who faithfully live the law of the fast and thus become for their own posterity a repairer of the breach. They are the ones who, Isaiah promises, will “build the old waste places.” In a similar way, the Savior repaired the breach, or distance, between us and Heavenly Father. He, through His great atoning sacrifice, opens the way for us to partake of God’s loving power, and then we are enabled to repair the “waste places” in our personal lives. Healing emotional distance between each other will require our acceptance of God’s love, coupled with a sacrifice of our natural selfish and fearful tendencies.

Sister Marriot told a moving story of an experience with a relative who embarrassed and hurt her. She prayed for a portion to God’s love for that relative, and was able to heal that breach and reconcile with her. I too have experienced the healing power of pure divine love. When I decided to join the church and especially when I chose to serve a mission, I faced a significant amount of family opposition especially from my father. While I served, he would routinely send me angry and caustic emails questions my decision to serve and heavily criticizing me. It was truly painful to receive those messages of scorn. Many times, I had to get on my knees and pray for healing and reconciliation. I had to ask God to help me to respond with love and tender kindness. I was amazed at how immediately and how poignantly that prayer was fulfilled. I was able to continually convey love even in the valley of calumny and invective. That was not of my own strength, but of a strength greater than my own. Little by little, I did see the breech healed. We were reconciled after my mission and our relationship improved in noticeable ways. He never fully accepted my faith or decision to serve, but he was nevertheless filed with love. I am so grateful for the mercy of Christ and for the power of the Holy Ghost in helping me to heal one of the most significant breaches in my life.

Empathy, Charity, and Moral Foundations

It’s been a long time since I last posted. A lot has been going on in my life and I have been very busy between family, moving, starting a new job, and other things. But I am hoping to get back into a good habit of regular blog posts. General Conference is the perfect time to rededicate to that goal. I am hoping to write a post for each talk again this time so that I can review and share my thoughts about each of the talks.

I decided to start with President Uchtdorf’s talk from the Women’s Session last Saturday since the text from that session is available online and that talk really stood out to me.

President Uchtdorf spoke of three sisters. One was sad throughout her life, the second was mad and the third was happy. When speaking about the attributes of the angry sisters, President Uchtdorf spoke some incredible truths about the human condition and what generates so many of the conflicts that wreck relationships on both the inter-personal and international stage.

The second sister was angry at the world. Like her sad sister, she felt that the problems in her life were all caused by someone else. She blamed her family, her friends, her boss and coworkers, the police, the neighbors, Church leaders, current fashion trends, even the intensity of solar flares, and plain bad luck. And she lashed out at all of them.

She didn’t think of herself as a mean person. To the contrary, she felt that she was only sticking up for herself. Everyone else, she believed, was motivated by selfishness, pettiness, and hate. She, on the other hand, was motivated by good intentions—justice, integrity, and love.

It is human nature to always see the good in our selves. We are always paragons of “justice, integrity, and love.” We are rarely willing to blame ourselves when things go badly. Unfortunately, we are also equally quick to see the bad in those around us. We See others as selfish, petty, hateful, and hypocritical. In other words, we see the mite in their eyes even while ignoring the beam in our eyes.

Unfortunately, the mad sister’s line of thinking is all too common. This was noted in a recent study that explored conflict between rival groups. As part of the study, researchers interviewed Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East, and Republicans and Democrats in the United States. They discovered that “each side felt their own group [was] motivated by love more than hate, but when asked why their rival group [was] involved in the conflict, [they] pointed to hate as [the other] group’s motivating factor.”3

In other words, each group thought of themselves as the “good guys”—fair, kind, and truthful. By contrast, they saw their rivals as the “bad guys”—uninformed, dishonest, even evil.

I recently read a book that is one of the more influential ones I have read in years : “The Righteous Mind” by Johnathan Haidt. That book discussed the basis for morality and categorized how human beings understand and categorize moral teachings. Haidt identifies six “moral foundations” that he analogizes to our senses of taste (sweet, bitter etc.)

Care v. Harm

Fairness  v.  cheating

Loyalty v Betrayal

Authority v Subversion

Sanctity v Degradation

and Liberty v Oppression

What is significant about Haidt’s research is that it suggests that people relate to or “speak” different moral languages. Some of those concerns resonate more with some because of some mix of background, culture, faith, and perhaps genetics. Liberal western society is primarily (almost exclusively) concerned with Care and Fairness. More traditional societies often reflect a concern for a more diverse collection of moral languages, but do not value care and fairness quite as highly.

Much of our political and social disagreement can stem from not speaking the same language or valuing and prioritizing them differently.  For instance, when conservatives speak of concepts such as the “purity” or “sanctity” of human life in the abortion context, that is basically a foreign language for someone who does recognize those notions. A stark example will be a libertarian minded individual who will be extremely critical of anyone who imposes laws to either care for the needy (modern liberalism) or in order to preserve purity or codify respect/law & order (more traditional conservatism).

Looking back to President Uchtdorf, I think a lot of our ability to vilify and to disagree vociferously with others stems from speaking a different language. We tend to prioritize our moral foundations and then judge others based on those same priorities. Because others prioritize moral goods differently from us, it is easy to begin to assume that they are not acting in a moral fashion.

When someone opposes or disagrees with us, it’s tempting to assume that there must be something wrong with them. And from there it’s a small step to attach the worst of motives to their words and actions.

Of course, we must always stand for what is right, and there are times when we must raise our voices for that cause. However, when we do so with anger or hate in our hearts—when we lash out at others to hurt, shame, or silence them—chances are we are not doing so in righteousness.

So what’s the solution to this problem. How can we overcome our moral blindness and be filed with greater empathy and compassion? Haidt suggested being more aware of the merits and strengths of moral foundations that we do not prioritize as highly. For instance, conservatives can recognize that liberals are motivated out of a desire to serve the most needy and rectify what they see as long term systematic injustice. Liberals can recognize that tradition, sanctity, order, and unity are significant moral values that need to be respected and reconciled. We can see the good motives underlying the actions of others even if we do not agree with the actual balancing. That is a very valuable suggestion.

President Uchtdorf offers another divinely inspired suggestion. We can seek for Christlike empathy and realize that we are all brothers and sisters on the same journey of mortality. We can also be aware of the light of Christ that is in all of us that pushes us to do good.

What did the Savior teach?

“I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

“That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.”4

This is the Savior’s way. It is the first step in breaking down the barriers that create so much anger, hatred, division, and violence in the world.

I particularly loved President Uchtdorf’s emphasis on how we must do so even if it is not reciprocated. Sometimes our path as a disciple of Christ will be a lonely and unreciprocated one.  But that is our divine mandate.

(If anything, Haidt’s research suggests that for members of more conservative faiths living in a more progressive liberal society there will often be a lack of reciprocal empathy. That is because, as already mentioned, liberals tend to be almost exclusively focused on care and fairness to the exclusion of other values. So conversations about sanctity, authority, and loyalty will simply not resonate. On the other hand, conservatives do tend to value care and fairness though to lesser degrees. )

“Yes,” you might say, “I would be willing to love my enemies—if only they were willing to do the same.”

But that doesn’t really matter, does it? We are responsible for our own discipleship, and it has little—if anything—to do with the way others treat us. We obviously hope that they will be understanding and charitable in return, but our love for themis independent of their feelings toward us.

Perhaps our effort to love our enemies will soften their hearts and influence them for good. Perhaps it will not. But that does not change our commitment to follow Jesus Christ.

So, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ, we will love our enemies.

We will overcome anger or hate.

We will fill our hearts with love for all of God’s children.

We will reach out to bless others and minister to them—even those who might “despitefully use [us] and persecute [us].”5

I

Sincere Seekers of Truth

In April 1977, Elder Delbert L. Stapley bemoaned what he saw as a tide of relativism with regard to the notion of a true church:

“My brothers and sisters and friends, the following statement is sometimes voiced by well-intentioned and sincere individuals: “You go to your church; I’ll go to mine; but let us walk together.” However, can people really walk together if they don’t agree on the basic teachings of the doctrines of Christ? Do all Christian churches teach the true gospel and its principles and also have the authority to administer the saving ordinances which will guide and exalt their members in God’s heavenly kingdom?

Elder Stapley rejected the teaching that remains in vogue today that “all roads lead to God.” He emphasized that “it is a philosophy inconsistent with the teachings of our Lord,” and that [t]here  is no logic or reason to the proposition that inconsistent teachings and differing doctrines can bring about the same results. If truth comes from one source—God—how can it be so diversely taught? We know that all truth does emanate from God and is therefore unchangeable, consistent, and unified. Consequently, not all Christian churches with their dissimilar teachings can provide a fulness of truth.”

The restoration ultimately began because of a sincere desire to find out where a young seeker could turn for truth. God did not provide the popular modern answer that all churches lead back to him.  Instead, he emphasized the need for a restoration of his Church and proclaimed that all other churches lacked the fullness of truth.

That is a hard truth for modern ears to hear. But in our justifiable and praiseworthy efforts to be inclusive, we risk loosing sight of the very question that took Joseph Smith to his knees in the sacred grove.  We risk becoming complacent.

Today a multiplicity of churches and doctrines abound, all claiming one source. Such a claim, of course, defies reason and contradicts the teachings and pattern established by Jesus Christ. A sincere seeker for truth must ask: “Which, if any, of the varying Christian groups is right?” For guidance, the apostle James gave this counsel: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” (James 1:5.) If you sincerely put this promise to the test in seeking light and truth, you will be rewarded.

In Joseph’s day there was great confusion and tumult, but at least people were asking the right questions. In our day, the relationship between various faiths has improved and ecumenicism is on the rise, but so many are put off from ever asking one of the most important questions that they will ever ask.  How tragic