Major address by Elder Oaks on religious freedom

Please read the entire address here.

The address was considered important enough to be publicized by Church public affairs.  Please read below for some of the highlights.

Interestingly, this address comes at the same time that the highest profile elected Mormon in the United States has criticized the Church’s activity on Prop. 8.

I quote directly from the Church press release:

Although his address on religious freedom was not written in response to the Proposition 8 battle over same- sex marriage in California, Elder Oaks likened the incidents of outrage against those who prevailed in establishing marriage between a man and a woman to the “widely condemned voter-intimidation of blacks in the South.”

He said members of the Church should not be deterred or coerced into silence by threats. “We must insist on our constitutional right and duty to exercise our religion, to vote our consciences on public issues, and to participate in elections and debates in the public square and the halls of justice.” 

Elder Oaks also said religious freedom is being jeopardized by claims of newly alleged human rights. As an example, he referred to a set of principles published by an international human rights group which calls for governments to assure that all persons have the right to practice their religious beliefs regardless of sexual orientation or identity. Elder Oaks said, “This apparently proposes that governments require church practices to ignore gender differences. Any such effort to have governments invade religion to override religious doctrines should be resisted by all believers.”

Noting that the students he was addressing were among the generation that would face continuing challenges to religious freedom, Elder Oaks offered five points of counsel:

  • Speak with love and show patience, understanding and compassion to those with differing viewpoints.
  • Do not be deterred or coerced into silence by intimidation from opponents, insisting that churches and their members be able to speak out on issues without retaliation.
  • Insist on the freedom to preach the doctrines of their faith.
  • Be wise in political participation, remaining respectful of those who do not share their religious beliefs and contributing to reasonable discussion.
  • Be careful to never support or act on the idea that a person must subscribe to a specific set of religious beliefs in order to qualify for public office.

“Religious values and political realities are so interlinked in the origin and perpetuation of this nation that we cannot lose the influence of Christianity in the public square without seriously jeopardizing our freedoms,” Elder Oaks concluded. “I maintain that this is a political fact, well qualified for argument in the public square by religious people whose freedom to believe and act must always be protected by what is properly called our ‘First Freedom,’ the free exercise of religion.”

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B has had three main careers. Some of them have overlapped. After attending Stanford University (class of 1985), he worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. In 1995, he took up his favorite and third career as father. Soon thereafter, Heavenly Father hit him over the head with a two-by-four (wielded by the Holy Ghost) and he woke up from a long sleep. Since then, he's been learning a lot about the Gospel. He still has a lot to learn. Geoff's held several Church callings: young men's president, high priest group leader, member of the bishopric, stake director of public affairs, media specialist for church public affairs, high councilman. He tries his best in his callings but usually falls short. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

35 thoughts on “Major address by Elder Oaks on religious freedom

  1. Elder Oaks has expanded on his speech in the following interview put out by Church public affairs. One of his most notable statements is his comparison between civil rights era intimidation and the intimidation of the people who dared to contribute or vote for Prop. 8 in California. He is spot-on, and I’m glad this is being addressed.

    http://www.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/media/mediaplayer.swf?media=http://broadcast.lds.org/newsroom/video/flv/Elder_Oaks_BYUI_13Oct09.flv&type=FLV

  2. I read the address, and watched the interview, and I thought Elder Oaks did an excellent job of describing the real issues with regards to civil rights, religious freedom, Proposition 8, belief, faith, separation of church and state, etc. and what we as Church members need to be aware of going into the future.

  3. I find it interesting that both Elder Oaks and groups like Equality California cite to the civil rights era. It seems like supporters for every cause under the sign try to invoke Brown v. Board or other tokens of the Civil Rights movement as an inferential validation of their positions. Not that I think Oaks’ reference is inaccurate. It’s just a common rhetorical tactic in American politics.

  4. It sounds to me as though the “religious freedom” Oaks is talking about is that of being bigoted against gays. He also appears to think that people calling him out on his bigotry is comparable to segregation or Jim Crow laws.

    But the good news is that whether he’s in California or in Utah, he can find an excellent selection of cheeses to go with that whine.

  5. “Interestingly, this address comes at the same time that the highest profile elected Mormon in the United States has criticized the Church’s activity on Prop. 8.”

    I’m not sure I understand the juxtaposition of this statement within the overall post about Oaks. In terms of civil rights, Oaks doesn’t seem to be criticizing those in favor of Prop. 8 as much as criticizing those who are trying to silence anyone who has a different idea than those in favor of Prop. 8. Thus, while I’m not sure how I feel about Reid’s comments, it seems likely to me that his types of comments are not what Oaks was addressing.

  6. @Peter

    Is there perhaps a more relevant case that you would cite? I’m not an attorney, so I don’t have the background or knowledge of case law to present other relevant cases. I have seen a backlash on social networking sites to Oaks’ citing the civil rights movement. Just curious if there is another or even better way to present the argument Oaks was making.

  7. “But the good news is that whether he’s in California or in Utah, he can find an excellent selection of cheeses to go with that whine.”

    Thanks, arensb, for your cogent analysis. I hadn’t heard that cheese/whine line since, well, the late ’80s. I’d mistakenly believed it went out of style with “Gag me with a spoon,” and “Like, TO-tally, dude.” Thanks for bringing it back.

  8. Wow, doesn’t such concepts bring out the “intelligent crowd” around here? Given the attacks on members in California for their support of Prop 8, Elder Oaks was discussing the efforts of those who would use force to shut up those who disagree with them.

    Do we really want government or mobs to decide what we’ll believe? If so, then we should all just shut up and eat cheese.

  9. Jimbob, #5, I think you are correct that Reid’s comments are not what Oaks was addressing directly. I linked Reid’s comments mostly because they are timely, ie they just happened, and are part of the discussion.

    Now, having said that, I do think there is some relevance. Sen. Reid’s comments are heard all the time in the Bloggernacle and represent the “why are we wasting our time persecuting gays” wing of the Church. And I do think Elder Oaks is indirectly addressing these people by pointing out that the real threat to the Church comes when we don’t fight for things like Prop. 8 because the forces of secularism and intolerance to religion have gradually taken hold of many opinion centers and are even taking hold among some of the Saints. If you re-read Elder Oaks’ speech, he is saying that religious freedom is under attack by many forces. One of his key concerns is “intimidation.” What is intimidation? It is the force of political correctness that makes it difficult for traditional Christians and Mormons to speak out in favor of traditional values, including protecting marriage. If you think about what has happened in our society, we have gone from a situation where 13 years ago a Democratic president signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which was overwhelmingly approved by Democrats and Republicans in Congress, to a situation where defending the DOMA makes you a “homophobe.” Why is that? Because “tolerance” has gone from meaning “I am OK with you living to how you want but don’t ask me to accept it because I have my own values” to “If I don’t accept and embrace the way you live I am intolerant and wrong and must be vilified.”

    I believe Elder Oaks is simply pointing out that tolerance really means the former, not the latter. Mormons and everybody else have the right to stand up for what they believe without losing their jobs, being singled out and intimidated and being threatened with violence.

    To a certain extent, Sen. Reid and many others (including the person who made the comment #4 above) have bought into the second, false definition of tolerance.

  10. Warning to commenters: be nice, don’t insult other commenters and don’t insult the Church or the apostles. Future comments along those lines will be deleted. Thanks.

  11. Mr. Oaks referred to opponents of Prop 8 (by which he appears to have meant “gays and lesbians”) using “violence and intimidation” against LDS members after the passage of that initiative. “Violence and intimidation” are strong words. A peaceful protest, even involving hundreds of people, is not inherently “violent,” or “intimidation.” There were, of course, a few isolated claims of vandalism, and two as-yet-unsolved “white powder” incidents, none of which have actually been proven to be perpetrated by opponents of Prop 8. Even if Prop 8 opponents did commit these inexcuseable criminal acts, they were few enough that the criminals represent a tiny minority of Prop 8 opponents.

    The object of this “violence and intimidation,” according to Mr. Oaks, is to “silence” the “free speech” of religious believers. I personally find this argument perplexing. Expression of disagreement, even loud condemnation, is not “silencing,” let alone “violence and intimidation.” If such was the case, then we would be forced to conclude that Mr. Oaks, in expressing his viewpoint shortly after the publicized comments of Senator Reid, was using “violence and intimidation” in an effort to “silence” the senator. We would have to conclude that every time Geoff criticizes one of my statements, he is trying to “silence” me, and take away my “free speech” rights.

    I, for one, support and defend the “religious liberty” of believers to exercise “free speech” by publicly proclaiming their views. At the same time, however, I will maintain my own liberty, exercising my own “free speech” by publicly proclaiming my agreement, disagreement, approval, or disapproval of the words and actions of religious believers. Calling my expression of disagreement/disapproval “violence and intimidation” is, oddly enough, an attempt to intimidate me into “silence.”

  12. Nick, your refusal to call Elder Oaks by his correct title is noted.

    Fair-minded people may want to recall some of the behavior by Prop. 8 opponents, which included vandalism, physical intimidation, the forcing of people from their jobs who supported Prop. 8, violence toward an elderly woman daring to carry a cross, racist comments hurled at Prop. 8 supporters of color and on and on.

    Some of that behavior can be read about here:

    http://messengerandadvocate.wordpress.com/2008/11/14/tolerance-iv/#more-783

    Nick, I am OK with disagreement. I am not OK with the behavior mentioned above.

  13. Geoff, if I was a member of the LDS church, it would be entirely disrespectful for me to refer to “Mr. Oaks.” Since I am not a member of the LDS church, social convention doesn’t really require me to use his ecclesiastical title (nor does social convention prohibit me from doing so, of course). In a similar manner, you or I may not be comfortable addressing a Catholic priest as “Father,” in the sense that he certainly isn’t “our” father. On the other hand, I’ll grant that we’d not likely refer to Pope Benedict as “Mr. Ratzinger.” :-)

    I don’t deny that certain individuals opposed to Prop 8 committed criminal acts, nor do I condone such. I assume that you, likewise, would refrain from denying that certain proponents of Prop 8 committed criminal acts (such as a few LDS members, identified as large Samoan men, physically assaulting protesters outside the Los Angeles Temple), which you would not condone. On both sides, false accusations of criminal or antisocial activity have also likely been made. On both sides, criminal or antisocial actions in the name of political activism are wrong.

    My concern is that Mr. Oaks’ speech seems to characterize vocal disagreement, including peaceful public protests, as “violence and intimidation,” designed specifically to take away the “free speech” rights of religious believers.

  14. Nick, you have misunderstood Elder Oaks’ speech. Here are the key paragraphs:

    ” We have endured a wave of media-reported charges that the Mormons are trying to “deny” people or “strip” people of their “rights.” After a significant majority of California voters (seven million — over 52 percent) approved Proposition 8’s limiting marriage to a man and a woman, some opponents characterized the vote as denying people their civil rights. In fact, the Proposition 8 battle was not about civil rights, but about what equal rights demand and what religious rights protect. At no time did anyone question or jeopardize the civil right of Proposition 8 opponents to vote or speak their views.

    The real issue in the Proposition 8 debate — an issue that will not go away in years to come and for whose resolution it is critical that we protect everyone’s freedom of speech and the equally important freedom to stand for religious beliefs — is whether the opponents of Proposition 8 should be allowed to change the vital institution of marriage itself.

    The marriage union of a man and a woman has been the teaching of the Judeo-Christian scriptures and the core legal definition and practice of marriage in Western culture for thousands of years. Those who seek to change the foundation of marriage should not be allowed to pretend that those who defend the ancient order are trampling on civil rights. The supporters of Proposition 8 were exercising their constitutional right to defend the institution of marriage — an institution of transcendent importance that they, along with countless others of many persuasions, feel conscientiously obliged to protect.

    Religious freedom needs defending against the claims of newly asserted human rights. The so-called “Yogyakarta Principles,” published by an international human rights group, call for governments to assure that all persons have the right to practice their religious beliefs regardless of sexual orientation or identity.[xiv] This apparently proposes that governments require church practices and their doctrines to ignore gender differences. Any such effort to have governments invade religion to override religious doctrines or practices should be resisted by all believers. At the same time, all who conduct such resistance should frame their advocacy and their personal relations so that they are never seen as being doctrinaire opponents of the very real civil rights (such as free speech) of their adversaries or any other disadvantaged group. “

  15. The post’s premise and the one you, Geoff B., seem to advocate, along with Elder Oaks, is that the church, in its essential hierarchy and command, should be and is tolerant and in favor of free speech? Right?

    Was it then, when, for instant, I was called during the Prop 8 furor to a position needing a temple recommend — mine had lapsed shortly before the call — and, when discussing sustention of the leaders with the Bishop, after stating that I didn’t like the Church’s involvement in Prop 8and my opinion that SSM should be permitted in society, if not in the church, and was told that “maybe” it was okay for me to hold that opinion, but it didn’t seem to be sustaining the brethren, and I should not discuss it with other members or take it public in any way, all under the threat of censure, disfellowship, and/or excommunication?

    Explain how that is tolerance? To me, that is intimidation, and I’d like to understand why you or Elder Oaks thinks that it isn’t. I am all for tolerance — I deplore the violence and vandalism on all sides — and free speech. It doesn’t seem that within the Church, as a practicing member or, at least as one who would like to practice and yet retain the right to follow my conscience and the spirit’s whisperings to me, that tolerance is shown or free speech permitted. It seems — note I said “seems” not is; I’d enjoy reading other views on this —that it is hypocritical to advocate for tolerance and free speech “out there in public” yet to constrain and contract it within the institution and realm Oaks argues lies at its foundation.

    It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

  16. Wreddyornot, it is impossible to confirm your claim — made anonymously on the internet — with your Church leaders, because they are prohibited from discussing them. It seems the honorable thing for you to do would be to avoid discussing private conversations with your Church leaders as well. I would note that anti Prop 8 zealots are fond of making up such stories and then posting them anonymously on the internet.

    You are asked to sustain Church leaders. You can still do so without agreeing with them on Prop. 8. That might have been the wiser course if you really cared about your temple recommend. Any other concerns you may have should be discussed with your bishop, home teacher and perhaps even your stake president.

  17. The problem is that, although freedom of spech and freedom of religion are VERY important rights, they can sometimes infringe on the other. Freedom of religion should extend to human sacfrifice(to use an extreme example), and freedom of speech does not include the right to lie. Neither rights can be absolute. This requires us to use our own moral compasses to restrain ourselves to the point that we can live together in the public square. Hence the quote that this system of gov’t is wholly inadequate to govern people who are not moral. Somebody find the exact quote, please. Elder Oaks and I are both having trouble with it.

  18. Wreddy, did Elder Oaks threaten not to renew your temple recommend?

    I think you raise a good point, and I like your argument. But I think you need to acknowledge that there are and will always be differences in the ways issues like this are handled regionally and locally. I recall somebody in the bloggernacle mentioning a letter instructing priesthood leaders not to deny temple recommends on the basis you mention. I certainly voiced my opposition among friends and members of my ward to the extent I felt the venue and context were appropriate, and luckily I did not experience any kind of censure, nor even fear of censure. I am lucky to have some very good priesthood leaders.

    I was also not located in the hotbed of this issue, where I understand the involvement of the Church got fairly intense. You make a great point. How would members in opposition be treated for ratcheting up their opposition to match the intensity of the Church?

    I anticipate that to the extent the opposition would have been targeted against the principles at play in Prop 8, and not against the church leadership or doctrine itself, it would have flown. The fact that Harry Reid can get away with saying what he did recently, ostensibly with church membership in tact, is a manifestation of that.

  19. TOBJ=====

    “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

    John Adams, Address to the Military, October 11, 1798

  20. With regards to how Dallin Oaks should be named, I think Elder Oaks is probably most appropriate. Catholic priests are usually referred to as “Father So-and-so” by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and pastors in other denominations are usually referred to by their title. Elder Oaks is certainly easier to say than “former Utah Supreme Court Justice Oaks.”

    Nick, I think there are enough documented cases of “violence and intimidation” in the wake of Prop 8 to support Elder Oak’s statements. I also think you are conflating his remarks when you explain what he meant by opponents of Prop. 8. I highly doubt that his criticisms extended just to gays and lesbians, but rather to anyone improperly attempting to restrict the free speech interests of religious individuals and organizations.

    I don’t think Elder Oaks or anyone else here is arguing that all criticism of the Mormon Church or its adherents should be impermissible. Vocal disagreement is fine, and is healthy for a free democratic discourse. Intimidation, vandalism, and criminal acts committed in retaliation for First Amendment-protected religious and/or political views are another story entirely.

    As to Elder Oaks’ remarks about anti-religious sentiment, I think they are generally well-founded. It is surprising how often I see otherwise egalitarian thinkers dismiss out of hand any religious sentiment. Within the legal profession I see a fair degree of open hostility towards religious thought, as if only an unthinking fool could harbor religious beliefs. I imagine it is similar in other environments. It is definitely true online — your average social networking site (Digg, reddit, etc.) is fairly hostile to religious sentiment.

  21. Nick Literski :
    On both sides, false accusations of criminal or antisocial activity have also likely been made. On both sides, criminal or antisocial actions in the name of political activism are wrong.

    Well said, Nick. I am in complete agreement with you on this issue.

  22. Geoff B. There’s a link to my post. You or anybody else could follow it to know quite who I am and quite a bit about me. But that’s beside the point. I’m not some “zealot,” as you term it, (Is that a characterization that is tolerant?) one way or another. I’m not interested in dragging my bishop’s name into the fray, although if I did mention his name and what he’s done, you’d possibly recognize him. He’s a great man. Nonetheless, my basic concern remains.

    mpb No, he did not. And I recognize the differences. I emailed my bishop sometime thereafter, saying:

    “Since you have told me not to mention or discuss my position that differs from the Church’s at church, I’m wondering why that is since it appears others are able to do so without serious repercussion. Furthermore, you have suggested that holding a position contrary to the Church’s on the issue means I do not sustain the leaders and that it, therefore, disqualifies me from holding a temple recommend, etc.

    “Could you offer me some explanation or clarification for disparity in treatment?”

    I provided him the following link:
    http://media.kued.org/mediaPlayer.php?filePath=../../media/utahnow/videos/UN_2009-07-17.m4v&title=Utah+NOW+Show%3A+%22The+Fallout+of+Prop+8%22+%2807%2F17%2F2009%29&vWidth=640&vHeight=376&mk=video&showEmbedCode=yes

    He replied, said he’d watched the program, and invited me to come and talk about it. I haven’t taken him up on the opportunity, yet, although I remain “active” and have received another calling that doesn’t require a recommend.

  23. Wreddy, thanks for the link. That looks like an excellent piece.

    Sorry you have felt the way you have. I’m hazarding a guess that I’m much younger than you, but I’ve learned that variances in priesthood leadership styles run the spectrum. Sometimes they can be very real and very painful–something I don’t say lightly, either. Perhaps a little more hierarchy would actually help the Church in this regard. But as I struggle to keep the faith, I try to put aside those variances. I know it’s harder when their effects are very real. Sometimes I feel lucky to be located outside of Utah where this isn’t such a hot-button issue.

  24. wreddyornot, it appears to me that you care a lot more about this dispute and publicizing this dispute than you do about your temple recommend. That is between you and the Lord, but I would like to point out that I personally would not let any such issue come between me and my temple recommend. I consider it the most sacred document I have, and I also recognize that I need to “follow the prophet” if I want to keep it. You may also remember there are covenants of consecration that you take when you go to the temple.

    Again, I am not making judgments on your personal decision — that is between you and the Lord.

    But I would like to point out that further attempts to publicize your differences with the Church will not be published on this blog and will be promptly deleted.

  25. Oh, the irony.

    Thanks. I bow out from commenting. I’ll just read, although I suspect that a real dialogue can’t exist here with such an attitude. You will have better results communicating with someone outside the fold who differs with you than with someone trying to be in the fold with questions and concerns. My best to you and everyone else.

    You are possibly right about the recommend, although agency, and the liberties implicit in it, seem quite important to me.

  26. wreddyornot, I would remind you of M*’s comment policy:

    http://www.millennialstar.org/comments-policy/

    There are many other blogs that would probably be happy to publicize your dispute with your bishop on this issue. This blog takes the default position that the Brethren’s position is correct and is inspired by the Lord. That does not necessarily mean that your bishop is always right — he is human and is capable of making mistakes. But we are not interested in being a forum for publicizing and discussing such disputes. Based on my experiences, I would strongly advise you to work this out privately with your bishop rather than continue to air it publicly. Your bishop has made a sacred covenant not to discuss personal issues with anybody else except the appropriate people inside the Church. My advice to you would be to do the same thing — keep it private. There is a process inside the Church for you to take disputes to your stake president if necessary.

    In my experience, it is the people who make these kinds of disputes public who usually suffer the most.

    Good luck to you.

  27. Just another comment on a different tack:
    I think it is likely that same-sex-marriage will eventually become legal. Although not because I want it that way. I think one of the major points through the Prop8 and other similar campaigns in the church is that it is a test.

    We may not eventually win this war, but the Lord wants to see how we react, how we follow the Lord’s counsel through his prophet, how much we are willing to sacrifice, how individuals conduct themselves in the face of various levels of opposition, etc.

  28. TOBJ, excellent point! This is exactly what I have been saying since the beginning of the SSM debate. The important point is not whether we win because in the end society is on a downward slide and we can’t win all of the battles. Instead, the issue is “do we follow the prophet?” even though it seems difficult to understand sometimes why we should do that. Personally, I could care less what two gay people want to do, and it is certainly true that heterosexuals have done more to ruin the institution of marriage than gays and lesbians. But at the end of the day, the direction from the Church has been clear, and as Elder Oaks points out there are important issues of religious freedom involved.

  29. Pingback: Politics and Religion « Course Correction

  30. As someone who participated in the “Yes on 8″ coalition, I have to completely disagree with Nick Literski on his assertion that a small minority of the prop 8 opponents were “violent” or “intimidating” or that there were only “isolated instances of vandalism.”
    Dallin Oaks was absolutely correct in calling on church members to “not be deterred or coerced into silence by threats” after what was witnessed a year ago.
    During the Prop 8 debate and the ultimate post-vote protests, I was a regular witness to violent and intimidating behavior against those who voiced their support of Prop 8, and I even witnessed theft and vandalism of personal property on a regular basis by Prop 8 opponents (including slurs against church members painted on walls).
    On numerous occassions I witnessed verball and, yes, physical abuse by Prop 8 opponents; I never once saw any retaliation or rudeness from the Prop 8 supporters:
    Regularly, I (and others) were screamed at, sworn at, told we were ignorant or hateful, had trash thrown at us and, yes, were even pushed and punched.
    Unless Nick personally participated in some manner in the Prop 8 debate process it would be disnigenuous of him to assume he knows what went on during the lead-up to (and the aftermath of) the vote.
    Though I’m sure Nick will assume my view is biased, the only hatred I ever witnessed came from people who claimed to be “tolerant” protectors of human rights while raising a middle-finger to those of us with views that somehow differed from their own; this was the worst from of intolerance and hypocricy I have ever withnessed.
    I want to make it clear to Nick that I was personally intimidated on more than one occassion and violence was part of the tact used to intimidate me.

    @Nick Literski

  31. I wonder how many more times I will be told that I was intimidated by “the church” rather than the downright thuggery that occurred during and after this election.

  32. Nathan, I know literally dozens of people in California who had experiences similar to yours. Your point is well taken.

    I would like to see proof that Prop. 8 supporters displayed anything like the hoodlum-like behavior of Prop. 8 opponents. I have not yet seen that proof.

  33. I thought this may be of use to some – a transcript of Elder Dallin H. Oaks’ talk about Religious Freedom – along with links to many of his source citations – can be found on Believe All Things.

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