Latter-day Saints have been long-time defenders of religious liberty, and have faced the brunt of some of the most egregious religious liberty violations in U.S. history (the Missouri extermination order, the imprisoning of Church leaders over polygamy, etc.). Our scripture and our rich history of sermons and teachings supply us with ample reason to support a strong tradition of property rights, religious liberty, and constitutional restraint.
It is no wonder, I think, that some members of the Church, particularly those with libertarian leanings, have reacted incredulously to the Church’s “Fairness for All” campaign, which they interpret to be a capitulation on some of these core principles. After all, non-discrimination laws — of any variety — are argued to be a fundamental violation of basic property rights. Preventing large housing units from making conscience-based decisions, while allowing small landlords the same rights, seems like more than a compromise; it feels like giving up something important.
As a libertarian myself, I would also resist to the bitter end all of these compromises, were it not for an important fact: prophets and apostles seem to be telling me not to. While also unambiguously telling me to zealously defend religious freedom, they seem to also be saying to do so without taking an inflexible, “winner-take-all” approach. From a libertarian purist’s point of view, this seems like a deep contradiction; but prophets are known for contradictions.
A God of Contradictions
Moses, for example, commanded the Israelites to make no idols, no graven images, etc. This was engrained into the Israelite psyche when a number of them were slain for committing this very sin.
Imagine the choice they faced, then, years later when Moses erected a bronze serpent on a pole, and told the Israelites to look to it, or they would succumb to the bites of the fiery serpents. Honestly? If I were an Israelite at the time, I would wonder if I was being tested. Moses, surely, is playing a trick on us, to see if we would violate the commandments of God in a moment of expediency. Salvation, surely, rests in following the written word and refusing to look to an idol lifted to test and try our commitment.
In reality, though, the opposite was true: Yes, it was a test. But the test was to see if the Israelites would follow the dynamic word of God through His current spokesmen; God wanted to see if the Israelies would elevate an idea, an abstract ideology, over the in-the-moment instructions of God’s authorized servants. Yes, scripture is the word of God; but when we elevate our interpretations of scripture to the level of an absolute, inflexible ideology that God Himself cannot contradict through His own servants, we end up supplanting the living God with dead words. We end up making an idol of what prophets have said in the past.
The truth is, I think that God values political liberty. I think that God prefers absolute, unmitigated freedom of conscience (with whatever reasonable restrictions are necessary to protect from violent extremism and to allow peaceful coexistence, etc.). But I also believe that God has at times asked His people to acquiesce to mortal governments from time to time. In our own history, this is what He instructed President Wilford Woodruff to do — he was prepared to fight the Federal government prohibition of polygamy to the bitter end, until he was instructed to acquiesce by God Himself in revelation. We also have have God’s instructions to Jeremiah (the is the NIV version):
Early in the reign of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: This is what the Lord said to me: “Make a yoke out of straps and crossbars and put it on your neck. Then send word to the kings of Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre and Sidon through the envoys who have come to Jerusalem to Zedekiah king of Judah. Give them a message for their masters and say, ‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Tell this to your masters: With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please. Now I will give all your countries into the hands of my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; I will make even the wild animals subject to him. All nations will serve him and his son and his grandson until the time for his land comes; then many nations and great kings will subjugate him.
“‘“If, however, any nation or kingdom will not serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon or bow its neck under his yoke, I will punish that nation with the sword,famine and plague, declares the Lord, until I destroy it by his hand. So do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your interpreters of dreams, your mediums or your sorcerers who tell you, ‘You will not serve the king of Babylon.’ They prophesy lies to you that will only serve to remove you far from your lands; I will banish you and you will perish. But if any nation will bow its neck under the yokeof the king of Babylon and serve him, I will let that nation remain in its own land to till it and to live there, declares the Lord.”’”
I gave the same message to Zedekiah king of Judah. I said, “Bow your neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon; serve him and his people, and you will live. Why will you and your people die by the sword, famine and plague with which the Lord has threatened any nation that will not serve the king of Babylon? Do not listen to the words of the prophets who say to you, ‘You will not serve the king of Babylon,’ for they are prophesying lies to you. ‘I have not sent them,’ declares the Lord. ‘They are prophesying lies in my name. Therefore, I will banish you and you will perish, both you and the prophets who prophesy to you.’”
This is a lengthy quote, but I urge you to read it. In it, the Lord tells the Israelites to subject themselves to the king of Babylon, and to disregard those who elevate national independence over those instructions. He tells them to disregard those who would encourage rebellion, and tells them that if they subject themselves to the king, they will live, but if they do not, they will be destroyed. God — the same God who inspired the Constitution, tutored prophets like David O. McKay and Ezra Taft Benson, and liberated the Israelites from the Egyptians — is telling the Israelites to subject themselves, to not rebel, to comply with the laws and edicts of the king, and to wholly disregard those who tell them otherwise.
My point here is simply that God is a God of contradictions. He can give different instructions at different times. And while some may protest that we are not facing an existential threat, as Wilford Woodruff was, or the Israelites were under Babylon, so it strains credibility that God would today ask us to compromise on anything. But prophets are not speaking only in response to the here and now, but also in response to future threats. They are prophets after all. And so we cannot evaluate their teachings solely by what we see in the current political landscape.
Religious Liberty Today
In short, I cannot in good conscience be a libertarian purist today, if prophets and apostles are asking me not to be. To be clear, this is not to say that prophets are asking us to give up the fight on religious liberty; quite the contrary, they are adamantly and emphatically insisting that we engage in this fight. Again and again, the Church has expressed deep reservations about the state of religious liberty in the world, and have asked us to carry the torch in defending that liberty.
So let me repeat: Prophets are not asking us to give up religious freedom generally. Rather, they are asking us to defend religious liberty passionately and articulately. The main thrust of their instructions today is that religious freedom is imperiled, and that we need to be involved in defending it. However, I do believe that apostles and prophets have instructed us to not be libertarian purists as we do so. We are being asked to defend religious liberty in a particular way.
I’m not basing this solely on Elder Wickman’s remarks this week at BYU’s religious freedom conference, but also on Elder Oak’s repeated comments over the past year, as well as Elder Holland and Elder Christofferson’s remarks last year in relation to the Utah Compromise. And on Elder Rasband’s remarks at BYU. And on a video released by the Church. Among other things.
The message is consistent: Defend religious freedom — but if we take a winner-take-all approach, where we inflexibly and reflexively refuse to budge on anything, we may lose everything. Not just legally, but culturally. In short, the message seems to be that the cultural conflicts we are facing today are only going to get worse, and unless we are able to preemptively disarm our opponents with reasonable compromises, we risk losing those freedoms that are most important to us.
I think they see something — like Jeremiah did in ancient times, and Wilford Woodruff in modern times. No, they haven’t come out and said, “Thus saith the Lord.” No, they haven’t detailed any visions of the future. But I think they see something regardless, and are issuing a warning: Religious liberty is imperiled, and in coming decades, all of our most treasured freedoms will come under attack. And that we must fight now to preserve them. And that we will lose that future fight if we fight the wrong ways in the here and now.
And those “wrong ways” include being wholly unbending, ideological purists. Like the Israelites with the brazen serpent, we may be being asked to give up abstract ideology in the face of contemporary prophetic instructions.
Let’s use an example to demonstrate how this could look in practice. Let’s take the religious pharmacist as an example. Here’s how I think that the “Fairness for All” approach would be applied to the situation. Imagine that I’m talking to someone on the other side of the debate.
Let’s lay out the facts.
Most people have no moral qualms with using a particular drug (the day-after pill), and believe that it has some really important uses. Those uses, however, depend on timely access — taking it a few days later doesn’t really cut it. And so convenient access may be pretty important. And there are communities where there are only a couple, or only one pharmacy. [There are plenty of communities like this, so while most of us would dismiss this as a fictional scenario, the other side does not.] if that pharmacy doesn’t stock and dispense the drug, access becomes really inconvenient. For groups that value timely, public access to these drugs, this is a problem.
A small (and shrinking) percentage of the population opposes the use of a particular drug on moral grounds, and very, very small percentage of those people are pharmacists. Not all of them care enough to want to decline to participate at all, but a small number of them do. We strongly value the exercise of religious conscience, and we really want to be able to accommodate that small group, and allow them to both be pharmacists and live their faith — if that’s at all possible. If we value religious freedom, then it might be important to address how we might accommodate this group.
So we have a conflict. If religious pharmacists can get exemptions any time they want to, we potentially jeopardize timely public access (a value important to one side). And if religious pharmacists can’t ever get an exemption, we jeopardize the ability of this small group from being pharmacists (a value important to the other side). Sadly, we can’t have it both ways. And right now, both sides of the debate are retrenching and neither is willing to bend. So the truth is, neither side is going to get everything they want.
But we do believe that it’s possible for both sides to get most of what they want. But it takes both sides to be willing to bend a little bit.
So here’s our proposal.
We’re willing to say that faith-based exemptions shouldn’t happen in cases where it would jeopardize timely access to the drug in question. So for small towns in the midwest, where the pharmacist is the only pharmacist in town, accommodations wouldn’t be granted. So if religious pharmacist wants to open shop, he would have to avoid those communities (unless more pharmacies also open shop there). Inconvenient for the pharmacist, sure, but in the interests of public access, that’s the way it has to be. We can debate the details about where the “line” is (10 miles? 50 miles?) later on; that’s an issue to be decided case-by-case.
I’m a libertarian at heart, and I hate the idea of forcing anyone to do anything, so this is bending a lot for me. But I value mutual accommodation and peaceful coexistence more than ideological belligerence, so I’m willing to relinquish my libertarian puritanism if it will advance those goals and keep this ugly social conflict from escalating further.
Under those conditions, would you be willing also bend a little, and accept the idea that religious pharmacists can be granted exemptions as long as it doesn’t jeopardize timely access? Can you admit that it may be possible to accommodate their religious beliefs without jeopardizing public access, in some circumstances?
In this scenario, neither side gets everything they want. But both sides are able to get what they value most. First of all, we get to protect public access to the drug in question. There may be rare occasions where a pharmacy doesn’t have the drug stocked, but only where there’s lots of other pharmacies around. Second of all, we get to protect religious conscience for religious pharmacists. They may have to restrict their business to cities where there’s lots of pharmacies already, but under those conditions, they are able to get a narrow exemption to live their faith.
We believe it’s possible to craft carefully-worded regulations and laws that make this a reality. If that’s possible, would you be willing to join me in supporting this? It takes both of us to be willing to bend a little bit. But the end result is a society where people of differing views can both be accommodated. Can we make that our goal?
Now, back to our point: what this approach does is say, “It’s important for Christians to be able to be pharmacists; it’s slightly less important that they be able to be pharmacists in any and all locations of their choosing.” It places a moderate burden of people of faith, yes, but a surmountable burden (Christian pharmacists must simply strategically locate their practices). It places a slight burden on public access, but also a surmountable burden (they might have to drive to another part town sometimes). But neither group is wholly locked out of what they value most in this conflict.
It’s “giving up” some things — we’re giving up the absolute right to conscience in all contexts, but simultaneously reinforcing the right to it in some contexts. And the libertarian in me would reply with a resounding NO, if prophets weren’t telling us to prioritize and regroup, and to seek out compromises like this that preserve space for people of faith, while also granting detractors some of their less odious demands. And the benefit, hopefully, is that legislation similar to the Utah Compromise will far, far outlast protections that are more forcefully rejected by the opposing side, and end up protecting religious freedom more longer and against more opposition than an “all or nothing” approach would.
I think some reject this approach because they don’t really believe that the opposing side will leave these compromises intact; “nose-in-camel’s-tent”-style, they’ll eventually come for the rest. And that may be true. But we don’t know what the playing field will look like then. And prophets have the most reliable track record on that regards. Like the Israelites and Moses, I think that we should heed them, as they are servants of the Lord. And I think we should disregard those who tell us that this approach is a capitulation — the Lord has not sent them. In my mind, they are as Israelites telling their compatriots, “Do not look at the brazen serpent; this is test. Let’s stick to the words of prophets past instead.” This is a dangerous route.
Let’s take the teachings of the Church seriously on this regards, and defend religious liberty, and to adjust our tone as we do so — let’s seek to put this culture war to rest, by defending what matters while being flexible where it matters least. Let’s disarm our political opponents by being willing to listen to them. Let’s not budge on the most important things, but let’s find a way for both sides to get what matters most to them. I think it can be done in most instances. And where it cannot be done, we’ll gain God’s favor for trying.