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.


25 thoughts on “Mormons have peculiar views on religious freedom

  1. Great post, thank you. This expresses a crucial difference between what Christ would have us do and the “religious freedom” that sometimes is simply a desire to discriminate based on bigotry. I think the church has tried to convey this idea with its slogan “fairness for all” but sometimes we don’t get it.

  2. Alma 30: 6-7 from the Book of Mormon are scriptures fundamental to our belief in right of conscience. W e will encounter those who do not share the idea that people are allowed to have their own beliefs. There are both secular and religious groups and individuals who believe that government should dictate who and what will and won’t be worshipped. This is the boundary that must be defended.

  3. To borrow a term from Scott Adams, the Brethren are playing 3D chess.

    I heartily endorse this. The Brethren are laying the groundwork for something much bigger yet to come, concerning how the church and members relate to society as a whole.

    If I may make a suggestion: a More/Continue break right after the 5th paragraph would be good, to make the main page load quicker. The embedded Youtube videos slow things down, and they won’t compete for bandwidth with other graphics on other posts (on the main page) if they come after the break. (Yes, merely invoking/including the embed draws bandwidth even before the video is played.)

    The 5th graph has your thesis, so putting the break between 5th/6th still leaves your thesis on the main page.

  4. This is spot on. My pops wrote a book about 20 years ago called the “Angel and Beehive,” in which he shows how the church tends to swing back and forth between aligning with evangelicals and other right-wing religious folks, and taking our own positions on social issues. In the case of religious freedom, I am pleased that we’re charting our own course based on the premise that there are reasonable people on both sides.

  5. Great article! I appreciate the perspective. Let’s hope that it’s your friend’s and the blogger Erick Erickson with the ‘peculiar’ views on religious freedom and not Mormons.

  6. Mormons differ from others in our fundamental belief that all are children of God who we have loved for an eternity. No one else brings that perspective to the table.

    With this perspective of an eternity of love, we are not as free to slash and burn (if we are living the gospel as preached in the Book of Mormon).

    Sometimes we are individually prone to “slash and burn” when we’re being lazy,, in pursuit of protecting ours from being tarred by what might be called “a fallen world.” But the world is populated by our dearly beloved, so even if it is fallen, we can’t just cut and run.

  7. The challenge is when offering someone else rights they deem important and deserved will end up taking from us rights we deem important and deserved. As Elder Oaks said at Claremont (reference above), [we] “can resolve our differences through mutual respect, mutual understanding, and, where necessary, by compromise or by the rule of law.” So, there will be times when both sides will need to compromise. If we desire real consideration during those times, we should not burn bridges now through disrespect or being unwilling to compromise ourselves. Of course, these reasons are somewhat self-serving and the principle of doing things purely out of love as Meg stated should weigh equally if not more.

  8. When Samantha says she needs to stand up for the others rights while respecting their differences, the rubber hits the road. Because we oppose ssm, we’ve lost credibility to speak of rights; according to the ssm proponents.

    I think the church is now trying to carve out a space where we can plead for others to protect our rights. But the problem, as shown in the video is that many people aren’t able or willing to give an answer for their positions.

    The answer of God commanded it is not sufficient for public policy. That’s not why we disallow murder. Because we’ve abandoned social defense of religious principles out of kindness for those who sin, adultery was tolerated and now praised and homosexuality followed that same path, and is indeed far more praiseworthy than the former.

    If the church is unable to advance arguments for it’s positions in the public sphere, we will have the same freedom and success as the Hasidics. Influential in terms of resources and accomdations. But seen as weird extremists who dwindle in number.

    I’m ok with being peculiar. But I expect, and indeed my experience is, the spirit of the Lord will provide clear rationale for our social positions.

    We need only have the courage to open our mouths for them to be filled with words.

  9. Geoff_Aus, you make a lot of claims and assumptions that beg clarification.

    -Please define “extreme right.”
    -How is the way they’re described (by whom, btw?) relevant to the conversation?
    -How has the church “overstepped the mark” in regards to “gays”?

    And last, but definitely not least, what constitutes a “reasonable position”?

  10. “In the case of religious freedom, I am pleased that we’re charting our own course based on the premise that there are reasonable people on both sides.”

    In this case it might be that giving the other side the benefit of the doubt as to being reasonable or sincere is a diplomatic tactic in order to obtain like treatment. I highly doubt progressives think of traditional Christians as reasonable.

    It’s almost as if the Brethren think some kind of social battle for the hearts and minds of progressives has been lost, and this campaign is a kind of cease-fire in the overall culture war.

    The “Fairness for all” slogan, coming from the church, is a great 3D persuasion play. It uses the powerful word “fairness”, taken right from the progressive playbook. And the “for all” part strongly includes within it “and us too” without sounding whiney, nor taking anything away from the progressives’ protected classes. It makes -everyone- a protected class. It’s brilliant.

  11. Tossman,

    “Extreme right” means “anybody I disagree with.”
    A “reasonable position” is “anything I agree with.”

    Go forth and be edified!!!

  12. And I almost forgot: “The church, and many members have overstepped the mark, particularly over treatment of gays, and so their right to do that is questioned” means “I don’t care what the Church teaches on this important cultural issue. I am following my own sense of what is right and wrong because I am obviously smarter and more with it than those geriatric prophets and apostles.”

  13. Unfortunately, “fairness for all” carries the same dangers as “all lives matter”. Remember that one? It got roundly denounced as a tool of continued oppression as people accused those who said it of invalidating the concerns of specific groups. That doesn’t make it wrong–I mention it solely to point out that there’s a ready rebuttal no matter what the brethren try and say.

    That said, I agree that the brethren are generally good at playing the long game on this sort of thing. Almost like they’ve got … guidance … or something. 🙂 In this case, much like the “all lives matter” proponents, staking out the position effectively forces those who oppose you to get ever more strident (and eventually ridiculous) in their denunciations. You might think it’s therefore a wrong move, but not if you’ve got a long view.

    You’re never going to convince the denouncers that they’re wrong. What staking out the “let’s talk and understand and respect each other” ground accomplishes is attracting the great middle. The more strident one side gets, the more they alienate the people who genuinely want peaceful cooperation. Staying calm even when you’re being shrieked at eventually earns you a reputation for staying calm and being reasonable, and that in turn brings people to your side.

    As in everything else, we can look to Christ as the master teacher here. The New Testament describes throngs of people following Christ around and wanting a part of what he was dishing up. This in spite of the near-universal distaste for Him among the elites and the thought-leaders and tastemakers of the day. The increasing silliness of Pharisaic objection only grew Jesus’ (the uncompromising but calm and measured Jesus) following.

  14. Mormontarian,
    “All Lives Matter” was a direct counter-poise/rebuttal to “Black Lives Matter.” As far as I know, no group has put ownership dibbs on “Fairness for” as a slogan, like BLM did for “Lives Matter.” So, I don’t think “Fairness for all” counters, or diminishes anything.

    I agree with what you wrote about the extreme and the middle. “Fairness for all” is aimed at the middle. The idealogues of the far left have never been interested in fairness. “Fairness” has always been a stalking horse for them.

  15. Bookslinger, at 10pm, good insights until the last. Saying that the far left ‘have never been interested in fairness’ is a little extreme– ‘never’ been interested? Maybe they could be judged of acting unfairly or seeking an unfair position, but to state they have never been interested is judging their motives, which I don’t think is confidently possible or appropriate. It’s that type of rhetoric that is inflammatory and polarizes opposing sides and is the opposite of what the brethren are trying to model for us. And if the far left is being castigated how was it that the far right was left out?

  16. This has been a great discussion daily far. I agree with KarlS that it’s not accurate to say the left has never cared about fairness. I was extremely liberal in college and I can say that my motives then were very sincere. I simply didn’t see a problem with, for instance, preventing what I saw as discriminatory conduct. I didn’t understand the full importance of religious freedom, so I didn’t value it as I do now. It wasn’t a matter of being disingenuous, but simply that I saw through a glass darkly

  17. Karl, I should have said the _leaders_ of the extreme left. Marx, Lenin, through Alinsky and his livng acolytes (Ayers, Dorn) et al. They knew what they were doing. They knew all along where leftism/progressivism was always headed and intended to go all along: inversion of the good, and nihilism.

    Have you read Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals”? Many major figures in the Dem party (eg. HRC, Obama, Jarret) have direct ties to Alinsky (and Ayers), so it behooves us to know who and what he was.

    Also see “Thought Prison” by Bruce Charlton. (In print and Kindle at Amazon, and free pdf at BC’s websites.) And
    for good connect-the-dots analysis of what leftism really is: *masses* of well-intentioned, honest, sincere people duped by a few really evil, and knowingly purposely evil, people. And by having such obviously good intentions, it replicates easily (not requiring many “insiders” who know the full story) , … as long as you don’t look at the results too closely and keep focused on _intentions_. And if you control the media and academia, you can control what people look at and focus on.

    I think you are well-intentioned, honest and sincere.

    “The Secret Knowledge” by David Mamet (a former hard leftist, who has likely always been well-intentioned and sincere) also goes into what I’m trying to get across. It takes a hard look at actual _results_ of the professed motive of “fairness”.

    “Fairness” is the horse. It’s a good thing. It really is. Leftism/progressivism is the hunter hiding behind it who wants to kill you as you approach saying “Nice horsie.”

    Leftism is not just about economic or social or judicial fairness. Leftism brought us the sexual revolution. How has that worked out over the past 50 years? (see my “Summer of Love, 50th Anniversary” post at JrGanymede. You can easily search for it. a third link in a comment would cause this to be filtered.)

    And how did the so-called compassion and fairness of the 1960’s “Great Society” turn into generations of welfare-dependency ? (Happened in Britain too.) Did church leaders predict that? You betcha they did.

    Leftism brought us a 20 trillion dollar debt, and “entitlement spending” (ie, written into law, granted as a so-called “right”) that cannot be curtailed without a revolution.

    Yeah “FAIRNESS” is great, it’s godly, even! Justice and Judgement are hallmarks of our God. But beware those who promise you fairness without God. They, or their bosses, are hunters who want to kill your soul.

    (Reminds me of someone who promised something godly, salvation, by not using God’s plan. That didn’t work out well for him, nor for those who bought the false promises.)

  18. Daniel O:
    “It wasn’t a matter of being disingenuous, but simply that I saw through a glass darkly.”

    Would you go so far as to say you were “duped”?

  19. Bookslinger,
    Your thorough response is appreciated! I respect your wealth of information, but don’t agree with some of your interpretations of its implications. To be honest, the post sounds too conspiracy theoristic (sic) for me. But, to do due diligence I read the sources you provided (Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” and “Thought Prison” by Bruce Charlton). I agree that there are leftists (and rightists) out there who appear to have a motives that would ultimately ruin God’s plan. But, your post seems too black and white, like if one has an alternative thought about what might improve current fairness, for instance—even a little bit—then they must be following, albeit sincerely, an unbeknownst evil leftist person or ideal. It sounds Mosaic or like using their version of the iron rod as a bludgeon to keep everyone in fear and lemming-like. It doesn’t allow for any thinking, just obey, “my” way.

    btw, Charlton’s “Thought Prison” you suggested was disturbing to me. It consisted of his ideas of what characterizes and motivates the politically correct (PC) with “no specific examples” by his own admission. (political correctness was his term for liberalism or leftist thought) Not having to give examples allowed him to give his opinion on a wide array of descriptions of the PC without demonstrable backup or proof resulting in a lot of hearsay in which I can’t put credence. His ideas are extreme, unqualified and bizarre at best. Though I recognize the accuracy in some of his statements, the vast majority, if there is truth in them, in my opinion only apply to a very small minority of extremists and lumping all PC people together as he does is irresponsible and ridiculous. For other readers, here’s some of Charlton’s statements:

    “But the most PC [liberals] really are nihilists in that they deny the reality of reality. For political correctness there is no objective underlying reality. For PC truth is a social construct: subjective, malleable, evolving. So PC does not discover truth, it makes truth; does not fit itself to reality but creates reality via the shaping of discourse. Since nihilism is precisely the denial of truth and reality; the politically correct are certainly nihilists by a strict and accurate definition.)…”

    “The venom of the politically correct [liberalism] is the venom of a person faced by the extinction of those pleasurable distractions upon which they rely utterly to keep themselves going: the ever-expanding choice of favourite food; the anticipated holidays anywhere; the pleasures of seduction without restrictions; the unbounded potential novelties of sex, picking and mixing among an un-endingly growing, whirling and recombining of cultures and ideas; the experimentation with drinks and (maybe) drugs; fantastic hopes for these to be facilitated by world peace, harmony, abolition of poverty,….”

    “Leftism is based on utter absorption in the battle of overcoming resistance to itself, and avoidance of any consideration about where all this is going and why. The Left is all tactics and no strategy. The Left has no strategy because for the Left there is no reality, there is nothing that really matters outwith human communications, no goal that is actual and stable no thing actual to aim-for. “

  20. That second quote does feel like it wanders off the mark a little bit, as some of the things in that list are things the current PC left finds itself opposing. Picking and choosing cultural trappings to embrace is a current hot-button microaggression.

    But the first and third seem pretty solid. What’s your concern, Karl?

  21. Mormontarian, If you think the 2nd para is off the mark just “a little bit” then our dialogue may not be very fruitful because we are see such difference in perspective. The 2nd para is equating liberals and the PC with narcissistic hard-core hedonists. Such a generalization is laughable–thinking that characterizes half the people in the United States.
    1st para: What evidence does he have that liberals and the PC are nihilists? And, don’t the extremes of both sides try to “shape discourse”? But, I don’t see that in the mainstream of either group, so why does he generalize and demonize so much?
    3rd para: Saying the left or PC has no strategy is absurd. All their characteristics, techniques and objectives are strategies. And to state that all PC do not believe in a reality is nonsense. I get that many of the principles he talks about do characterize some people at some time and that some truth and valuable concepts can be gleaned from his writings, but his repeated theories, generalizations, conjecture and hyperbole make his opinion hollow to me and not worth considering further. His ramble on for a hundred pages on an indefensible rant reminds me of Rush Limbaugh.

  22. I’m not going to broadly defend Charlton. I don’t know the guy. He could be a creep. 🙂

    As to nihilism, though, and the hijacking of a community by an evil elite with no good strategy, one can find it illustrated plainly in the current state of the American Democrat party. That’s a vast pack of useful idiots being used mercilessly by an elite that cares nothing (literally nothing) for the people they purport to serve, or the problems they purport to be trying to solve. Nothing about the current leadership of the Dems involves any principle besides being in charge and excusing themselves from any rules or restrictions. Everything else is malleable. As in P1 above, these people aren’t seeking truth. They’re just making it up in service to their own appetites.

    Now, to be fair, some within the useful idiot rank-and-file of the Dem party *seem* to be getting wise to the scam their leaders have been running. It’s part of why Sanders got so much traction in the last election, and the way the Dem leaders dealt with it shocked a lot of the party faithful. We’ll see what comes of that, but the leaders are so deeply entrenched I’m not going to hold my breath.

    Is that a good enough example of the thesis?

  23. Mormontarian,
    Thanks for responding. But, I think I’ll sign off as it appears you are near as extreme as Charlton. Though I’m not a democrat, I know many people who are and they are not just “useful idiots” nor do I deem their leaders who have different perspectives and means and methods than I may have as “an evil elite.” I’m not so black and white. I don’t buy into conspiracy theories without reasonable evidence. I’ve never really appreciated the perspectives of extremists from either side. I guess I’m one of the duped ones. Sorry. I guess I could say “time will tell,” but I suspect we see things so differently that after a few decades we would disagree with what result of the two ideologies actual is.

  24. What kind of evidence is “reasonable”? Fusion GPS? Uranium-1? The 2016 Democrat Presidential Primary?

    I’m glad that you recognize that there are only two choices. I just wish you were identifying them correctly. 🙂

  25. “As to nihilism, though, and the hijacking of a community by an evil elite with no good strategy, one can find it illustrated plainly in the current state of the American Democrat party. That’s a vast pack of useful idiots being used mercilessly by an elite that cares nothing (literally nothing) for the people they purport to serve, or the problems they purport to be trying to solve. Nothing about the current leadership of the Dems involves any principle besides being in charge and excusing themselves from any rules or restrictions. Everything else is malleable. As in P1 above, these people aren’t seeking truth. They’re just making it up in service to their own appetites.” Mormontarian on November 15, 2017 at 5:58 am

    Substitute republican for democrat and think of the Koch Brothers, the former founder (now deceased) of Faux News, Bannon, and Trump as the evil elite and I think the paragraph describes the hard right even better than it describes the hard left. I do not believe one could find a better example of a “pack of useful idiots” being led by an evil man who has no regard for the people involved than the current situation.

    My above response is likely exactly the type of response we should not be engaging in; however, huge portions of the responses to the post and subsequent comments are in exactly this vein. As a friend once said when asked about his political beliefs: “Knee jerk lunatic fringe;” the response: “Well I guess it beats jogging.”

Comments are closed.