Difference and Dignity

Commentaries — October 24, 2014

Salt Lake City — Second in a five-part series on why faith matters to society

“People and communities need space in which to test differing modes of religious experience.” — Alan Meese and Nathan Oman[1]

Wouldn’t life be easier if everyone were the same? Think of the conflicts we could avoid if we all wanted the same things, voted the same way and went to the same church. The trouble is, however, that such a world doesn’t exist.

The temptation to form everyone “from a single mold,” said Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “would contradict the genius of God, who created every man different.”[2]

Societies are full of interest groups, political camps, cultural factions and religious organizations advancing their own vision of the good. And when we all have our own say, communities are better for it. As long as they harm or coerce no one, our differences can enrich our common existence.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks compared our social reality to the workings of nature: “Just as the natural environment depends on biodiversity, so the human environment depends on cultural diversity, because no one civilization encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind.”[3] Equilibrium among many, not dominance by one, offers a better chance for stability.

Since no particular group has a monopoly on all that is wise, beautiful and just, everyone can learn from everyone else. Our experiences have gaps that need to be bridged, and our perspectives have blind spots that need to be filled. We find meaning in human connection when we climb out of ourselves and discover the dignity of others, even if we disagree. And no one should have to give up their identities.

This engagement between differences is called pluralism, a society organized under common laws and civilization but with no single belief system that wields total influence. Not just one, or even two, but many perspectives and traditions can co-exist within a shared moral framework. Such an ideal works only when people develop the habits and manners of civility in understanding the unique worldviews of their neighbors. In an age teeming with philosophies, ideologies and truth claims, peace and order depend on it.

Plurality is a normal part of society, but the problem comes when the strongest demand conformity of everyone else. Pressures mount toward consensus. The drive to diminish differences builds. And in the name of unity, larger voices dominate the smaller ones. But this tendency usually backfires. Unity turns into repression, and a cycle of tension develops. The job of a pluralistic society, however, is to minimize this struggle.

Political scientist Samuel Huntington said that of all the elements that define civilizations, “the most important usually is religion.”[4] So it’s no surprise that religious difference lies at the root of many conflicts in the world. But the solution is to let differences flourish, not to stifle them. Studies show that protecting the varieties of religious experience correlates strongly with greater civil and political liberties, greater press and economic freedoms, fewer armed conflicts, better health outcomes, higher levels of income, better education for women and higher overall human development.[5] In short, religious pluralism frees up room to live life.

Our disagreements, one commentator wrote, should not have to be “pitted against each other in a battle to the death.”[6] Diversity makes life harder, for sure, but also more worth living. Fears of our differences often threaten us more than the actual differences.

Over and over the Bible points us to those who are different. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers,” it says, “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”[7] Likewise, our differences can be a blessing in disguise, because human dignity is not always as it first appears.


[1] Alan J. Meese, Nathan B. Oman, “Hobby Lobby, Corporate Law, and the Theory of the Firm,” Harvard Law Review Forum, May 20, 2014.

[2] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Four Titles,” Apr. 2013 General Conference.

[3] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (2005), 62.

[4] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), 42.

[5] See Brian J. Grim, Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied (2011), 206.

[6] Ross Douthat, “A Company Liberals Could Love,” New York Times, July 5, 2014.

[7] Hebrews 13:2.

Download Photos »
  • “From time to time, societies need to be challenged, corrected and improved. And it is often religious voices that awaken our better selves and act as the conscience of society.”

    Commentary, “The Voice of Religious Conscience”

  • Film & Video

    Feature Film ‘Meet the Mormons’ Makes National Debut

    Learn why for the first time, a documentary-style movie, “Meet the Mormons, was produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Discover another first for the Church and who turned out to the film’s Utah premiere.

  • Commentaries

    The Voice of Religious Conscience

    Learn how society is better served when we are allowed to pursue our religious conscience.

  • "Charity is more than aid."

    Sharon Eubank, director of Humanitarian Services and LDS Charities

  • Missionary

    Church Expands Use of Digital Devices for Missionary Work

    The Church announces in July that more of its missionaries would use digital devices as they preach the gospel. What missions will go digital and when the implementation will begin.

  • Beliefs & Practices

    Church Provides Context for Recent Media Coverage on Gospel Topics Pages

    See the full list of in-depth essays on points of Church history that gained public and media interest over the past year.

  • Global Church

    Mormonism Online: In Your Own Words (Blog Feature)

    Lindsey Stirling participates in #LDSFace2Face, a live Facebook event for youth around the world. Find out what the world-famous violinist had to say about life’s challenges, her dreams and her faith.

  • “[Recent] court decisions … will have no effect on the doctrinal position or practice of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is that only marriage between a man and a woman is acceptable to God.”

    Official Church Statement Summarized, October. 6, 2014

  • Global Church

    Church Making Strides Preserving African Family Histories

    Genealogy experts from Africa spoke at this year’s RootsTech, the largest genealogy conference of its kind in the world, on collecting oral histories as family historians grow old. Why they say it’s a race against time.

  • “231 of our volunteers worked a combined total of 645 hours painting, mulching, tree trimming, cleaning, organizing and more at Palmetto Elementary for #MakeaDifference day!”

    Posted on Instagram

  • Interfaith Outreach

    Church Leaders Participate in Historic Vatican Summit

    Religious leaders and scholars representing 14 faith traditions from 23 countries assembled at the Vatican November 17-19. A member of the Church’s First Presidency joined Pope Francis and other faith leaders at the summit. Learn what they said.

  • Beliefs & Practices

    Getting It Right (Blog Feature)

    How does the Mormon Tabernacle Choir do what it does with an all-volunteer ensemble? Rodger Dean Duncan of Forbes provides several reasons, one of which illustrates the ethos of commitment and volunteerism common in the lives of Mormons.

  • Church & Society

    Church Responds to Supreme Court Announcement

    See the response to an October U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage by the Church. Read what Church leaders encouraged members to do.

  • Beliefs & Practices

    Mormonism in Pictures: Temple Square Dressed for Christmas

    This photo essay shows millions of multicolored lights on display, crèches and a live Nativity that mark the Christmas season on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah. See the splendor captured by creative photographers.

  • Beliefs & Practices

    Exhibit Highlights Women in the Scriptures

    View artist Kathleen Peterson’s paintings illustrating significant roles of women in the Old and New Testaments such as Esther, Deborah and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Learn where the original paintings are on display.

  • Humanitarian

    Humanitarian Efforts at the UN

    The United Nations invites Church representatives to a first-of-its-kind meeting. What the director of Humanitarian Services and LDS Charities presented at the Focus on Faith event.

  • Beliefs & Practices

    Temple Garments

    People of faith throughout the centuries have used particular symbols or vestments to draw closer to God. Learn how the temple garment is a physical expression to Mormons of their devotion to God.

  • "We believe that the young people of this Church will continue to say yes to missionary service."

    Elder David F. Evans, First Quorum of the Seventy and executive director of the Church’s Missionary Department

  • Beliefs & Practices

    Mormonism in Pictures: Preparing for a Worldwide General Conference

    What does it take to prepare for more than 100,000 Mormons who attend general conference in Salt Lake City, Utah? This photo essay shows the tremendous planning effort for the worldwide two-day broadcast.

  • Temples

    The Process of Building a Mormon Temple

    View the video and infographic that follows the painstaking step-by-step process of building a Mormon temple, from the decision to build to finding the appropriate land to hiring the best craftsmen and tradesmen to completion.

  • Global Church

    Apostle Calls for Uplifting Social Media Messages to Sweep the Earth

    Find out more about a Mormon apostle’s call to “sweep the earth” with uplifting messages and the flood of people using the #sharegoodness hashtag on social media.

VIEW MORE