Additional Resource

Promoting Religious Freedom among Religions and Nations

By Elder Joseph W. Sitati of the Seventy

This address was given by Elder Joseph W. Sitati at the 3rd All Africa Congress on Religious Freedom in Kigali, Rwanda, September 14, 2018. Read a news release about the event.

The Human Dimension

Honorable Chair, dear brothers and sisters, I feel honored to address this gathering of distinguished religious leaders, government officials, academicians, ambassadors, human rights advocates, and legal experts.

Individually and collectively, you represent a powerful influence on Africa and on the world.

It is therefore a great privilege for me to speak to you today. As one who represents a global faith community — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — wherever I go, I see firsthand the extensive benefits of religion in the lives of individuals and societies. So, I thank you for dedicating the time to discuss a topic of such fundamental value to human society.

In my remarks today, I wish to focus on the human aspects of freedom, on the soft, vulnerable regions of the heart where each of us simply wants to listen and be listened to, to respect and to be respected. I want to address those sensitive parts of our souls that yearn to express our deepest beliefs.

At its root, religious freedom is about helping individuals and communities flourish; it is about allowing them to live out their highest ideals.

We human beings are complex spiritual creatures, with strong yearnings for self-expression and to be understood. All of us, in one way or another, strive for the freedom of the soul. This is our nature as children of God. We thrive when our aspirations have space to grow.

Although law is essential for providing order, setting boundaries, establishing norms, and incentivizing proper conduct, it is at its finest when it is accompanied by a culture of nurture, trust, and gentleness. If not, the enforcement of law by governments or the assertiveness of social majorities can stunt the vitality of the human spirit.

The Connection between Freedom and Religion

Religious freedom spiritually nourishes and inspires people to live life, to do good works, to explore and find meaning, to raise families in faith, and to freely serve and share with neighbors and communities.

Implanted in every human heart is the desire for respect, dignity, equity, and the ability to practice one’s beliefs, alone or in a community of believers. This is now acknowledged through the wider acceptance of the reality that the journey of faith for some may not include organized religion. They are free to explore their journey. Religious freedom has grown to have the force of a fundamental human right, grounded in the very nature of the human soul.

But religious freedom is not absolute. Limitations are appropriate where necessary to protect the life, property, health, and safety of people of different persuasions of faith and to prevent infringements upon the rights of others. Neither should religious freedom always prevail over the right of democratic institutions to establish the basic framework of society.

However, any limitations that are imposed should be only those that are essential to protect the rights of all and should not become a way of abridging religious freedom.

Moreover, whenever the law constrains religious freedom, religious communities should lead by example by obeying the law while seeking to protect their fundamental rights through available lawful means.[1]

The Golden Rule

Religious freedom is a two-way street, with a lot of traffic coming and going. People from all walks of life are searching for the spiritual destinations and identities that bring them peace. The journey is both personal and collective. Aligning the interests of the individual with the whole involves a careful dance of reciprocity. So, religious freedom is as much a duty as it is a right, as much an obligation to give as a privilege to receive. If it doesn’t work for everyone, it doesn’t really work for anyone.

The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is as old as civilization itself. It has been practiced in one form or another since human societies were formed. But how often do we honor it? Jesus gave powerful expression to this principle in His ministry, encapsulating it in the maxim “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

And who is our neighbor? Does it include those who look, think, act, or believe differently than we do?

Treating people outside our own group with respect is what makes society possible. The enduring reality is that when we do so, we find that the stranger we fear is actually a neighbor we can trust.

The parable of the good Samaritan is an illustration of reciprocity and how love can come from unexpected corners. In it a group of robbers strip a traveler of his clothes, beat him, and leave him half dead on the side of the road. While respectable members of the religious community pass by without helping one of their own, a Samaritan, an outsider, sees the traveler and rescues him. At that time the Samaritans and Jews treated each other like enemies. Yet the Samaritan still showed mercy to the injured Jew, and in so doing demonstrated both who a neighbor is and how a neighbor should act.

Dignity and Human Rights

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is brief but powerful: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”[2]

Human rights aim to secure our dignity, and dignity is what makes us human beings.

Engaging the Differences among Us

God created a world rich in human variety. The communal wisdom of Africa, the vibrant music and dance of Latin America, the ancient spiritual sages of Asia, the architectural wonders of Europe, and the seas that surround the islands shape the spiritual horizons of those who live there.

History shows that our differences give us our unique identities as much as they enrich us. But it is often the fear of differences that threaten us more than the actual differences. The solution is to let differences flourish, not to stifle them.

Studies show that protecting different religious practices 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.[3]

Countries with more religious freedom have more peace. And countries with less religious freedom have less peace.[4] But peace is more than the absence of conflict. Peace is the habit of engaging differences, the practice of negotiating disagreements between neighbors, a culture of fairmindedness. It’s simply how we treat each other. This is how we tame the enemies of peace—the fear and resentment that fester between people.

Peace happens when we see our common human interests. Consider this example from Cameroon. Under threat of terrorist attacks, Christian and Muslim congregations took turns protecting each other. On Fridays Christians guarded the mosques during community prayer, and on Sundays Muslims guarded the churches during worship services.[5]

Africa is a place of immense religious, cultural, and intellectual diversity. We thrive when we honor our legitimate differences, when our religious practices adhere to the law, and when we seek the common good.

Practicing Religious Diplomacy

A healthy society relies a lot on something as simple as the way we talk to one another. With so many religious conflicts fueling hatred and misunderstanding here and around the world, we need to learn the difficult art of agreeing to disagree. We need to solve disputes without the expectation that everyone will think and believe the same way.

In a world of competing ideas, persuasion works better than coercion. Coercion is about pressure, power, winning, even trickery and threat, and cares about only one side. But persuasion entails honesty, mutual concern, authenticity, equal standing, freedom of thought, and a willingness to accept the responses of the other. Persuasion requires patience and acknowledges the slow workings of the mind and heart. But coercion wants everything now and pays little heed to the human nuances that get in the way.

Religion Strengthens Community Life

Religious freedom is important because religion itself is important. Religious individuals and communities are uniquely situated to help solve problems in society. Churches are behind a lot of the homeless shelters, soup kitchens, hospitals, schools, youth programs, and countless other efforts that benefit society. Simply put, religion builds social capital. The rich resources, local generosity, and human connections that religion fosters can accomplish things that other organizations cannot.

Religion has a tendency to nudge people out of themselves to work for the common good. This is the key to happiness. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said it beautifully: “Many, perhaps all, of the world’s great religions teach their adherents the importance of making sacrifices for the sake of others, through charity, hospitality, visiting the sick, helping the needy, giving comfort to those in crisis, bringing moments of moral beauty into what might otherwise be harsh and lonely lives.”[6]

It has been shown that highly religious people are more likely to volunteer not only for religious causes but also for secular ones.[7] And religious people are three times more likely than the secular to contribute to charities and to volunteer each month.[8] This is not to suggest that charity is a monopoly of the religious, but it confirms that people who are situated in religious congregations have resources and social habits that make charity easier. And our world needs all the help it can get.

Religion and Social Trust

Reflecting on what they called “the lessons of history,” scholars Will and Ariel Durant asserted, “There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.”[9]

Multiple studies show that religion fosters trust, which is a necessary ingredient for social cohesion and economic growth.[10] Trust between individuals and organizations affects a nation’s economic performance. A leading economist at the World Bank explained that “at the micro level, social ties and interpersonal trust can reduce transaction costs, enforce contracts, and facilitate credit at the level of individual investors. At the macro level, social cohesion underlying trust may strengthen democratic governance, improve the efficiency and honesty of public administration, and improve the quality of economic policies.”[11]

Italian social scientists have identified a direct link between religious belief and trust. Here is what they said: “We find that on average religion is associated positively with attitudes that are conducive to free markets and better institutions. Religious people trust others more, trust the government and the legal system more, are less willing to break the law, and are more likely to believe that the markets’ outcomes are fair.”[12]

And as one writer has noted, “trust is about more than whether you can leave your house unlocked; it is responsible for the difference between the richest countries and the poorest.”[13]

Religious Freedom on the Global Scene

As the theme of this conference recognizes, strong religious values are essential to creating healthy societies. A groundbreaking study[14] released in 2014 by researchers at Georgetown University and Brigham Young University looked at GDP growth for 173 countries in 2011, controlling for two dozen different financial, social, and regulatory influences, and found that the presence of religious freedom in a country is one of only three factors significantly associated with global economic growth.[15]

Additional analysis[16] by Brian Grim, one of the authors of the study who also serves as chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith, cites a number of ways in which religious freedom contributes to better economic and business outcomes.

First, the presence of religious freedom is associated with lower levels of corruption. Corruption has a corrosive effect on society, weakening public trust in leaders and institutions and impoverishing entire economies. The absence of corruption, on the other hand, is often cited as one of the key ingredients necessary for sustainable economic development.

Second, Grim points to a growing body of research demonstrating that religious freedom fosters peace in society. This freedom helps reduce incidents of religious violence and conflict. And in societies where religious freedom is not respected and protected, the result is often the opposite—there’s an increase in violence and more frequent conflicts disrupting the everyday economic activities essential for business to flourish.

Third, religious freedom encourages broader freedoms. Significant empirical evidence points to a strong correlation between the presence of religious freedom and other freedoms, along with a variety of positive social and economic outcomes ranging from better health care to higher incomes for women.


My fellow travelers in the cause of peace, stability, and freedom, let human flourishing be the vision we take back to our communities and promote in our own capacities. Let the prospect of a happy, peaceful future for our children determine our actions. May we be dignified, tolerant, forgiving, and respectful in our efforts. As we do so, let us foster both the guiding frame of the law and the delicate ways of the heart. After all, the governments, nations, and societies of this world have their root in the individual aspirations for goodness and freedom. I believe we can all work together and be friends in a common vision of a peaceful society.

Thank you.


[1] See “Religious Freedom,” Gospel Topics,

[2] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted Dec. 10, 1948,

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

[4] See “Five Key Questions Answered on the Link Between Peace and Religion,” Institute for Economics and Peace in conjunction with the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, 17–18.

[5] See Terry Turner, “Christians Protect Mosques on Fri., Muslims Guard Churches on Sunday,” Good News Network, Jan. 29, 2016.

[6] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Role of Religion in Society in the United Kingdom,” Nov. 22, 2012,

[7] See Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2012), 13.

[8] See Arthur C. Brooks, “Compassion, Religion, and Politics,” The Public Interest, Sept. 22, 2004, 57, 59.

[9] Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History (1996), 51.

[10] See, for example, Luigi Guiso, Paola Sapienza, and Luigi Zingales, “People’s Opium? Religion and Economic Attitudes,” Journal of Monetary Economics, vol. 50 (2003), 225; Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2012), 460–61.

[11] Stephen Knack, Trust, Associational Life and Economic Performance, HRDC-OECD International Symposium on the Contribution of Investment in Human and Social Capital to Sustained Economic Growth and Well-Being,

[12] Guiso, Sapienza, and Zingales, “People’s Opium?” 227.

[13] See Tim Harford, “The Economics of Trust,” Forbes, July 21, 2010.

[14] Brian J. Grim, Greg Clark, and Robert Edward Snyder, “Is Religious Freedom Good for Business? A Conceptual and Empirical Analysis,” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion (2014).

[15] The other two factors were monetary policy and a previous five-year history of GDP growth.

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