Additional Resource

The Architecture of a Pluralistic Society

By Elder Ulisses Soares of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

This speech was delivered on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, at a religious freedom symposium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. See a news summary of the event.

Of care and construction

Dear friends and colleagues, it is an honor to speak with you today. I value the knowledge you bring to this event and the goodness you spread throughout the world. May we all listen and learn together at this wonderful symposium.

Everyone needs a place to live. A community. A home. A place of welcome. A space to work out our differences and expand our similarities. A society that both provides our needs and cultivates our loyalty. We are by nature social beings who seek to fit in as individual souls, members of families, and contributors to communities. Meaning, therefore, is found in the company of people. Amid all the division and strife of this world, we all want to be respected and heard.

Home is where we grow up, make mistakes, apologize, forgive, work, rest, and dream. The great human enterprise — whether experienced in a nation, city, family, marriage, or friendships —resembles the activity of a house. Societies are complex structures that require designing, measuring, fitting, and furnishing. Government, commerce, the arts, civic associations, the voluntary sphere, and schools all play a part in supporting human aspirations. And religion grounds these pillars, instilling the whole with moral direction, charitable commitment, and the protection of dignity. All the layers and dimensions complement each other.

The purpose and plan of any structure is known as the architecture — the art of assembling different parts to make a dwelling for human flourishing. A house is constructed with so many diverse materials: wood, steel, concrete, plastic, glass, bricks, and much more. And so many facets keep it all together: foundations, rooms, roofs, doors, windows, and floors. To stand the test of time and to look beautiful, a building must accommodate the many different sizes and shapes of its inhabitants.

A prosperous society also has an architecture. Any human social unit, let alone something as large as a civilization, needs a blueprint to channel the clashing ideas, interest groups, political camps, cultural factions, and religious organizations that pursue their own vision of the good. But they need a structure, a base, and framework to keep everything intact. But more than mere shelter, they need a home. When we all have our own space for living, room for thinking, and the right to speak, communities are better for it. As long as they harm or coerce no one, our differences can enrich our common existence.

Globalization and technology have brought many people together. This collision of identities and values is perhaps the defining challenge of our time. In multicultural Britain, for example, the late, beloved Rabbi Jonathan Sacks compared the task of helping diverse people feel part of a shared venture, without abandoning their culture and wisdom, to building a home. “How,” he asks, “do you sustain a cohesive society in the midst of unprecedented religious and ethnic diversity?”1 The rabbi insists we can all be full members of an eclectic household without being mere guests. Our differences need not be seen as threats, but as unique contributions to neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools. Integrated diversity, not weaponized ideology, is the way forward. The act of building is the act of belonging. He further emphasized:

“The model of society as the home we build together emphasizes responsibilities more than rights. It values differences because they’re not used to keep us apart, but rather, they mean we each have something different and special to give to the common good.”2

Building a house, and living a life within it, just like caring for a society, takes ingenuity, creativity, and continual maintenance.

A framework for managing our differences

Like a family living in a home, we are all tied together, obligated by God to look out for each other’s interests. Freedom of association allows us to befriend whom we choose and identify with our own tribe. But society is too large to avoid people we don’t like or perceived enemies we despise. A pluralistic age like ours does not offer the old comforts of homogeneity. We do not have to accept the religious or political beliefs of our neighbors, but social harmony and stability require us to give them the benefit of the doubt. We have little choice but to learn how to co-exist.

Religious freedom is the architecture of a healthy society. It keeps the diverse parts in place, makes room for the expression of conscience, and allows differences to contend without violence. Without this infrastructure, society breaks down into bickering blocs of resentments, grievances, truth claims, and power struggles. Left to our own devices, people devolve down to their ancient protective instincts. But human wisdom has evolved enough to give us better tools for cooperation.

The framework of religious freedom rests on the double foundation of law and culture. A fair legal system and culture of respect work together to shelter citizens from the storms of ignorance and bigotry. Government and courts cannot ultimately secure something that the public does not believe in. And the conscience of citizens cannot be safeguarded without rights enshrined in law. This mutually reinforcing relationship requires constant care.

A stable society flows like a give-and-take dance between ideologies, beliefs, and practices — always encouraging respect and ensuring that everyone abides by the law. Constitutions around the world protect free speech, free exercise of religion, freedom of peaceful assembly. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, along with various regional courts and conventions, also provide broad support of these aspirations. This architecture does not always succeed, but it is our best hope in a pluralistic world.

In his study of extremism around the world, Professor Nilay Saiya discovered that the best way for governments and societies to combat religious tension is to allow more religious freedom. This might seem counterintuitive. Wouldn’t religious freedom cause more tension by allowing more beliefs? The data say no. According to Saiya:

“Religious freedom encourages peaceful religious forms of activity by creating space for religious groups to practice their faith freely, bring their religiously-informed ideas to the public square, make positive contributions to society, and engage in debate through open channels of discourse, thus allowing diverse perspectives to be heard and depriving extremists the ability to win the battle for hearts and minds by default.”3

A major study published by the University of Cambridge Press supports this same claim: countries that promote freedom of religion or belief enjoy 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.4

Freedoms feed off each other. Brian Grim and Roger Finke, the authors of the study, wrote: “The denial of religious freedoms is inevitably intertwined with the denial of other freedoms.”5

For a positive example of how this architecture can work, consider Brazil. While undergoing a dynamic shift over the years from Roman Catholicism to Pentecostal, Protestant and other churches, the population has managed to avoid broad sectarian conflict. A number of years ago this same scholar Brian Grim discovered, “Given the level of religious switching in Brazil, it is particularly notable that … there have been no reported incidents of hostility over conversions or proselytism.”6 Though far from perfect, tension has been managed through dialogue between the various religious communities.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks, First Counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said the following in a recent address in Rome, Italy: “The key to stability and harmony is not homogeneity in religious or other foundational beliefs, but shared assurance that everyone will be secure in following his or her foundational beliefs.”7

Is human difference a fact to be celebrated or an obstacle to overcome?

Each society is a practical attempt to answer that question.

No single group has a monopoly on the wise, beautiful, and just things of the world. We can all 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. Underneath our flaws, suspicions, and prejudices exists a common bedrock of dignity.

This engagement between differences is the hallmark of pluralism, a society organized under common laws and civilization but with no single belief system that holds total influence. Such an ideal works only when people exercise the habits and manners of civility to understand the unique worldviews of their neighbors. In an age teeming with philosophies, ideologies and truth claims, peace and order depend on the empathy of seeing our own hopes and fears in the lives of people around us.

Plurality is a normal part of most modern societies, but the problem comes when the strongest bully everyone else. Social pressure mounts toward consensus. The drive to punish differences builds. And in the name of purity, popular voices dominate the quieter ones. But over time this heavy-handedness usually backfires. When majority opinion becomes repressive it loses moral credibility. Minority voices then exert themselves, causing a cycle of tension to play out. The challenge of a pluralistic society is to steer this struggle into productive discourse.

In the political and civic arena, one way to establish the common good is to take a fairness for all approach. Complicated issues such as immigration, sexuality, identity, and religion call for extra empathy. Today’s media environment pushes people to see these differences as a battle of winner-takes-all — a damaging worldview that says you have to lose for me to win. But in so many cases involving sincere disagreements, balance between competing interests, not a war pitting one against another, is a more humane practice for democracy.

But no society can thrive on difference alone. Citizens need a common moral foundation and shared vision of the good. Scattered individual moralities cannot uphold a diverse culture.

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

Identifying with the Other

Religious freedom is as much a duty toward others as it is a right for oneself. If you want your religious beliefs to be protected, you must protect religious beliefs that differ from your own. This paradox lies at the heart of how a diverse society works. We gain freedom by supporting the freedom of those we deem to be our adversaries. When we see that our interests are tied to the interests of everyone else, then the real work of religious freedom begins.

Various versions of this wisdom can be found in traditions around the world. Often called the Golden Rule, the idea establishes a connection between the self and the other, between my experience and your experience. We are not all so different. Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, and Islam expressed different formulations of this same reciprocity. Perhaps most famously spoken by Jesus as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the Golden Rule has the ring of truth and applies to both personal and civic life.

Stepping Outside Ourselves

In these remarks I have demonstrated my optimism for a more harmonious world. But by no means do I underestimate the difficulty of human connection. We are all in many ways like islands seeking the mainland. And we see each other too often through our own lens and not through the lens of the other. The mystical Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa hauntingly expressed this challenge:

“Have you ever considered, beloved other, how invisible we are to each other? We look at each other without seeing. We listen to each other and hear only a voice inside our self. The words of others are mistakes of our hearing, shipwrecks of our understanding. How confidently we believe OUR meanings of other people's words.”8

His lament defines the task of a pluralistic society — to bring a common language of belonging to individuals and communities. Though we often feel isolated from the people around us, we can get out of our own rooms and closets to interact with the world, to listen, and expand both self and other.

Sometimes we think that my rights can’t be protected if your rights are protected. But life does not have to be a zero-sum contest in which my gain equals your loss. Our well-being is tied together. The poet David Whyte urges us to, “Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation.”9 It is within this tension between our solitary selves and conversing collectives that forges a path ahead. Patience and time are the cultivators. David Whyte further teaches: “Two ideas that seem contradictory are often just separate entities that have not yet entered into conversation with one another.”10

Our minds seem to be trained to see opposites. We lock ideas and people into opposing corners without testing their compatibility, without trying their capability to adapt and grow. The prophet Joseph Smith said: “By proving contraries, the truth is made manifest.”11

The home that we seek requires an attitude of vulnerability. Openness can work wonders to bring people together. Having faith that allows differences to enter dialogue can change the world. Let us build a home for everyone of goodwill to become brothers and sisters. Thank you.

This speech was originally delivered in Portuguese.

3. Nilay Saiya, “Does Religious Liberty Encourage or Curb Faith-Based Terrorism?” Religious Freedom Institute, July 12, 2016.

4. Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge University Press, 2011), 206.

5. Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge University Press, 2011), 205.

6. Brian Grim, “Brazil: A Lesson in the Peaceful Navigation of Religious Change,” Religious Freedom Project, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, Georgetown University, June 1, 2015.

7. Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Religious Freedom in an International Context,” December 14, 2021.

8. Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, Penguin Books, 2002, translated by Richard Zenith, p. 277.

9. David Whyte, David Whyte: Essentials, from the poem “Everything Is Waiting for You,” p. 84.

10. David Whyte, A Timeless Way with David Whyte, a talk given to the Jung Society of Utah on February 7, 2020.

11. In History of the Church, 6:428.

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