Additional Resource

Religious Freedom in an International Context

By President Dallin H. Oaks, First Counselor in the First Presidency

President Oaks delivered this address on December 14, 2021, at Sapienza University in Rome, Italy. The speech was presented in the framework of the course “Global Humanities: Critical theories and transnational cultures.” See a news summary of his speech.

President-Dallin-H.-OaksDownload Photo

I feel very privileged to address this important audience of future leaders of many different nations.

My lifelong advocacy of religious freedom is grounded in my religious faith. It may provide helpful context at the outset if I share briefly some of the religious, legal and personal background that has shaped my perspective on the issues on which I will be speaking.

As you know from the introduction, I am a leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, previously known by many as the Mormons. What you may not know is that we have no officially trained clergy. Similarly, our Church has no paid clergy. We have lay leadership in over 30,000 congregations in about 150 nations throughout the world. Our leaders are called from various occupations to serve as ministers, just as Jesus called fishermen and a publican to the earliest Christian leadership. Consequently, it is not unusual that I—a lawyer and former law professor and judge—am a world leader in my Church. We are the fourth largest denomination in the United States and growing rapidly in other nations. Over half of our present membership of nearly 17 million is outside the United States. My position makes me acutely aware of religious freedom issues faced by our members and by other religious communities around the world.

I have been called as one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ and more recently to the highest presiding body of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am the first counselor to the President of the Church, who is God’s prophet. We and the twelve other apostles have a life-long duty to teach and testify of the doctrine and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our Christian Church is not Catholic, and it is not Protestant. It is a restored church, meaning that the fulness of Christian doctrine and its true organization were restored to a prophet in America soon after the first guarantee of religious freedom was included in the new United States Constitution.

Unique to the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which I will sometimes refer to as the Restored Church, is our knowledge that God continues to call prophets to teach us and help us apply His commandments in our current circumstances. Like the Catholic Church, we have a hierarchal not a congregational government. Indeed, we are more centralized than the Roman Catholic Church because we have no intermediate independent authorities with governance and financial responsibilities comparable to the dioceses of the Catholic Church.

My ancestors have been members of the Restored Church since its founding nearly 200 years ago. My sensitivity to religious freedom comes from my awareness of persecution suffered by our early members, including my ancestors, as well as more recent challenges our members are facing in some parts of the world.

My background is in law. After receiving a Doctor of Law degree at the University of Chicago, I served as legal assistant to the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. After that, I practiced law for about four years with a prominent law firm in Chicago, Illinois. Then I was appointed a professor at the University of Chicago, where I taught law for ten years.

At age 38 I became president of Brigham Young University, the flagship university of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Its then enrollment of over 25,000 was the largest of any private university in the United States. I served there for nine years, during which time we added a law school. Among other things, this led to our opportunities to become familiar with the religious freedom challenges that religiously affiliated institutions often face. I was then appointed by the governor as one of five justices of the Supreme Court of the State of Utah. I served there for nearly four years until I resigned to accept my calling as one of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

To summarize my careers, I served for about 34 years in the legal profession, about 10 years in higher education and now the last 37 years in Church leadership. Along the way I have been involved in many positions of community leadership, including five years as Chairman of the Board of PBS, the public television network of the United States. In short, at age 89, I have been blessed with life experiences that have provided me with a uniquely broad perspective on religious freedom issues, heightening my appreciation for this fundamental right.

Today I speak mostly from my experience in the United States. However, my service as a leader in a worldwide Church has exposed me to freedom of religion and belief in many nations and cultures. In most of these I see common principles that can establish workable relationships between governments and those who seek freedom of religion or belief. On that subject, we have much to learn from one another. I am, therefore, very pleased to participate in this educational experience.


Freedom of religion and belief is an essential condition for a free society. It is the oldest of our internationally recognized fundamental rights. In the current list of international human rights, it was the first to receive formal protection. As such, it can be seen as the grandparent of all the other rights. Though sometimes neglected in our secular age, freedom of religion is not neglected by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For us, religious freedom is a fundamental feature of our religious doctrine. The restoration of the fulness of Christian doctrine teaches us that God created and put His children on earth to grow spiritually by making right choices between good and evil consistent with His commandments. Freedom of choice is, therefore, fundamental to God’s plan.

That is why we welcome the great statement in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

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.

Four days ago, on December 10, we had the 73rd anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the foundational member of the trio of documents now known as the “International Bill of Rights.”[1] Worldwide, this original document is the acknowledged modern fountainhead-declaration of our human rights as understood today. It opens with the following profound affirmation:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

That phrase resonates with doctrines at the core of many belief systems.

The Declaration of Human Rights is so well accepted that it has been widely accepted as customary international law and has been followed and furthered within Europe since its adoption in 1948 by national constitutions and important legally binding regional agreements. The challenges in applying it have mostly stemmed from its declared right to “manifest” religion in “practice … and observance.” Thus, in the United States, we have had to remind ourselves that our guarantee of the “free exercise of religion” is not absolute. In a nation with citizens with many different religious beliefs or without any religious beliefs, the government must sometimes limit the right of some to act upon their religious beliefs when it is necessary to protect the health, safety and welfare of all.


Though often praised as a lofty ideal, the importance of freedom of religion or belief has often been overlooked or neglected. This is in part because it has not been adequately understood. Some, viewing freedom of religion through secular filters, have seen it as a vestige of what they see as a now-outdated religious age. In contrast, its continuing—even increasing—importance has been recognized by numerous scholars and experts working on freedom of religion or belief at the international level.

Recent years have witnessed renewed attention to freedom of religion and belief. This reflects the growing recognition that relegating these issues to political backburners allows important challenges to fester and ultimately to cause deep social problems. We need broader and deeper understanding of these fundamental rights. Thus, in addition to recounting some of the acknowledged reasons why these freedoms are so important, I will also seek to review some of their often-overlooked strengths.

Professor W. Cole Durham, a long-time friend and expert on international religious freedom, whose writing and counsel have been so important in my preparation of this lecture, has explained that the freedoms of religion and belief are foundational for other important rights in at least four respects.[2] (1) They are historically foundational because so many other rights emerged as additional supports or expansions of legal protections originally provided in the name of religious freedom. (2) They are philosophically foundational because they protect the belief systems and world views on which other ideas are rooted and from which they derive their meaning. (3) They are institutionally foundational because they foster institutions that protect the vision, motivation and moral support that translate religious and moral ideals into personal and communal practice. They often overlap with other rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of association and rights to non-discrimination, but their sum is greater than any of these individual parts.

(4) Finally, Professor Durham explains, the freedoms of religion and belief are empirically foundational. We now have extensive empirical evidence that a country’s performance in protecting religious freedom correlates not only with the protection of other key rights, but also with other social goods, such as economic freedom, higher per capita gross domestic product, better incomes for women, gender equality, higher literacy rates, better health and education, and consolidation of democracy.[3] Moreover, religious freedom can be beneficial in unexpected contexts. Protecting freedom to engage in religious persuasion correlates with increased social stability. Indeed, 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.

I proceed from those valuable teachings of Professor Durham to identify some additional reasons for protecting freedom of religion and belief. In doing so I include valuable insights from two of my fellow Apostles, Elder Quentin L. Cook and Elder D. Todd Christofferson. Elder Cook’s quotations come from his acclaimed talk at the Religious Liberty Summit at Notre Dame University last June. The quotations from Elder Christofferson come from his very important talk at a religious liberty symposium in South America this October.

After citing some of the advantages just reviewed from Professor Durham, Elder Christofferson gave these additional reasons for protecting religious liberty.

“Religious liberty promotes pluralism and peace. For centuries, people fought over religious differences, often with government suppressing one religion in the name of another. Religious liberty has allowed people of diverse religious traditions to live together in peace and friendship despite profound disagreements. … The history of religious freedom demonstrates that respect begets respect. Governments that protect religious freedom have fewer social conflicts and greater levels of social cohesion.”[4]

On the subject of peace, I believe that when citizens learn to live together with respect and unity, despite important religious differences, they are also more likely to live peacefully with those with whom they have important secular differences. I also remind academic critics who condemn religion as the source of great atrocities in the past that they should remember more recent history. The mass killings of the last century were not done in the name of religion. The killings of the Holocaust, the Stalinist purges, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge and the ethnic cleansings in Central Africa have been primarily motivated by ethnic, political or tribal differences, not by religious rivalries.

While some believe that religious freedom protects forces that divide society, history teaches that these guarantees are forces that hold society together. The key to stability is not a homogeneous society unified in basic values, but the protection of rights for all to live together with their distinctive beliefs. That respect is the best protection against violence in the name of religion.

Speaking from a religious perspective, I affirm that followers of Christ have a duty to resolve conflicts and seek harmony and peace. As Jesus taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God.”[5] The Apostle Paul followed this by teaching Christians to “follow after the things which make for peace,”[6] and “[i]f it be possible … live peaceably with all men.”[7] Similarly, the Book of Mormon, which is part of our scriptural foundation as a second witness of Jesus Christ, teaches that it is a “peaceable walk with the children of men” that distinguishes a true follower of Jesus Christ.[8]

Elder Christofferson explains another strength:

[R]eligious liberty facilitates a proper separation of church and state …. In a liberal democracy, the powers of the state should not be exercised directly or dominated by one religion at the expense of the rights and freedoms of others. Conversely, government should not interfere with the internal religious affairs of religious organizations.

Similarly, Professor Cole Durham explains that freedom of religion and belief “contributes to finding appropriate institutional interactions between religion and the state.” Of course, this audience is more familiar with various European variations on this theme than I. Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, numerous European countries have articulated principles of freedom of religion or belief as they apply in their distinctive constitutional provisions that regulate their relationship with various religious organizations and authorities.


I proceed with another vital strength described by Elder Christofferson. “Freedom of religion “allows diverse faith communities to continue providing critical services to society and its most disadvantaged members.” Indeed, freedom of religion or belief not only allows such services; it undergirds and protects the beliefs and institutional mechanisms that make such communal actions both possible and likely. Here are some important examples to illustrate that truth.

Several years ago, in an address to a diverse audience in the United States, I gave this example:

Our country’s robust private sector of charitable works originated with and is still sponsored most significantly by religious organizations and religious impulses. This includes education, hospitals, care for the poor, and countless other charities of great value to our country.

Many of the most significant moral advances in Western society have been motivated by religious principles and persuaded to official adoption by pulpit preaching. Examples include the abolition of the slave trade in England and the Emancipation Proclamation in this country. The same is true of the Civil Rights movement of the last half-century. These great advances were not motivated and moved by secular ethics or persons who believed in moral relativism. They were driven primarily by persons who had a clear religious vision of what was morally right.

At Notre Dame, Elder Quentin L. Cook underscored the importance of this positive effect of religious beliefs and values. He said:

Accountability to God for our relationships with each other is a powerful force for good and strongly supports democracy. Being accountable sustains and blesses the values that are most important for social unity.[9]

Examples of ways that freedom of religion advances countless social goods by protecting and fostering religious inspiration, altruism and public service are endless. For example, in our world there are many needs for humanitarian assistance—hunger, disease and lack of education to mention only a few. Providing such aid is a requirement of many religious faiths and, as Elder Cook reminded us, “religious accountability benefits secular society. [There are] a multitude of good works that religion inspires people of faith to perform on behalf of others.”

Significantly, the humanitarian efforts of religious-based organizations can do things beyond what others can do. I refer to our own Church’s experience. While our membership—half in the United States and half elsewhere—is relatively small in terms of total global population, we have three great advantages that magnify our impact in humanitarian service.

First, the service traditions of our members give us a resource of committed and experienced volunteers. For example, last year our volunteers donated over 6 million hours of labor in our welfare and humanitarian projects, not counting missionary service and what our members did privately.

Second, through our members’ financial contributions to humanitarian causes and through our Church’s supplementary contributions, we come to the table with our own funding. This means that where needed, we have the ability to operate immediately and independent of official bureaucracies and appropriations to provide rapid responses to time-sensitive problems. At the same time, we are also eager to coordinate our efforts with individual government agencies and with United Nations and other agencies for the greatest impact.

Third, we have a global grassroots organization that can be mobilized immediately. For example, in response to the continuing worldwide problem of refugees, we regularly send messages to our members through our various organizations reminding them of the fundamental Christian principle of helping the poor, the vulnerable and the “stranger” in our midst.[10] Persons of all ages have been mobilized to join in helping refugees and others with needs in their local communities.

As I have already said, care for the poor and the needy is not optional in our Church. We take literally Christ’s teaching that we should give food to the hungry and shelter to the stranger.[11] We are likewise directed by a modern revelation from the same source to “remember in all things the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted, for he that doeth not these things, the same is not my disciple.”[12]

When religious persons have freedom to exercise their faith, the resources for private treatment of important social needs are increased enormously. Religious organizations can often access and treat social needs more effectively than the United Nations, national governments, or other institutions operating alone. And where freedom of religion is assured, the teamwork of religious organizations and public agencies can prove exemplary for providing and administering needed relief.

In the humanitarian sphere, freedom of religion or belief can help unleash creative new approaches to continuing problems. For example, the registered humanitarian organization of the Church of Jesus Christ is Latter-day Saint Charities. They have developed significant programs to foster self-reliance. In addition to more conventional approaches to administering other kinds of relief, focusing on self-reliance has identified creative ways to enable people to move forward in finding effective solutions to life challenges. Another innovation is our Just Serve program, which provides an electronic platform that now connects more than 655,000 registered volunteers with needs for service in their own communities. This has opened important service opportunities to persons in all faiths or no faith.

Although our conventional humanitarian programs are relatively small when measured against global needs, the fact that we live under the umbrella of religious freedom protections has nevertheless enabled us to make sizeable contributions. Thus, from 1985 to the present, as our Church has grown in numbers and international presence, Latter-day Saint Charities has provided over two and a half billion U.S. dollars in aid in 203 countries and territories. In doing so, it has collaborated with governments and many interfaith organizations to provide life-saving emergency supplies and sustainable longer-term relief.

Here are some examples. In Italy, we have joined forces with various charitable organizations, including the Catholic Church, in services to refugees, including food, medical care, sheltering and skills training.

In the Mediterranean States and the Middle East, we have collaborated with various Muslim, Jewish and Christian organizations to address conflict, hunger, disease and displacement.

In India, in sustained cooperative efforts with the government, we have improved rural access to vision services and maternal newborn care and skills training. Earlier this year, we helped with India’s severe oxygen shortage. In response to government requests, we donated over $4 million for oxygen concentrators, ventilators and other medical equipment.

We had over 575 other COVID-related projects this year in 74 countries. All of our humanitarian assistance is funded by our members’ generous donations channeled with appropriations from our Church.

As religious organizations seek opportunities and administer aid to help the disadvantaged, it is important to avoid using such aid as inducements for missionary activities. Many in this audience, seeing our pairs of missionaries, know that the Restored Church of Jesus Christ has an enormous missionary effort—about 65,000 missionaries in over 100 countries. You will, therefore, be interested to know that we are careful to assure that our humanitarian efforts are kept separate from our missionary activities. We carefully separate the organization, administration and staffing of humanitarian aid on the one hand and missionary programs on the other, so that humanitarian aid is not used to provide incentives to reinforce our missionary efforts.


Notwithstanding the advantages and benefits I have been discussing, we live at a time when both organized religion and freedom of religion or belief are facing unparalleled challenges. Particularly in highly developed countries, both are declining in the significance attached to them by citizens and their governments. Religion is under siege by the combined forces of political correctness, secularism, relativism and authoritarianism that seek to replace religion with other priorities. Globally, restrictions on religious freedom have reached a new high.

On this subject I love the teaching of the late Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of England, quoted in Elder Cook’s recent talk at the Religious Liberty Summit. In his 2011 address to Roman Catholic leaders at the Pontifical Gregorian University titled “Has Europe lost its soul?” Rabbi Sacks described “an aggressive scientific atheism” that is “tone deaf to the music of faith.”

In 2019 the Pew Research Center surveyed restrictions on religious freedom in 198 countries. Twenty-nine percent of these countries had “high” or “very high” levels of overall restrictions. (Because these 57 countries included several of the world’s most populous, this means that well over 60% of the world’s population lives in countries with such restrictions.) Governments in more than 80% of the countries harassed religious groups in some way in 2019.[13]

More significant in the long run may be shifts in the attitudes of persons toward religion. A 2021 Pew Research Center survey in 17 countries asked 19,000 adults “What makes life meaningful?”[14] In countries outside the United States, religion did not appear as one of the top ten sources of meaning in life. In the U.S., only 15% of the respondents mentioned religion or God as a source of meaning in their lives.

Why does religion score so low in the very areas where it traditionally provided unique strength to people and their nations? Despite overwhelming interest in that question, I cannot provide a definitive set of answers. However, two divine commandments, identified as the “greatest,” surely head the list.

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.[15]

Love one another directs how believers in the freedom of religion relate to one another and to those with whom they differ on important priorities. As we contend for freedom of religion ourselves, we must also respect the similar claims of others. At a practical level, both believers and nonbelievers need one another if we are to live peacefully in our pluralistic societies.

With the love and mutual respect enjoined by divine commandments, we need to find ways to learn from one another and to reinforce the common insights that hold us together in a stable pluralist society. That is the way to prevent deep differences on important values from fracturing our civil unity. I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Cole Durham’s teachings on this subject:

Civil pluralism can bring the best insights of diverse views together in cultivating the common good. Contrary to the pluralism of egotistical self-assertion, the pluralism we need is a pluralism in which different people with diverse experience and diversity of intellectual and spiritual background come together to share their highest and best visions of what is good for human communities. [This will foster] the inputs necessary for democratic institutions to yield optimal outcomes, rather than a mere chaos of self-interest.

The reality of living as fellow citizens in a pluralistic society is that we must accept some laws we dislike and learn to live peacefully with some persons whose values differ from our own. We should not expect or seek total dominance for our own positions, but in the exercise of mutual respect should seek fairness for all. This, of course requires that we seek to understand the experiences and concerns of others. When Rabbi Jonathan Sacks agreed to meet with a staunch atheist, who detested everything he held sacred, the Rabbi was asked whether he would try to convert him. “No,” he answered, “I’m going to do something much better than that. I’m going to listen to him.”[16]

I advocated such a position in a recent talk in the United States at the University of Virginia. There, I spoke hopefully of the possibility of reconciling existing conflicts between the proponents of two compelling constitutional rights. I titled my talk, “Going Forward with Religious Freedom and Non-Discrimination.” There I tried to steer the way between the free exercise of religion and the equal protection of the law. That task continues unresolved and even untried thus far, with a legislative effort titled “Fairness for All” languishing in Congress. But the importance of the values involved makes efforts at reconciliation worthwhile.

I urge that freedom of religion and belief requires not only the importance of standing for our own rights, but, at a deeper level, it also requires us to recognize the rights of others as well. Sometimes what is realistically possible is only a relatively small step, but it is a good beginning because it shows respect. We need to begin to achieve understanding, but more is obviously necessary.

I conclude by quoting and joining Elder Quentin L. Cook’s important challenge at the recent Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit:

So, what can be done to prevent society’s tone deafness [that threatens to drown out] the beautiful music of faith that can bless us all? … Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, Latter-day Saints, and other faiths must be part of a coalition of faiths that succor, act as a sanctuary, and promulgate religious freedom across the world.

As one called to witness of Jesus Christ and promote the peace and love He taught, I testify of the power of these ideas and invoke the blessings of God on all who seek to promote them. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


[1] The International Bill of Rights consists of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted and proclaimed by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 217A (III) on 10 December 1948, and its two implementing covenants, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights, both adopted and opened for signature by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2200A (XXI) on 16 December 1966. As of December 10, 2021, 173 countries were parties to the ICCPR and 171 countries were parties to the ICESCR.

[2] Ideas and quotations attributed here to Professor Durham are based on his writings in my possession.

[3] For more extensive documentation on this point, see Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[4] D. Todd Christofferson, “Religious Liberty: The Basis of a Free and Just Society,” Religious Liberty Symposium originating in Santiago, Chile (October 29, 2021).

[5] Matthew 5:9.

[6] Romans 14:19.

[7] Romans 12:18.

[8] Book of Mormon, Moroni 7:4.

[9] Quentin L. Cook, “Tone Deaf to the Music of Faith,” Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit, June 28–29, 2021.

[10] Matthew 25:35.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Doctrine and Covenants 52:40.

[13] Samirah Majumdar and Virginia Villa, “Globally, Social Hostilities Related to Religion Decline in 2019, While Government Restrictions Remain at Highest Levels,” Pew Research Center, available at: The percentage of the world’s population living in countries with high or very high restrictions listed in Appendix A of the foregoing study was computed using population estimates for 2021 for the 57 countries involved available at

[14] “What Makes Life Meaningful? Views From 17 Advanced Economies” [Pew Research, 11/18/21].

[15] Matthew 22:37, 39.

[16] Quoted in “The world lost a moral voice, but Rabbi Lord Sacks’ wisdom lives on,” Deseret News, Nov. 13, 2020.

Style Guide Note:When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online Style Guide.