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President Oaks Tells Students in Rome Why Religious Freedom Matters

He says people of faith must combine to “succor, act as a sanctuary and promulgate religious freedom across the world.”

Speaking at Sapienza University in Rome on Tuesday, President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said religious freedom is an invaluable global good worth protecting.

Explaining that the Church of Jesus Christ is a restored faith (not Protestant or Catholic), the First Counselor in the First Presidency said 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.”

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Citing the work of Brigham Young University professor Cole Durham and two fellow Apostles, President Oaks shared several of religious freedom’s key benefits.

President Oaks said the protection of 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.”

Other goods religious freedom yields, President Oaks said, are pluralism, peace and a proper separation of church and state. Quoting an October 2021 address from Elder D. Todd Christofferson, President Oaks said, “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.”

President Oaks spoke at length on another benefit: the charitable work that people of faith do. Reading from Elder Quentin L. Cook’s June 2021 address at the University of Notre Dame, he said “religious accountability benefits secular society” because there are a “multitude of good works that religion inspires people of faith to perform on behalf of others.” President Oaks shared several examples from the Latter-day Saint world in 2021:

  • Members of the Church of Jesus Christ worldwide have given some 6 million hours of service in Church-sponsored welfare and humanitarian projects (not counting what members do on their own).
  • The JustServe website is helping more than 655,000 volunteers connect and meet needs in their communities.
  • The Church is partnering with the Catholic Church and others in Italy to help refugees with food, shelter, medical care, and skills training.
  • Latter-day Saints are collaborating with Muslim, Jewish and Christian organizations in the Mediterranean states to address conflict, hunger, disease and displacement.
  • The Church is cooperating with India’s government to provide more access to vision services, maternal newborn care and skills training. The Church also donated $4 million for oxygen concentrators, ventilators and other medical equipment.
  • The Church is engaged in more than 575 other COVID-19-related projects in 74 countries.

Similar to his message at the University of Virginia in November, President Oaks said the core Christian value of living peaceably with others — what the Church calls “fairness for all”— is essential for religious freedom to flourish.

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President Dallin H. Oaks waves goodbye after speaking at Sapienza University in Rome on Tuesday, December 14, 2021.2021 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.
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“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,” he said. “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.”

President Oaks said that although a fairness for all bill is currently languishing in the United States Congress, “the importance of the values involved makes efforts at reconciliation worthwhile.” The establishment of “workable relationships between governments and those who seek freedom of religion or belief” is a “subject we have much to learn from one another,” he said.

President Oaks cited data that says few today esteem organized religion and religious freedom. Why is this so? Perhaps, he said, because we have lost the thread of Christ’s basic teaching to love God and neighbor.

“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,” he said. “That is the way to prevent deep differences on important values from fracturing our civil unity.”

President Oaks said the way forward is interfaith solidarity. Quoting Elder Cook, he said 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,” President Oaks concluded, “I testify of the power of these ideas and invoke the blessings of God on all who seek to promote them.”

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