Religious Values in the Public Square

Our public interaction reveals much about who we are as a people, what values we uphold and what kind of society we want to live in. The discourse that emerges from that interaction continually defines what we consider morally acceptable, how we treat others, and how in turn we expect to be treated. Constant care is required to cultivate the manners and freedoms of civilization. They can seem invisible until threatened. So what role does religion play in this interaction? Research suggests an important one. A new study entitled American Grace, for example, shows that religion is correlated with the neighborly virtues of charitable giving, volunteerism and altruism, connected to trust, and linked to higher civic involvement. Religion, therefore, helps form our civic foundation.

The issue of religious participation in the public square is essentially a debate about the first principles of civic life: the coexistence between competing human interests, the self-determination of religious communities, the autonomy of individual conscience and the accommodation of diverse beliefs and opinions in public debate. The way we respond to these challenges establishes the parameters of civic interactions and sets the boundaries of our collective and individual identities.

Living in a pluralistic society is simply part of today’s world. The diversity of religious and political worldviews can enrich human understanding and empathy, without undermining the integrity of religion or freedom of conscience. A pluralism that respects each lawful voice creates checks on excesses that threaten free expression and political participation. Operating within this framework, Latter-day Saints acknowledge the essential give and take of societal exchange. This engagement is based on an understanding that promotes civility, protects inalienable rights and works toward the common good.

Of course this civic engagement does not require that religion has the most powerful voice in society. It simply accords religion an equal opportunity to voice its concerns and shape important public matters. According to Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “all voices need to be heard in the public square. Neither religious nor secular voices should be silenced.” Thus, being either religious or secular does not automatically disqualify a citizen or organization from participating in public life.

Religion and civil government constitute separate realms, with each deriving benefit from the other. This relationship aims toward creating a workable equilibrium. Nevertheless, the Church opposes the kind of secular absolutism that skews this relationship and seeks to delegitimize religious expression and participation in public discussion. Accordingly, the separation of church and state does not entail the separation of religious values from public life.

Our pluralistic society makes space for peaceable coexistence and cooperation between diverse people of good will, including the religious and nonreligious. Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles asserted that support for religious freedom “is not a renunciation of the secular or a suggestion that one must choose between religion on the one hand and the whole body of secular learning on the other. That is a false dichotomy.”

Even so, all societies have some moral basis, whether originating from religion, philosophy, science, or any number of sources. Religious values cannot be dismissed from the public square any more than the vast array of other positive values can be. Efforts to do so ignore the deeply embedded religious antecedents that give shape to the common heritage and identity of peoples across the globe. One of the world’s leading thinkers on religion and society, Jurgen Habermas, wrote that among the modern societies of today “only those that are able to introduce into the secular domain the essential contents of their religious traditions which point beyond the merely human realm will also be able to rescue the substance of the human.”

The position of the Church regarding neutrality in partisan politics — the avoidance of endorsing political candidates, directing elected officials, contributing to party platforms and dictating party affiliation — prevents unnecessary political entanglement and compromising alliances. However, it does not imply indifference to the importance of principle in the political process. All politics rests on moral arguments and assertions about what is right and what is wrong. Given the shifting circumstances and values of societies, no single political ideology encompasses all correct principles all the time. Good principles are scattered among a number of parties, platforms and ideologies. The challenge for people of faith and good will lies in exercising wise judgment and moral courage in this civic process.

Striving to communicate and promote their values in ways that resonate with people in their communities, Latter-day Saints add their voices to the multitude of others concerned with the prosperity of society and the rightful place of religion in the public square. President of the Church Thomas S. Monson captures this aspiration: “As a church we reach out not only to our own people but also to those people of good will throughout the world in that spirit of brotherhood which comes from the Lord Jesus Christ.”

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.