Additional Resource

The Transcendence of Human Dignity

By Elder Ulisses Soares of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

This speech was delivered at the World Congress of Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Thursday, June 8, 2023.

Honored friends and associates, you bless me with your presence here today. I am privileged to speak about something we all have in common. Though we belong to separate countries, classes, races, and religions, in the task of upholding human dignity, none of us is alone; none of us is isolated. I echo what the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote: “There is no insurmountable solitude.”1

The world is a fragile place. Just when everything seems safe, the ground shifts beneath our feet. War and realigning power structures create uncertainty in international relations. Economies falter and inflation rises. The racial harmony we seek breaks down. Unrest in our streets spreads violence and fear. Technologies advance beyond our capacity to wield. People question the dignity of “them” while acknowledging the superiority of “us.”

The deepest and truest parts of us are our faith and our relationships. But in the midst of this anxiety, we tend to see only groups and not souls. But wherever you go, carefully stop and look. Glimpse beyond the loneliness of our lives, and you will see the dignity of human action all around. Physicians care for the sick, congregations stock food banks, volunteers feed the poor, humanitarians alleviate the destruction of natural disasters, and neighbors take care of neighbors in distress. Moral heroes always appear on the front lines of tragedy.

Dignity has a divine origin. It is our universal birthright. Everyone possesses dignity simply by being human, regardless of religion, race, gender, or nationality. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that dignity is the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”2 Therefore, we have the right to life, liberty, security, and equal protection of the law, and the freedom of thought, speech, and religion. Rights stem from dignity, and dignity results from rights. Both feed off each other in a legal and cultural symbiosis. We need to see a reflection of ourselves in each other—our dreams, hopes, hurts, and despairs. Otherwise, we become strangers and foreigners. We discover our dignity in relating with others.

Everyone wants to be known, seen, and recognized. We want our efforts to make a difference and our struggles to be acknowledged. The demand for respect is as ancient as society itself. Peace begins with respect for the uniqueness of each person. In 2018, the Punta del Este Declaration on Human Dignity celebrated this concept as “the core of the panoply of human rights.” The document reminds us that such rights are universal, complementary, indivisible, non-negotiable and interrelated. Human dignity “presupposes respect for pluralism and difference.” The declaration urges a reciprocity whereby “rights include accompanying obligations and responsibilities.”3 Only upon this foundation can mutual trust exist.

The concept of human dignity may vary from culture to culture, but it acts as a constant in a volatile and changing world. Human rights smooth out the imbalances of privilege, wealth, and opportunity. And those rights must be universally applied. Otherwise, justice becomes reduced to whoever is in power at the moment. Dignity is about knowing who we are as human beings. The search for ultimate meaning, whether as an individual or in community, is a sacred prerogative. No one can impose that path on us; we must define it for ourselves.

We often take human rights for granted, as if they have always been protected and always will be protected. Deeper than law, they are inscribed in our brightest hopes and aspirations for life. We believe our rights come from God, but the care of those rights is up to us. This divine origin is important, because if rights become simply what the majority of people want, then they are nothing more than a power play or mere opinion. As Alexander Hamilton, a major intellectual influence on constitutions around the world, wrote: “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”4

Religious freedom is important because religion itself is important. Prayers and meditations dignify our most solemn public ceremonies. Political leaders often invoke God’s blessing in times of crisis. Religious rituals mark life’s pivotal moments of birth, coming of age, marriage, death, and many moments in between. Our understanding of human rights stems from religious ideals.5

Observing the course of history shows that human beings are religious by nature. Religion offers a framework by which people find meaning, belonging, and identity—whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or any other. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, religion gives us “a feeling of participating in something vast and consequential.”6

We cannot simply create new values and morals from our own ideas. They have to be given to us by God, who embeds them in our nature. Whether inherited from religious teachings or grounded in practical experience, all societies have some ethical basis. Trace the pedigree of our moral understandings, and you will find religion at the roots.7 Secular historians Will and Ariel Durant wrote, “There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.”8

Religious organizations provide social connections that grow outward. One example of dignity in a time of crisis happened a few years ago. When a local mosque in the northwestern United States was destroyed by arson, a nearby congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offered its chapel to their Muslim friends as a place to gather and pray. It was provided as long as they needed it, free of charge. Shams Pirbhai, an Islamic Center board member, said: “It was a surprise, and it was very heartwarming. … That means a lot to me and to our whole congregation.” When asked why they offered the building, a local Latter-day Saint representative said: “It’s really very simple. It’s just neighbors helping neighbors. Jesus said, ‘Love your neighbor.’ They’re right next door. How can it be more obvious than that?”9

Small actions like this build social trust, strengthen friendships, and encourage us to defend each other’s religious freedom. Dignity transcends tragedy.

May God bless you.

1. Pablo Neruda, “Towards the Splendid City” (Nobel lecture, Sweden, Dec. 13, 1971).

4. Alexander Hamilton, The Farmer Refuted, 1775, 5.

5. See “Civil Society: Faith in the Public Square,” Newsroom, June 8, 2016.

6. Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, 2011, 101.

7. See “The Quest for a Common Moral Framework,” Newsroom, Nov. 14, 2016.

8. Will Durant and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History, 1996, 51.

9. Gabe Cohen, “Church Takes in Bellevue Muslim Community after Arson,” KOMO News, Jan. 20, 2017.

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.