Additional Resource

Transcript: Elder Quentin L. Cook speaks on religious freedom at Princeton Theological Seminary

Accountability to God

Religious Freedom and Fairness

By Elder Quentin L. Cook

Seymour Institute Seminar on Religious Freedom

July 26, 2017

I am grateful for the opportunity to address this remarkable assembly of faith leaders. In your very important positions, and as part of the Seymour Institute mission, you encourage faith and family. You also promote religious observance and protect the religious freedom it requires. You have spoken out for the protection of families and individuals against a myriad of forces, including poverty, violence, the decline in marriage rates, mass incarceration, abortion, and the erosion of traditional sexual morality. You have reminded our society of the Lord’s call “to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free” (Isaiah 58:6).

I am honored to be associated with you.

I have titled my talk “Accountability to God—Religious Freedom and Fairness.” In doing so I have no intention of entering any of the current partisan political discussions. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its full-time leaders are nonpartisan and neutral in matters of party politics.[1]

We do, however, address in a nonpartisan way issues that have significant community or moral consequences, and that is my purpose this morning. I appreciate the invitation extended to me to address some of these issues.

I was in law school at Stanford University when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a hero to my classmates and me. In recent years, I have enjoyed getting to know his son, Martin Luther King III. I was also pleased when I was among those invited to meet with Pope Benedict in New York (April 2008) that I was seated next to Dr. King’s daughter Bernice. I recently reread some of Dr. King’s pre-1960 sermons. One seemed particularly relevant to our day.

Martin Luther King Jr., in a sermon delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, on August 11, 1957, took as his scriptural passage the well-known verse found in all the synoptic Gospels: “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”[2]

King began his sermon by stating, “An individual has not begun to live until he can rise above the narrow horizons of his particular individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”[3]

The sermon is about “conquering self-centeredness.” He counseled: “Find some great cause and some great purpose, some loyalty to which you can give yourself and become so absorbed in that something that you give your life to it.”[4]

In this sermon, he also talked about the help we receive from other individuals and through the grace of God. He included the words of “Amazing Grace” in his closing remarks.

As I read Dr. King’s sermon, I realized how far this country has moved from basic principles relating to faith. This is also true with respect to family and religious freedom.

Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, has articulated in an elegant manner the concern I have with the diminished role of faith, moral values, and religion in our modern era. He acknowledged advances in science, technology, democracy, knowledge, life expectancy, and affluence. He said these great achievements “are to be defended and cherished.”

“But they do not answer the three questions every reflective individual asks at some time in his or her life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? The result is that the 21st century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.”[5]

This sets forth in a beautiful fashion the essence of my message and is at the heart of the counsel Dr. King gave. I am deeply concerned that faith, accountability to God, and religious freedom are so often seen as antithetical to our modern secular society. I am equally concerned that the foundations which have historically supported faith, accountability to God, and the religious impulse are increasingly being marginalized in a secular world. They are derided and even banished from the public square. There are two excellent books published this year, one by my friend Archbishop Charles J. Chaput titled Strangers in a Strange Land—Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World,[6] and the other by Rod Dreher titled The Benedict Option—A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.[7] They detail the perilous situation that modern Christians experience in today’s highly secular world. Both books include strategies for approaching what they term a “post-Christian world.” I share some of their concerns but resonate with Archbishop Chaput’s admonition that “we can’t simply withdraw from public affairs.” He adds we can “benefit … all citizens, by the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity … a worthy Christian task.”[8]

I concur that we cannot abandon the basic moral high ground that gives meaning to this life and has guided civilizations for centuries. This is the heart of the message I desire to convey this morning.

In looking at society at large, the teaching and training of the younger generation—the rising generation—is a primary responsibility of the family and of the church. We must address the challenge of how to take young people from what I will refer to as the children’s table to the adults’ table. In using this analogy, I fully recognize both the righteousness and wisdom of so many of our youth. Part of training the rising generation is helping them acquire additional knowledge. But regardless of how knowledgeable or intellectually accomplished one may be, becoming morally civilized is at the heart of moving to the adult table and is an entirely different matter. Such a move depends on transmission of the serious moral values required in any civilized society. These values include being grateful for the sacrifice and goodness of one’s forebearers, being humble about what one does not know, being civil in one’s relationships with others, and trusting in a higher power than one’s self. For people who share my beliefs, it means having faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His Atonement. It should be noted that for hundreds of years a combination of good books and teaching provided a clear path to achieve most of these objectives.

The dramatic changes that have occurred in the communications world have created unique issues with respect to achieving these important goals. On the one hand, it is miraculous that this smartphone I am holding in my hand when skillfully used can provide much of the information housed in the most magnificent libraries around the world. On the other hand, the overwhelming emphasis of social media is directed to the so-called children’s table, not the adults’ table. This is often done in simplistic terms using concepts that do little to prepare the recipient for the moral adults’ table.

Last September, I spoke to the young adults of my faith at a worldwide broadcast. I shared with them some of my concerns with elements of social media, which I desire to reiterate with you this morning:

In my view we all need to “evaluate how and when we use the Internet and social media. The bright-line test should be: Does it assist our other worthy and important goals, or does it seriously impede our progress? Are we obsessed with social media for fear of missing out if we don’t check it constantly? Does the self-promotion of some social media cause us to have self-doubt and feel inadequate? Worse yet, does the Internet lead us to images and content that is impure, inappropriate, or contains half-truths that destroy faith? Do we ever hide our identity and subject others to unkind comments or opinions? Does social media interfere with the time we would normally spend with religious observance in the home or quality family time? Is the amount of time spent on the Internet with games and trivia preventing us from effectively pursuing serious goals? These are decisions I challenge each of us to contemplate.”

In mentioning the above I am fully cognizant of the enormous benefit social media can be when used properly.

I shared with the young adults of my faith one additional thought regarding social media. “We hear a lot about being authentic in social media. Being sincerely Christlike is an even more important goal than simply being authentic.”

It is clear from what I said to Latter-day Saint young adults that I am concerned that technology, while it has a tremendous upside, also raises problems. I worry that the significant role our Judeo-Christian heritage, various faiths, the humanities, and history have played has been significantly diminished. Simplified sound bite headlines are provided to the children’s table often without the deep background, moral clarity, and analysis that would move them to the moral adults’ table, or, even more important, increase their faith.

As a young man, I served a two-year volunteer mission for my church in Great Britain. Since that time one of my avocations has been British history. I am cognizant that the sympathetic study and teaching of British history, as well as the study and teaching of western civilization, have been under attack for some time. To me, this is not merely an academic matter. Western civilization provides a strong foundational support for Christianity. Christianity is also under attack, which is an extension of a general spiritual crisis.

“Some criticize western civilization study as narrow, limiting, arrogant and discriminatory, asserting that it has little or no value for those of non-European origins.”[9] While I agree that we all need to connect with our own ancestors and their contributions to society, I respectfully disagree with this criticism of Western civilization. The West’s intellectual, spiritual, and moral traditions are not only of value to, or the exclusive property of, the descendants of Europeans.

For instance, there is a great deal in British history that provides positive foundations for our day and our culture. First for me is the King James Version of the Bible published in 1611; it contains the Judeo-Christian values shared by the vast majority of the citizens in the United States. It speaks to our personal religious beliefs and commitments. It evokes language that speaks to the heart. It is blessed by the enhancement of the English language provided by Shakespeare and the eloquent translations into English by William Tyndale.

Second are the magnificent writings of William Shakespeare, which paved the way for the language of literature and social discourse in the English tongue.

Third is the English Common Law. At about the same time the King James Bible was being translated, Sir Edward Coke, spelled C-o-k-e, but usually pronounced Cook (obviously no relation), produced the consolidation of English law in written form. His work was to law what Shakespeare’s was to literature and the King James Bible was to religion. Many of the provisions of the common law served as a foundation for the U.S. Constitution and some of its amendments.

The “free exercise” provisions of Amendment I and the protections of Amendments XIII and XIV are of fundamental importance to those of us gathered here this morning. These have a distant echo all the way back to Magna Carta.

I am also concerned that the basic principles and morality the Savior taught are under serious attack in our generation. Recently a writer asserted that when we talk about happiness, we are usually talking about something else—morality. He believes that what is considered moral has changed. He chronicles the principles of morality through the centuries. Speaking of our day, the writer notes the emphasis on authenticity and self-aggrandizement and then describes “some of the moral values that seem to underlie happiness today: be real, be strong, be productive—and most important, don’t rely on other people to achieve these goals, because your fate is, of course, in your own hands.”[10] This sounds like the self-centeredness about which Dr. King was concerned when he encouraged emphasis on matters that benefit all humanity.

One of my heroes is William Wilberforce. He is an incredible example of elevating human dignity including faith, family, and religious freedom. Wilberforce was born on August 24, 1759. No one worked harder to abolish slavery. He was a major part of a group of devoutly religious Christian Evangelicals who considered themselves ambassadors for God. They were determined to be examples of godliness, holiness, and compassion. “Above all, the Evangelicals felt an overpowering sense of accountability, and a responsibility to God, for their actions.”[11] Wilberforce was educated at St. John’s College Cambridge. He became a member of the British Parliament and was a close friend of William Pitt, the younger, who later become prime minister. He was a voracious reader[12] and an avid lover of nature. He saw flowers as “the smiles of the deity.”

Wilberforce, together with Charles and John Wesley, Hannah Moore, and other Evangelicals were instrumental in transforming a society from “drunkenness, gambling, dueling, the unfairness of the penal system, every form of immorality and the lack of observation of the Sabbath.”[13]

William Wilberforce will forever be remembered for being the principal force for the abolition of slavery in Great Britain. He proposed bill after bill in Parliament and spent his life to put a stop to “the most execrable and inhuman traffic that ever disgraced the Christian world.”[14] After nearly 50 years of promoting measures that would one day lead to the emancipation of slaves, the goal was accomplished in Great Britain the week before he died, July 29, 1833.

According to his biographer, William Hague, who recently served as Secretary of State of the United Kingdom,[15] Wilberforce’s great fear was “that religion and morality would go out of the window with political and social stability as indeed happened in France.” Wilberforce was highly educated himself and a champion of education; he “continued to believe that the real revolution that was required was in morals and education.” Accordingly, Wilberforce never supported “reform that was antithetical to religion.”[16]

Wilberforce “stands out as a beacon of light, which the passing of two centuries has scarcely dimmed.”[17] It is important to note that Evangelicals in the United States during these decades were also involved in similar reform efforts. Many American Evangelicals, both black and white, felt called by the Spirit to seek the abolition of slavery in the United States. One notable example is Sojourner Truth,[18] who, rising from slavery and poverty, let her voice be heard in word and song in defense of freedom.

As I read the mission and vision statements of the Seymour Institute, I realize these values are significantly emphasized in the life and works of William Wilberforce and like-minded reformers in the United States. These values also represent the kind of moral responsibility that Lord Sacks discussed.

In our own way, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have experienced religious persecution and denial of religious freedom at various times. Let me share with you the experiences of Latter-day Saint members in 1833, soon after the Church was established in Missouri. This will bring religious freedom issues into clear focus.

Before doing so, I wish to concur unequivocally with what Dr. Eugene Rivers and Dr. Kenneth Johnson wrote: “The black American experience as a function of slavery is unique and without analogue in the history of the United States. … While other … groups have experienced discrimination and hardship, none of their experiences compare with the physical and cultural brutality of slavery.”[19]

In Missouri in 1833, our Latter-day Saint values were in direct conflict with the Missouri settlers not of our faith. Many Missourians considered American Indians a relentless enemy and wanted them removed from the land. In addition, many of the Missouri settlers were slave owners and felt threatened by those who were opposed to slavery. Many were in search of land, wealth, and even power.

In contrast, our doctrine respected the American Indians and our desire was to teach them the gospel of Jesus Christ. With respect to slavery our scriptures are clear that no man should be in bondage to another. Our relatively few early black members worshipped together with white members. Finally, our purpose was not to obtain wealth but to establish communities of brothers and sisters that loved one another and lived the principles the Savior taught. Other Missouri settlers felt threatened as large numbers of Latter-day Saints, following the Lord’s revelations, moved to Missouri.[20]

This resulted in immense conflict and persecution for members of the Church. The Saints’ opponents destroyed their crops and some buildings, robbed livestock and personal property, and drove them from their homes. Some Saints were tarred and feathered, whipped, or beaten. Writing to Joseph Smith, who was living in Kirtland, Ohio, William W. Phelps stated, “It is a horrid time, men, women and children are fleeing, or preparing to, in all directions.”[21] In the chaos of the expulsion, families were sometimes divided and many Saints lacked food and other necessities.

These Latter-day Saints regrouped and settled in another Missouri county. A few years later, violence again exploded against them. Their opponents destroyed houses and farms, stole property, and harassed and raped women. In a small Mormon settlement called Hawn’s Mill, Missourians slaughtered at least 17 men and boys. When Mormons tried to defend themselves, the governor of Missouri issued an order that the Mormons be “treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state.”[22] In response to this cruel order, at least 8,000 Latter-day Saints were driven from Missouri that winter while many of their leaders were imprisoned and able to provide direction and comfort to their people for a time only through letters from jail.[23]

Let me say once again, I am not comparing Latter-day Saint trials with the horrendous slavery experience of African Americans. But it does allow us to see religious freedom through a somewhat similar lens.

Persecution taught the early Latter-day Saints the importance of protecting religious liberty and of preserving the dignity of each individual in their own choices. A few months before he was killed by a mob in 1844, our prophet, Joseph Smith, taught that moral agency was essential for each individual: “God cannot save or damn a man only on the principle that every man acts, chooses and worships for himself; hence the importance of thrusting from us every spirit of bigotry and intolerance towards a man’s religious sentiments, that spirit which has drenched the earth with blood.” He wanted his listeners to know that the “principles of intolerance and bigotry” never had a place in his heart. In questions of politics and government, he continued, “A man’s religious opinions should never be called in question.”

In the same sermon, Joseph Smith linked the importance of religious liberty with the value of each human soul. The “first law of everything that is sacred,” he taught, was the “inalienable right of man” to “think as he pleases” and “worship as he pleases.” As such, “those grand and sublime principles of equal rights and universal freedom to all men” were indispensable.[24]

But Joseph Smith worried they were far from secure. Correspondence with the leading presidential candidates of his day convinced Joseph Smith that not enough priority was being placed on religious freedom and other key freedoms. Toward the end of his life in 1844, Joseph Smith launched his own presidential campaign on a platform that included calls for religious liberty for all, not just for Mormons; for the freeing and rehabilitation of countless men imprisoned for debts and petty crimes; and for the emancipation of slaves.[25]

In our day, we face both similar and quite different challenges. As Latter-day Saints, we continue to advocate both for religious liberty and for the protection of the rights of all men and women, but new areas of disagreement have emerged. Over the past few years, for example, we have carefully considered how to balance religious liberty and the proper protection of LGBT individuals. We have always tried to follow the Savior’s admonition, “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”[26] All individuals are entitled to live with dignity, including protections for housing, employment, and access to traditional places of public accommodation.

At the same time, our theology of the sacred and eternal role of men and women, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers has not changed.[27] We believe that even from a societal point of view children do best when they have both a father and a mother in the home. We acknowledge that United States law allows individuals to organize their lives around same-sex relationships, and the Supreme Court has granted marriage rights to same-sex couples. Nevertheless, we should not retreat from our deeper religious understanding of marriage—or from proclaiming the essential value of motherhood and fatherhood in society.

We call this approach “Fairness for All.” Even when the issues are complex and emotionally charged, we believe that productive dialogue is possible when all involved acknowledge that the other’s freedoms deserve protection. That recognition allows us to build trust in the face of our differences: all involved can consider compromise over nonessential areas when they are confident that both sides are committed to protecting what is essential. “Fairness for all” thus recognizes the essential role of protecting core religious freedoms and core LGBT freedoms with dignity for everyone.

A robust pluralism is still the best model for reasonably accommodating everyone’s needs in a diverse society.

Everyone should be respected for who they are and afforded the freedom to live openly and with dignity according to their core beliefs, whether religious or secular.

Government influence should never be used to pressure religious institutions or individuals to back down on core beliefs.

Individual believers should be able to:

  • Worship and express faith openly without fear of retaliation or ostracism.
  • Live openly according to religious beliefs—to “exercise” one’s religion.
  • Be free from discrimination in a particular occupation or profession because of religious beliefs.
  • Be free from religious discrimination in employment, housing, or traditional places of public accommodation.

Religious organizations should be able to:

  • Form religious organizations and schools where believers can express and live their faith.
  • Establish doctrines, ceremonies, and requirements for membership, including ecclesiastical office and employment.
  • Speak out on public issues.

Core LGBT protections should include:

  • Protection for constitutional rights—to speak out, petition government, to assemble and interact, all without fear of reprisal.
  • Live the lifestyle they choose openly without fear of retaliation or ostracism.
  • Be free from discrimination in particular occupations or professions because of sexual orientation.
  • Be free from discrimination in employment, housing, and traditional places of public accommodation.
  • Form businesses and organizations that serve LGBT individuals and groups.
  • Speak out on public issues and otherwise participate in the public square.

If there is to be “fairness for all,” no one should face a threat to their very existence. All should affirmatively recognize that everyone is entitled to protection for their core freedoms and interests. Everyone should be realistic and sensible. There should be more tolerance—not everything is core.

Let me be clear: in advocating for “fairness for all,” I am not talking about the compromise of core doctrinal beliefs.

Traditional religious views on marriage and human sexuality are not only core beliefs for us and many others but also part of the range of perspectives our country needs as it moves forward.

“Fairness for all” acknowledges that all voices—including those of people of faith—should be welcomed in the public square. Our country has learned all too slowly, and forgets too easily, that we all do better when the voices of all minorities are given respect in our national dialogue. We stand to lose a great deal now if insights from religion are labelled as irrational and irrelevant in the public sphere and if individual believers are dismissed as bigots when they express deeply held beliefs about the social importance of institutions like traditional marriage.

In the face of such dismissals, some religious thinkers have felt inclined to retreat from public life and focus on our own respective congregations.[28] But we should feel a call as people of faith to enter the public square together, just as Wilberforce, the Wesleys, and others did two centuries ago, both in England and the United States. Our great nation is facing a crisis of justice and morality, and we must work together to advocate for foundational principles that will make for a more just and righteous United States. In an era when so many strive to be authentic to their own feelings, we must strive to be sincere before our God. Anybody who espouses moral values will be frequently mocked. Nevertheless, we should continue our ongoing and critical efforts to increase morality and protect families.

As I have studied the efforts of the Seymour Institute—and more broadly, the critical role of historically black churches and the remarkable faith leaders who have and do now preside over these congregations—I have been impressed by your willingness to stand up where others have stepped aside.

There is no group of leaders who are more effective in communicating your mission and your message both to your congregations and also to the nation.

I applaud your own robust statements in defense of religious liberty and hope that we can work together in the future on these critical issues. As people who love the country and value the Lord’s counsel, our path forward runs together with yours.

I have appreciated this opportunity to address you and hope this helps you understand why we have established a “fairness for all” approach to the difficult religious freedom issues that exist in our society today. Thank you.


[2] Matthew 10:39. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are referred to as the “synoptic Gospels” because they possess commonalities that the fourth Gospel, John, does not. See Matthew 10:39; 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; 17:33.

[4] The Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project, 253.

[5] Jonathan Sacks, “Swords into Plowshares,” Wall Street Journal Review, Oct. 3–4, 2015, C2.

[6] Charles J. Chaput, Strangers in a Strange Land (2017).

[7] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option (2017).

[8] Charles J. Chaput, Strangers in a Strange Land, 14–15.

[9] Donald Kagan, New York Times Book Review, Nov. 27, 2011, 27.

[10] Carl Cederstrom, “The Dangers of Happiness,” New York Times, July 19, 2015, 8.

[11] William Hague, William Wilberforce, The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (2007), 92–93.

[12] William Hague, William Wilberforce, The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner, 204.

[13] William Hague, William Wilberforce, The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner, 92.

[14] William Hague, William Wilberforce, The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner, 354–55.

[15] William Hague served as Secretary of State of the United Kingdom from 2010 to 2015.

[16] William Hague, William Wilberforce, The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner, 445–46.

[17] William Hague, William Wilberforce, The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner, 515.

[18] Sojourner Truth, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, ed. Nell Irvin Painter (1998). See also Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (1997).

[19] Eugene F. Rivers and Kenneth D. Johnson, Weekly Standard, June 2, 2006.

[20] On the conflict in Missouri, see The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 3: February 1833–March 1834, ed. Gerrit J. Dirkmaat and others (2014), xxvii-xxx.

[21] Letter to Joseph Smith from William W. Phelps, Nov. 6–7, 1833, in The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 3: February 1833–March 1834, 341,

[22] Lilburn W. Boggs letter to John B. Clark, Oct. 27, 1838, Mormon War Papers, Missouri State Archives.

[23] For more, see “Peace and Violence among Nineteenth-Century Latter-day Saints,”

[24] The Joseph Smith Papers, Administrative Records: Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844–January 1846, ed. Matthew J. Grow and others (2016), 97–101.

[25] Joseph Smith, General Smith’s Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States (1844).

[26] Matthew 7:12.

[27] “We, the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2010, 129).

[28] “The public square has been lost. … The supposed high ground of our churches is no safe place either” (Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option [2017], 9). “Secede culturally from the mainstream. … Ceasing to believe that the fate of the American Empire is in our hands frees us to put them to work for the Kingdom of God in our own little shires” (Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, 98–99).

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