What Religious Freedom Requires of Us

Religious Freedom Is as Much a Duty toward Others as It Is a Right for Oneself

“Conflict and debate are vital to democracy. Yet if controversies about religion and politics are to reflect the highest wisdom of the First Amendment and advance the best interests of the disputants and the nation, then how we debate, and not only what we debate, is critical.” — The Williamsburg Charter[1]

The Obligations of Religious Freedom

There is a paradox to religious freedom — a genuine gain arising from an apparent loss. The dilemma goes something like this: If you want your religious beliefs to be protected, you must protect religious beliefs that fundamentally differ from your own. This does not require an endorsement of those beliefs, but it does require a certain respect for them.[2] Competing claims of truth and belief don’t easily coexist. However, “religious freedom for me but not for thee” cannot work, especially in a world as diverse as ours. Centuries of sectarian conflict have shown that such attitudes degrade the freedom of both. The way to ensure one’s own freedom is to ensure freedom for everyone.

Religious freedom is as much a duty as it is a right, as much an obligation to give as a privilege to receive. Such responsibilities and benefits are not only the inheritance of a time-honored constitution. They shape the way we live our lives from day to day. The fruits of religious freedom depend on the continual hard work of communities in nurturing civility, respect and reciprocity — the two-way street of civic virtue. Sustaining religious freedom is part of a just and free society.

This mutual obligation is founded on the inherent dignity of each person and the moral conscience that guides human agency. Keeping this obligation is the great test of a peaceful society. Having experienced persecution and intolerance in the past, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can relate with religious minority groups who suffer in similar ways. A spirit of solidarity inspired Joseph Smith, founding prophet of the Church, to affirm: “It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul — civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race.”

Civility and Its Consequences

Much of this reciprocal responsibility is simply a matter of how we, as citizens, treat each other. Our public interaction reveals who we are as a people and what kind of society we choose to build. This interaction continually defines our values. Constant care is required to cultivate the manners and freedoms of civilization.

The words we speak, and how we speak them, make all the difference. The need for civility does not require citizens to hide their beliefs or soften them into nice generalities. Meaningful discussion can be both humane and vigorous. Civility is a call to ensure that every voice is heard and respected, even if no agreement follows. Religious organizations and individuals are responsible to state their views reasonably and respectfully so they contribute to productive discussion. The intensity of pluralistic democracy needs to be tempered by mature discourse wherein differing sides express opinions without dismissing beliefs.

The discussion of competing ideas — the sign of a healthy democracy — teaches citizens to acknowledge and respect each other’s deepest differences. As fellow citizens we should always speak with compassion and show patience toward those who disagree with us. We foster tolerance and respect by giving it ourselves. No one should be denigrated for adhering to their moral conscience.

An Atmosphere of Goodwill

Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has urged: “As believers we should frame our arguments and positions in ways that contribute to the reasoned discussion and accommodation that are essential to democratic government in a pluralistic society. By this means we will contribute to the civility that is essential to preserve our civilization.”

Striving to communicate and promote their values in ways that resonate with people in their communities, Latter-day Saints add to the multitude of voices concerned with the well-being of society. President of the Church Thomas S. Monson has captured 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.”

As long as human beings continue to organize into societies, act on individual conscience and make claims about ultimate truth, there will be deep, sometimes intractable, differences. The paradox of religious freedom will continue to require that we fulfill the mutual obligation of civility. Upholding this freedom is a two-way street.


[1] The Williamsburg Charter, Summary of Principles, 1988. Elder Dallin H. Oaks signed this document on behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

[2] See W. Cole Durham, “The Doctrine of Religious Freedom,” BYU devotional address (3 April 2001).

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