What is Religious Freedom?

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What Is Religious Freedom?

The First Inalienable Right

The very first amendment to the US Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" (US Constitution). Thus freedom of religion became the first freedom that paved the way for the other freedoms that Americans enjoy. But encompassed in the term freedom of religion is the freedom to think, to act upon one’s conscience, to express what one believes, without fear of persecution.

US Constitution

No State-Sponsored Religion

Based on this first amendment, the Founding Fathers of the United States did not establish a state religion, paving the way for every citizen to seek out religious truth for themselves. For immigrants arriving from many nations, the ability to search their own conscience, listen to the opinions of others, and speak their own religious opinions was a freedom they had not known since Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittemberg, Germany.

What It Means Today

The First Amendment has equal efficacy for those who do and do not profess a religion per se. It is understood that it would be against the Constitution for anyone to be forced to adhere to a set of religious beliefs, or to be forbidden to worship according to a set of religious beliefs. However, there is a moral component to the amendment that affects all Americans whether they profess a religion or not. It can be expressed as freedom of conscience: the right to think and believe and also to express and act upon what one deeply believes according to the dictates of one’s moral conscience. This freedom is one that is enjoyed in every free country. It is a mark of civilization and should not be abused. Implicit is the right not only to enjoy freedom of religion/conscience, but to allow others to enjoy it also.

The Impact of Religious Freedom

When religious freedom is observed, society benefits. Recent studies have shown:

• Religious freedom promotes stability in a pluralistic society, but when limited, it correlates to increased violence and conflict.

• Wherever religious freedom is high, there is more economic prosperity, better health, lower income inequality and prolonged democracy.

• Religious freedom directly correlates with the protection afforded other civil and human rights; if some agency can control the yearnings of faith and conviction, then that agency could, in James Madison’s words, “sweep away all our fundamental rights,” such as freedom of speech, press and assembly (LDS Newsroom Article on Religious Freedom).

Mormon Views on Religious Freedom

One might ask why religious freedom means so much to Mormons. Religious persecution, something the original Quaker pilgrims were fleeing when they came to America in the first place, has plagued mankind. Even in the United States, prejudice still rages against Muslims, Jews, even Catholics in some areas. Mormons too were subject to terrible persecution in the early days of the Church. (See, for example, Persecutions in Missouri.) Although that physical persecution has waned, the lessons learned keep the great blessing of freedom of religion foremost in the minds of ]]Latter-day Saints]].

Early in 2012, as a demonstration of the solidarity of the Mormon Church with many other religious leaders, Bishop H. David Burton, Presiding Bishop of the Church, signed an open letter promoting religious freedom and marriage (Church News Article). In February 2011, Dallin H. Oaks, one of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, delivered an address on preserving religious freedom at the Chapman University School of Law (Text of Address). Previously, Elder Oaks testified in support of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights on 13 May 1992.

In 1997, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was among 20 prominent religious leaders named by the U.S. secretary of state to advise the State Department on addressing human rights abuses against people of all religions.

Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recently remarked, “There has always been an ongoing battle between people of faith and those who would purge religion and God from public life. Many opinion leaders today reject a moral view of the world based on Judeo-Christian values. In their view there is no objective moral order. They believe no preference should be given to moral goals. Still, the majority of people aspire to be good and honorable” (“Let There Be Light”).

The fourth in a series on religious freedom concludes with this statement, “Mormons cherish religious freedom by virtue of both their history and their faith. But while they have special reasons to cherish religious freedom, they do not make special claims on it; like Joseph Smith, Mormons want to see these freedoms preserved and protected for all. At a time when challenges to religious freedom are increasing, it is the responsibility of all people of faith and conscience to understand and to advance this fundamental human freedom for themselves and their neighbors. Mormons find they have ample reason to keep this charge” (“Why Religious Freedom Matters to Mormons”).


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