The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published a new topics page on religious freedom Tuesday to “help people of conscience everywhere understand the importance of protecting religious freedom.”
The site’s resources are, on the whole, engaging and comprehensive. In one video, Quentin L. Cook, a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles governing body, says to an audience at Brigham Young University, “My challenge today is that you join with people of all faiths who feel accountable to God in defending religious freedom so that it can be a beacon for morality.”
Whether or not Cook deliberately excluded people of no faith from his call to action is unclear and perhaps unimportant. His omission does however highlight the campaign’s failure to adequately emphasize the role nonbelievers play in religious liberty debates.
I’m not saying the church totally ignores atheists, agnostics and anyone unaffiliated with an organized religion — text on the site clearly states, “Religious freedom protects the rights of all groups and individuals, including the most vulnerable, whether religious or not.” I’m just not convinced that the official Mormon message to “nones,” a key interest group on this issue, is going to be well received.
One video describes religious freedom as a “God-given right.” After years of conservative Christian groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom and Religious Freedom Coalition speaking in these terms, partly to score political points, the phrase “God-given” probably won’t jive well with the average American nonbeliever.
Many “nones” respect religious liberty as an important human right — not a right sanctioned by God, but by society and law. When nonbelievers and proponents of secularization are among your biggest adversaries on a critical issue like religious freedom, every word counts.
Another point that drew my attention about the church’s new campaign is its great emphasis on civility.
In an introductory video, Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles says, “We must show mutual respect for others and treat all civilly. No one should be belittled for following their moral conscience.”
A narrator in another video says, “As we engage in public discourse, we should remember the repeated encouragement by church leaders to act with civility, tolerance and respect.” He later adds, “No one should be mocked, mistreated or silenced for following their moral conscience. That goes for religious institutions as well.”
Should religious institutions be free from criticism? Resolution 16/18, adopted by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2011, emphasized that people should not be discriminated against based on their beliefs but stopped short of extending that same protection to belief systems. The ability to criticize religious institutions, or indeed to mock them as a means of criticism, is often considered an important part of religious freedom and freedom of expression.
I should note that, despite these caveats and asides, the church’s new resources do provide an important overview of religious freedom and are well worth a skim. Two of my favorite quotes:
“Religious freedom allows us to worship how we choose and gives all people the right to think what they want, say freely and publicly what they think, and to openly live their lives and their beliefs while allowing others to do the same.”
“If you want your religious beliefs to be protected, you need to defend the beliefs of your neighbor, even if they don’t mesh with your own.
Let’s end with some debate on the point of civility.
Does religious freedom require civility? Or does a requirement of civility hamper religious freedom? Leave your comments below.