We tend to defer the responsibility of Religious Freedom to the State. But to what extent is it an individual matter as well? In this post I will guide us through some of the issues, and hope for a healthy discussion on what we can do to enhance Freedom of Religion.
Is Freedom of Religion or belief a legal, institutional or personal affair?
The USA First Amendment starts with “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…“. In my discussions with Americans, Freedom of Religion is defined mostly on the legalizing of religions. One assumes that so long as the law does not limit religions, there is religious freedom in the nation. Historically this is understandable, as the Pilgrim Fathers left Europe, their mind was geared towards creating space to live their religion. It was not about freedom for all religions, but for freedom for their own religion as is evidenced by each State of the Union preferring its own religion. Putting limits on the government to constrain religions was apparently also central in the declaration found in D&C 134: “We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, …; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should … never suppress the freedom of the soul.” Is it no wonder why we, Latter-day Saints focus on rule of law for the protection of Religious Freedom.
There is another way of looking at Religious Freedom, though. Ancient Rome had a great deal of influence on European law for over a millennium. It claimed the so called lex naturalis (natural law), certain rights individuals have by virtue of being human. Human rights, to Roman law, were inalienable rights, and therefore the government, per definition, had no influence over creating laws regarding religious freedom. Moreover, lex naturalis was freedom for individuals, as opposed to the rights of organized religious groups. This law was used by my ancestor Gerard Noodt in the late 17th century in the Netherlands to criticize a decree of the Prince of Orange that all his subjects adhere to Calvinism. Arminianism was thereby banned. The Prince’s decree, of course, caused great hardship, and the effects are still felt both in the USA and the Netherlands alike. Before the decree, Holland was to known as a safe haven for the religious outcasts of Europe. Hugenots, Askinazi and Sephardic Jews, English Pilgrims and many others, had been gathering in western Holland. After the prince’s decree the Pilgrims averted to America to find themselves a new land of liberty.
Personally I am involved in several NGO’s that stand for the protection of religious freedom globally. My main instrument for remedy is the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human rights, articles 18-20. This is not so much about legalization; nor is it about freedom for religious institutions. It, too, assumes that Freedom of Religion or Belief (henceforth FoRB) is first and foremost an individual matter. Of particular importance is the inclusion of the rights for individuals of their freedom of thought, opinion, conscience, speech, exercise, and assembly. FoRB also includes those who claim a non-belief. This agrees with D&C 134:2, which includes the free exercise of conscience.
FoRB can have several meanings. It could mean Freedom FROM religion, a term often used in for example modern French society where non-religion is often preferred. Some take Ghandi’s creed to heart, when they claim that “freedom is my religion”. To others it means Freedom FOR MY religion, a term often used by minority religions, such as ours. Again others talk about “freedom FROM religious institutions”? And again others claim FoRB to be freedom for the RELIGIOUS. Many defend this last one to include freedom for the non-religious, such as an increasing number of Atheists, Humanists and those who belong to a group called None’s in the USA, or “Somethingists” in the Netherlands (those who believe in something and do not join a church to learn what that something actually is).
FoRB for the Mormon Church
Our own LDS Church, of course stands in the first place for freedom for OUR religion. We have a long history of persecution, and we are tired of being bullied around by government institutions. And yet, prophecies still describe a bleak future for many of the Saints in the Latter-days. At the same time, Brigham Young taught that in the Millennium there would be other churches (Journal of Discourses, 2:316-317, July 8, 1855). For that to happen one would expect freedom of thought, conscience, speech, and freedom to exercise in the Millennium. After all, we cannot imagine the Savior dictating the conscience of His subjects.
FoRB, a personal matter
As FoRB is also about individuals to believe, express, exercise, and assemble, all of us are automatic participants in a discourse on FoRB. Even in the many nations that protect religious freedom in their constitution there are always issues regarding FoRB. Because FoRB is not just about the government’s role, but also about the interaction between individuals. Conflicts dominate the headlines in the media, and there can be no true freedoms in an environment of animosity. Universally, religions explain the need to love our fellowmen as ourselves. We, Mormons, teach that we are equal children of a common non-partial and loving Heavenly Father. King Benjamin’s speech lauds a class-less society where even a king serves, rather than claiming to be better than another. These teachings form a healthy basis for FoRB. Respecting the opinion of others, without derogating or labeling them as fools (Mtt. 5:22) is just a first step towards FoRB in any society. It often requires people to agree to disagree without becoming offensive or or even the need to become defensive. It requires of people to differentiate between the belief and the believer; respecting the believer, whilst disagreeing with the belief. Disagreement is agreeable, so long as we are not disagreeable.
Finding our own definition of FoRB
Because FoRB is so hard to specifically describe, each culture and each person must find a workable definition. This is not so much done in legal terms, but by discourse, exchange of ideas, debate, thinking about it, agreeing and disagreeing. It recognizes a different sets of values, successes and trauma’s to cope with for each individual.
This means that we, Latter-day Saints, need to also accept the responsibility of FoRB for ourselves, and not let government or Church leadership take the brunt of it. As such we may individually need to find answers to the types of questions that we need to deal with for ourselves and within in our LDS communities. We could debate questions like:
- How is the freedom of others influenced in a society that praises the winners, the haves, and the successful, and debase losers, have-nots?
- To what extent is a teaching of patriotism healthy in a religion that wants to be a player in a global religious arena? Patriotism enhances a pride for our own, and a rejection of the other and inhibits inclusiveness. Could teachings and expressions of patriotism in church become an issue for the freedoms of those guests who are not of our nation? Could that make them feel as second class citizens in our congregations?
- Should we, and if so, how, could we enhance the freedoms for those who believe differently from those in the cultural majority on such issues as same sex attraction and marriage, liberal political parties, the correctness of some church policies, the proper interpretation of scripture, the wisdom of gun control, or any other issue we have strong feelings about? How much freedom of expression should there be for them within our community? Is there a place among us for those of other beliefs?
- Clearly, we have the right to express our views, but should we always express our opinion, label people or insult them? Why is it that we, as Latter-day Saints often find it so difficult to be kind to others who are different and respect them, so much so that General Conference speakers regularly beg us to be better on this this issue? One would think we would be exemplarily kind, as we are often trained in “uplifting one another”.
- Why is it that some religions are renown for kindness and acceptance, and we are really not? Think of some Buddhist groups, Bahai’s, Unificationists, etc.. Should we want to belong to this group?
There are many more questions such as these, and we could write a host of reactions and feelings to them. But that is not the aim of this post. I am trying to link individual freedoms to the freedoms to believe and act in accordance to personal conscience and to the agency of all God’s children, which we, Latter-day Saints, hold so dear.
Diversity amongst us is the universal color of our religion. While the Gospel is true, discussions in Mormonism are not always black and white. Paul expresses his appreciation for the less honorable amongst the saints in his statement in 1 Corinthians 12:23. Elder Holland described it well in his talk “Songs sung and Unsung”: “On those days when we feel a little out of tune, … it is important, …, to remember it is by divine design that not all voices in God’s choir are the same. Various voices are needed to make rich music.”
The question, therefore, is, how well do those whom we feel are singing off tune, experience our warm heart? How far should we, Latter-Day Saints, go in our tolerance or acceptance for them? To what extent should we convert them to our opinions and values? How should we deal with intolerance in our own Ward or Branch?