Freedom of Religion and Belief in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

What do The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints think about freedom of religion and belief?

At the heart of the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lies the belief that every person is a child of God. The Family: A Proclamation to the World outlines:

All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny (The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, 1995).

The interconnectedness of humanity as one family, with each being a brother and sister to each other, is central to any exploration of the ways that people connect with, and care for, each other. The world in which we live is perhaps more diverse than it has ever been, or it may only seem such because of the closeness that is now possible with communications capabilities bringing the world together both physically and virtually. Spencer J. Palmer has noted:

A few decades ago the terms Buddhist, Hindu, mosque, Sikh, pagoda, and synagogue were unfamiliar labels filled with mystery. Today, however, the world is a close neighbourhood – few societies or religions are any longer distant or foreign. The study of the religions of the world is no longer a matter of reading about exotic lands to which only the most intrepid travellers have voyaged. Almost any faith from anywhere is a presence in our lives – and an immediate option (Palmer, 1997, p. 8).

The inter-relatedness of each member of the human family means that we should be mindful of how we treat people of all races, religions and genders. We look to the example of the Good Samaritan in considering the question raised by the lawyer: “who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29). The Good Samaritan did not withhold his care or shirk his responsibility because of any differences between himself and the beaten man. This, and many other teachings in scriptures provide a background against which Freedom of Religion and Belief should be celebrated and worked for.

The 11th Article of Faith of the Church highlights Freedom of Religion and Belief:

We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

First published in response to a request from the journalist John Wentworth, in time the Articles went on to form part of the Latter-day Saint canon in The Pearl of Great PriceThis approach to freedom of religion and belief was reiterated throughout the teachings of the first President of the Church, Joseph Smith

If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a Mormon, I am bold to declare before heaven that I am just as ready to die for a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or any other denomination. It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul. Civil and religious liberty were diffused into my soul by my grandfathers, while they dandled me on their knees…  If I esteem mankind to be in error shall I bear them down? No! I will lift them up—and in his own way if I cannot persuade him my way is better. I will ask no man to believe as I do. (Joseph Smith, 1843, pp. 55–56)

Further examples of Joseph Smith’s writings on freedom of religion and belief can be found here.

It is not enough for Latter-day Saints to have freedom of religion and belief; this same right must be afforded to all people. Although in countries such as the UK where Latter-day Saints are in a minority, an observer may understand the need for a ‘minority’ group to seek protection and freedoms under the law; this is just as important and is indeed apparent in places such as Utah where it is the predominant religion. This relates to the call of Jesus Christ to be the salt of the earth, and to seek to bless the whole of humanity. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is radical in nature and seeks to include those who might be considered on the margins of society. A call to discipleship is a call to service. This could be seen to be analogous to the ‘blessed community’ extolled by the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King:

In a real sense all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly (King 1967: 181).

Everyone in society needs to be protected. Just as Joseph Smith was as willing to die for a Catholic as for a Latter-day Saint, so, today Latter-day Saints should be willing to fight for the rights of others just as passionately as if those same rights were being denied them.

The time of violent persecution of Latter-day Saints is still in the memory of members today. The early history of the Church is replete with opposition to Latter-day Saints and the free expression of their religion. Perhaps, the most heinous was the extermination order of Missouri executed by then Governor Boggs (more information on this order can be found here). It was not, however, solely in response to such opposition that Joseph Smith highlighted the importance of freedom of religion and belief to his followers. His view of the expansiveness of the human experience and the love that God has for all of his creation led to the recognition of the value that the free expression of religion and belief can bring to individuals. 

But while one portion of the human race are judging and condemning the other without mercy, the great parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care, and paternal regard; he views them as his offspring; and without any of those contracted feelings that influence the children of men, causes “his sun to rise on the evil and the good; and sends his rain on the just and unjust.” He holds the reins of judgment in his hands; he is a wise lawgiver, and will judge all men, -[not according to the narrow contracted notions of men, but]- “according to the deeds done in the body whether they be good or evil;” or whether these deeds were done in England, America, Spain, Turkey India: he will judge them “not according to what they have not, but according to what they have;” those who have lived without law, will be judged without law, and those who have a law, will be judged by that law; we need not doubt the wisdom and intelligence of the great Jehovah, he will award judgment or mercy to all nations according to their several deserts, their means of obtaining intelligence, the laws by which they are governed; the facilities afforded them of obtaining correct information; and his inscrutable designs in relation to the human family: and when the designs of God shall be made manifest, and the curtain of futurity be withdrawn, we shall all of us eventually have to confess, that the Judge of all the earth has done right. (Joseph Smith, 1842, pp. 751–766).

This important message of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ highlights the importance of the freedom to believe and practice according to one’s conscience. This is a truth and right that is reiterated throughout The Book of Mormon (see Holt, 2021). This is not limited to tolerance, which could be used to suggest a mere recognition that others have the right to practice, but moves beyond such. Elder D. Todd Christofferson has suggested that this freedom of religious belief is:

A robust freedom is not merely what political philosophers have referred to as the ‘negative’ freedom to be left alone, however important that may be. Rather, it is a much richer ‘positive’ freedom—the freedom to live one’s religion or belief in a legal, political, and social environment that is tolerant, respectful, and accommodating of diverse beliefs (Christofferson, 2015).

This could be seen to draw on that which lies at the heart of the Christian message: love. From a Latter-day Saint perspective, it is not enough to just to tolerate, but there is a need to love. This can be seen to build on the writings of Scottish philosopher, John Locke, when speaking of a greater meaning to tolerance:

therefore peace, equity, and friendship are always mutually to be observed… without any pretence of superiority or jurisdiction over one another… Whether the man is Christian or pagan, he is to be kept safe from violence and injury. Indeed, we should go beyond mere justice, adding benevolence and charity; the Gospel commands this, reason urges it, and it is favoured by the natural fellowship we are born into (Locke, 1685)

In so doing Latter-day Saints work to preserve the rights of all of those within society, and indeed, in their personal interactions providing the space where they work with people of all faiths and none. In so doing this will encourage and help people to live according to the principles of their moral codes and religious faith. 

There are, of course, limitations. While it is not in a person’s or even the state’s remit to govern matters of belief and conscience, there is a necessary restriction to certain elements of religious or cultural practice. While the Church would suggest that people should be free to practise their beliefs, there are some practices that are outside the norms of society and should necessarily be outlawed. There should not be carte blanche for all manner of practises to be protected. Elder Ronald A. Rasband (2015) has suggested that these freedoms extend until they infringe “on the rights and safety of others”. This is developed further by President Dallin H. Oaks:

…in a nation with citizens of many different beliefs, the right of some to act upon their religious principles must sometimes be limited by the government’s responsibility to protect the health and safety of all. Otherwise, for example, the government could not protect its citizen’s person or property from neighbours whose intentions include taking human life or stealing in circumstances purportedly rationalized by their religious beliefs (2016).

In the UK this type of restriction on freedom of belief may be seen to be in evidence in the criminalisation of Female Genital Mutilation. Whether this is supported by religious, or more cultural, beliefs is debatable, but a practice that harms individuals is necessarily outside of the protection of the right to freedom of religion and belief.

One of the fundamental principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to share the truths found in the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. These include, but are not limited to, the Divine Sonship of Jesus Christ; the atonement of Jesus Christ; the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the Latter-day Saints; the role of the Holy Ghost; the Book of Mormon as the word of God; the calling of a living prophet; the Restoration of the Priesthood of God and many more.  The Doctrine and Covenants teaches that “it becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbour” (D&C 88:81), echoing the Great Commission of the Saviour to: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19). We recognise this commission as one of the fundamental principles of freedom of religion and belief; the inherent right for a person to choose to follow their conscience and to follow a religion or not according to the dictates of their own hearts. As such, the Church and its members are involved in proselyting missionary work around the world, and this is the image that many people will conjure in their minds when they think about the Church. Young men and young women around the world sacrifice 18-24 months of their lives to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ (more information about missionary work and the Church can be found here). In sharing the Gospel, members and missionaries of the Church invite people not of our faith to add to the truths that they already have in their belief and moral practice:

We have come not to take away from you the truth and virtue you possess. We have come not to find fault with you nor to criticize you. We have not come here to berate you because of things you have not done; but we have come here as your brethren … and to say to you: “Keep all the good that you have, and let us bring to you more good, in order that you may be happier and in order that you may be prepared to enter into the presence of our Heavenly Father (George Albert Smith, 1948: 12-13).

It is a basic principle of the teachings of the Church that there is truth throughout the earth, and this is not limited to one group, the First Presidency of the Church highlighted this in 1978:

Based upon ancient and modern revelation, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gladly teaches and declares the Christian doctrine that all men and women are brothers and sisters, not only by blood relationship from common mortal progenitors but also as literal spirit children of an Eternal Father. The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals (Statement of the First Presidency, 15 Feb. 1978).

This does not negate the fact that as Latter-day Saint Christians we believe that Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life” and that “no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). This is alongside the reality of revelation today and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as “true and living” (D&C 1:30).

Further, in discussing the plan of salvation as the meta-narrative for human existence and progression, at the heart of this is the principle of agency. This plan for God’s children was revealed in a Council in Heaven and involved people being proved and tested, enabling humanity to return and live with God if they kept their “estate” (Abr. 3:26). Jesus Christ, the firstborn spirit, offered himself as the atoning Saviour, while Satan/Lucifer) also offered himself, but with an alternative plan that would interfere with human agency and give him the glory (Moses 4:1, 3). With agency at the heart of human experience, it is important to recognise that people’s acceptance of the Gospel is their own decision to make. While members of the Church would be upset if someone chose to reject the message, or chose to leave the Church the principle of agency and freedom of religion and belief would mean that those decisions would be respected.

In recent years there has been an increasing focus on freedom of religion and belief in the speeches and writings of Church leaders. This has coincided with the apparent erosion of such in the public square. In their roles as ‘watchmen on the towers’ Church leaders have felt the need to reinforce its place in society, and the need for Church members to be active in working for freedom of religion and belief for all people. It can be seen that the 11th Article of Faith quoted above is not a passive suggestion that all members of the Church can benefit from; but an active injunction for which all members should work for all people. The Church has created resources for use by its members to understand and work for freedom of religion and belief. The landing page and further information can be found here

Apostle Ronald Rasband has addressed the idea that religious freedom is just something members of the Church should be interested in only insofar as it affects them. As has been discussed throughout this paper, freedom of religion and belief is a positive influence within society and not something that only benefits the majority, or allows intolerant views:

I suspect that for some of you the phrase ‘religious freedom’ feels more like ‘freedom to discriminate,’… Some of you might struggle with an understanding of religion’s role in society, politics, and civic issues. Some in your age group wonder why religious groups are involved in politics in the first place, and they are often skeptical of the motives of religious people when they do so. In recent years the collective voice of groups who feel that religion should not play a role in political deliberation has grown louder.(Rasband, 2015)

In addressing this to the young people of the Church, Elder Rasband recognises that this is an important issue for all ages. President Russell M.  Nelson (2009) has suggested that it is fundamental of the raising of children: 

Religious liberty is essential if we are to raise up righteous children. Morally responsible families will not marginalize religious liberty, they will nurture and protect it.

It is important that families discuss issues of religious freedom. How this is done, and also its effectiveness will vary across families, countries and cultures. As the freedoms are spoken more of within the churches and the communities it is important for Latter-day Saints to engage with people of all faiths and none. Some of this will be on an individual level, but it can also be in the working towards common aims with people of all faiths. As such, the Church is able to work with different religious communities and charities in local projects and inter-faith organisations (some examples can be found here), as well as on an international level where humanitarian aid and projects are engaged with (examples of global aid can be found here). 

Knowing that freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental human right, as well as a central aspect of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, should motivate all members to work for it to be implemented for all people. Since the Prophet Joseph Smith this has lain at the heart of our relationships with others, while it hasn’t always been reciprocated or perhaps lived up to as much as it should as we have sought to strengthen ourselves, it is important that as we move forward that the proactive work for freedom of religion and belief for all people should be worked for.

References

Christofferson, D. Todd (2015) “A Celebration of Religious Freedom,” interfaith address in São Paulo, Brazil, Apr. 29, 2015 available at https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/a-celebration-of-religious-freedom

Holt, James D. (2021) Freedom of Religion and Belief in the Book of Mormon available at https://jamesdholt.com/mormon/freedom-of-religion-and-belief-in-the-book-of-mormon/

Locke, John (1685) “A Letter about Toleration” available at https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/locke1689b.pdf

King, ML (1967) Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? NY, NY:Harper & Row

Nelson, Russell M. (2009) Elder Russell M. Nelson: The Family: The Hope for the Future of Nations available at https://www.thechurchnews.com/archives/2009-08-12/elder-russell-m-nelson-the-family-the-hope-for-the-future-of-nations-70183

Oaks, Dallin H. (2016) Transcript: Elder Oaks Remarks at Claremont Graduate University Religious Freedom Conference available at https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/transcript-elder-oaks-claremont-graduate-university-religious-freedom-conference

Palmer, Spencer J. (1997) “Foundations” in Palmer, SJ; Keller, R; Choi, DS and Toronto, J (ed) Religions of the World. A Latter-day Saint View Provo, UT: BYU pp. 3-14

Rasband, Ronald A. (2015) Religious Freedom and Fairness for All available at https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/ronald-a-rasband/religious-freedom-and-fairness-for-all/

Smith, George Albert. (1948). Sharing the Gospel with Others. (P. Nibley, Ed.) Salt Lake City: Deseret Book.

Smith, Joseph (1842) Times and Seasons (Nauvoo, Hancock Co., IL), 15 Apr. 1842, vol. 3, no. 12, 751–766

Smith, Joseph (1843) Journal, 9 July 1843, JS Collection, Church History Library, in Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Vol. 3, 55–56

The First Presidency (1978) Easter Message. Statement of the First Presidency in Palmer, S. (1978). The Expanding Church. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book.

The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, (1995) The Family: A Proclamation to the World available at https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/the-family-a-proclamation-to-the-world/the-family-a-proclamation-to-the-world


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