Elder Robert S. Wood said the United States is a model
for the ways religion can flourish within a country that doesn't have a
state-run or state-established faith.
Elder Wood, of the Quorums of the Seventy, was the concluding
speaker Saturday at the annual conference of the Center for Studies on
New Religions, an organization based out of Torino, Italy.
Academics from around the world attended the conference, which was held
for the second time in its 22-year history in Salt Lake City.
Elder Wood said freedom of conscience and assembly have led to a
"remarkable religiosity" in the United States that isn't present in
other industrialized nations.
"Even in the United States, belief in liberty and free conscience has
not always been sufficient to ensure religious tolerance," he said.
"I've often said that we have one other thing that is useful, and that
When men and women left England for the Americas in the 1700s, they did
so because they were told that if they didn't like the state religion,
they should leave. And yet when many arrived in the Americas, they set
up similar, unwelcoming societies, telling those who were different to
either "love it or leave it."Because of the plentiful land and space
in America, people with different religious views have been able to
pick up and leave when needed, spreading themselves out and allowing
them to get along in relative peace, Elder Wood said.
Because many people identify themselves in terms of the religion they
practice, "religion ultimately gets heavily involved in the life of the
community, and therefore it always has sort of a quasi-political
dimension," Elder Wood said.
Because of that political dimension, the key issue has always been "How
do you accommodate freedom of religious conscience, speech, assembly,
within a fundamentally secular state, and in such a way that it does
not become itself an instrument of political combat and political war?"
"I would commend the model of which Salt Lake City has become a
representation, which is strict adherence to the disestablishment of
religion — no state religion — and the freedom of conscience and more
importantly the ability for one to express their convictions in the
public or civic forum."
Elder Wood said the U.S. operates on a sort of civic religion, which is simply
a belief in a creator who "expects better of us." Beyond that,
individuals are free to decide how they want to believe and fill in
their own creeds and express their conscience.
"This is in fact the genius of the religious sentiment in the United States," he said.
But governments and politics aren't the only things that get in the way
of religious freedom, Elder Wood said. Often times "old" religions pit
themselves against the "new," and vice versa.
"There is a tendency on the old to exclude and suppress and
delegitimize the new. And there's an equal tendency of the new
sometimes to separate and to in effect isolate," he said. "We need to
transcend that and understand that we are talking about the most
fundamental of all human activities, and that is the relationship with
Elder Wood commended CESNUR for taking both an analytical and empathetic approach to its study of religions.
"It's virtually impossible to understand deep religious conviction
without in some sense empathizing with it, and sharing with it. ...
Only then can you understand the phenomenon with which you're dealing.
"Too many people look at Latter-day Saints from the outside," he said.
"That's not only true of people who look at Latter-day Saints, but it's
true of Latter-day Saints as they look at other people."
Elder Wood said some members of the church say "absolutely nonsensical" things about what other people actually believe.
"I think there is a major obligation that we get over that, transcend it," he said.
Elder Wood welcomed the conference attendees to the world headquarters
of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, saying, "This is not
a Utah church ... it's less and less a Rocky Mountain church. ... It is
not an American church. ... The diversity which you have seen is
becoming even greater as the church indeed takes on a global dimension
as never before."