REXBURG, Idaho — Elder Dallin H. Oaks issued a call to action Tuesday to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and "believers everywhere" to stand as witnesses of God and absolute truths.
The faithful also must unite "to insist upon our constitutional right to the free exercise of our religions," said Elder Oaks, a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, during a devotional at BYU-Idaho.
"Those who have used human reasoning to supersede divine influence in their lives have diminished themselves and cheapened civilization in the process," he said.
The speech, in part, acted as a bookend or update to a landmark BYU-Idaho devotional Elder Oaks delivered more than four years ago when he called on Mormons to rally in defense of what he then said "is properly called our 'First Freedom,' the free exercise of religion."
On Tuesday at the BYU-Idaho Center Auditorium, he said that four years later believers are living in an age when many deny the existence of God and of "absolutes of right and wrong that govern behavior."
Elder Oaks suggested "three kinds of things we can do in response to current conditions" to stand as witnesses of God — assert faith in private prayers and personal greetings, publicly recognize the blessings of God, and contend for the free exercise of religion.
First, "In our private personal and family prayers we should ask God to help us and our neighbors and leaders recognize God our creator and the right and wrong established by his commandments," he said. "We should do this for the good of his children everywhere.
"We should also assert ourselves against the current trend to refrain from religious references even in private communications," he added. "In recent years the inclusion of religious symbols and reverent words in Christmas greetings and sympathy cards have almost disappeared. When we make choices on these kinds of communications, we should not participate in erasing sacred reminders from our personal communications. As believers, we have a duty to preserve the name and influence of God and Christ in our conversations, our lives and our culture."
Second, Elder Oaks said believers can "counter the diminishing mention of religious faith and references to God and his blessings in our public discourse." To do so, "we should speak truthfully of the fact that this nation was founded by persons and leaders who were predominantly Christians and who embodied the principles of their faith in the constitution, laws and culture of this nation" and "contend for the inclusion in textbooks and teaching in school settings of accurate accounts of great historical documents that recognize and invoke the blessings of God in the founding and preservation of this nation."
The third response, contending for the free exercise of religion, is more difficult, Elder Oaks said, because it requires cooperative action across faiths.
"We need to support the coalitions of religious leaders and God-fearing people who are coming together to defend our nation’s traditional culture of belief in God and the acknowledgement of his blessings."
LDS Church leaders are speaking about and actively seeking that cooperation. In fact, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler, spoke at BYU in Provo three hours before Elder Oaks spoke at BYU-Idaho and touched on many similar issues.
"We should press officials in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of governments to honor the constitutionally guaranteed free exercise of religion," Elder Oaks said.
He emphasized two examples of "current concern." The first concern is over attacks on public prayers.
"Whatever the designated pray-er’s concept of God and whatever his or her religious persuasion or language of prayer," Elder Oaks said, "I hope the citizens of this nation can continue to witness their belief in God by the symbol of prayer, wisely and tolerantly administered. That is worth contending for."
Second, believers "should be alert to oppose the potential significance of the fact that some government officials and public policy advocates are describing the First Amendment guarantee of the 'free exercise' of religion as merely 'freedom of worship.'
"The guarantee of 'free exercise,'" he said, "protects the right to come out of our private settings, including churches, synagogues and mosques, to act upon our beliefs, subject only to the legitimate government powers necessary to protect public health, safety and welfare. Free exercise surely protects religious citizens in acting upon their beliefs in public policy debates and in votes cast as citizens or as lawmakers."
Elder Oaks spoke about a third area, as well.
Believers, he said, also "should use our political influence to resist current moves to banish from legislative and judicial lawmaking all actions based on religious convictions and motivations."
He described the federal judge's ruling in California's Proposition 8 case as a "dangerous example" of such a move.
"The precedent of his decision on the inappropriateness of presumed religious or moral motivations as a basis for lawmaking was used by the lawyers who persuaded another federal district judge to invalidate the Utah constitutional provision and laws affirming the traditional limitation on marriages to one man and one woman," Elder Oaks said. "Then, when an eminent lawyer was hired to take the appeal, he was criticized by the Human Rights Campaign for having religious motivations for his decision to defend traditional marriage. Where will this illogical attack on religious motivations end?"
Elder Oaks said atheism, moral relativism and secular humanism have contributed to the broadening denial of God's existence and his role in human affairs.
He expressed concern for the way some non-believers criticize the faithful.
"Some," he said, "... ridicule the faith of those who believe in what cannot be proven, even as they aggressively deny a godly existence they cannot disprove."