There is growing global recognition of the need for engagement with and understanding of religion — and protecting religious freedom.
That was the message delivered by Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in his Feb. 9 address to the Johnsf Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“Such efforts are likely to prove powerful in the world of ideas and politics,” he said.
Elder Oaks introduced himself as a lawyer and former law professor and judge. But he emphasized that his life-long advocacy of religious freedom is grounded in his religious faith. As an apostle, it is his duty to teach and testify of Christ’s doctrine and divinity.
God, he said, inspired the Constitution of the United States. And the free exercise of religion by all citizens is foremost among the Constitution’s fundamental principles.
“We gratefully acknowledge that in a time when 77 percent of the world’s inhabitants live in countries with high or very high restrictions on religious freedom, the Western Hemisphere leads the way, along with countries in Western Europe, in providing effective protections for this cherished right.”
Elder Oaks affirmed the importance of religion in world affairs.
“It has become increasingly difficult to ignore religion in global security, conflict resolution, development, humanitarian relief, the environment and other major areas of concern,” he said. “Eighty-four percent of the world’s population identifies with a particular religion; and even among those who do not, many hold a religious belief.”
The Global South, for example, is highly religious — as is the Middle East and much of Asia.
“For all these reasons, understanding religion and religious freedom is essential to understanding world affairs.”
The beliefs that the free exercise of religion must protect both actions and beliefs, he added, is declared in Article 18 of the influential United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
Protecting the practice of religion — alone or with others, in public or private — deserves special mention, observed Elder Oaks.
“It runs contrary to increasing claims that religion is an essentially private matter and deserves no place in the public square.”
The right to the free exercise of religion, he added, must apply when believers act as a community.
Elder Oaks then declared that the “religious teachings” and “religiously motivated actions of believers” are valuable to society. They deserve special legal protections.
“This point of course contradicts the advocacy of some secularists that religion is mostly a matter of history without significance in modern times, or, more ominously, that religion is irrational and discriminatory and therefore should be repressed in both public expression and influence,” he said. “Far from relics of the past, religious principles and religious believers are a vital present and future force everywhere.”
Much media attention focuses on atrocities of extremists purportedly “acting in the name of Islam.”
Elder Oaks said such perpetrators try to justify their actions on religious grounds. In fact, they are on the fringe of anything defined as “religion” and many Muslim leaders condemn their actions.
He also challenged claims that religion is the source of great atrocities through the ages. The Holocaust, the Stalinist purges, China’s Cultural Revolution, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge and the ethnic cleansings of Central Africa have been primarily motivated by ethnic, political or tribal differences.
Religious freedom is not just the concern of religious persons, said Elder Oaks.
“Others have a strong interest in religious freedom because it is necessary for peace and stability in our pluralistic world,” he added. “The protection of conscience is a vital ingredient for stability because it helps people from a wide spectrum of beliefs feel assured that their deepest concerns and values are respected and protected.”
The apostle noted a “significant emerging interest in and promotion of religious freedom” by various international institutions. But the involvement of nations and multinational organizations in support of religious freedom is not enough.
“The preservation of religious freedom depends upon public understanding of and support for this vital freedom,” he said. “It depends upon the value the public attaches to the teachings of right and wrong in churches, synagogues and mosques.”
Elder Oaks said that civility must be the goal of all leaders, religious or otherwise. “We should love all people, be good listeners and show concern for the sincere belief of others.”
There are reasons for hope on the international scene, he concluded.
“The overwhelming majority of national constitutions around the world incorporate religious freedom principles.”