An Optimistic View of the Future of Religious Liberty

There are growing instances of interfaith dialogue and unified expressions in defense of religious liberty for churches and individual believers. In addition, people of faith can also be optimistic about the future as the case is made, more clearly and persuasively, that faiths have a major part to play as a force for good in 21st Century societies.

In May of this year at a Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty event in New York, Francis Cardinal George, archbishop of Chicago, presented an award to Mormon apostle, Elder Dallin H. Oaks.  At the event, Cardinal George said that it was because of men like Elder Oaks that enables him to “remain hopeful with you for the future of religious liberty in America.”

People of faith the world over have several reasons to agree with Cardinal George's optimistic assessment.  First, more and more leaders of various faiths are realising how serious the threats to religious liberty are, and are coming together in unprecedented ways.  Cardinal George describes the increase in dialogue among Catholic and Mormon leaders as an example of this, in this way: “In recent years, Catholics and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have stood more frequently side by side in the public square in order to defend human life and dignity."

Cardinal George and Elder Oaks' relationship is one of many which are growing among senior faith leaders throughout the world. This is a very good thing.  As many elements of society continue to attempt to marginalise or silence religious voices, and push faith out of the public square, these interfaith relationships are essential if religions and religious believers wish to defend their freedoms to gather, worship, teach, speak and share their beliefs with others.  The more that leaders, scholars and members of various faiths come together to discuss threats to institutional and personal religious liberty, the more that faiths will be able to provide clear and compelling defenses of religious liberty in the public square. And if these defenses are made in unified, intelligent and respectful ways, thoughtful opinion leaders in government, the media and other parts of society will need to take note.

Over the last few years I have been a part of, or aware of, significant meetings involving leaders from my own faith as well as Catholic, Methodist, Seventh-day Adventist, Assembly of God, Muslim, Jewish and other faiths.  At these gatherings, the discussions keep coming back to the need for people of faith and religious groups to stand together in defense of religious liberty for all.

Pacific Area President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elder James J.Hamula, puts it this way: "All religionists are feeling the hostility of our increasingly secular world.  All religionists are feeling the pressure of those driven by secular agenda to marginalise them and diminish their religious liberties.  And all religionists are deeply interested in and concerned about the protection of their religious liberties.  The erosion of religious liberty and protection of such liberty is ground on which all religions can stand and work together."

Elder Oaks builds on this theme: "Religious leaders and believers must unite to strengthen our freedom to teach what we have in common, as well as to teach and exercise our very real religious differences. We must walk shoulder to shoulder on the same path in order to secure our freedom to pursue our separate ways when that is necessary according to our distinctive beliefs. We must also insist on our constitutional right to exer­cise our beliefs and to voice our con­sciences on issues in the public square and in the halls of justice. These are the rights of all citizens, including religious believers, leaders, and organizations."

At the Beckett Fund event in New York in May where Elder Oaks was honoured, he touched upon the collective, intangible and yet very real positive influences of people of faith upon a society.

"Our society is not held together primarily by law and its enforcement, but most importantly by those who voluntarily obey the unenforceable because of their internalised norms of righteous or correct behaviour. Religious belief in right and wrong is a vital influence to produce such voluntary compliance by a large number of our citizens," Elder Oaks said.

Surely government and other influential voices and actors in our societies want to have more citizens living good lives informed by internalised norms of righteous or correct behaviour, and therefore more likely to lift the overall tone and standard of society?

A third reason why people of faith can be optimistic about the future of religious liberty is because there is growing evidence that when faiths come together to tackle society's toughest problems, individuals and communities are strengthened.

Disaster relief and other humanitarian aid efforts are perhaps the best places to start in order to see how interfaith and inter-social efforts accomplish much good.  In the wake of a tsunami, earthquake, cyclone or other disaster, the people who need immediate help are not primarily Catholics, Anglicans or Muslims — they are fellow human beings in need.  Religious differences don't mean a thing when a fellow human is suffering and you have the means to help them right now.  I have seen this first hand in several places, the most striking when I met Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, and many others come together in Thailand to build fishing boats for a community devastated by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.  The religious, ethnic and other lines in the sand that often divide us were washed away by that giant wave, and what was left was a clean beach  — a clean slate — for people of many faiths, and others, to come together to do good.

21st Century societies need more of that, more coming together to do good. And that will take people of faith standing together in defense of religious liberty for all.  It will also take governments, media and other influential groups realising that societies are better and stronger when faiths are protected and people of faith are free to be and to do as their religious beliefs and consciences lead them. 

It may turn out, serendipitously, that due to the necessity of standing together in defense of religious liberty, that faith groups that are not used to working with others will find greater effectiveness in their good works. This will follow due to the added strength that comes with numbers and a plurality of faith-based approaches and resources.  We may yet see many more interfaith community initiatives, achieving much, much more than ever has been achieved in the fragmented religious landscapes of centuries past.

Richard Hunter

Pacific Area Director of Public Affairs

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

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