The Importance of Religion to Society

Elder Dallin H. Oaks

My first point is that religious teachings and the religiously motivated actions of believers are valuable to society and are deserving of special legal protection. This point of course contradicts the contention 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 diminished in both public expression and influence. Far from relics of the past, religious principles and religious believers are a vital present and future force everywhere.  Remarks at Claremont Graduate University Religious Freedom Conference, Part I, March 25, 2016. 

Religion’s role as a protector of democracy has been widely noted.  Religious organizations stand as a “buffer” or “mediating institution” to protect individual believers and their organizations against the powerful impositions of government.  Remarks at Claremont Graduate University Religious Freedom Conference, Part I, March 25, 2016.

Those who maintain that secular ethics and morality can substitute for religion make academic arguments but lack the evidence to support their theories….I maintain that the teachings and free practice of religion are essential to a free and prosperous society. I also maintain that religious values and political realities are so interlinked in the origin and perpetuation of this nation that we cannot lose the influence of religion and religious bodies in our public life without seriously jeopardizing our freedom and prosperity.  Remarks at Claremont Graduate University Religious Freedom Conference, Part I, March 25, 2016.

It follows that religious freedom is not just the concern of religious persons. Others have a strong interest in religious freedom because it is necessary for peace and stability in our pluralistic world. 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.  Remarks at Claremont Graduate University Religious Freedom Conference, Part I, March 25, 2016.

It is also true that the preservation of religious freedom depends upon public understanding of and support for this vital freedom, which in turn depends upon the value the public attaches to the teachings of right and wrong in churches, synagogues, and mosques. All should understand that it is sincere faith in God—however defined—that translates religious teachings into the moral behavior that benefits a nation. Moreover, this impact is magnified by the social interaction that occurs within religious organizations. It follows that religions that teach right and wrong and the organizations through which they work make a unique and indispensable contribution to society and should therefore have special legal protections.  Remarks at Claremont Graduate University Religious Freedom Conference, Part I, March 25, 2016.


[R]eligious teachings and the religiously motivated actions of believers are valuable to society and deserving of special legal protections. This of course rejects the assumptions of some secularists that religion is mostly a matter of history that has minimal significance in modern times. Far from relics of the past, religious principles and religious believers are a vital present and future force everywhere.  “Challenges to Religious Freedom,” Address at the Argentina Council for Foreign Relations (CARI) April 23, 2015 (Part III).  See also “Strengthening the Free Exercise of Religion,” Part I of Speech, May 16, 2013.

Religious freedom is not just the concern of religious persons. Nonbelievers also have a strong interest in religious freedom, which is necessary for peace and stability in our pluralistic world. 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.  “Challenges to Religious Freedom,” Address at the Argentina Council for Foreign Relations (CARI) April 23, 2015 (Part III).

Many of the most significant moral advances in Western society have been motivated by religious principles and persuaded to official adoption by pulpit preaching.  Examples include the abolition of the slave trade in England and the Emancipation Proclamation in this country. The same is true of the Civil Rights movement of the last half-century. These great advances were not motivated and moved by secular ethics or persons who believed in moral relativism. They were driven primarily by persons who had a clear religious vision of what was morally right.  “Strengthening the Free Exercise of Religion,” Part I of Speech, May 16, 2013.  See also “Challenges to Religious Freedom,” Address at the Argentina Council for Foreign Relations (CARI) April 23, 2015 (Part III).

Other efforts seek to intimidate persons with religious-based points of view from influencing or making the laws of their state or nation. Such advocates should answer this question: How would the great movements toward social justice in the United States, such as the abolition of slavery or the furthering of civil rights, have been advocated and pressed toward adoption if their religious proponents had been banned from the public square by insistence that private religious or moral positions were not a rational basis for public discourse?  “Challenges to Religious Freedom,” Address at the Argentina Council for Foreign Relations (CARI) April 23, 2015 (Part IV).

“For the rights and protection of all flesh” the United States Constitution includes in its First Amendment the guarantees of free exercise of religion and free speech and press.  Without these great fundamentals of the Constitution, America could not have served as the host nation for the restoration of the gospel, which began just three decades after the Bill of Rights was ratified.  Speech on Religious Freedom given at BYU-Idaho on October 13, 2009 (Part IV).

Religious freedom undergirds the origin and existence of [the United States of America] and is the dominating civil liberty.  "Preserving Religious Freedom,” speech given at Chapman University School of Law on February 4, 2011 (Part V).

[The] formation [of the Constitution] over 200 years ago was made possible by religious principles of human worth and dignity, and only those principles in the hearts of a majority of our diverse population can sustain that Constitution today.  "Preserving Religious Freedom,” speech given at Chapman University School of Law on February 4, 2011 (Part I).

John Adams…wisely observed that: “we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  "Preserving Religious Freedom,” speech given at Chapman University School of Law on February 4, 2011 (Part I) (citing Charles Francis Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, 228–29 (Books for Libraries Press, 1969).  See also Elder Jeffrey R. Holland,   “Faith, Family, and Religious Freedom,” Clark Memorandum, Fall 2013, p. 25; Elder Quentin L. Cook, “Latter-day Saint Lawyers and the Public Square,” Clark Memorandum, Fall 2009, pp. 8-10.

Our civilization is based on morality and cannot exist without it.  "Truth and Tolerance," CES Fireside, September 11, 2011 (Part V).

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 internalized norms of righteous or correct behavior.  “Strengthening the Free Exercise of Religion,” Part I of Speech, May 16, 2013.  See also “Challenges to Religious Freedom,” Address at the Argentina Council for Foreign Relations (CARI) April 23, 2015 (Part III).

Religious belief in right and wrong is a vital influence to produce such voluntary compliance by a large number of our citizens.  The first president of the United States, George Washington, spoke of this reality in his farewell address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports,” he said. “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” (Washington’s Farewell Address, ed. Thomas Arkle Clark (1908), 14.)  “Challenges to Religious Freedom,” Address at the Argentina Council for Foreign Relations (CARI) April 23, 2015 (Part III).

A recent essay by our friend and highly honored teacher and thinker Clayton Christensen insists that religion is the foundation of both democracy and prosperity. He reminds us that democracy and capitalism both depend on large-scale obedience to the unenforceable and that this prerequisite is dependent upon religions that teach such fundamentals as “the equality of people, the importance of respecting others’ property, and personal honesty and integrity.” Secularism, which aspires to displace theistic religion in our country, has no power or program to provide what Christensen calls “the requisite foundation of extensive obedience to the unenforceable.”  “Witnesses of God,” BYU-Idaho Devotional February 25, 2014 (Part III.B) (citing Clayton Christensen, “Religion Is the Foundation of Democracy and Prosperity,” see http://www.mormonperspectives.com/2011/02/08/religion-is-the-foundation-of-democracy-and-prosperity.)

[O]ur society is not held together primarily by law and its enforcement but most importantly by those who voluntarily obey the unenforceable because of their internalized norms of righteous or correct behavior. We all have a vital interest in religion because religious belief in right and wrong is fundamental to producing the needed voluntary compliance by a large number of our citizens.  “Hope for the Years Ahead,” Address given at the Utah Valley University Constitutional Symposium on Religious Freedom on April 16, 2014 (Part III.C).

Our country’s robust private sector of charitable works originated with and is still sponsored most significantly by religious organizations and religious impulses. This includes education, hospitals, care for the poor, and countless other charities of great value to our country.  “Challenges to Religious Freedom,” Address at the Argentina Council for Foreign Relations (CARI) April 23, 2015 (Part III).

An esteemed scholar and friend of religious liberty has stated the goal with which I wish to conclude. At the close of his notable article on international diplomacy and religion, Professor Thomas F. Farr endorsed religious freedom as a means to protect human dignity and bolster civil society. “It means,” he concludes, “the durable and mutual accommodation of religion and the state within the boundaries of liberal democracy.”  “Challenges to Religious Freedom,” Address at the Argentina Council for Foreign Relations (CARI) April 23, 2015 (Part VI) (citing Thomas F. Farr, “Diplomacy in an Age of Faith,” Foreign Affairs, March–April 2008, 124.)

Elder Robert D. Hales
As we walk the path of spiritual liberty in these last days, we must understand that the faithful use of our agency depends upon our having religious freedom. We already know that Satan does not want this freedom to be ours. He attempted to destroy moral agency in heaven, and now on earth he is fiercely undermining, opposing, and spreading confusion about religious freedom—what it is and why it is essential to our spiritual life and our very salvation. “Preserving Agency, Protecting Religious Freedom,” General Conference, April 2015.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland
Inherent in liberal democracy is an assumption, a hope, and a belief that free people will use their liberty to choose good over evil, right over wrong, virtue over vice.  For that reason, the United States continues to espouse civil liberties, including that precious “first freedom” of religion, which informs the choices we must make in life.  “Faith, Family, and Religious Freedom,” Clark Memorandum, Fall 2013, p. 28; see also “Faith, Family and Religious Freedom,” Remarks at Chapman University, February 26, 2015.

Elder Quentin L. Cook
Religious faith is a store of light, knowledge, and wisdom and benefits society in a dramatic way when adherents engage in moral conduct because they feel accountable to God.  “Let There Be Light!” Ensign, November 2010 (pp. 29).

After World War II the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements established the legal framework for the protection of religious freedom. It was over 65 years ago, on December 10, 1948, that the Universal Declaration was adopted. That document declares that “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.”[25]  Notre Dame Sydney School of Law Religious Liberty Lecture, Sydney, Australia, May 27, 2015 (citing U.N. G.A. Res.217 A (III), art. 18 (1948)). 

Elder D. Todd Christofferson
As you review these and other statements by modern apostles, notice that the freedom being spoken of is not merely what political philosophers have referred to as the “negative” freedom to be left alone, however important that may be. Rather, they speak of a much richer “positive” freedom—the freedom to live one’s religion in a legal, political, and social environment that is tolerant, respectful, and accommodating of religion.  For the faithful, religion is not just a private hobby but a way of life bound up with one’s personal identity and dignity.  Elder D. Todd Christofferson, “Watchmen on the Tower,” Clark Memorandum, Spring 2015, p. 7.

Religious freedom is the cornerstone of peace in a world with many competing philosophies. It gives us all space to determine for ourselves what we think and believe—to follow the truth that God speaks to our hearts. It allows diverse beliefs to coexist, protects the vulnerable, and helps us negotiate our conflicts. Thus, as the European Court of Human Rights has wisely concluded in multiple cases, religious freedom is vital to people of faith and “is also a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, sceptics and the unconcerned.” This is because “the pluralism indissociable from a democratic society, which has been dearly won over the centuries, depends on it.”  “A Celebration of Religious Freedom,” Interfaith Address in São Paulo, Brazil, April 29, 2015 (citing European Convention on Human Rights, Article 9, as referenced in Kokkinakis v. Greece, May 25, 1993, para. 31; Nolan and K. v. Russia, 2009, para. 61; and Serif v. Greece, Dec. 14, 1999, para 49.)

Without [religious] freedom, God’s great plan of happiness is frustrated, because God’s children are not fully able to exercise their agency and choose for themselves what they will believe, how they will act, and what they will become.  Notre Dame Sydney School of Law Religious Liberty Lecture, Sydney, Australia, May 27, 2015


Elder L. Tom Perry
[A]ll citizens benefit from a robust and vigorous religious freedom.  “Mormon Apostle Promotes Religious Freedom” (Video)


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