The BYU Conference Center hosted discussions on contemporary issues relating to religious freedom at the Religious Freedom Conference on July 7-8. Keynote speakers at the conference included LDS General Counsel member and Emeritus Seventy Lance B. Wickman as well as UVU President Matthew S. Holland.
The Religious Freedom Annual Review is a two-day conference hosted by the BYU International Center for Law and Religion Studies that is open to lawyers, educators, students and interested members of the public. Now in its third year, the theme chosen for this conference was “Religious Freedom in an Era of Social Change.”
Elder Wickman’s speech, titled “Defending Religious Freedom in a Secular Age: Fundamental Principles, Practical Priorities, and Fairness for All,” emphasized the importance of protecting religious freedom as a fundamental human right in a world where threats to religious freedom are “very real and are growing rapidly.”
“Religious liberty defines who and what we are, reaching deep into our very soul, our very identity,” Elder Wickman said. “Respecting religious freedom as a fundamental right means that law and society should afford sufficient space so that people and institutions of faith can live out their deepest beliefs freely and openly.”
In order to simultaneously defend these rights and live in peace, those who value religious freedom should set “religious freedom priorities,” according to Elder Wickman. He said although all religious freedoms are important, the most crucial of these to defend are the basic rights within the “inner core” of religious liberty, such as freedom of belief, family gospel teaching and establishing church doctrine and leadership.
“If we want to preserve religious freedom and live in peace in a society that is increasingly intolerant of faith, then we will have to be very clear about what matters most and make wise compromises in areas that matter less,” Elder Wickman said. “If we don’t, we risk losing essential rights that we simply cannot live without.”
People who value religious freedom must also take on the responsibility of getting involved politically, socially and professionally in order to defend religious freedom for all, according to Elder Wickman.
“We need to become more skilled in our ability to explain what religious freedom is and why it’s so important,” Elder Wickman said.
Paraphrasing a recent speech from Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Wickman listed four ways people can become involved in defending religious freedom. These steps include becoming informed about challenges regarding religious freedom, speaking up with courage and civility, lifting where one stands by getting involved in the community, and being an example of showing respect to every individual’s right to religious freedom.
“Fairness and love for our religious freedom require that we engage with our fellow citizens, reaching across cultural divides, and find commonalities so that everyone can live together in freedom and peace,” Elder Wickman said.
Holland’s speech titled “Religious Liberty v. Secularity: Is the American Founding Still Useful?” likewise advocated that citizens “calmly do (their) duty” to defend religious freedom in a decreasingly religious world.
Holland introduced two schools of thought that help explain the current state of religious social change. The first was the idea that religion is being steadily replaced with modern rationals and science. Holland said studies show that more and more people, especially those under 30, are self-identifying as religiously unaffiliated. The second suggests that, to a large portion of society, faith is only one possibility among others, and that belief in God is “no longer axiomatic.”
“It seems most reasonable to me to conclude that at least for now, both things are happening and the actual and potential shifts for public life are tectonic,” Holland said.
Much like religion, people tend to pay less attention to the U.S. founding than they once did, according to Holland. He shared the example of his experience lecturing a class at the University of Southern California about some of the leadership insights of the founding fathers. One student at the lecture thanked Holland afterward because the student had never in his college experience heard a faculty member speak favorably of the Founding Fathers.
While cultural recollection of a founding always shifts, Holland said this does not change the great importance of these events and their profound influence on society, including its religious practices.
“The founding at large may provide the last common shreds of a heritage that can still be woven together to provide a fabric strong enough to protect robust religiosity,” Holland said. “I think the clear answer to the question of whether the founding remains useful is still a resounding ‘yes.'”
Holland said religion has historically had a significant impact on the founding of governments. He used Alexis de Toqueville’s example of the early Puritan society in America, which established principles such as a government run by the people and clear separation of church and state years before the official establishment of a democracy in the U.S. He said although this example of Puritanism should not romanticized, this societal influence provides a fuller understanding of the American Founding at large.
“The Puritan influence is just one example of many that could be marshaled to show how religiously-inspired visions of what was morally right established a rich and fertile context for individual liberty to flourish in America,” Holland said.
Holland explained that religion has a profound influence on the morality of a nation and is an important factor in determining whether citizens will voluntarily obey the law.
“The life of a free people requires and flourishes with an extraordinary amount of individual goodness, decency and initiative,” Holland said.
Holland pointed out that following the creation of the Constitution, most state representatives would not ratify the document until they were guaranteed the addition of the Bill of Rights, which would guarantee them religious freedom, among other things. Religious liberty was then the first freedom guaranteed in the first amendment, emphasizing this right’s “tremendous heft.”
“Those words will remain there as long as the Constitution does and they will have to be dealt with, even by those who do not share its suppositions,” Holland said.