The 2021 BYU Religious Freedom Annual Review advocated using religion to bridge political divides. The virtual event was sponsored by the J. Reuben Clark Law School’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies and broadcast June 15–16. This year’s theme was “Religion’s Role in Overcoming Divides and Strengthening American Democracy.”
Keynote speakers included former presidential speechwriter Peter Wehner, Elder Dale G. Renlund of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and his wife, Sister Ruth L. Renlund, who is a senior fellow at the International Center for Law and Religion Studies and a former attorney. Emeritus General Authority Seventy L. Whitney Clayton and several law professors and political advisors also spoke.
Offer grace, not power
Wehner is an American writer and serves as vice president and senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Wehner’s remarks centered on a plea for Christians to heal the political sphere by playing a more prominent role in spreading Christlike values.
“Followers of Jesus need to light candles instead of simply cursing the darkness,” Wehner said.
Wehner pointed out no one is a completed work or has all the facts, saying people need to “see those we disagree with mid-story.” He said individuals should listen to others to learn from them, not just to respond, and to learn to disagree with others more kindly.
“We argue for truth, not for victory,” Wehner said. “The greatest and most powerful Christian distinctive is not the exercise of power: it is the offer of grace.”
Joseph Smith’s role in strengthening American democracy
Elder and Sister Renlund highlighted the role the prophet Joseph Smith played in strengthening American democracy. The religious rights granted by the U.S. Constitution were not enforced in Joseph Smith’s day, leading to consequences including the persecution of Latter-day Saints, the Renlunds said.
Smith was encouraged by other Church leaders to run for president to help secure religious rights. In his campaign, democratic reforms Smith pushed included minority rights, a national bank, abolition of slavery, territorial expansion and a strong criminal justice system, Sister Renlund explained.
Smith’s 1844 campaign was cut short by his martyrdom in June of that year. The Renlunds expressed gratitude for the Church’s legacy of promoting democratic freedom.
“Anyone who qualifies, under law, to participate should be encouraged to do so, especially minorities, religious or other,” Elder Renlund said.
Be more curious than defensive
Author and Inclusive America Project Fellow Asma Uddin encouraged listeners to “be more curious than defensive.” Uddin said everyone can focus more on learning and pursuing what they are passionate about instead of dwelling on what divides people.
Elder Clayton said people don’t have to agree with each other but can still find a mutually satisfactory path forward when they seek to genuinely understand others’ perspectives. Political healing will come when society can “help believers and nonbelievers listen to each other with a modest respect for and deference to others’ views,” Clayton said.
Barbara A. McGraw, a professor at Saint Mary’s College of California and founding director of the Center for Engaged Religious Pluralism, said there is not enough religious representation in politics.
“We need the many voices of religious pluralism all standing on America’s sacred ground of liberty and equal dignity,” McGraw said. “This needs to be a prominent voice in the public square.”
Brett G. Scharffs is a BYU law professor and director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies. Scharffs said recognizing human dignity is “uniquely helpful” for building bridges and finding common ground to help promote religious freedom.
“Human dignity was the foundational idea of human rights,” Scharffs said.
Readers can find the full event recording on the BYU International Center for Law and Religious Studies’ YouTube channel.