By now everybody in Utah at least has heard about the speech given by Elder Dallin H. Oaks at the BYU-Idaho devotional yesterday on the subject of freedom of religion. It will surprise nobody who knows anything about me to hear that I agree 100% with everything he said.
Considering that I could not hope to add insights beyond those of Elder Oaks some might question why I would bother to write anything about his speech. There are two reasons – first, this subject of our freedom of religion (for any atheists I could comfortably call it “freedom of conscience”) is important to every American who cares about preserving a viable nation where we enjoy any amount of liberty whatsoever and thus I could not pass up the chance to promote that message; and second, when I saw that some of what he said was being misunderstood (as shown in a poll where 2 in 3 respondents disagreed with his assertion that the retaliation and intimidation against supporters of Prop. 8 was similar in nature to the voter-intimidation of blacks in the South) I knew that it was necessary for people who understood what he said to stand up and declare their understanding.
I would like to address those two reasons for writing in reverse order, first to address the apparent misunderstanding and then to talk about how we must treat the freedom of religion in order to preserve a free society.
The poll cited above asks if respondents agree with Elder Oaks that “the anti-Mormon backlash after California voters overturned gay marriage last fall is similar to the intimidation of Southern blacks during the civil rights movement.” With only that question to go on it is understandable that people would think to disagree. The blacks during the civil rights movement faced intimidation tactics for a much longer period of time and from more than just lay people, but from official quarters as well. The problem with the question is that it misrepresents what Elder Oaks actually said. Here are his words:
Along with many others, we were disappointed with what we experienced in the aftermath of California’s adoption of Proposition 8, including vandalism of church facilities and harassment of church members by firings and boycotts of member businesses and by retaliation against donors. Mormons were the targets of most of this, but it also hit other churches in the pro-8 coalition and other persons who could be identified as supporters. . .
It is important to note that while this aggressive intimidation in connection with the Proposition 8 election was primarily directed at religious persons and symbols, it was not anti-religious as such. These incidents were expressions of outrage against those who disagreed with the gay-rights position and had prevailed in a public contest. As such, these incidents of “violence and intimidation” are not so much anti-religious as anti-democratic. In their effect they are like the well-known and widely condemned voter-intimidation of blacks in the South that produced corrective federal civil-rights legislation. (emphasis added)
Vandalism, harassment, firings, boycotts of member businesses, and retaliation against participants were all forms of intimidation faced by both blacks in the South and supporters of Proposition 8, yet that is not how he was trying to compare the two situations. Let me repeat his comparison with special emphasis:
. . . these incidents of “violence and intimidation” are not so much anti-religious as anti-democratic. In their effect they are like the well-known and widely condemned voter-intimidation of blacks in the South . . .
If you don’t believe that this is how he meant his statement hear the explanation that Elder Oaks himself gave (h/t Matt Piccolo):
Now for the question of how we must treat the freedom of religion in order to preserve a free society. Elder Oaks quoted Richard John Neuhaus who said, “In a democracy that is free and robust, an opinion is no more disqualified for being ‘religious’ than for being atheistic, or psychoanalytic, or Marxist, or just plain dumb.” If we hope to preserve a free and robust society we must insist that we and those who disagree with us tolerate any expression of opinions whether it be religious, atheistic, psychoanalytic, Marxist, just plain dumb, or any other description. That starts with us before we can reasonably demand it of those who disagree with us. As Elder Oaks said:
“At no time did anyone question or jeopardize the civil right of Proposition 8 opponents to vote or speak their views.”
Once again Elder Oaks has addressed this issue better than I could so I will summarize his conclusion.
- We must speak with love, always showing patience, understanding and compassion toward our adversaries. . . Even as we seek to speak with love, we must not be surprised when our positions are ridiculed and we are persecuted and reviled.
- We must not be deterred or coerced into silence by the kinds of intimidation I have described. We must insist on our constitutional right and duty to exercise our religion, to vote our consciences on public issues and to participate in elections and debates in the public square and the halls of justice. . . when churches and their members or any other group act or speak out on public issues, win or lose, they have a right to expect freedom from retaliation.
- We must insist on our freedom to preach the doctrines of our faith. I will add here that the freedom to preach the doctrines of our faith does not translate into a freedom or right to compel others to participate in that faith. This is true whether the issue is a specifically religious participation or a more secular participation. In other words, it is wrong to punish someone for choosing not to participate in a public religious observance (a prayer in a public setting for example) just as it is wrong to prevent someone from choosing to engage in a religious activity in a public setting.
- The call of conscience — whether religious or otherwise — requires no secular justification. At the same time, religious persons will often be most persuasive in political discourse by framing arguments and positions in ways that are respectful of those who do not share their religious beliefs and that contribute to the reasoned discussion and compromise that is essential in a pluralistic society.
- Latter-day Saints (or anyone else) must be careful never to support or act upon the idea that a person must subscribe to some particular set of religious beliefs in order to qualify for a public office. . . Such advocacy suggests that if religionists prevail in electing their preferred candidate this will lead to the use of government power in support of their religious beliefs and practices. In case that was unclear to anyone let me emphasize his point which was that the idea that a person must subscribe to some particular set of religious beliefs in order to qualify for a public office should never be acted upon or even supported.
(italic comments mine)
Cross-posted at Pursuit of Liberty