Speaking to what he termed the most influential audience he's ever addressed on the subject, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, encouraged people of all faiths to unite and “walk shoulder to shoulder on the same path” to strengthen and defend religious freedom (see full transcript).
“The free exercise of religion is the basic civil liberty because faith in God and His teachings and the active practice of religion are the most fundamental guiding realities of life,” Elder Oaks said.
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Elder Oaks delivered the speech Thursday in New York City to more than 500 people, including religious leaders of numerous faiths. The event is an annual award ceremony sponsored by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest organization dedicated to protecting free expression of religious traditions.
Elder Oaks was presented the prestigious Canterbury Medal for his lifetime of service in promoting the cause of religious freedom. The medal recognizes individuals who demonstrate courage in the defense of religious freedom and is named for Canterbury Cathedral, where Thomas Becket stood in defense of religious freedom against King Henry II.
Francis Cardinal George, archbishop of Chicago, presented the award to Elder Oaks. “Tonight, dear friends, we honor one of the great leaders of the defense of religious liberty in our law,” Cardinal George said. “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. It’s through this cooperation around shared principles and concerns that I’ve come to know [Elder Oaks].”
Cardinal George added that it is men like Elder Oaks that enable him to “remain hopeful with you for the future of religious liberty in America.”
In an interview, Princeton Professor Robert P. George, who serves on the Becket Fund Board of Directors, shared similar sentiments. He called it “a very special night because we’re honoring a great man — not only an LDS leader but an American leader.” Robert George praised Elder Oaks for being an example to “people like myself, Catholics and Evangelicals, people of other faiths who look to Dallin Oaks not only for his excellent judgment and leadership as a lawyer, but also for his great love of God and the great witness he gives as a man of God.”
Elder Oaks told those in attendance that for the past half century scholars have observed the role of religion declining in American life. "In this same period, the guarantee of free exercise of religion seems to be weakening in public esteem," he said. "It is surely under siege by the forces of political correctness, which would replace it with other priorities."
He explained that “in the long run, the vitality of religious freedom must rely on public understanding and support.” He expressed concern that recent survey findings show that the population least concerned about religious liberty in America is adults under 30, of whom only a small percentage believe that restrictions on religious freedom will increase in the next five years. "We must give greater attention to the education of the rising generation," he said.
Encouraging signs for the defense of religious freedom
Elder Oaks said while there are discouraging trends with religious freedom, there are also some encouraging signs, including the successful work of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and advocacy by many influential religious leaders, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Pastor Rick Warren, whom Elder Oaks quoted as saying, "Religious liberty is going to be the civil rights issue of the next decade."
Elder Oaks also said there are encouraging signs that the American public is awakening to the importance of strengthening religious freedom, including a recent study showing that one-fourth of all Americans consider religion to be the First Amendment freedom most threatened.
William P. Mumma, president of the Becket Fund, said in an interview that he’s optimistic about the cause of religious freedom because of the interfaith efforts of Mormons and members of other churches.
“The experience of the Mormon church, and the Catholic church, really represent what’s happening in the country at large,” Mumma said prior to the award dinner. “Who would’ve imagined 15, 20 years ago that Cardinal Dolan and members of the LDS church would be regularly meeting, would be friendly, would be cooperative. We aim for mutually desired aims, which is essentially to defend religious liberty. Not just for Catholics and Mormons, but for all Americans. That’s a pretty optimistic course.”
Because of threats to religious freedom across the world, George said it’s important to remember that religious freedom is “a very precious liberty, it was a hard-won liberty, and it’s a liberty that can all too easily be lost, be eroded, sacrificed for the sake of other ends and objectives. So we need to be very vigilant.”
Religious freedom is for all religious people, and tolerating opposing views is key
Recognizing the large and growing percentage of people who identify themselves as religious but not affiliated with any denomination, Elder Oaks said, “Religious freedom must not be seen as something serving only the interests of churches and synagogues. It must be understood as a protection for religious people, whether or not their beliefs involve membership or behavior.”
Elder Oaks urged religious people and institutions to “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.” He also reminded defenders of religious freedom to follow the example of Jesus Christ in always remembering that the “truth of our cause does not free us from our duty of tolerance toward those who differ.”
B-roll and SOTs - Francis Cardinal George and Elder Dallin H. Oaks (Click to download.)