The following interview was conducted with Elder Dallin H. Oaks on 2 February 2011. The full transcript is available below and a broadcast-quality, downloadable file can be downloaded here (see news release covering the speech here).
:00 Title slate
:14 WHY IS THIS TOPIC IMPORTANT?
Religious freedom is fundamental to the existence of our nation. It’s, along with free speech, the most fundamental civil right and civil liberty. As I see some slippage in the public regard for religion and in the legal basis for religious freedom, I am alarmed.
:43 WHY DOES RELIGIOUS FREEDOM DESERVE SPECIAL LEGAL PROTECTION?
Religious freedom is deserving of special legal protection first and foremost because it is in the United States Constitution. It is not something dreamed up out of the penumbras or shadows of the Constitution like some other rights that are bandied about. This one is in the first part of the First Amendment. I think it was the very most important liberty that the founders were concerned about, along with free speech. So it’s deserving of special legal protection because it’s in the Constitution in a paramount position. It is fundamental to our sense of identity as a nation. In our founding we depended upon religious and moral principles. The regard for the individual, the dignity of man, is a religious principle. It’s in the founding of our Constitution. It is also in the nature of our citizens. Our very important private sector, the hospitals, the schools, the universities, are mostly founded by religious organizations, and the charitable impulses we have as a people that extend to the matter of foreign aid to all the world in our national policy — those come out of religion.
2:29 WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY SPECIAL LEGAL PROTECTION?
The type of legal protection extended to religion is unique in that it is in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and it’s fundamental and long-standing. I don’t know that any pilgrim fathers or any of the early immigrants to this continent came in the interest of practicing anything other than their religion and their seeking for a better life. Now, since that time, other influences, other systems of belief have become important and they are deserving of protection, but religion is unique because it was there at the beginning and it’s in the First Amendment.
3:18 WHY IS FREEDOM OF RELIGION THE FIRST RIGHT IN THE FIRST AMENDMENT?
I think religious freedom was first in the First Amendment, along with freedom of speech, because it was the fundamental reason for this continent being inhabited by colonists who came from Europe who had experienced, many of them, religious persecution from a variety of sources. But it was a motivation for their being here. Similarly, freedom of speech was a motivation because there was a history of suppressing people, punishing people, for the opinions they held and the things they said.
4:04 WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES TO RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN SOCIETY TODAY?
My concern about what I call the erosion of religious freedom comes from what I perceive to be the diminishing influence of religion and religious principles in our society. This shows up in terms of the number of persons who have formal religious affiliation. It’s quite clear from the record that the number of members of record, or the number of people who attend church and claim affiliation with a particular denomination, is decreasing. Now, many people consider themselves religious but don’t have a religious affiliation. Granted. Yet when it comes to asserting the position of religion in our society, we look to organizations that will stand up and speak up. And I believe that overall there is a diminishing of the authority and power and influence of religious organizations in this country. If I am wrong about that I would love to be contradicted by the evidence. Surely in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we do not recede from stating our views and our positions on something like religious freedom, but when we look for allies there are fewer and fewer allies we can turn to.
Another thing that concerns me about the diminished influence of religion in our society is the increasing volume of voices that say that religion has no place in the public square. In other words, in the halls of legislative chambers, in the courtrooms, in public debates, a religious opinion, or the advocacy of a religious leader, has no place. It’s somehow a violation of the separation of church and state. By the way, separation of church and state is a concept that has gotten up outside the four corners of the Constitution. The Constitution said there will be no establishment of religion, meaning no official state religion. It does not say that church and state should be separated by a wall impregnable, to use a term used in a United States Supreme Court decision some years ago.
6:54 WHY IS RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IMPORTANT TO SOCIETY AT LARGE?
Religious freedom is important to society at large because the teachings of religion strengthen society. They provide an answer to the problem that is a long-standing problem in government, that laws need to be enforced but we don’t have the resources to enforce them all. But religion teaches obedience to the unenforceable. That is, the influence of religion helps to secure the stability of society and observance to laws that are otherwise not enforceable but important to the society.
7:49 CAN MORALITY EXIST WITHOUT RELIGION?
The answer to the contention that religious freedom is not necessary because morality will fill it in and perform the same function is that for most people in our society religion is the source of morality. Or religious teachings define the content of morality. I’m not denying that a person without religion can be a moral person, but I am asserting that they are in the minority. We need both religion for those who are religious and morality for those who aren’t. We need both influences in our society, but one can’t say to the other, “I have no need of thee.”
8:42 IS RELIGIOUS FREEDOM UNDER ATTACK?
I think we need to defend religious freedom because it is eroding, not because it is frequently under frontal attack. It is under frontal attack when someone contends that a religious leader can’t speak on a public issue, or a religious person can’t bring their religious views into public debate—that is under attack. But that is a minority problem. I think we’re seeing erosion when some public figures, for instance, refer to freedom of worship rather than freedom of religion. Now let’s look at that for a moment. Freedom of worship is a far narrower concept than freedom of religion because freedom of religion includes the freedom to act upon one’s religious beliefs, whereas freedom of worship tends to indicate that religion is confined within the church or synagogue, if you choose to go there. Yet we see people beginning to refer to freedom of worship rather than freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is eroding also because fewer and fewer people have a formal religious affiliation. More and more people who say they are religious don’t have a formal affiliation. Well, a lot of people who are religious can exist in a society, but in order to make the influence of religion and religious teachings felt in the public sector, we need affiliation with religious organizations that can speak up and whose leaders can speak up as representing a group.
10:39 WHO IS YOUR MESSAGE INTENDED FOR?
My message is directed to religious leaders with a proposal that it would be well for Catholics and Protestants of all description and Muslims and Mormons and others interested in the things we’ve been discussing to unite and stand together on the essential principle of religious freedom. What unites us in religion is far more important than what divides us in the capacity to speak up for religious freedom.
11:22 IS THERE A CONTRADICTION BETWEEN RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AND FREE SPEECH?
I don’t see a lot of conflict between freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Basically, religious people rely on religious freedom and they also rely on freedom of speech to deliver their message. And if someone else criticizes religion, they do so under freedom of speech, and there’s no religious freedom to be free from criticism of religion. So I don’t see a conflict there. What I see a conflict in is the freedom, which is part of religious freedom, of a religious leader to say that some particular conduct is sinful, or some particular public policy is not pleasing to God, or something of that nature. And then the person on the other side of that, the person criticized, says, “Well, you’re interfering with my civil right to advocate my position,” or “You’re offending me and I have a right not to be offended,” or “You are criticizing me and I have a right not to be criticized.” That’s where the collision comes.
12:37 WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHO ACCUSE RELIGIONS OF PUSHING THEIR DOCTRINE ON THOSE NOT OF THEIR FAITH?
That needs to be taken very seriously by religious leaders. We cannot enact religious doctrine. We cannot require that a particular prayer that is pleasing to one religious group be adopted in the schools and be required to be said, for example; that’s approximately what the Supreme Court denounced in the school prayer decision several decades ago. Religious leaders should always be cautious and thoughtful that they are not advocating enactment of their own religious doctrine or their own religious practices into law. On the other hand, most of our family law, most of our criminal law, most of laws that deal with ethical behavior come out of religious principles. It’s simply not true that we have no religious principles in our law. The law is full of them. The Judeo-Christian heritage going back to the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament, and the principles set out there are the basis of much of our criminal law and some of our private law. They are not set out as religious principles, but they come out of religion.
14:15 HOW DO YOU BALANCE FREE SPEECH WITH FREEDOM OF RELIGION?
We have in the Constitution both a freedom of speech and a freedom of religion. Often people seem to contend that religious people ought to be satisfied with freedom of speech, but they forget that we also have freedom of religion. Freedom of speech does not provide everything that freedom of religion provides, else why have both provisions in the First Amendment? Why did the founders insist on freedom of religion as well as freedom of speech? Freedom of religion includes the right to act upon one’s religion, the right to exercise it. Exercise is the word in the First Amendment. The exercise of religion has to be qualified by the government’s responsibility to protect the health and the welfare of their citizens. And so there are limits to the exercise of religion, but those limits are at the extreme. Such things as you cannot steal from your neighbor because your religion teaches you that you have a right to somebody else’s property, or you can’t kill your neighbor because your religion teaches you that you should take a life in certain circumstances. It’s obvious that the government’s responsibility overrides free exercise of religion at those extreme levels, but let us not say that the government has a right to come in and say you can’t do this or that if it doesn’t fit within the government’s police power as it’s called.