Third in a five-part series on why faith matters to society
“The great questions of human existence … belong to us all. Seeking to answer them in fidelity to our hearts and consciences is one of the noblest of all human activities.” — Wilfred McClay
Societies are loud things. Confusing things. There seem to be as many opinions and beliefs as there are individuals. And everyone wants to be heard.
Whether it’s elections, education or the economy, people speak out on the issues they care about. Religious believers are passionate about the same issues but offer perspectives informed by their faith. And because religion occupies such a large space in the spectrum of human life, the range of solutions would be smaller without the voice of religious conscience.
A premise of free speech is that we can never know where wisdom will come from. So, if competing voices are allowed to speak freely, that wisdom is bound to come through.
Every society lives in a particular age. Stuck within our own horizons, we let our guiding principles and values grow stale. From time to time, societies need to be challenged, corrected and improved. And it is often religious voices that awaken our better selves and act as the conscience of society.
Civic discourse — questions of fairness, peace, liberty and the general welfare — often takes on religious dimensions. There are voices in all walks of public life, even religion, that stifle good sense. But a critical mass of civility can isolate extremism. At their best, voices of faith elevate public discussions beyond the here and now. They bring to life insights from the past, remind us of our sacred obligations to each other and point to our higher aspirations as human beings. For instance, Martin Luther King Jr. powered a movement for racial and civil justice through his depth and eloquence as a pastor.
But words themselves only go so far. The most common form of religious conscience springs from where life is actually lived, from people who slowly and quietly labor to alleviate poverty, improve public health, strengthen family relationships and defend human rights. In this way, conscience does not bow to the dictates of ideology or party. It simply does what it believes is right.
This twin benefit of moral guidance and practical solutions will always make religion a relevant force in society.
Examples abound. William Wilberforce applied Christian ethics to abolish the slave trade in Great Britain. Abraham Lincoln drew on the truths of the Bible to heal a divided nation. Mahatma Gandhi spread the religious principles of nonviolence to lead India to independence. And the list goes on. These individuals resisted the grain of their times, and heralded something new.
Being a voice of religious conscience may not lead to popularity, but society is better served when all are allowed to pursue their highest good. We can disagree about important things with good will. It is unwise to stamp rivals as enemies. Indeed, they can prove to be helpful collaborators where social goals align. It feels uncomfortable to listen to critics call our cherished beliefs into question, and yet we show strength by engaging in sincere conversations with those who oppose our views. After all, we trust that “truth will cut its own way” and love will eventually win out in the contest of ideals.
Harmony has different parts, not just one tune.
In the end, our conscience is all we have. Everything else — material possessions, social status, wealth — can be taken away. But the beliefs and values that constitute our moral compass, the invisible space in our hearts that separates right from wrong, the meaning we attach to life and the internal goad that compels us to share our vision are the things that give us dignity.
The ability to voice this conscience is our birthright as human beings. Without it, our other freedoms have little meaning.
 Wilfred McClay, “Honoring Faith in the Public Square,” Christianity Today, Nov. 21, 2012.
 See History of the Church, 5:498–99; quotation taken from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on July 9, 1843: “If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way.”