"We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may."
-Articles of Faith 1: 11
The bad news is that many LDS members and leaders have devised really creative ways to sidestep the language of this Article in order to justify LDS efforts to infringe on the rights of a marginalized group.
We defend the idea of "religous freedom" when it means our freedom to set and enforce the standards of membership in our Church, without the (imagined) threat of interference by the government. We even throw around the term "religious freedom" in an effort to defend the LDS Church's push to deprive LGBT people of the civil right of marriage. And finally, when the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples could now be married in all 50 states, many Latter-day Saints felt their "religious freedom" was somehow under attack. It's not. I have been meaning to write this blog for a long time, but the apparent confusion around the definition of religious freedom convinced me that now is a good time to provide some clarification on the matter - using only the LDS Scriptures.1
Some members may wonder what gives me the right to disagree with top Church leaders on the gay marriage debate, while still calling myself a Mormon. This short answer is that Apostle D. Todd Christofferson gives me the right (well, God gives me the right); but Elder Christofferson reaffirmed it, saying among other things, "There hasn't been any litmus test or standard imposed that you couldn't support that if you want to support it, if that's your belief and you think it's right." Moreover, Prsident Joseph Fielding Smith was once asked, to what extent Church members are required to accept the words of Church leaders as absolutely authoritative? He replied in part, "members of the Church are under obligation to accept the teachings of the authorities, unless they can discover in them some conflict with the revelations and commandments the Lord has given" (he was referring, of course, to the four Standard Works of the Church). In this blog, I will demonstrate that attempts to ban gay marriage do conflict with what the LDS scriptures have to say on religious freedom. The goal of this post is to improve members' and leaders' understanding of the LDS principle of religious freedom. This post comes from a belief that it is possible to sustain Church leaders, while at the same time hoping for change in one or more of the Church's policies and positions (much as we saw with a reversal of the racial priesthood and temple restrictions).
I should also point out that the issue discussed in this post is simply whether gay marriage should be legal. I will NOT be discussing whether or not homosexuality is sinful. That is a separate issue, and I have saved that discussion for several separate posts (see links at the bottom of this post).
Respect for Law and Government, Under Certain Conditions:
I'll begin the body of this essay with a brief discussion of Mormon teachings regarding the government generally; then I will dive into a discussion about religious freedom more specifically. LDS Scripture teaches that governments are sanctioned, or even "instituted," by God and that they are under religious obligation to respect the law.
"We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law."
-Articles of Faith 1: 12
"We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that he holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them, both in making laws and administering them, for the good and safety of society."
"We believe that all governments necessarily require civil officers and magistrates to enforce the laws of the same; and that such as will administer the law in equity and justice should be sought for and upheld by the voice of the people if a republic, or the will of the sovereign."
-D&C 134: 1, 3
"We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments; and that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen thus protected, and should be punished accordingly; and that all governments have a right to enact such laws as in their own judgments are best calculated to secure the public interest; at the same time, however, holding sacred the freedom of conscience.
"We believe that every man should be honored in his station, rulers and magistrates as such, being placed for the protection of the innocent and the punishment of the guilty; and that to the laws all men owe respect and deference, as without them peace and harmony would be supplanted by anarchy and terror; human laws being instituted for the express purpose of regulating our interests as individuals and nations, between man and man; and divine laws given of heaven, prescribing rules on spiritual concerns, for faith and worship, both to be answered by man to his Maker."
-D&C 134: 5-6
The Government's Responsibility to Protect Religious Freedom:
"Have mercy, O Lord, upon all the nations of the earth; have mercy upon the rulers of our land; may those principles, which were so honorably and nobly defended, namely, the Constitution of our land, by our fathers, be established forever."
-D&C 109: 54
"And again I say unto you, those who have been scattered by their enemies, it is my will that they should continue to importune for redress, and redemption, by the hands of those who are placed as rulers and are in authority over you--
"According to the laws and constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles;
"That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.
"Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.
"And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood."
-D&C 101: 76-80
For our purposes however, being "in bondage one to another" could be interpreted more generally to include any arrangement where a person or group of people uses the force of law to deprive another person or group of people of their basic rights. Simply put, LGBT people cannot deprive anyone of their rights (and they aren't trying to); and Latter-day Saints cannot deprive LGBT people of their rights (which they have tried to do). As the passage makes clear, God allowed "the constitution to be established" and urges it "should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh."
Now, this next part is IMPORTANT, our rights under the constitution also include the right to do things which are regarded by some as sinful (like being a practicing homosexual). This gift from God is called "moral agency" and it appears to be a crucial part of God's plan so "that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment." Who are we to deprive others of a gift that God wishes to be enjoyed by all? Who are we to interfere with the divine plan which depends on humans' free exercise of their moral agency? It is for God to decide, not legal officers, whether a person's private behavior is sinful. Let's not fool ourselves, Mormon opposition to gay marriage is rooted in the belief that homosexuality is sinful. Frankly, this is not a legitimate reason to legally ban gay marriage. As we will see in a moment, just laws can only interfere with a person's behavior IF that behavior poses a threat to another person's basic rights.
"We believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life."
"We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul."
-D&C 134: 2, 4
"We believe that all religious societies have a right to deal with their members for disorderly conduct, according to the rules and regulations of such societies; provided that such dealings be for fellowship and good standing; but we do not believe that any religious society has authority to try men on the right of property or life, to take from them this world’s goods, or to put them in jeopardy of either life or limb, or to inflict any physical punishment upon them. They can only excommunicate them from their society, and withdraw from them their fellowship."
-D&C 134: 10
When LGBT individuals are secured the free exercise of conscience, they can be openly gay without being deprived of any of the rights and privileges enjoyed by other citizens - including marriage. LGBT people are not infringing on anyone else's rights and liberties by getting married, they are only exercising their own rights. Gay people who are religious may marry in any of the growing number of Churches which support gay marriage and are willing to perform them. Gay people who are not religious can have those marriages performed by civil officers.
"We believe that rulers, states, and governments have a right, and are bound to enact laws for the protection of all citizens in the free exercise of their religious belief; but we do not believe that they have a right in justice to deprive citizens of this privilege, or proscribe them in their opinions, so long as a regard and reverence are shown to the laws and such religious opinions do not justify sedition nor conspiracy."
-D&C 134: 7
"We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied."
-D&C 134: 9
On the other hand, what if a person or institution is adding their unique religious voice to the public discourse regarding a proposal that is perfectly consistent with the objects of a secular government? For example, the cause of abolition and the civil rights movement were largely championed by Church leaders. Consequently, leaders of each movement often used religious language to argue for an end to slavery and for racial equality. The important thing is, despite the religious language, these goals were perfectly in line with the secular government's responsibility to protect the basic rights of ALL human beings.
So, religious people and institutions can add their unique religious voices to any number of proposals, provided that the goals of the proposal are perfectly in line with the Constitutional purposes of government. However, they CANNOT simply use the force of government to make their religion the law of the land. IF you've been paying attention, you may have noticed that the LDS scriptures we've covered specifically mentioned many of the government's Constitutional purposes. We'll review many of them right now for the sake of convenience:
- Establish and maintain laws "for the rights and protection of all flesh" (D&C 101: 77)
- To safeguard against conditions in which "any man should be in bondage one to another" (D&C 101: 79)
- "making laws and administering them, for the good and safety of society." (D&C 134: 1)
- "secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life." (D&C 134: 2)
- "administer the law in equity and justice" (D&C 134: 3)
- "restrain crime...punish guilt" (D&C 134: 4)
- Protect "inherent and inalienable rights" (D&C 134:5)
- "holding sacred the freedom of conscience" (D&C 134: 5)
- "the protection of the innocent and the punishment of the guilty" (D&C 134: 6)
- Promote "peace and harmony" and prevent "anarchy and terror" (D&C 134: 6)
- "regulating our interests as individuals and nations, between man and man" (D&C 134:6)
- "to enact laws for the protection of all citizens" (D&C 134: 7)
With this brief review of the Constitutional purposes of government according to D&C, I hope it becomes clear that, even in D&C, the government's purposes are secular. To say that we have a secular government is not to say that we are anti-God or anti-religion. Quite the contrary, it just means that in order to protect religious freedom, the government does not involve itself in religious conflicts, except to prevent one group from infringing on the rights of another - as the Supreme Court did when it declared legal bans on gay marriage unconstitutional.
As the First Amendment to the Constitution puts it, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Keep in mind, this Amendment was well in force when the Lord revealed in D&C 101 that, He "suffered (the Constitution) to be established, and (that it) should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh." Now, it can hardly be argued that God inspired or sanctioned every clause of the Constitution (for example, God is not behind the pro-slavery clauses). However, the First Amendment is perfectly consistent with the purposes of government as revealed in D&C. From D&C then, it seems pretty likely that God is in favor of secular government as a means of protecting religious freedom and moral agency.
Apart from scriptures in D&C and elsewhere, there is another powerful reason for Mormons to fervently defend religious freedom, including and especially the freedom of people whose beliefs and behavior differ from our own. Mormons were once the victims of persecution by people who disapproved of their beliefs and actions. As alluded to above, it was this history of persecution that provoked and inspired many of the words of D&C. In his magnificient talk on the Doctrine of Inclusion, Elder M. Russell Ballard said:
"Our pioneer ancestors were driven from place to place by uninformed and intolerant neighbors. They experienced extraordinary hardship and persecution because they thought, acted, and believed differently from others. If our history teaches us nothing else, it should teach us to respect the rights of all people to peacefully coexist with one another."
The exact type of government varies throughout the Book of Mormon narrative. It begins with two families and no real government to speak of, apart from the leadership of the prophet-patriarch, Lehi. Beginning with Nephi, however, a monarchy is formed. "The Nephites were ruled by hereditary kings from c. 550 to 91 B.C., when the rule changed to a reign of judges. After the coming of Christ, two centuries of peace under the government of his Church were followed by a breakdown of society into tribal units."
Whether ruled by kings, judges, or ecclesiastical leaders the civil government was always closely aligned with religious leadership. In fact, sometimes the civil and religious leaders were one and the same person. This was the case with Alma the younger who "became the first chief judge and served simultaneously as high priest, governor, and military chief captain." Furthermore, the Nephite legal system was based on the Law of Moses until it was replaced with the teachings of Christ upon his arrival among the Nephites. Since Book of Mormon government can generally be defined as one kind of theocracy or another, government policies in the Book of Mormon do not translate well into lessons on American democracy. For this reason, D&C is a much more relevant to modern political debates - including the subject of this post. Still, I would like to briefly discuss a few passages of the Book of Mormon which are relevant to our topic.
Although Nephite society usually maintained an official state religion, they still valued and protected religious freedom so much that they even granted it to people they regarded as false teachers (so long as they were otherwise law-abiding citizens). Case in point, religious freedom is explicitly affirmed in two of the most unlikely stories of The Book of Mormon, smack-dab in the middle of the narratives of two infamous anti-Christs, Nehor and Korihor. Things didn't end well for either of them, but in neither case did the government punish them for their avowed religious beliefs.
Korihor taught that there was no God or Christ, and that the Church leaders simply used religion for material gain and as a means for controlling the population; he also advocated something akin to social darwinism (v. 17). For this he was bound and brought before the high priest, and eventually before the Chief Judge, Alma. After insisting on a sign of God's existence, Korihor was struck dumb at Alma's word. He recanted in writing and then was left to beg for a living until being trampled to death by the Zoramites. Sounds like a pretty bad ending for Korihor. But I think we should be careful to note that, while he was bound and put on trial, the government did not convict or punish Korihor for his religious activities. Instead, he was punished by God through Alma's curse. In the midst of this tragic story we are assured:
"For there was a law that men should be judged according to their crimes. Nevertheless, there was no law against a man’s belief; therefore, a man was punished only for the crimes which he had done; therefore all men were on equal grounds."
-Alma 30: 11
"Nevertheless, they durst not lie, if it were known, for fear of the law, for liars were punished; therefore they pretended to preach according to their belief; and now the law could have no power on any man for his belief."
-Alma 1: 17
"Now there was a strict law among the people of the church, that there should not any man, belonging to the church, arise and persecute those that did not belong to the church, and that there should be no persecution among themselves."
-Alma 1: 21
I realize this is a fairly lengthy post, partly because I didn't want to leave out any relevant passage of scripture; but also because I've included large quotations in an effort to let the LDS Scriptures speak for themselves. As I conclude this essay, I'm going to try to define religious freedom as simply and concisely as possible, and in a way that is consistent with the LDS teachings we have just explored.
Religious freedom is the practical application of the Golden Rule. Religious freedom guarantees that no-one will infringe on your religious liberties, and that you will not use your religion as an excuse to infringe on anyone else's liberties. In practice, this means that LGBT people can't use the force of law to make Mormons change their religion (and they aren't trying to do this); and it means that Mormons cannot use the force of law to impose their religious standards on anyone outside of the Church.
Finally, let me say a little about the intersection of free speech and religious freedom. The right of free speech means that religious groups have every right to add their unique religious persectives to the public discourse. But they do not have a right to try to influence the law in a way that furthers their religion-specific standards at the expense of others' rights and liberties. They are encouraged, however, to add their unique religious voices in support of proposals which are consistent with the Constitutional purposes of government, always respecting the equal rights of all people. The right of free speech also permits LGBT activists and allies to voice their disagreement with the discriminatory policies of religious groups. Disagreement, however vocal, does not constitute religious persecution. It only becomes persecution if religious groups are deprived of their right to believe and act and worship and publish their beliefs as they please. This has never been the case.
So, religious people are perfectly within their legal rights when they speak out against homosexual relationships, just as white supremacists are acting within their legal rights when they say publicaly that interracial romance is sinful.
But let me be clear: there is a world of difference between saying publicly that homosexual relationships are sinful and lobbying government to make homosexual relationships illegal. In the first case they are exercising their first amendment rights, in the second case they are attempting to infringe on someone else's first and fourteenth amendment rights. They have crossed a line, and can no longer honestly claim to be defenders of religious freedom.
It is my hope and prayer that my fellow Latter-day Saints will no longer be confused, distracted, or blinded by imagined persecution; and that our eyes will be opened to the very real ways in which we have participated in the very real persecution of others, by literally acting to deprive them of their Constitutional rights and liberties. When our eyes have been opened, I hope we will repent of it, and learn to do as Joseph Smith taught and practiced:
“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.”
“We ought always to be aware of those prejudices which sometimes so strangely present themselves, and are so congenial to human nature, against our friends, neighbors, and brethren of the world, who choose to differ from us in opinion and in matters of faith. Our religion is between us and our God. Their religion is between them and their God.”
-Joseph Smith Jr.
- Everything the LDS Scriptures Say About Homosexuality
- Does "The Bible" Condemn Homosexuality?
- What is the Sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, According to "The Bible" (Part 1)
- What is the Sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, According to "The Bible" (Part 2)
- What is the Sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, According to "The Bible" (Part 3)
- When I say 'LDS scriptures' I mean the scriptures that are unique to our faith: The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price.