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U.S. is model of how variety of religions can flourish

Elder Robert S. Wood said the United States is a model

for the ways religion can flourish within a country that doesn't have a

state-run or state-established faith.

Elder Wood, of the Quorums of the Seventy, was the concluding

speaker Saturday at the annual conference of the Center for Studies on

New Religions, an organization based out of Torino, Italy.

Academics from around the world attended the conference, which was held

for the second time in its 22-year history in Salt Lake City.

Elder Wood said freedom of conscience and assembly have led to a

"remarkable religiosity" in the United States that isn't present in

other industrialized nations.

"Even in the United States, belief in liberty and free conscience has

not always been sufficient to ensure religious tolerance," he said.

"I've often said that we have one other thing that is useful, and that

is space."

When men and women left England for the Americas in the 1700s, they did

so because they were told that if they didn't like the state religion,

they should leave. And yet when many arrived in the Americas, they set

up similar, unwelcoming societies, telling those who were different to

either "love it or leave it."Because of the plentiful land and space

in America, people with different religious views have been able to

pick up and leave when needed, spreading themselves out and allowing

them to get along in relative peace, Elder Wood said.

Because many people identify themselves in terms of the religion they

practice, "religion ultimately gets heavily involved in the life of the

community, and therefore it always has sort of a quasi-political

dimension," Elder Wood said.

Because of that political dimension, the key issue has always been "How

do you accommodate freedom of religious conscience, speech, assembly,

within a fundamentally secular state, and in such a way that it does

not become itself an instrument of political combat and political war?"

"I would commend the model of which Salt Lake City has become a

representation, which is strict adherence to the disestablishment of

religion — no state religion — and the freedom of conscience and more

importantly the ability for one to express their convictions in the

public or civic forum."

Elder Wood said the U.S. operates on a sort of civic religion, which is simply

a belief in a creator who "expects better of us." Beyond that,

individuals are free to decide how they want to believe and fill in

their own creeds and express their conscience.

"This is in fact the genius of the religious sentiment in the United States," he said.

But governments and politics aren't the only things that get in the way

of religious freedom, Elder Wood said. Often times "old" religions pit

themselves against the "new," and vice versa.

"There is a tendency on the old to exclude and suppress and

delegitimize the new. And there's an equal tendency of the new

sometimes to separate and to in effect isolate," he said. "We need to

transcend that and understand that we are talking about the most

fundamental of all human activities, and that is the relationship with

the eternal."

Elder Wood commended CESNUR for taking both an analytical and empathetic approach to its study of religions.

"It's virtually impossible to understand deep religious conviction

without in some sense empathizing with it, and sharing with it. ...

Only then can you understand the phenomenon with which you're dealing.

"Too many people look at Latter-day Saints from the outside," he said.

"That's not only true of people who look at Latter-day Saints, but it's

true of Latter-day Saints as they look at other people."

Elder Wood said some members of the church say "absolutely nonsensical" things about what other people actually believe.

"I think there is a major obligation that we get over that, transcend it," he said.

Elder Wood welcomed the conference attendees to the world headquarters

of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, saying, "This is not

a Utah church ... it's less and less a Rocky Mountain church. ... It is

not an American church. ... The diversity which you have seen is

becoming even greater as the church indeed takes on a global dimension

as never before."