PROVO, Utah — LDS Church apostles and leaders of other faiths increasingly are cultivating relationships with one another, a process recently accelerated by shared concerns over religious liberty.
Mentioning what he termed his "friendship" with LDS officials, a Baptist leader on Monday gave what once might have been considered a unique speech at BYU, saying that while Mormons and evangelicals are divided theologically, they share "common concerns and urgencies" about "unprecedented and ominous" attacks on religious freedom.
"I do not believe that we are going to heaven together, but I do believe we may go to jail together," said R. Albert Mohler during a speech to nearly 400 students and faculty in an almost-full Varsity Theater in the Wilkinson Student Center.
He later added, "… only those with the deepest beliefs and even the deepest differences can help each other against the encroaching threat to religious liberty, marriage and the family."
The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said after his speech that "I wasn't exaggerating, I was speaking honestly when I said we may go to jail together. I don't necessarily mean going to prison together, but I think we're going to suffer the coercive power of the secular state together."
He said religious people already have seen rights eroded by legislatures and court rulings about contraception, traditional marriage and family.
Mohler said Mormons and evangelicals "share love for the family, love for marriage, love for the gift of children, love of liberty and love of human society. We do so out of love and respect for each other and out of the gift of a growing and genuine friendship."
"It has been my great privilege to know friendship and share conversation with leaders of the LDS Church, such as Elder Tom Perry, Elder Quentin Cook and Elder Todd Christofferson," he added.
While Mohler's noteworthy speech once might have been considered rare, today it fits within a larger framework of interfaith outreach.
In 2004, evangelical leader Ravi Zacharias, introduced by Richard Mouw of the Fuller Theological Seminary, spoke at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, the first time in 105 years that an internationally renowned evangelical leader stood at that pulpit.
In 2010, Cardinal Francis George spoke to 12,000 people at a BYU campus forum about the need for both Catholics and Mormons to stand together to protect the ability of individuals and groups to practice their religion in the public square.
Last month, BYU separately hosted prominent Christian leaders Richard Land, president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, and George Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God. Both met with LDS Church officials and each spoke as part of the "Faith, Family and Society" lecture series that Mohler joined Monday. Land told the Deseret News: "When it comes to religious freedom, we all hang together or we all hang separately. We are common targets in this." Wood's lecture was attended by another member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland.
"I believe it's the year of the evangelical at BYU," said Greg Johnson, president of Standing Together, a ministry that seeks unity among Utah's evangelical churches and facilitates evangelical/LDS dialogues. "These three are nationally known, highly regarded opinion makers. What excites us is these lectures arose from institutional invitations. This was done by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the highest levels. As a former Latter-day Saint who had a brother-in-law graduate from BYU, I say these are very much new days and good days."
In January, the Deseret News has confirmed, Zacharias will return to Temple Square to speak from the Tabernacle pulpit again. He also will appear at BYU as part of the same lecture series as Land, Wood and Mohler.
Mohler will return to BYU on Feb. 25 to deliver a nationally televised, campuswide forum address.
Interfaith efforts like these aren't without critics. Land and Wood have faced some objections over their visits last month, as Zacharias and Mouw did in 2004. Wood issued a response to complaints that his BYU visit validated Mormonism.
"These guys are going to take hits," Johnson said, "but they are gaining help for this cause."
Mohler clearly stated his doctrinal differences with Mormons, perhaps as an effort to blunt criticism for a man Time.com called "the reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S."
"The conflict of liberties we're now experiencing is unprecedented and it's ominous," he said. "Forced to choose between erotic liberty and religious liberty, 'many' Americans would clearly sacrifice freedom of religion. How long before the 'many' becomes 'most?'
"This is what brings me to Brigham Young University today. I'm not here because I believe we're going to heaven together. I do not believe that. I believe that salvation comes only to those who believe and trust only in Christ and in his substitutionary atonement for salvation. I believe in justification by faith alone and Christ alone. I love and respect you as friends and as friends we would speak only what we believe to be true, especially on matters of eternal significance. We inhabit separate and irreconcilable theological worlds, made clear with the doctrine of the Trinity, and yet I am here, and gladly so. We will speak to one another of what we most sincerely believe to be true, precisely because we love and respect one another.
"I do not believe that we are going to heaven together, but I do believe we may go to jail together. I do not mean to exaggerate, though we're living in the shadow of a great moral revolution that we commonly believe will have great and devastating human consequences. Your faith has held high the importance of marriage and family. Your theology requires such an affirmation and it is lovingly lived out by millions of Mormon families. We stand together for the natural family, for natural marriage, for the integrity of sexuality within marriage alone, and for the hope of human flourishing.
"I come in the hope of much further conversation, conversations about urgencies both temporal and eternal. I am unashamed to stand with you in the defense of marriage and family and the defense of human sexual integrity. I am urgently ready to speak and act in your defense, against threats to your religious liberty, even as you have shown equal willingness to speak and act in defense of mine."
The text of Mohler's lecture, "A Clear and Present Danger: Religious Liberty, Marriage and Family in the Late Modern Age," is available on his website, www.albertmohler.com.
Mohler also met Monday with faculty from BYU's department of religious education.
"I was impressed with his ability to talk with our university community in such a focused way (without) being distracted by obvious theological differences that exist between our separate faith traditions," BYU church history professor Richard Neitzel Holzapfel said. "Our students and faculty benefited from his review of current and future challenges to religious freedoms in the United States taken for granted only a generation ago."
Russ Robinson, pastor of Provo's First Baptist Church, said he was excited by Mohler's message. "I think we'd better be able to work together for common ground if we honestly and openly talked about our differences, too. That honesty and respect would help us to engage more on issues we have in common, like marriage and family."