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Mormon leader tells Black Leadership Summit that religious liberty means 'fairness for all'

PRINCETON, New Jersey — When the Boston-based Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies was planning the agenda for its three-day leadership seminar focusing on religious freedom, institute leaders turned to an ally with experience on the topic at hand — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The purpose of this week’s Seymour-sponsored Black Leadership Summit “is working to advance a new, national conversation about the relationship between religious freedom as a human right and the demands of justice for the poor,” said the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, institute founder and president.

“And so, the pursuit of justice in this century is going to be largely driven by communities of faith who advocate for ‘the least of these,'” he added, explaining “the poor” range from the materially impoverished to the spiritually poor.”

Invited to give Wednesday morning’s keynote address at the symposium, held at the Princeton Theological Seminary, was Elder Quentin L. Cook of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

“Elder Cook and the church of the Latter-day Saints have been supporters of the idea that all faith-based institutions should be free to practice their own conscience and to advance the interests of fairness for all,” the Rev. Rivers said. “And so, we’re excited about the church of the Latter-day Saints because of their commitment to religious freedom and their commitment to fairness, which translates for us into justice for the poor.”

Elder Cook, who has had several previous interactions with the Rev. Rivers and his wife, institute executive director Jacqueline C. Rivers, said he was invited to speak on religious freedom. “But they were also a little intrigued that we’ve had this concept of ‘Fairness for All,’” he said, adding “they have a great desire to have religious freedom move forward in an appropriate way.”

Self-described collectively as one, the Black Church — predominantly comprised of Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians — can be seen as very conservative, but not as conservative as they are sometimes cast by others, Elder Cook said.

“I think they are looking at a lot of different ways that people are accountable to God,” he said, adding that sharing such an accountability while having different theological views and remaining true to respective doctrines is “a healthy thing."

“In my view, it’s very Christ-like to reach out and have relationships that are based on accountability to God but not necessarily in the same theological tones or the same theological themes, principals and doctrines that would be easy for us.”

In his talk titled “Accountability to God: Religious Freedom and Fairness,” Elder Cook cited Dr. Martin Luther King several times, summarizing a 1957 address as “conquering self-centeredness.”

“I am deeply concerned that faith, accountability to God and religious freedom are so often seen as antithetical to our modern secular society,” Elder Cook said. "I am equally concerned that the foundations which have historically supported faith, accountability to God and the religious impulse are increasingly being marginalized in a secular world. They are derided and even banished from the public square.”

With the public square moving to the digital space and conversations becoming less civil, “we all need to evaluate how and when we use the Internet and social media,” Elder Cook said, concerned that inappropriate use leads to an onslaught of self-promotion, increased self-doubt, half-truths and misrepresentations, hidden identities and unkind commentaries.

“We hear a lot about being authentic in social media,” he said. “Being sincerely Christ-like is an even more important goal than simply being authentic.”

He spent time recapping the efforts and successes of British abolitionist William Wilberforce and likened Wilberforce's values to those of the mission and vision of the Seymour Institute.

He also briefed listeners to the religious persecutions suffered by Mormons during the 19th century, quick to emphatically acknowledge that he was not comparing LDS trials with “the horrendous slavery experience of African Americans.”

“Persecution taught the early Latter-day Saints the importance of protecting religious liberty and of preserving the dignity of each individual in their own choices,” he said.

In recent years, LDS Church leaders have worked with state legislators and the gay and lesbian community in considering how to balance religious liberty and the proper protection of LGBT individuals, he said. At the same time, the church doesn’t retreat from its “deeper religious understanding of marriage” or from proclaiming the value of motherhood and fatherhood, he added.

“We call this approach ‘Fairness for All,’” he explained. “Even with the issues are complex and emotionally charged, we believe that productive dialogue is possible when all involved acknowledge that the other’s freedoms deserve protection.

“That recognition allows us to build trust in the face of our differences: all involved can consider compromise over non-essential areas when they are confident that both sides are committed to protecting what is essential. ‘Fairness for All’ thus recognizes the essential role of protecting core religious freedoms and core LGBT freedoms with dignity for everyone.

“A robust pluralism is still the best model for reasonably accommodating everyone’s needs in a diverse way,” he continued. “Everyone should be respected for who they are and afforded the freedom to live openly and with dignity according to their core beliefs, whether religious or secular. Government influence should never be used to pressure institutions or individuals to back down on core beliefs.”

He listed the elements of fairness for believers, religious organizations and LGBT protections in a powerpoint presentation:

• Individual believers should be able to worship and express faith openly without fear of retaliation or ostracism; live openly according to religious beliefs; to be free from discrimination in a particular occupation or profession because of religious beliefs; and to be free from religious discrimination in employment, housing or traditional places of public accommodation.

• Religious organizations should be able to form religious organizations and schools where believers can express and live their faith; to establish doctrines, ceremonies and requirements for membership, including ecclesiastical office and employment; and to speak out on public issues.

• And core LGBT protections should include protection for constitutional rights — to speak out, petition government, to assemble and interact, all without fear of reprisal; to live the lifestyle they choose openly without fear of retaliation or ostracism; to be free from discrimination in particular occupations or professions because of sexual orientation; to be free from discrimination in employment, housing and traditional places of public accommodation; to form businesses and organizations that serve LGT individuals and groups; and to speak out on public issues an otherwise participate in the public square.

“In an era when so many strive to be authentic to their own feelings, we must strive to be sincere before our God,” Elder Cook said. “Anybody who espouses moral values will be frequently mocked. Nevertheless, we should continue our ongoing and critical efforts to increase morality and protect families.”

After the address, several summit participants were called on to give responses. Professor David D. Daniels III of the McCormick Theological Seminary complimented Elder Cook on his sincere expressions regarding Dr. King and on acknowledging slavery, while President Estrelda Y. Alexander of William Seymour College said black churches “should be at the forefront of teaching us how to live as a pluralist society.”

Elder Cook also faced two inquiries in a subsequent Q&A session regarding the LDS Church past of denying priesthood ordinations to blacks. With close look at current church policies and practices, “you would find out that in our doctrine there is complete equality before God and equal opportunity for all,” he said, citing Book of Mormon scripture and explaining that past restrictions were not from scripture or from the faith’s first prophet, Joseph Smith.

He also spoke of how LDS leaders and councils “went to the Lord, to the temple” to receive the 1978 revelation affording the priesthood to all worthy men.