A broad and deep overview of Latter-day Saint doctrine and defenses about religious liberty was offered at a symposium Friday by an apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“A purpose of my remarks today is to place Latter-day Saint championing of religious liberty in a broader historical and global perspective,” said Elder Gerrit W. Gong, a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Elder Gong was the keynote speaker at the 2022 Church History Symposium, which took place Thursday and Friday and was sponsored by the Church History Department and the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University.

President Dallin H. Oaks, who serves as first counselor in the church’s First Presidency and is a staunch advocate of religious liberty, attended Elder Gong’s keynote address.

As part of his presentation, Elder Gong prepared video vignettes in which five people shared their perspectives of religious liberty:

  • Alexander Dushku, an attorney who focuses on religious liberty issues for the church.
  • Matt Grow, managing director for the Church History Department.
  • Kate Holbrook, academic collaborations director for the Church History Department. 
  • Bill Atkin, associate general counsel for the church.
  • Robert Smith, BYU professor of Church History and Doctrine.

Elder Gong organized his remarks into three themes of religious liberty: Latter-day Saint doctrine, church history and in the global church experience today.

Elder Gerrit W. Gong speaks during the Church History Symposium at the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 11, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Religious liberty in Latter-day Saint scripture

In translating the Book of Mormon, the Prophet Joseph Smith “would learn the doctrinal, spiritual and physical life and death need for religious liberty, and the serious consequences when religious liberty is denied,” Elder Gong said. “Moroni and the Prophet Joseph may have come to share a special experiential bond and fierce love for religious liberty.”

He illustrated the life and death reality of religious liberty by citing several scripture passages from the Book of Mormon that include the three-word phrase, “Put to death.”

Latter-day scripture also teaches constitutional principles of the free exercise of conscience, voice of the people, administration of law with equity and justice, and freedom, among others. Principles of religious freedom are also found in the Bible.

“Contemporary Latter-day Saint commitment to religious liberty draws on these foundations,” Elder Gong said.

Dushku added his thoughts on the right to gather, a communal aspect of religious liberty.

“A strong right to gather lies at the very heart of religious liberty,” he said.

Divine inspiration struck twice with twin miracles at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, the apostle said.

“For me, Constitution Hall is sacred ground, as is the Pennsylvania Philadelphia Temple,” Elder Gong said. “The two now less than 2 miles apart.”

Religious liberty in Latter-day Saint church history

Joseph Smith was no stranger to issues of religious freedom, having faced both personal opposition from a young age and the widespread persecution of the Latter-day Saints.

He petitioned all presidential candidates for help in protecting Latter-day Saints’ rights, and when their responses were unsatisfactory, he launched his own presidential campaign centered on religious and civil freedoms, Elder Gong said.

“Church leaders draw on our early experiences of persecution and our early devotion to religious liberty as we speak with political and religious leaders about the need and benefits for societies to protect and advance religious liberty today,” he said. “Indeed, we find inspiration in our history and believe that because of our own experiences, Latter-day Saints have a special duty to speak on behalf of religious liberty for all groups.”

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For example, Elder Gong participated with Elder David A. Bednar, also of the Quorum of the Twelve, in a BYU conference on “Muslims and Latter-day Saints: Understanding One Another” where they discussed these two points that support the church’s strong belief in religious freedom for all:

  • Article of Faith No. 11: “We claim the privilege of worshipping 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.”
  • Joseph Smith statement: “I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular.”

When Latter-day Saints founded the city of Nauvoo, Illinois, they sought to protect religiously freedom.

“We who had suffered religious persecution sought to guarantee tolerance for all,” Elder Gong said.

People listen to the panel during the Church History Symposium at the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 11, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

One of the interesting aspects Grow observed in the publication of the Joseph Smith Papers’ Council of 50 minutes was the prophet’s statements on religious liberty, Grow said.

“Religious liberty for women and men was essential,” Grow said. “For Joseph, the Latter-day Saint doctrine of individual agency explained the importance of religious liberty.”

Holbrook talked about the dedication of early Latter-day Saint women to religious liberty and the First Amendment in the late 1800s.

“The fact that Latter-day Saint women have trusted in this amendment, even when government actors did not protect their religious liberty, strikes me as very important,” she said. “This was a people who believed in the rule of law and could take the long view.”

Worldwide religious liberty concerns in a global faith

As the church continues to grow and expand worldwide — with more than 16.6 million members — church leaders are continuing to learn much about religious liberty on a global stage.

Elder Gong cited remarks he made at the June 2019 G20 Interfaith Forum in Osaka, Japan, which framed seven ways for how people living their faith or religious beliefs can add value to their communities and countries.

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Elder Gong referenced key principles of religious freedom taught by President Oaks in two recent speeches — his University of Virginia 2021 Joseph Smith lecture and his speech at Sapienza University in Rome, Italy, in December. President Oaks taught:

  • Freedom of religion and belief is an essential condition for a free society, protected as a fundamental international human right, including in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and elsewhere.
  • Freedom of religion and belief are historically, philosophically, institutionally and empirically foundational for other important rights.

Elder Gong also pointed other religious liberty speeches by fellow apostles.

“All these examples lend historic and global weight to the reality that church and church member commitment to religious liberty extends well beyond current, American, or political concerns,” Elder Gong said.

Why religious liberty is a ‘practical reality and need’

Elder Gong asked Smith to share some specific ways that church members can support and advance religious liberty in their communities.

“In my experience, many members of the church are eager to help support religious freedom and moral values, but they’re not quite sure what to do,” Smith said.

Smith suggested the following points:

  • Become educated on the issues. He encouraged the use of church resources at ChurchofJesusChrist.org.
  • Engage in conversations to find solutions. Listen to others but don’t be afraid to speak.
  • Lift where you stand.

Elder Gong concluded by saying the Latter-day Saint commitment to religious liberty is a “practical reality and need” as church members seek to be good citizens and contribute to their communities and countries.

“How grateful we are for the ways religious liberty benefits societies, families and individuals,” the apostle said, “especially when understood in historical and global perspective.

“We recognize why members and friends of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have and will consistently seek to support, preserve and advance religious liberty in appropriate times and ways, now and for future generations.”