“I hope that as people of all nations are tending to lose trust in institutions, I hope that we do not lose faith in the institution of the family and its formative value,” Rick Larsen, president and CEO of the Sutherland Institute, said in a webinar on the intersection of religious freedom and family.

The webinar Friday morning was the third in a series hosted by the Sutherland Institute and the European Union & International Affairs Office of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the symbiotic relationship of family and faith.

Larsen shared a story that he heard from the late Clayton Christensen about a scholar who traveled from China to the U.S. for a study program. At the conclusion of the scholar’s studies, Christensen asked him if he learned anything surprising. The scholar responded, “Yes, I’m surprised at the importance of faith in relation to freedom.”

As the Chinese scholar had explored different communities, he saw a church or synagogue or a mosque at every turn. In Larsen’s recounting, the scholar observed, “In such an environment, people are more inclined to voluntarily do the right thing, to treat people with respect, with fairness, with compassion. And should that predominant influence ever go away, freedom and democracy would be in jeopardy.”

Larsen’s recounting of the story encapsulated the theme of remarks from a panel of family life and religious freedom authorities including David Dollahite, William Duncan, Alessandro Calcagno and Marcela Szymanski.

The panel made the case that religion is a force for good and democracy thrives in tandem with faith.

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Social science research shows religious beliefs and community, when done in a healthy manner, has positive associations with the health of families, said Dollahite, family life professor at Brigham Young University and co-director of American Families of Faith.

“Religion tends to benefit and strengthen marriages and families; and individuals who are religious tend to want to have strong marriages and strong families or at least to support strong marriages and strong families in their lives,” Dollahite said. He referred back to a study he did showing that regular family prayer cultivated strong family relationships in Muslim, Christian and Jewish families. They felt closer to God and closer to each other.

Dollahite acknowledged there’s a diversity of belief in families — both in cases where family members share the same religion and when they do not. It’s important for family members to respect the diversity of belief within their own families, he said.

“In some ways, every marriage is an interfaith marriage in the sense that even if two people that are married are in the same faith, there’s a very good chance that they have different perspectives, different ways of living that faith, different ideas about what’s most important in that faith,” said Dollahite. Sometimes children may decide to live a different faith. He encouraged parents to be respectful of their children in those cases.

Modeling love, patience and working together across differences in a family can have a ripple effect across local communities and the world, he said. More people are saying they are not religious and Dollahite said it’s important to foster tolerance of the increasing religious diversity.

Teaching children to respect other religions is integral to the preservation of religious freedom. Calcagno, assistant secretary general for the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, said families also have the ability to transmit values down to their children. Sometimes these values are related specifically to a particular religion, other times it’s the value of tolerance.

“Integration starts from the family,” Calcagno said. He explained that it’s the responsibility of families to instill in their children respect for other religions as well as cultures and the laws of the country. This not only helps with religious freedom, but also respect for others.

Calcagno suggested that volunteer groups with people of different religious backgrounds should be formed and engage in charitable initiatives. He also encouraged more interfaith dialogue to cultivate the respect for others of which he spoke.

“I’m firmly convinced that ignorance is really the main root of hatred and of violence,” Calcagno said, noting that respect for other people’s religious freedom stems from knowledge of other religions.

Religious freedom on a policy level

Protecting the freedom of belief and religion goes hand-in-hand with protecting the integrity of the family, Duncan, constitutional law and religious freedom fellow at the Sutherland Institute, said. “Both are great examples of how rights really flow from responsibility.”

Parents in families have the responsibility of rearing children, which is “a critical role that really no one else could fulfill in exactly the same way.” In a similar way, religion has a critical role in “a sense of accountability to a higher power, social goods, providing social services, taking care of the vulnerable.” Also, Duncan noted, religion can be integral in pushing back on ideologies that may threaten society.

Duncan in the future, and perhaps even in the present, anticipates issues around school choice in addition to social media regulation, foster care, adoption and the ability of parents to engage in public school. He spoke about the U.S. with an eye toward the rest of the world. These topics “can be informed by this understanding of the importance of protecting the overlapping rights of parents and religious freedom.”

One example Duncan gave of a family policy that protects religious freedom and does not infringe on others’ rights is the ability of parents to choose a religious school for their children. He also said church autonomy — the ability of churches to freely share their messages — is also a positive example of a U.S. policy that preserves religious freedom and others’ rights as well.

When policymakers respect a diversity of religions, Duncan said they have the ability to create accommodations for people — such as ensuring that athletes can participate in sports while not being forced to violate their religion’s standards around attire.

Zooming out from the U.S., Szymanski, European Union representative for Aid to the Church in Need, spoke about global religious freedom. “The exercise of freedom of religion does not recognize any borders, but the same traveling speed applies to violations of this fundamental right with the violations sometimes going from west to south.”

Religious freedom violations impact families and also lead to the erosion of women’s rights globally. In countries with a majority religion connected to political power, Szymanski said women are deprived of many different freedoms, including the freedom to teach their children how they would like to about belief and religion.

The governments in the West often overlook these sorts of situations due to dependence upon certain energy supplies, Szymanski said. This can negatively impact religious minorities globally.

It’s for this and other reasons Szymanski admonished against developing apathy around the concept of religious freedom. The abstract idea of equal dignity for all, alongside the International Religious Freedom Act, protects religious freedom, but Szymanski said, people need to actively engage in defending these principles.

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Moving forward


If families want to pass on religious ideas and be respectful of religious diversity, Dollahite said there’s need to be a balance of religious firmness with religious flexibility.

Religious firmness is loyalty to the principles of one’s religion and religious flexibility is developing the ability to appreciate other people’s perspectives when they make choices different from you. “Balancing religious firmness and religious flexibility within the home, we found to be very important for good family relationships,” Dollahite said.

Wrapping up the panel’s discussion, Larsen said he hopes it’s from parents, not intellectual elites, that children hear principles of family that can lead to their happiness.

“Lessons of faith and principle taught and demonstrated in the home are uniquely powerful because those are embedded in children who become citizens, who become leaders.”

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