SALT LAKE CITY — In America today, religion is more often thought of as a source of conflict than a unifying force, but it doesn’t have to be that way, according to Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona.

Faith groups have an opportunity right now to help heal racial divides and remind us that everyone deserves respect, they said during an hourlong discussion that was broadcast Thursday as part of Brigham Young University’s Religious Freedom Annual Review.

“We all have a responsibility as Americans to treat each other as we would want to be treated. That message is universal through every religion,” Sinema said.

One of the reasons that religious freedom is important is that it protects the faith leaders trying to share that message, Lee noted. When believers are free to live according to their religious values, the whole country is better off.

“Whether you’re following Buddhism or Hinduism, whether you are Christian or Jewish or Muslim or humanist or Zoroastrian, in each of these philosophies and religious traditions you will find things in them that talk to you about how you interact with others, especially the vulnerable,” he said. “Any set of beliefs ... that brings people together, needs to be protected.”

The senators, who both attended BYU, highlighted black churches’ leadership role in the civil rights movement. Thanks, in part, to America’s religious freedom protections, pastors like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., were free to raise their voices and try to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice faster than it would move on its own, they said.

“When you look at the civil rights revolution, ... a lot of it came about as a result of faith communities that came together,” said Lee, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

That unifying power is needed today as the country continues to grapple with George Floyd’s tragic death in police custody and the broader problem of systemic racism, Sinema noted. Churches should be examining their own race-related biases and helping others do the same.

“One of the things religious communities can do to be very helpful is share the message of the inherent dignity and worth of individuals in the black community who have historically been marginalized,” said Sinema, who applauded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ ongoing partnership with leaders in the NAACP.

Faith-based calls for respect can also help resolve rising political polarization, the senators said. During a contentious election year, Americans sometimes forget the value of empathizing with people who have different experiences and beliefs.

We have to “take time to listen and learn from each other,” said Sinema, who was part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints growing up but is no longer active in a faith community.

Believe it or not, senators are actually pretty good at this task, Lee said. He praised Sinema’s willingness to work with him on policy issues at several points during Thursday’s discussion.

“There are some areas where the two parties disagree and there are a whole lot where we don’t,” he said. “I don’t want anyone watching this to think ... opportunities (for bipartisanship) are rare.”

The Senate’s fast action on COVID-19 relief legislation showed that policymakers are able to work out compromises pretty quickly when the situation requires it, he added.

But, admittedly, leaders’ better impulses don’t always win the day, Sinema said. For example, conflict sometimes wins out over compromise when it comes to religious freedom.

“What we’ve seen is a rise in some politicians using religion as a tool to divide people,” she said. “I think that’s a real disservice to the greatness and genius of our system of government.”

It’s also a disservice to individual believers, according to Alaa Murabit, who, along with Elder David A. Bednar, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for the church, spoke during the conference’s Wednesday broadcast. Religious freedom enables people to flourish on whatever path they choose for themselves, she said.

“I personally know I would not be here where I am — not in my work, my personal life, or in the impact I’ve had on world — had it not been for my faith,” said Murabit, who is a United Nations high-level commissioner on health, employment and economic growth.

Americans need to focus on what unites, rather than divides us, Sinema said. If we ensure that everyone is treated equitably by the law and by one another, we can all thrive.

“If you focus on values, you can move forward,” she said.