Many Americans passively, and perhaps complacently, acknowledge the importance of religious liberty. But if it becomes a passively complacent issue for citizens of the United States, it is sure to flounder or completely fail in many countries around the world.
Like freedom of the press, religious liberty does not belong to any political party, faith group, elected official, religious organization or association. Religious liberty really belongs to people who are free. The freedom of religion and the freedom from religion can be balanced when governments allow for freedom of thought and freedom to practice faith, ensuring all are free from government targeting or harassment for whatever an individual does or does not believe.
A highly pluralistic society can bless communities and strengthen nations if all citizens are allowed to worship and work together. A solely secular society does not end well.
The assistant editor at the Atlantic, whose name is ironically Faith Hill, wrote how, “secular organizers have started their own congregations. But to succeed, they need to do a better job of imitating religion.” She discussed the rapid rise and swift descent of secular groups.
Hill went on, “If the sudden emergence of secular communities speaks to a desire for human connection and a deeper sense of meaning, their subsequent decline shows the difficulty of making people feel part of something bigger than themselves. One thing has become clear: The yearning for belonging is not enough, in itself, to create a sense of home. ...
“Many faith congregations have acted as social anchors in their areas, providing a place to see and be seen by the same friendly faces each week. As these and other traditional social supports hollow out, Americans are left ‘bowling alone,’ as the political scientist Robert Putnam famously put it.”
Without religious liberty, then in places of worship, homes and communities, the public square likewise becomes an empty space for the lonely crowd.
This week, President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, along with Elder Quentin L. Cook of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, visited numerous countries in South America. As the two met with various political, business and civic leaders, the topic of religious liberty and the strength of civil society was discussed.
After their meeting with Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez, Elder Cook mentioned that, “One of the things that pleased us very much about Colombia is it’s one of the few countries that has actually embedded in their legislative and constitutional history the protection of religious freedom.” He also noted that many South American countries have current practices that tolerate religious liberty, which he applauded, “but most do not have it enshrined in their constitution or other legislation,” he said.
There are also numerous countries around the world and an increasingly loud group in the United States that want to interpret religious liberty as something you can do in your home or at your local church but something improper to express in the public square. Elder Cook continued, “To have true religious freedom, you’ve got to have a voice in the public square, not a contentious voice, not a partisan voice, not a political voice. But for things that are righteous and good and, and appropriate. … We want it for everybody and whether they are Christian or whether they are of any other faith.”
Just as the secularist congregations have little cohesion and limited sustainability, being able to bring your faith into the public square is essential for robust institutions of civil society to thrive and to strengthen communities. The cry of the secularists is often that religious liberty is used to deny uniqueness of thought and freedom of choice. To the contrary, societies with strong religious liberty rights and valued institutions of civil society know that oneness of purpose needn’t be tied to sameness.
During an interview in Brazil, Elder Cook described how such freedoms and mutual understanding lead to united purposes that build better communities: “We don’t have to agree on our theology for us to become friends and allies in trying to make the world a better place.”
Protecting religious freedom and promoting civil society is an idea seen this week as being extinguished in some countries, promoted in others and challenged in America. Governments should protect these ideals and individual citizens should ensure they survive by living and promoting them through positive action. In South America, I have seen that the old Scottish saying still rings true: “Thee lift me and I’ll lift thee and we’ll ascend together.”