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What I learned about the essential nature of religious liberty from talking to Elder Bednar

Policymakers failed to ‘account properly for the centrality of faith in the lives of believers,’ the world religious leader says

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Elder David A. Bednar, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, speaks during the Saturday morning session of the 190th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Oct. 3, 2020.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

According to a recent study by Pew Research Center, an extraordinarily large majority of U.S. adults (86%) say there is some kind of lesson or even an entire set of lessons for humankind to learn from the pandemic. More than a third of Americans (35%) say the lessons were sent by God.

Most of these lessons seem to be centered in the need for citizens, families, communities and government leaders to focus on what is essential. The lessons of what is absolutely essential are not found in polarizing political debates, angry social media posts or contemptuous conversations. Essential learning, about what is truly essential, is always found in careful contemplation, personal reflection and astute observation.

One group that gathers regularly to share such lessons and learning is the G20 Interfaith Forum. This annual event brings together religious leaders, policymakers and diverse faith actors to collaborate on global initiatives and priorities. These discussions contribute to the more well-known gathering of heads of state, the G20 Leaders’ Summit, which focuses on international economic issues.

On Wednesday, Elder David A. Bednar, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, addressed the 2020 virtual version of the G20 Interfaith Forum. Elder Bednar is known for his extraordinary propensity and ability to be quick to observe. His address included his reflections on the COVID-19 crisis, the place of religion and understanding religion as essential.

As a world religious leader who has traveled in his ministry to more than 100 countries, Elder Bednar shared with attendees that, “Governments obviously have a crucial role to play in protecting people from the coronavirus, and I applaud the sincere efforts of government officials around the world to do so. As with secular activities, religious activities should be carefully limited when truly necessary to keep people safe. No one has a right to spread a dangerous virus.”

Pausing, he emphatically pronounced, “But that is not the end of the matter. How secular officials understand religion and religious people deeply influences how they treat religious institutions and believers in a time of crisis. The deeper and more respectful the understanding, the more legitimate and effective public policy responses can be.”

Elder Bednar then provided this astute and important observation: “Surely at least part of the crisis of legitimacy in the response to COVID-19 arises from the failure of some policymakers to account properly for the centrality of faith in the lives of believers.” 

On my KSL NewsRadio program, “Inside Sources,” I chatted with Elder Bednar about his observations, which seem to have been at the forefront of his mind throughout the global pandemic. He noted, “It’s just hard for me to understand, it’s incomprehensible, that a casino can be opened, but yet, even with some appropriate modifications, there can’t be some religious rights and services.”

Addressing the false choices that a person is either for responsible safety or for the free exercise of religion, Elder Bednar noted, “The sum and substance of my plea is … there are ways to address both of the issues, to be safe, to protect people from the virus and to be able to proceed with religious ceremonies and gatherings that are essential in the lives of billions of people on the earth.” He continued, “If there’s some cooperation and some accommodation, people of goodwill can find out how to solve these problems going forward.”

Elder Bednar emphasized in a landmark address on religious liberty and first freedoms hosted by the BYU Law School in June that, “While believers and their religious organizations must be good citizens in a time of crisis, never again can we allow government officials to treat the exercise of religion as simply ‘nonessential.’ Never again must the fundamental right to worship God be trivialized below the ability to buy gasoline.”

Cautioning against the sweeping declarations that trivialize and undermine the freedom of religions, Elder Bednar stated, “We cannot deny and we should not forget the speed and intensity with which government power was used to shut down fundamental aspects of religious exercise.” Then added, “We have witnessed the government’s swift, well-intentioned, but often dangerous breaching of the boundaries that protect the free exercise of religion.”

“It’s just hard for me to understand, it’s incomprehensible, that a casino can be opened, but yet, even with some appropriate modifications, there can’t be some religious rights and services.” — Elder David A. Bednar

During our radio conversation, Elder Bednar added an additional observation that bears repeating. In discussing the restraints placed on citizens during the pandemic, he said, “I think it’s pretty natural for all of us to be unhappy with the restraint. Yet the restraint can teach us things that we would otherwise never learn.” (I will take a deep dive on this observation in a future column.)

He went on to discuss many of the things he had learned through the past eight months, including what he discovered when he sat down with clerics from another faith in Sudan, prior to the pandemic. Elder Bednar described their conversation, across their differences, by saying, “We found some areas of commonality that none of us would have anticipated. And we better understood the reasons for the differences that we had. That’s a wonderful outcome.”

And a wonderful lesson. 

Last year, during the 2019 G20 Interfaith Forum held in Chiba, Japan, Elder Gerrit W. Gong, also an apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ, spoke of the kind of contemplation, reflection and observation that lead to what is essential through what he called, “butterfly” questions. 

Elder Gong framed the power true leaders possess to frame the right questions. He said, “Some years ago, Emperor Showa (Hirohito), grandfather of His Majesty and a well-known biologist, asked: ‘Why have I not seen butterflies recently in my garden?’ That famous question galvanized Japan to address serious environmental pollution. It is a powerful example that focused questions and recommendations can have significant impact.”

He continued, “This G-20 Interfaith Forum including this session … provide us with a significant platform to ask impactful ‘butterfly’ questions and to raise the level and effectiveness of religious inputs and values relating to global policy issues.”

Elder Bednar, as if answering Elder Gong’s 2019 “butterfly” question, noted, “There is a better way. Religion can be a powerful font of legitimacy and practical assistance in a time of crisis. Many religious leaders already have called on their members to make great sacrifices out of deep love and respect for the safety of others. Acknowledging and respecting those sacrifices and seeking for greater cooperation and accommodation is the way forward.”

The most essential challenge regarding the essential nature of faith-filled religious people came in Elder Bednar’s final plea: “My call is for respect, accommodation, and cooperation — for creative solutions that mitigate the threat of COVID-19 while not cutting people off from an essential part of their lives.”

Another leader in The Church of Jesus Christ also addressed this issue this month at the 27th Annual International Law and Religion Symposium at BYU. President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency said freedom of religion and conscience and the right to public worship “are essential elements of our faith,” and encouraged lawmakers “not to unnecessarily restrict the rights of believers to engage in public worship.” He likewise expressed his hope that people across the globe could come together to help solve the problems and challenges of this difficult time. 

Whether the origin of the pandemic’s lesson is human or divine, the essential learning, wisdom and insight are only to be found in careful contemplation, personal reflection and astute observation. These world religious leaders have shown how such efforts can ensure the protection of public health, the preservation of essential freedoms and, ultimately, the essence of what enables individuals and societies to flourish.