This article is a broad introduction for a forthcoming series of articles on religious freedom.

For many people in the world, there are few things more precious than freedom. Freedom – the power to live as one would choose – is one of the great sources of human dignity. Exercising freedom correctly is also one of the great responsibilities that humans hold. We continue to grapple with how to define our freedoms, how to understand them, and how they should be both cultivated and tempered. At the heart of these questions, we find one of the most fundamental of all freedoms: freedom of religion.

What is freedom of religion?

Contrary to what some may assume, religious freedom is not simply the freedom to worship or to believe the way one chooses, though these are essential parts of it. Neither is it just for religious people. Religious freedom is actually deeper, broader and more important than most realize.

At the most fundamental level, religious freedom is the human right to think, act and express what one deeply believes, according to the dictates of his or her moral conscience. In fact, religious freedom has always been understood in conjunction with “freedom of conscience” – the liberty to develop and hold moral convictions and to act accordingly. So while religious freedom encompasses the liberty of religious belief and devotion, it also extends well beyond that, incorporating the freedom to act – to speak freely in public, to live according to one’s moral principles and to advocate one’s own moral vision for society. The breadth of religious freedom and its relationship with freedom of conscience helps explain why religious freedom is important for everyone, not just for people of faith.

The United States has a long and exceptional tradition of freedom of religion, a virtue that was embedded in the original documents of the nation and extolled by its founders. Enshrined as the preeminent freedom in the U.S. Bill of Rights, religious freedom is the first among other essential liberties and is often referred to as the “first freedom.” It is characterized this way because it enables and protects other human freedoms, like freedom of speech. Indeed, the culture of liberty and peaceful democracy in the United States in large part emerged from its firm respect for religious freedom. Like the United States,many other nations have also come to acknowledge this most essential of liberties and made it a central premise of their own governments. The United Nations, in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and in many other compacts since then, has identified religious liberty as “a fundamental human right.”

Religious freedom and society

This fundamental right is indispensable in the diverse societies of the modern world, where the rights and interests of different parties often come into conflict. Since the potential for animosity is greatest where differences are most profound or where majorities dominate, freedom of religion is critical because it allows people with differing convictions about the deepest matters of truth to live together peacefully. A careful regard for this freedom protects all groups and individuals, including the most vulnerable, religious or not. When honored, religious freedom helps to avert violence and to mediate conflict.

Nations around the world that have nurtured religious liberty have witnessed its positive effects on society. While cases of religious extremism have blemished the public image of religion, scholars recognize that religion imparts vital benefits, including harmony and stability, to the societies that support it. Their scholarship consistently shows that religious people typically are more civically minded, more generous and more neighborly than their nonreligious counterparts. Empirical data also suggest that religiously free societies enjoy many other benefits, including higher levels of other freedoms, than do those where religion is repressed or disadvantaged. These benefits are additional reasons why religion should be free to flourish in society. [1]

Honoring religious freedom does not mean discarding other freedoms and social interests or subverting the law; religious freedom coexists with other legitimate interests in society. Government has a critical role to ensure public safety and to arbitrate the conflict of some rights with others. In the United States, we maintain a healthy independence of church and state, though we should not sequester religion’s moral influence from the nation’s public affairs. Religious freedom does not exclude other interests, but as the “first freedom,” it ought to be given due respect.

Mormons and religious freedom

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have great reason to revere religious liberty. From a history that at times has involved religious persecution, Mormons have a special appreciation for the freedom to speak and live according to their convictions and faith. Religious liberty, in fact, has been significant for Mormons since the beginning. Church founder Joseph Smith was a strong and generous proponent of this principle, and he recognized that it was critical for all parties to reciprocate in upholding it. “I am bold to declare before Heaven” he said, “that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbytarian [sic], 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.”

In a 19th-century Mormon settlement, Smith also underlined the importance of religious freedom by introducing a city ordinance that guaranteed religious freedom for inhabitants of all faiths. Freedom of conscience and religion were incorporated into the Church’s Articles of Faith, which explain, “We claim the privilege of worshiping 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.” [2] Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are steadfastly committed to religious liberty and to its protection.

The mounting challenges to religious freedom

The condition of religious liberty and freedom of conscience in the United States is not as dire as it is in some areas of the world. Today, American people of faith and conscience do not generally face the physical violence or coercion sometimes experienced in other nations. However, freedom of religion and conscience in the United States are nonetheless at risk. Social and legal shifts are squeezing this liberty in new and deeply problematic ways.Americans who have long taken it for granted are being reminded of its value.

Challenges to religious freedom are emerging from many sources. Emerging advocacy for gay rights threatens to abridge religious freedom in a number of ways. Changes in health care threaten the rights of those who hold certain moral convictions about human life. These and other developments are producing conflict and beginning to impose on religious organizations and people of conscience. They are threatening, for instance, to restrict how religious organizations can manage their employment and their property. They are bringing about the coercion of religiously-affiliated universities, schools and social-service entities. They are also resulting in reprimands to individuals who act in line with their principles, from health practitioners and other professionals to parents. In these and in many other circumstances, we see how religious freedom and freedom of conscience are being subtly but steadily eroded. And of equal concern, the legal provisions emerging to safeguard these freedoms are often deceptively shallow – protecting these liberties only in the narrowest sense.

In many aspects of public life, religious freedom and freedom of conscience are being drawn into conflicts that may suppress them.

The requirements of religious freedom

Given the depth of these conflicts and the controversy that they sometimes create, it is essential that all parties are civil as they negotiate these deeply important issues. This is only right, because the qualities of human dignity that are part of religious freedom also entitle all people to respect and to the expression of their views. Each group, including religious individuals and organizations, is responsible to state its views reasonably in order to contribute to meaningful discussion. As fellow citizens we should always speak courteously and show patience, understanding and empathy for those who disagree with us. We foster goodwill by giving it ourselves. [3]

Religious freedom, or “freedom of conscience,” has long been the bedrock of democracy. Long buried and taken for granted, it is now an elevated concern. There is need for Americans – members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints included – to become reacquainted with this freedom and recommitted to it. A free society committed to religious freedom and freedom of conscience means that all its members be vigilant in protecting the freedoms of each other. Maintaining this most basic of human freedoms and the harmony it brings is imperative for us all.

[1] See Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religious Divides and Unites Us (Simon and Schuster, 2010); Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[2] See LDS Newsroom, “Selected Beliefs and Statements on Religious Freedom of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

[3] For further explanation of the commitment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to civil discourse, see LDS Newsroom, “The Mormon Ethic of Civility.”