Elder Oaks urges mutual understanding on religious freedom issues

Elder Dallin H. Oaks speaks at Harvard Law School in 2010.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks speaks at Harvard Law School in 2010.

I have heard people rant and rave and bellow
That we’re done and we might as well be dead,
But I’m only a cockeyed optimist
And I can’t get it into my head

Elder Dallin H. Oaks quoted these lyrics from South Pacific last week in a speech at Utah Valley University, explaining that he is “optimistic in the long run” despite the current threats to religious freedom from our courts and popular culture.

Elder Oaks, a lawyer who served as a Utah Supreme Court justice before becoming a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church, said,

In this country we have a history of tolerant diversity — not perfect but mostly effective at allowing persons with competing visions to live together in peace. We all want to live together in happiness and harmony. We all want effective ways to resolve differences without anger or contention and with mutual understanding and accommodation.

There are points of disagreement between those who insist on free exercise of religion and those who feel threatened by it. Similar disagreements exist between those who insist on nondiscrimination and those who feel that some of its results threaten their religious liberty. There are no winners in such disagreements. Whatever the outcome in one particular case, other disagreements persist, and we are all losers from the atmosphere of anger and contention. In this circumstance of contending religious rights and civil rights, all parties need to learn to live together in a community of goodwill, patience, and understanding. …

To achieve our common goals we must have mutual respect for others whose beliefs, values, and behaviors differ from our own. This does not expect that we will deny or abandon our differences but that we will learn to live with others who do not share them. It will help if we are not led or unduly influenced by the extreme voices that are heard from various contending positions. Extreme voices polarize and create resentment and fear by emphasizing what is nonnegotiable and by suggesting that the desired outcome is to disable the adversary and achieve absolute victory. Such outcomes are rarely attainable and never preferable to living together in mutual understanding and peace.

I believe one important way to move forward is to minimize talk of rights and to increase talk of responsibilities. From the standpoint of religion, I urge my fellow believers to remember that the scriptures contain very little talk of rights, only commandments that create responsibilities. Others, who choose to reason in pragmatic terms, should remember that we strengthen rights by encouraging the fulfillment of responsibilities.

Another way to move forward is to encourage a more general understanding of the reality that our society is not held together primarily by law and its enforcement but most importantly by those who voluntarily obey the unenforceable because of their internalized norms of righteous or correct behavior. We all have a vital interest in religion because religious belief in right and wrong is fundamental to producing the needed voluntary compliance by a large number of our citizens.

Click here to see video highlights of Elder Oaks’ talk, or here to read the transcript.

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