By Ramona Siddoway
“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.” Article of Faith #11, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On May 16th, Dallin H. Oaks, an Apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a former professor at the University of Chicago Law School and former justice of the Utah Supreme Court, was awarded the prestigious Canterbury Medal for lifetime service in promoting the cause of religious freedom.
As I read his acceptance speech I was impressed with his thoughts on tolerance and the importance of preserving the free exercise of religion. People will declare that we do have freedom of religion. But freedom of religion involves not only the right to choose which religion to believe in and belong to, it also involves the free exercise of religion – the right and ability to practice those beliefs without government restraint or bullying.
Like many of you, I am concerned about the growing trend of secularism and the decline of religion in American life. Although 80% of Americans declare a belief in God, about 20% have no affiliation with any particular denomination and have a real antipathy toward organized religion. And that figure continues to grow. Most of these Americans are young adults who may not recognize the danger raised by attempts at restraining religious minded people from participating in the public square or in the political arena.
Moral relativism is the catch-phrase of the day, the idea that there is no absolute right or wrong but that each individual should be allowed to choose for him or herself what is right or wrong, the idea that laws and authority can and should only come from these man-made choices. I have heard individuals lay claim that they do not need religion or religious influences in their lives in order to be “good people.” They feel that an internal moral compass is the only necessary component to live a good life and to be engaged in worthwhile community contributions. I’m not disputing the fact that many people void of affiliation with a specific religious organization have wonderful altruistic ideals and participate fully in a meaningful life. My concern is the undercurrent of public sentiment that religion in any form should be banished not only from public discourse but also in any and all forms in public arenas.
President George Washington said: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle" (Washington’s Farewell Address, ed. Thomas Arkle Clark, 1908, 14).
“[Religion] remains the most powerful community builder the world has known,” says Jonathan Sacks, chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. “Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history."
We do not need everyone to be religious, but we need more than just tolerance for those who are religious. We must be able to have the freedom to live, speak, and worship without fear of restraint or retribution. It’s not just a question of live and let live, it’s a matter of building on the very foundation that the United States originated. It’s more than merely allowing religion to exist, it is acknowledging and embracing the fact that religion is integral to a flourishing society and culture.
Ramona Siddoway is a freelance writer and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the Mormons) where she volunteers in the Public Affairs department. The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Interfaith Houston.