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The Doctrine of Religious Freedom

The Doctrine of Religious Freedom

By W. Cole Durham Jr. in the Winter 2001 Issue

During the past decade, which has been one of the great transformative epochs in human history as a result of the collapse of communism, I have had the opportunity to visit almost every post-communist country and to work with government and other local leaders in their homelands on implementing the ideals of religious freedom. I would be remiss on this occasion if I did not acknowledge and express gratitude at the outset for these opportunities. I am grateful beyond measure for blessings that have been given and keys that have been exercised to allow me to participate in small ways in the high adventure of opening the doors of nations.

Several years ago a close friend and Church leader gave me a blessing promising that I would be able to invoke the witness of the Holy Ghost when I spoke with others about religious freedom. In fulfillment of that blessing, I have seen the influence of the Spirit change the hearts and minds and, indeed, the entire outlook of many of the governmental leaders with whom I have met, the “gatekeepers” who stand at the doors of nations.

Religious freedom is not merely an important constitutional and human right. There can be no doubt that it is a “first” freedom.1 But for us it is even more: it is a matter of doctrine. Our 11th article of faith reads:

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.

Moreover, this is not merely doctrinal for us—it is a core doctrine. Yet, as I will explain, it is a paradoxical doctrine. And it is a doctrine of prophecy.

A Doctrine of Paradox and Prophecy

That religious freedom is a core doctrine has been reemphasized to my mind by the following remarkable statement from Elder Bruce R. McConkie:

Freedom of worship is one of the basic doctrines of the gospel. Indeed, in one manner of speaking it is the most basic of all doctrines, even taking precedence over the nature and kind of being that God is, or the atoning sacrifice of the Son of God, or the vesting of priesthood and keys and saving power in the one true church. By this we mean that if there were no freedom of worship, there would be no God, no redemption, and no salvation in the kingdom of God.2

Note two things about this statement. First, Elder McConkie did not say this is the most important doctrine. He said that “it is the most basic of all doctrines.” It is the most basic because none of the other doctrines could become operative or have any meaning or authenticity if we did not have the option to choose them freely. The atoning sacrifice of Christ would be meaningless if we could not avail ourselves of its power to save and exalt through freely chosen acts of faith, repentance, and covenanting. Part of the reason the Messiah is “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”3 is that at the key moment in the premortal existence, He recommended the Father’s plan of freedom, knowing its cost. He knew the price that He personally would pay to atone for all our abuses of freedom. He also knew that despite His payment of that price, countless numbers of His beloved brothers and sisters—individuals He loves with a depth and intensity that passes our understanding—would be lost forever because of their own decision “to choose captivity and death.”4

This brings me to the second point about Elder McConkie’s statement. Note that he did not say that it made no difference how we exercise this freedom; to the contrary, everything depends on learning to follow the divine pattern set by the Master, of worship in every thought and deed and with all our “heart, . . . might, mind, and strength.”5

Paradoxically, following the pattern set by the Master includes learning to respect the beliefs and choices made by others, even while standing firm in witnessing and teaching doctrinal truths. Indeed, following the pattern means standing for the rights and freedoms of others, even at the cost of our own lives—and surely also even at the lesser cost of inconvenience or discomfort. What is paradoxical is that our belief in religious freedom obligates us to tolerate and respect beliefs with which we disagree—though it does not require us to accept, endorse, or support them.

Part of the paradox is explained by the fact, attested by all the modern prophets, that the gospel embraces all truth. But more is involved in the doctrine of religious freedom than an admonition to accept truth wherever we find it. It is a recognition of the realities of human dignity and conscience and of the obligation to respect agency at the precious core of the human spirit. This doctrine has had great practical meaning for our leaders. Just a year before his martyrdom, Joseph Smith declared:

The Saints can testify whether I am willing to lay down my life for my brethren. If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a “Mormon.” I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, 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 who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.

It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul—civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race.6

Forgetting the paradox of religious freedom has been a cause of incalculable suffering during human history. Too often, groups who have pleaded for tolerance while they were a persecuted minority have turned into persecutors as soon as they acquired political power. Joseph Smith was very conscious of this tragic tendency toward unrighteous dominion and repudiated it. We as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should not be guilty of insensitivity in this area. Having so often suffered from religious intolerance in the past, we should go the extra mile in assuring that others are not exposed to similar pain. What those who forget this paradox do not understand is that the mere possession of truth does not carry with it a right to impose that truth on others. God possesses all truth, yet He has left us our freedom.

What ultimately lies behind this paradox is the second great commandment: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”7 Love lies at the heart of the paradox and at the core of religious freedom. Stated differently, what makes the doctrine of religious freedom paradoxical is that the right to enjoy religious freedom for ourselves carries with it a reciprocal obligation to respect the religious freedom of others.

Religious freedom is not only a matter of doctrine; it is a focus of prophecy. You are all familiar with the great description of the last days found in Isaiah 2:

And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.

And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. . . .

O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the Lord.8

For me, Isaiah’s great vision of the last days has taken on greater meaning ever since I read a commentary on this passage by President Harold B. Lee,·9 in which he pointed to an interpretation of the phrase “out of Zion shall go forth the law” that is found in the dedicatory prayer of the Idaho Falls Temple. The relevant portion of that prayer reads as follows:

We pray that kings and rulers and the peoples of all nations under heaven may be persuaded of the blessings enjoyed by the people of this land [the United States] by reason of their freedom under thy guidance and be constrained to adopt similar governmental systems, thus to fulfil the ancient prophecy of Isaiah that “out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”10

The Idaho Falls Temple was dedicated on Sept. 23, 1945, immediately following the end of World War II. With that in mind, it is worth reflecting on developments that have occurred since 1945 that bear on the fulfillment of this prophecy.

First, virtually all currently enforceable international human rights treaties have been adopted since 1945. Moreover, the entire approach to international human rights law has changed. It is now taken for granted that it is legitimate for one sovereign nation to be concerned about the human rights practices of other nations.

At the national level, with only a handful of exceptions, all the countries on earth have adopted their current constitutions since 1945. In short, we are witnessing a remarkable historical process in the field of international law and comparative constitutional law that is the subject of prophecy. This to my mind is one of the many ways that we see the tracings of the Spirit of Christ in history.

Changing the World

We live in a world that is peopled with an odd mixture of Sherems11 and Korihors.12 Sherem is the Book of Mormon figure who criticized prophets and revelations concerning Christ on the basis of fundamentalist or supposedly “orthodox” interpretations of religious texts. At the other pole stands Korihor, the secular anti-Christ who prefigured in his thought the great masters of suspicion in the 19th and 20th centuries—Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.

Both secularism and fundamentalism or orthodoxy in other traditions can pose profound problems for religious freedom. Further problems emanate from nationalism, ethnicity, and efforts to exploit these for the retention of political power. The arrest in April of the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, reminds us of the terrible ways a power-hungry leader can use these forces, often manipulating religion in the process, to cause terrible devastation. Finally, fears associated with stereotypical images of “dangerous sects”—often fanned by virulent anti-cult forces13—are leading to infringements of religious freedom both in areas of Western Europe and in many other parts of the world.

The Church has outgrown the “dangerous sect” label, but just barely, and we are constantly at risk that over-broad reactions to supposedly “dangerous” religions will create problems for us as well. Even if this were not the case, however, our own experience with religious persecution should encourage us to stand firm for the rights of the currently less-fortunate groups.

Time is limited, but let me give at least some idea of what is involved in working to defend religious freedom. In January 2000 I spent three days in Romania as part of a trip to participate in other conferences in Europe. I was aware that very problematic legislation was pending that, among other things, would have made it virtually impossible for the Church of Jesus Christ and many other religious groups to find places of worship in that country. On the first day of my visit I stopped in to see the head of religious affairs, who I had met at a conference a few months earlier. By coincidence, or something more, I was in his office when he received a call indicating that the ruling coalition in Romania would consider whether to withdraw the proposed law from Parliament three days later. Armed with that alert, it was possible to help mobilize response from many groups and government leaders both within and outside of Romania, with the result that the legislation was withdrawn. With a kind of clarity that is seldom so clear-cut, I knew that my three days in Romania had been blessed, and blessed with success.

I am convinced that many in your generation will likewise have opportunities to make important contributions to the cause of religious freedom. In time there will be more and more individuals with knowledge, experience, expertise, and contacts who will be able to help monitor religious freedom developments worldwide and provide assistance and positive contributions when called upon to do so.

Most of you, however, will not in fact be engaged in legal defense of religious freedom in various parts of the world. For you, what will be most important is the paradoxical part of this doctrine—not the part that underlies all our doctrine and protects our rights to worship but the reciprocal part in which you show tolerance and respect and love for others.

Over the past few years, I have had a number of opportunities to speak on religious freedom issues in Utah. Two things have concerned me. First has been the number of Church members who feel it is part of their duty as Church members to impose their views on other members of our community. Too many of them, it has seemed to me, have forgotten the vital lesson at the core of the paradox of the doctrine of religious freedom: the mere possession of truth does not carry with it a right to impose that truth on others. Second, I have heard countless nonmember parents talking about pain their children have suffered because of either intentional or more often unintentional exclusion of their children in our communities.

President Hinckley has also sensed their concerns. In virtually every conference for the past few years he has emphasized the importance of being tolerant, of being civil, and of being good neighbors. He has been an exemplary advocate of religious freedom. Again and again he has reminded us of our obligation to be true to the hard side of religious freedom: respecting the beliefs of others.

At BYU in 1997, he said this:

I hope that [Brigham Young University] will give to you a great sense of tolerance and respect for others not of your faith. The true gospel of Jesus Christ never led to bigotry. It never led to self-righteousness. It never led to arrogance. The true gospel of Jesus Christ leads to brotherhood, to friendship, to appreciation of others, to respect and kindness and love.14

After teaching this principle he told a remarkable story. He had been visited the week before by Shimon Peres, a former prime minister of Israel and one of the elder statesmen of the world. Mr. Peres told him the following story about a Jewish rabbi, which appropriately enough had been told to the prime minister by a Muslim. President Hinckley recounted the story as follows:

A Jewish rabbi . . . was conversing with two of his friends. The rabbi asked one of the men, “How do you know when the night is over and the day has begun?”

His friend replied, “When you look into the distance and can distinguish a sheep from a goat, then you know the night is over and the day has begun.”

The second was asked the same question. He replied, “When you look into the distance and can distinguish an olive tree from a fig tree, that is how you know.”

They then asked the rabbi how he could tell when the night is over and the day has begun. He thought for a time and then said, “When you look into the distance and see the face of a woman and you can say, ‘She is my sister.’ And when you look into the distance and see the face of a man and can say, ‘He is my brother.’ Then you will know the light has come.”15

I am reminded of the first line of a hymn by my great-grandfather, Thomas Durham: “Stars of morning, shout for joy; Sing redemption’s mystery.”16

The morning is coming. You are the stars of morning. We are the stars of morning. We are witnessing the Church coming “forth out of obscurity and out of darkness.”17 Part of “redemption’s mystery” is our paradoxical—and yet ultimately not paradoxical—obligation to respect and love and protect the rights of others not of our faith.

May we sing this mystery well. May we be true children of our Father in Heaven, never forgetting—and never forgetting to live—the song learned in Primary: “As I have loved you, Love one another.”18

The complete text of this address, with extensive explanatory footnotes, is available here. An article discussing Durham’s work with religious freedom was published in Brigham Young Magazine in 1998.


1. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “The Four Freedoms,” address to 77th Congress, Jan. 6, 1941.

2. Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), p. 655; emphasis added.

3. Rev. 13:8.

4. 2 Ne. 2:27.

5. D&C 59:5.

6. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B.H. Roberts, 2nd ed. revised (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932–51), vol. 5, p. 498.

7. Matt. 22:39.

8. Isa. 2:2–5; emphasis added.

9. Harold B. Lee, “The Way to Eternal Life,” Ensign, November 1971, p. 15; quoted in Jay M. Todd, “A Standard of Freedom for This Dispensation,” Ensign, September 1987, p. 16.

10. George Albert Smith, “Dedicatory Prayer for the Idaho Falls Temple,” Improvement Era, October 1945, p. 564; quoted by Harold B. Lee in Todd, “A Standard,” p. 16; emphasis added.

11. Jacob 7.

12. Alma 30.

13. W. Cole Durham Jr., “The United States’ Experience with New Religious Movements,” European Journal for Church and State Research (1998), vol. 5, p. 215; see also

14. Gordon B. Hinckley, “The BYU Experience,” BYU 1997–98 Speeches (Provo: BYU, 1998), p. 63.

15. Hinckley, “BYU Experience,” p. 64.

16. “Stars of Morning, Shout for Joy,” Hymns, 1948, no. 164.

17. D&C 1:30.

18. “Love One Another,” Hymns, 1985, no. 308. I am indebted to Elder Bruce D. Porter for highlighting this image to beautifully teach this concept in a recent general conference address. See Bruce D. Porter, “Building the Kingdom” Ensign, May 2001, pp. 80–81.