The Doctrine of Religious Freedom

April 3, 2001

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.

I would be remiss on this occasion if I did not express gratitude for the opportunities I have had during one of the great transformative epochs in human history—the decade after the collapse of communism—to visit almost every post-communist country and to work with leaders in their homelands on implementing the ideals of religious freedom. I am grateful beyond measure for blessings that have been given and keys that have been exercised to allow me to participate 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. I pray that the Spirit will be with me again today as I have the chance to bear witness of this great principle among my own people.

The Doctrine of Religious Freedom

The title of my address—“The Doctrine of Religious Freedom”—is intended to remind us that religious freedom is not merely an important constitutional and human right.1 There can be no doubt that it is a “first” freedom.2 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.

Religious Freedom Is a Core Doctrine

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.3

Note two things about this statement. First, Elder McConkie does 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 exercise of this right is in fact an attribute of divinity.4 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”5 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.”6

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.”7

The Paradox of Religious Freedom

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.

This paradoxical nature of the doctrine of religious freedom needs to be emphasized and understood more deeply. Most of our doctrines are teachings that we affirm and agree to follow. In contrast, although religious freedom is basic and foundational for the system of gospel truth, it demands that we respect the views of those who adhere to other systems of belief. 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.8 But more is involved in the doctrine of religious freedom than an admonition to accept truth wherever we find it.9 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.10 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.11

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.12 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.13 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.

In the end, the paradox of religious freedom is linked to many of the deepest truths of the gospel, which share a similar paradoxical structure. “Whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”14 “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.”15 What ultimately lies behind this paradox is the second great commandment: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”16 Love lies at the heart of the paradox and at the core of religious freedom.

Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.17

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. In the words of the Golden Rule, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.18 Or as the Lord said at the Last Supper, “As I have loved you, . . . love one another.”19

Religious Freedom and Prophecy

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.20

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,21 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.”22

The Idaho Falls Temple was dedicated on September 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.23

At the national level, with only a handful of exceptions, all the countries on earth have adopted their current constitutions since 1945.24 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.

The Significance of Religious Freedom for Church Growth

Let me now give you a graphic sense for the implications that global religious freedom has for the growth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Look first at a map of the globe that attempts to plot the status of religious freedom around the world. [A map was shown to the audience.] The information in this map is based primarily on the latest annual report on religious freedom provided by the U.S. State Department.25 The countries shown in gray are countries that have either no constitutional protection of religious freedom or that do not respect this ideal in practice. Some states protect religious freedom to some extent but have significant qualifications that make it difficult to found a new religious community in the country. Restrictions on proselyting are particularly problematic. As the map shows, most of the world now has normal-to-strong protection of religious freedom. No country has a perfect record, but the situation is markedly better than it was even 10 years ago.

Now look at the map showing the presence of the Church of Jesus Christ worldwide. [A second map was shown.] Darker gray shows the countries where the Church has not yet achieved formal recognition. As you can see, this band of the world includes China and most Islamic nations. Not surprisingly, since the Church always follows the policy of going “in the front door” and entering a country only when it is legal for it to do so,26 there is a high correlation between low religious freedom and lack of formal presence of the Church of Jesus Christ.

The third map shows that religious freedom also has considerable significance for general patterns of Church growth. [Another map was shown.] One of the things that is striking from the map is that concentrations are higher in what the scriptures refer to as the “promised land” of the Americas and certain “islands of the sea.” Second, one is beginning to see the impact of growth in parts of Africa and the former socialist bloc, where we lacked significant presence until recently. Finally, what the map shows is that Church population remains very thin virtually everywhere. Aside from the United Kingdom, Portugal, and South Korea, there are no countries in these three vast continents of Europe, Africa, or Asia that have as much as one Latter-day Saint per 1,000 in its population. Even in the Americas population exceeds 3 percent only in Chile. Utah remains the only place where the Church is in the majority. The point is that we remain a tiny minority virtually everywhere—so religious freedom protections continue to be of tremendous significance to the Church and its members.

Global Challenges to Implementing Religious Freedom

With this background, let me turn now to some of the global challenges to implementing religious freedom. We live in a world that is peopled with an odd mixture of Sherems27 and Korihors.28 Sherem, as you remember, 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 of 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 of Slobodan Milosevic this past weekend reminds us of the terrible ways a power-hungry leader can use these forces, often manipulating religion in the process to cause terrible devastation.29 Finally, fears associated with stereotypical images of “dangerous sects”—often fanned by virulent anticult forces30—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 overbroad 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 a few concrete examples of how religious freedom is protected in practice.

Technical Legal Assistance

A year ago in January I stopped for three days in Romania because I had a few extra days between two 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.

More typical of efforts working on legislation has been the experience of the past few weeks working on legislation in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Through this international organization I have been privileged to help provide technical advice to these central Asian republics as they grapple with the difficult problem of dealing with Muslim extremists coming into their countries from other parts of the Muslim world. Their initial reaction has been to clamp down on any transborder activity, restrict missionary work, and make it more difficult for religious groups to be registered so that they can operate legally in the country. OSCE efforts will help contribute to better laws for these countries and may help set patterns that can be utilized elsewhere in the Muslim world.

The Influence of Academic Conferences and Consultations

Academic conferences provide an important setting for contributing to religious freedom. Let me describe a few incidents that have grown out of this type of activity. Each fall for the past several years we have held an international conference at BYU dealing with religious freedom. The minister of justice from Peru attended one of these two or three years ago. At the time the Church had just learned that it had exhausted missionary quotas for the year in Peru. A Church official working with visas mentioned this to the minister of justice during a break at the conference. He was quite surprised that such a quota existed at all and indicated he would check into the matter when he returned home. Within a few weeks there were no more missionary quotas in Peru.

The people who come to BYU for our annual conference are often deeply moved by what they experience here. One of my favorite statements comes from another friend who is currently the head of religious affairs in Albania. He had the opportunity last fall, the day before our academic conference started, to attend the Sunday morning session of general conference in the new Conference Center. Some of you who stood in lines to get into conference this past weekend can appreciate what he saw. This is what he said about the experience:

I have been in [my position as head of religious affairs] for a year, and I have seen a lot. But now I am totally convinced that religion should be an essential part of people’s lives. In my country, people line up for bread; today I saw thousands of your people standing in line . . . to worship.

This kind of impression changes perspectives on the importance of religious freedom. I returned a month ago from a conference that same man had organized in Albania aimed at pointing the way toward a good law on religious associations that can bless the lives of people in that poor and struggling country for years to come. These stories indicate only a few of the many approaches that can help promote religious freedom.


In the end, what ultimately carries the day is that religious freedom is a true principle. It is a principle of justice. The just and honorable people of this earth recognize its validity. A nation that fails to respect it cannot claim to be just. We must do all in our power to make it a common heritage of all mankind. As the maps shown earlier suggest, the gospel flourishes best under conditions of liberty. God Himself respects this principle. Were it otherwise, He would not be just. His kingdom must be freely chosen. It will not be imposed on anyone anymore than worship in the temple is imposed on nonbelievers. The celestial kingdom is, among other things, a type of worship that will be imposed only on those who have chosen it. But choosing the Lord’s kingdom has implications; you cannot arrive in Zion without having chosen to get there. You cannot ascend the mountain of the Lord’s house without leaving other things behind. Part of the paradox of freedom is that the Lord allows people not to return to Him. Allowing freedom reflects the nature of a just God, but it cannot compromise divine truth. Just as mercy cannot rob justice, so justice cannot rob truth.

With this in mind, let me conclude by saying a few things about what the doctrine of religious freedom should mean for each of us. I am convinced that many in your generation will have opportunities to make important contributions to the cause of religious freedom. Hannah Smith, a law student, and Elizabeth Clark, the associate director of the BYU International Center for Law and Religion Studies, each played crucial roles in a recent visit to France to help oppose problematic anticult legislation there. Hannah’s husband, John, also a law student, is helping to organize a conference on religious freedom in Ukraine. Others could be mentioned. In time there will be more and more such 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.

Another young Latter-day Saint lawyer played a crucial role last year in helping to set up a conference on religious freedom with the constitutional court of Azerbaijan. His work had taken him to Azerbaijan at the time. He recognized the opportunity and checked with appropriate authorities. A way was found to organize the conference. I want to underscore the fact that this brother checked with appropriate authorities. Matters of religious freedom often raise a variety of sensitive issues, and it is important before working on these matters to follow the guidance of those holding the keys for the work. There are a number of unfortunate incidents in Church history where well-intended Church members exerted “zeal without knowledge,” and set Church progress back by years.

The story of the founding of the Church in Kazakhstan suggests another role that some adventurous Church families will play. About three years ago a major law firm approached the Law School looking for a business lawyer willing to go to its office in Almaty, Kazakhstan. One of our graduates who had been in practice for several years responded. He and his family have now been in Kazakhstan about three years. Two other expatriate families have moved in. As recently reported in the Church News,31 the Church is now organized in Kazakhstan. These founding families are praying for someone to come with greater fluency in Russian, or with other gifts, so that they can teach and train new Church members more effectively.

During conference over the past weekend, you heard several talks about the need for couples. Let me tell you a secret. You don’t have to wait until you are 65. I have been convinced as long as I have been teaching at the Law School that one of the great waves of missionary work we will see in our lifetime is that performed by families who, like Ammon, decide to go out to the frontiers of the kingdom, dedicated to serving those they find there and hoping to build the kingdom in these locations. This activity will not be for everyone, and there is much to be done on the home front.32 But some of you will feel this call and will see unparalleled growth in the Church as a result of your faithfulness and witness.

Consider one other example that suggests another kind of role we all can play. I have a nonmember friend who has played a very important role in a country sensitive enough that I will not name it. He tells me that over the past few years, through a chain of coincidences, he has found himself being befriended by Church members at almost every turn. When he first came to the U.S., the librarian at his university was a Latter-day Saint who helped him immeasurably. Later he studied at another university, where he met additional Latter-day Saints. I heard of him through yet another organization and invited him to our BYU conference. He has subsequently met some Church members in his own country. He was ultimately retained to help secure legal recognition for the Church. In connection with rendering this service, he was asked what he would charge. The lawyer who asked him told me that at the time he was silent for several minutes. Then he said, “I really don’t know what to do. I have been benefited so much by friends in your Church that I don’t know whether I should charge at all.” In the end he was persuaded to take some compensation, but I’m sure it was much less than his help was worth.

This leads me to a final set of comments about how we should implement the doctrine of religious freedom in our lives. Most of you 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.

A few years ago, precisely as much of my work in Eastern Europe was heating up, I became involved in an effort to revise provisions of the Utah Constitution dealing with religious freedom.33 During the political process I had numerous opportunities to speak around the state. Two things concerned me. First was the number of Church members who felt it was part of their duty as Church members to impose their views on other members of our community. Too many of them, it seemed to me, had 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 heard countless nonmember parents talking about pain their children had suffered because of either intentional or more often unintentional exclusion of their children in our communities.

I believe that President Hinckley has also sensed their concerns. I don’t know if you have paid attention to this, but 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. I cannot repeat his numerous statements on this theme.34I can only say that he has been an exemplary advocate of religious freedom. I was immeasurably proud when he greeted the arrival of the Southern Baptist Convention and its plans to “evangelize the Mormons” with counsel that we should be as courteous to them as we would hope others would be to our missionaries.35 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.

Let me conclude with a statement that some of you here may have heard President Hinckley give at his devotional on November 4, 1997. In that address he stated:

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.36

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.”37

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.”38

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.”39 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.”40 In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

W. Cole Durham Jr.

W. Cole Durham, Jr., was a professor at BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School when this devotional address was given on 3 April 2001.