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Forum with Emeritus Seventy Tad R. Callister

"Freedom of Religion as Envisioned by the Founding Fathers"

Event Overview

Last week, the Religious Freedom & Human Dignity Initiative had the privilege to host a forum on "The Freedom of Religion as Envisioned by the Founding Fathers" with Elder Tad R. Callister—the 21st Sunday School General President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and an Emeritus General Authority Seventy.

Drawing on his background as a former lawyer in Southern California, personal research on foundational United States documents, and his new book America's Choice, Elder Callister reflected on evidence of God's hand in the creation of American government and principles that allowed for universal religious freedom. Following his remarks, Elder Callister engaged in a Q&A with political science professor Dr. Troy Smith and RFHD student fellow Thomas Nebeker. Attendees submitted questions through text. Post-forum answers to asked and unasked questions can be found below.

Forum Q&A on Religious Freedom

  • Yes.

  • Religious neutrality properly understood is a means not an end. As a means, religious neutrality’s purpose is to protect conscience. If religious neutrality is the end, as strict neutralists use it, then any social or public expression of conscience is prohibited. Conscience is a fundamental aspect of personhood and necessary for the full development of one’s humanity. A nation that represses conscience may soon find itself void of all principles, values, and ideals other than dedication to self. In other words, the principle of neutrality should not result in irreligion, but rather a full and free expression of religious conscience. Hence, the purpose of neutrality should be to foster religious practice—not repress it. Restrictions on religious freedom should apply only when that same freedom engenders actions that pose a genuine and present threat to the community.

    Properly understood and done correctly, religious neutrality fosters religious pluralism. In this context, seekers have options on their quest to understand God, truth and good. From those options, they can find what is most consistent with their conscience. Religious neutrality denounces the religious practice of gaining and retaining religious adherents through government mandates, limits, or preferences or any other means beyond simple persuasion. Throughout history, various religions have engaged in immoral and harmful practices. The position of religious neutrality and efforts to protect pluralism seek to check those abuses.

    In short, religious neutrality need not be inconsistent with advancing a specific religion. Individual religions can respect a neutrality that fosters religious pluralism while also granting each the freedom to practice their religious beliefs.

  • As phrased, this is a loaded question and non-sequitur. Nevertheless, at its core is a sincere and important question that deserves an answer. Advocating Christian values does not take away freedom from other religions. No one would claim that by sharing their beliefs a teacher or practitioner of Buddhism somehow wrecks the religious freedom of Christians. Such a notion would be ridiculed. Sharing beliefs and values doesn’t take away. It adds. It provides listeners a chance to choose their own religious beliefs—to retain what they already possess, to add to what have learned, or to switch entirely. To not share values, on the other hand, denies that would-be listener a choice and opportunity to further understanding.

    Those who criticize the sharing of Christian values, claiming it denies religious freedom, may have a convoluted understanding of the word "freedom". Not having a choice is “not freedom.” In Joseph Smith’s day, the strongest critics and opponents to the sharing of restored gospel values were those who stood to lose the most in terms of congregations, livelihoods, status, and tithes—the religious elites. Today, societies opposed to religious freedom, the free-market of beliefs, values, and information, often host such elites—i.e., Iran.

    At the same time, cultural anthropologists also criticize efforts to share Christian values because, these academics argue, doing so undermines native cultures and colonizes the cultural landscape of other people. Ironically, such views seem to care more about culture than the people. What could be more patronizing, imperialist, and colonizing than to deny people a chance to choose because sharing values would somehow “undermine” their native culture (provided the religion is being shared not imposed)? Culture is dynamic. It lives and breathes, yet such anthropologists want to put it in a cage and preserve it like a museum piece. Why not let people choose the direction their culture evolves? What gives Western-training anthropologists the right to decide and declare what’s “best” for them? That is far more patronizing and disrespectful to people than allowing them a chance to choose their own path.

  • There is no way to avoid being labeled a bigot, close-minded or any of a hundred other labels. As long as you seek to share truth and reflect goodness, there will be some who condemn. A very hard lesson for good people to learn is that to be good and Christ-like is to be hated. Some will always hate you, not because of what you do, but because of what you are. Thus, the question you should ask yourself is this: “Will you give those who hate goodness, charity, and graciousness—your best qualities and desires—the power to silence you?”

    Often enough, when you share your testimony, convictions, and values, some will call you “judgmental.” They’ll caustically remark, “Who are you to judge?”. Significantly, the power of this phrase derives from its New Testament origin, specifically the story of the woman taken in adultery. Ironically, these critics are using the Bible—the sacred text that teaches Christian values—as a weapon to denounce people from expressing those very same values. They aren’t referencing the Bible, however, to edify but to silence. Another irony emerges from the fact that such critics use the Bible to condemn “judgment”, but don’t understand that the story is all about judgment—righteous judgment. Christ, the judge of all, judges the woman and tells her to sin no more. Meanwhile, the accusers judge themselves and walk away. Further irony appears when we examine the accusation. When someone says, “Who are you to judge?” they are, at that very moment, judging you. Their efforts, however, seek not to edify but to turn your own values against you and get you to be silent. One should consider their opinion and the context within which it is given, but as often used, “judge not” is usually a power play to silence others. There is no reason to give them that power.

    At the same time, never respond with haste or hostility. Christ did not respond to accusations with anger or hostility. He responded with righteous judgment, which includes grace and compassion.

  • Most people worry that speaking up and defending an idea may give offense, result in their getting "cancelled", or harm rather than help their cause. All are reasonable concerns. My answer begins with some scriptures and then adds a few secular points.

    These three scriptures have greatly influenced me: “. . . speak the truth in soberness” (D&C 18: 21); “walk humbly” (Micah 6:8); and “do not contend” (3 Nephi 11; D&C 18:20). In order to speak the truth in soberness, we must first learn the truth— or at least as much of it as we can. To say anything about religious freedom in the United States first requires that we learn about the Constitution, the history of this nation, and current events. Learning truth can be difficult in this “post-truth” age. Elder Callister explained that he learned the truth about Columbus by reading primary sources: the journals of Columbus and his associates. Another way is to compare stories from different perspectives. Also, seek out thinkers and authors dedicated to the truth rather than heed any particular media source. Other ways to ferret out truth on religious freedom could include taking the following classes at BYU-H:

    • POSC 110: The U.S. Political System— examines the philosophies, institutions, and justifications for the U.S. Constitution and how politics and policymaking are pursued in the U.S. today.
    • POSC 190: Foundations of Critical Thinking— instruction in how to make logical, persuasive, concise arguments with attention also to logical fallacies and unethical methods of persuasion.

    Excellent scholarly books can also help lay a foundation of truth. A few of the best include the following:

    • Kevin Seamus Hasson, The Right to be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America— Hasson offers a helpful description of religious freedom and why it is important;
    • Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles— Sowell claims that most political disputes today hinge on a basic disagreement about human nature. Believing that humans are socially constructed, one side wants to fix things by tearing down existing institutions and engineering a new utopian society. The other side believes that as an innate feature of humanity, human nature can be channeled but not changed. Thus society should constrain the effects of human passion rather than trying to recreate humanity.

    As we learn truth we need to remember that, for all our effort, we will never have a perfect knowledge. Thus, we must be humble and open-minded, listening to others with genuine intent and hearkening to the spirit so that we may learn line upon line. To speak the truth soberly is to speak truth with the objective to advance truth. We must never boast or seek to “destroy” those who may disagree with us. For a great resource to help us approach others with graciousness and discuss without contention, look to Boghossian and Lindsey. It explains how to have conversations about religion or politics without turning another person into an enemy.

    • Boghossian and Lindsey, How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Practical Guide (2019) — As the title claims, this is a very practical guide—basic, intermediate, and advanced methods—for how to have impossible conversations over political and religious topics.
  • Astonishingly enough, the very idea that there is something called “truth” is under attack. Several popular theories today claim that humans can never know truth, because all perceptions of the world are subjective, shaped by language, culture, and environment. We can’t deny that language and culture certainly shape our perceptions. And, if someone believes that humans are just another temporary species, competing for resources on this planet, then it would be easy to reach the conclusion that “truth” is nothing but the expression of certain cultural preferences. Nevertheless, if someone believes that humans have a soul and a place in the wider eternities, as substantiated by the scriptural canon, then a belief in truth is undeniable. While truth needs no defense in a religious context, even the secular realm has begun to gather strong evidence to support the claim that we can know truth. Just a few resources include:

    • Tom Wolfe, The Kingdom of Speech (2016) – Wolfe argues that the human brain is a “meaning making machine” that can overcome the ambiguity of language and environmental influences to discover truth.
    • Michael Lynch has some great YouTube content that explains this point as well. His book, True to Life, is a philosophical defense of truth. (Disclaimer: this is not an easy read if you have not learned philosophy.)

    Humans possess an innate and irrepressible desire for truth, goodness, and beauty. It’s part of our conscience and transcends our physical (bio-chemical) selves. Our conscience requires us to live right, according to our ideals and understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty. As with so many things, humans strive for that understanding in association with others. Heeding this instinct gives our lives depth, purpose, and meaning.

    We identify the ultimate source of truth, good, and beauty in God and improve ourselves as we seek to find and know Him. However, if individual intelligence and dignity is to be respected, that quest must be chosen, not coerced. That choice is an individual right and civil liberty protected, mostly, when governments do not interfere with the search.

  • Great question. It has been asked throughout history. There is no clear answer, although the Book of Mormon provides some ideas. Sometimes our lot is to submit to injustice (the people of Limhi) and sometimes our lot is to resist (the sons of Helaman). United States politicians and philosophers have long debated this question, particularly over the question of slavery and treatment of minorities. Let me share some key quotes from three key texts in that debate:

    1. Abraham Lincoln, "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions" 

      “The question recurs "how shall we fortify against it?" The answer is simple. Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor; — let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the charter of his own, and his children's liberty. Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap — let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; — let it be written in Primmers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; — let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars."

      “While ever a state of feeling, such as this, shall universally, or even, very generally prevail throughout the nation, vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom."

      “When I so pressingly urge a strict observance of all the laws, let me not be understood as saying there are no bad laws, nor that grievances may not arise, for the redress of which, no legal provisions have been made. I mean to say no such thing. But I do mean to say, that, although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed. So also in unprovided cases. If such arise, let proper legal provisions be made for them with the least possible delay; but, till then, let them if not too intolerable, be borne with."

      “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law. In any case that arises, as for instance, the promulgation of abolitionism, one of two positions is necessarily true; that is, the thing is right within itself, and therefore deserves the protection of all law and all good citizens; or, it is wrong, and therefore proper to be prohibited by legal enactments; and in neither case, is the interposition of mob law, either necessary, justifiable, or excusable.”

    2. Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience” (1849)

      “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels? ". . .

      “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth- certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”

    3. Martin Luther King, Jr.

      “I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law."

      . . . “I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

    The question of how to resist unjustness was also seriously considered in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. There authors like Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and Havel concluded that the answer was “tell no lies”. Evil systems persist through the lies the regimes and elites tell and that others accept and adapt to. Their power depends on people acting as if the lies are true. Refusing to live according to the lies, and speaking and living truth, makes the lies obvious to others and undermines the lies’ power.

    In short, there are very good answers and thoughtful reasoning behind different courses of action. Ultimately, the only safe and true answer is to follow the Holy Spirit and let it guide you. Just make sure that you know what the qualities of the Spirit are, however, before you leap to action. Most political activism and agitation today draws energy from a spirit that cannot be called holy.

    Related Questions: It seems today that many people are claiming to be fighting for the Constitution by breaking our laws. How would you recommend standing up for and defending the constitution without getting involved in these types of illegal activities?

    How can Latter-day Saints (an obedient people) play a role in fighting for preserving our religious freedom? In other words, how do we balance articles of faith that we will be “subject” to laws of the land but not allow our freedoms to be taken away by complicity?

    What do we do as a member of the Church if/when our government starts to infringe on our religious freedom and rights?

  • A popular claim today is that science and religion are enemies. That is, one can either follow science or believe religion, but not both. This is called the “conflict thesis”. This thesis was created in the 20th century. It is historically and scientifically false. The truth is science developed in the 16th and 17th centuries in the West and nowhere else at any point in history, because Christianity created the conditions that made science possible. Outstanding scientists of the past and present have been, and continue to be, faithful religious believers.

    The prime example of a conflict between science and religion is the Catholic church’s response to Galileo. Yet, the popular understanding of this affair is wrong. In truth, the Catholic church’s position against Galileo was based on the “popular consensus” of scientists at the time. For more information on Galileo’s conflict with the Catholic church and the “conflict thesis” see Patrick J. Casey, “How Simplistic Narratives Can Mislead Us: A Case Study of the Galileo Affair" (December 15, 2021) .

    We also recommend this five-part series of videos, Science and God, by the philosopher of science Stephen Meyer in conjunction with Prager University.

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