We’ve been a little delayed in getting to the story of the speech Elder Dallin Oaks gave yesterday on religious freedom. Already the speech has caused a bit of a stir. As I read the transcript, I find that result fascinating, because I am hard-pressed to find much controversy in it. Please read the speech; it is not long, or difficult, or complex.
So what is the controversy all about?
Elder Oaks is member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles of te Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the “Church”). He’s also a lawyer, a former professor of law at the University of Chicago, past President of BYU, and a former member of the Utah Supreme Court. He is a formidable legal and political thinker and a clear writer. His speech, given to students at BYU-Idaho (a college owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or “the Church”), has a simple thesis: There is a “battle” underway over “the meaning of religious freedom under the United States Constitution,” and that battle “is of eternal importance.” Nothing terribly surprising there, coming from a churchman. The controversy has arisen from Elder Oaks’ comments about what is happening now in the arena of religious freedom in the USA:
Unpopular minority religions are especially dependent upon a constitutional guarantee of free exercise of religion. We are fortunate to have such a guarantee in the United States, but many nations do not. The importance of that guarantee in the United States should make us ever diligent to defend it. And it is in need of being defended. During my lifetime I have seen a significant deterioration in the respect accorded to religion in our public life, and I believe that the vitality of religious freedom is in danger of being weakened accordingly. (Emphasis added.)
Then Elder Oaks zeroed in on the problem of “silencing religious voices in the public square” and in the process, used the Proposition 8 battle as an example.
In other words, he touched the “third rail” of the modern culture war: gay marriage. It’s important to note that Edler Oaks did not talk about gay marriage, only about the reaction to the active involvement of the Church and its members in supporting Proposition 8. In other words, the Oaks speech was about religious freedom, but it somehow earned him designation as one of the”worst people in the world” by MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann. (A badge of honor to some, I suppose.)
The Key Points of The Speech
So what did Elder Oaks say to incite such a venomous attack from the wild-swinging Olbermann? Well, this:
For example, a prominent gay-rights spokesman gave this explanation for his objection to our Church’s position on California’s Proposition 8:
“I’m not intending it to harm the religion. I think they do wonderful things. Nicest people. . . . My single goal is to get them out of the same-sex marriage business and back to helping hurricane victims.”
Aside from the obvious fact that this objection would deny free speech as well as religious freedom to members of our Church and its [Prop 8] coalition partners, there are other reasons why the public square must be open to religious ideas and religious persons. As Richard John Neuhaus said many years ago, “In a democracy that is free and robust, an opinion is no more disqualified for being ‘religious’ than for being atheistic, or psychoanalytic, or Marxist, or just plain dumb.”
Still looking for a statement worthy of “worst people in the world” designation? Maybe it was this:
[W]we must speak with love, always showing patience, understanding and compassion toward our adversaries. We are under command to love our neighbor (Luke 10:27), to forgive all men (Doctrine and Covenants 64:10), to do good to them who despitefully use us (Matthew 5:44) and to conduct our teaching in mildness and meekness (Doctrine and Covenants 38:41).
Even as we seek to speak with love, we must not be surprised when our positions are ridiculed and we are persecuted and reviled. As the Savior said, “so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Matthew 5:12). And modern revelation commands us not to revile against revilers (Doctrine and Covenants 19:30).
Well, no, it probably wasn’t that. Maybe it was this:
[W]e must not be deterred or coerced into silence by the kinds of intimidation I have described. We must insist on our constitutional right and duty to exercise our religion, to vote our consciences on public issues and to participate in elections and debates in the public square and the halls of justice. These are the rights of all citizens and they are also the rights of religious leaders. While our church rarely speaks on public issues, it does so by exception on what the First Presidency defines as significant moral issues, which could surely include laws affecting the fundamental legal/cultural/moral environment of our communities and nations.
We must also insist on this companion condition of democratic government: when churches and their members or any other group act or speak out on public issues, win or lose, they have a right to expect freedom from retaliation.
Uh-oh. Now we are getting somewhere. Elder Oaks seems to be about to decry the retaliation and intimidation that Prop 8 opponents employed against Mormons – and many others – who supported Prop 8. I am talking about the publication of maps showing the homes of individuals who donated to the Yes on 8 campaign; boycotts of their businesses; identification of Mormons among the public lists of donors to the Yes campaign; and other admitted efforts at intimidating voters from exercising their Constitutional rights.
This is no joke, by the way. I remember hearing Fred Karger, the leader of the charmingly named Californians Against Hate, say on the Al Rantel show (KABC radio, Los Angeles) that the reason donors were being identified and harassed was to make sure they thought twice about donating the next time there is an election about same-sex marriage.
These two paragraphs are probably the most controversial of Elder Oaks’ speech:
Along with many others, we were disappointed with what we experienced in the aftermath of California’s adoption of Proposition 8, including vandalism of church facilities and harassment of church members by firings and boycotts of member businesses and by retaliation against donors. Mormons were the targets of most of this, but it also hit other churches in the pro-8 coalition and other persons who could be identified as supporters. Fortunately, some recognized such retaliation for what it was. A full-page ad in the New York Times branded this “violence and intimidation” against religious organizations and individual believers “simply because they supported Proposition 8 [as] an outrage that must stop.” The fact that this ad was signed by some leaders who had no history of friendship for our faith only added to its force.
It is important to note that while this aggressive intimidation in connection with the Proposition 8 election was primarily directed at religious persons and symbols, it was not anti-religious as such. These incidents were expressions of outrage against those who disagreed with the gay-rights position and had prevailed in a public contest. As such, these incidents of “violence and intimidation” are not so much anti-religious as anti-democratic. In their effect they are like the well-known and widely condemned voter-intimidation of blacks in the South that produced corrective federal civil-rights legislation.
(Emphasis added.) The bolded language seems to have driven some people up a wall. Note: Elder Oaks did not compare the harassment of Mormons and other Proposition 8 supporters to the evils inflicted on African-Americans during the civil rights era. He instead addressed the effect of those “incidents of violence and intimidation.”
Elder Oaks also said “we must insist on our freedom to preach the “doctrines of our faith,” and that
“as advocates of the obvious truth that persons with religious positions or motivations have the right to express their religious views in public, we must nevertheless be wise in our political participation. . . . even the civil rights of religionists must be exercised legally and wisely. . . . The call of conscience — whether religious or otherwise — requires no secular justification. At the same time, religious persons will often be most persuasive in political discourse by framing arguments and positions in ways that are respectful of those who do not share their religious beliefs and that contribute to the reasoned discussion and compromise that is essential in a pluralistic society.”
Not exactly firebrand stuff, is it? Finally, and going right to the reason for this blog’s existence, Elder Oaks talked about . . . Article VI of the Constitution!
[F]inally, Latter-day Saints must be careful never to support or act upon the idea that a person must subscribe to some particular set of religious beliefs in order to qualify for a public office. The framers of our constitution included a provision that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” (Article VI). That constitutional principle forbids a religious test as a legal requirement, but it of course leaves citizens free to cast their votes on the basis of any preference they choose. But wise religious leaders and members will never advocate religious tests for public office.
Fragile freedoms are best preserved when not employed beyond their intended purpose. If a candidate is seen to be rejected at the ballot box primarily because of religious belief or affiliation, the precious free exercise of religion is weakened at its foundation, especially when this reason for rejection has been advocated by other religionists. Such advocacy suggests that if religionists prevail in electing their preferred candidate this will lead to the use of government power in support of their religious beliefs and practices. The religion of a candidate should not be an issue in a political campaign.
We couldn’t have said that better ourselves.
So, Elder Oaks said, in essence, that religious expression is under fire in the United States and that religious people (indeed, all people) ought to be able to speak peaceably in the public square, about public issues, without fear of retaliation for doing so. That earned him the brickbats of the Left – who thus ironically proved Elder Oaks’ point.
Talk radio host and cultural commentator Dennis Prager often says that the Left believes that because they are inherently and unquestionably right, their tactics can never be legitimately questioned. The reaction to the Oaks speech certainly seems to support that thesis. A calm, closely-reasoned speech that urges love and tolerance, but that also urges that religious people should be able respectfully to stand their ground on moral issues, without fear of retaliation, produces a firestorm of criticism.
Good. That means the debate is going on. May the best, most principled arguments win.
John adds his thoughts:
I am pleased to see officials of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stand up for their civil rights in this fashion. In doing so they defend not only their own rights, but the rights of all people of all faiths. That is something that is very important to remember. We of the more orthodox Christian faith expressions as well as other non-Christian faiths are indebted to Elder Oaks for this speech. We need to stand beside out Mormon friends in this – something this blog has insisted upon from the very beginning.
My favorite part of the speech is where Elder Oaks points out that in declaring a “violation of their civil rights” so violently and destructively, proponents of Prop 8 violated those same civil rights of the people the aimed their protests towards. Americans will always disagree, but we must do so civilly. Freedom is only free if it applies equally to all. We learned that the hard way through the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement – it’s in the Declaration of Independence for crying out loud!
Again, kudos to Elder Oaks for standing up in this fashion. This Evangelical Presbyterian stands squarely with him and this speech as should persons of faith of all stripes.