Sunday, August 10, 2008

Constructive Thoughts: Religious Freedom

In 1779, Thomas Jefferson drafted the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. This document is one of only three accomplishments he directed to be placed in his epitaph. Within this Act are the words: "No man... shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor... otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief...." I can imagine similar words being spoken nearly two millenia earlier.

It was at the beginning of the last century preceeding the birth of Christ. A king has heard the message brought by servants of God (Ammon, Aaron, and their brethren). He has heard the message and has been converted. He has had a mighty change of heart and has received the image of the Lord in his countenance. (See Alma 5:12-14.)

How great was this change of heart?

1 BEHOLD, now it came to pass that the king of the Lamanites sent a proclamation among all his people, that they should not lay their hands on Ammon, or Aaron, or Omner, or Himni, nor either of their brethren who should go forth preaching the word of God, in whatsoever place they should be, in any part of their land.
2 Yea, he sent a decree among them, that they should not lay their hands on them to bind them, or to cast them into prison; neither should they spit upon them, nor smite them, nor cast them out of their synagogues, nor scourge them; neither should they cast stones at them, but that they should have free access to their houses, and also their temples, and their sanctuaries.
3 And thus they might go forth and preach the word according to their desires, for the king had been converted unto the Lord, and all his household; therefore he sent his proclamation throughout the land unto his people, that the word of God might have no obstruction, but that it might go forth throughout all the land, that his people might be convinced concerning the wicked traditions of their fathers, and that they might be convinced that they were all brethren, and that they ought not to murder, nor to plunder, nor to steal, nor to commit adultery, nor to commit any manner of wickedness.
--Alma 23:1-3

I can hear Jefferson's words--or something extraordinarily similar--echoing forth from the king.

Because the king was not only willing to allow these missionaries to preach in his country, he was an active proponent of religious freedom. This proclamation protected the missionaries in their work and travels. More importantly, the atmosphere in which the missionaries taught propelled their work, advanced it to the point that their work seemed to have no bounds.
4 And now it came to pass that when the king had sent forth this proclamation, that Aaron and his brethren went forth from city to city, and from one house of worship to another, establishing churches, and consecrating priests and teachers throughout the land among the Lamanites, to preach and to teach the word of God among them; and thus they began to have great success.
5 And thousands were brought to the knowledge of the Lord, yea, thousands were brought to believe in the traditions of the Nephites; and they were taught the records and prophecies which were handed down even to the present time.
6 And as sure as the Lord liveth, so sure as many as believed, or as many as were brought to the knowledge of the truth, through the preaching of Ammon and his brethren, according to the spirit of revelation and of prophecy, and the power of God working miracles in them—yea, I say unto you, as the Lord liveth, as many of the Lamanites as believed in their preaching, and were converted unto the Lord, never did fall away.
7 For they became a righteous people; they did lay down the weapons of their rebellion, that they did not fight against God any more, neither against any of their brethren.
8 Now, these are they who were converted unto the Lord:
9 The people of the Lamanites who were in the land of Ishmael;
10 And also of the people of the Lamanites who were in the land of Middoni;
11 And also of the people of the Lamanites who were in the city of Nephi;
12 And also of the people of the Lamanites who were in the land of Shilom, and who were in the land of Shemlon, and in the city of Lemuel, and in the city of Shimnilom.
--Alma 23:4-12

Thousands upon thousands were converted. The majority of the citizens of seven lands and cities were converted. Churches were established. Priests and teachers were consecrated.

Religious freedom is an essential part of a country's Liberty. Webster's 1828 Dictionary states that "The body is at liberty, when not confined; the will or mind is at liberty, when not checked or controlled. A man enjoys liberty, when no physical force operates to restrain his actions or volitions." We could then add one more part to that definition, saying the soul is at liberty by obedience to the law of Christ, and "One who enjoys such liberty is, in the words of Jesus, ‘free indeed.' He is possessed of perfect liberty." (Marion G. Romney, "The Perfect Law of Liberty," Ensign, Nov. 1981 at 43 (quoting John 8:36).) The best way to obtain liberty for the soul is in an atmosphere of religious freedom. It is not the only way, as the growing conversion rates in Communist China will attest, but the works of the Lord take on greater power where the people enjoy freedom of religion.

Where are we today?

Elder M. Russell Ballard, in a talk sixteen years ago, opined that we live in "a time when citizens are forbidden to pray in public meetings; when people claim that 'you can’t legislate morality,' as if any law ever passed did not have at its heart some notion of right and wrong; when churches are called intruders when they speak out against public policy that is contrary to the commandments of God; when many people reject the correcting influence of churches if it infringes on daily living; when religion is accepted as a social organization but not as an integral part of national culture; when people bristle if representatives of churches speak in any forum except from the pulpit." {M. Russell Ballard, "Religion in a Free Society," Ensign, Oct. 1992 at 64.}

When he first gave this talk there were many who raised an eyebrow when he suggested that we now have, in all actuality, an American, state-sponsored religion: amorality. He pointed to the fact that freedom in America largely comes from the ideas and laws of man, rather than the laws of God. He points out that "Many people adhere to this concept of morality with religious zeal and fervor, and courts and legislatures tend to support it." {Id.}

He also uses the examples or pornography, drugs, illicit sex, gambling, and all forms of wickedness that are defended by invocation of constitutional privilege when, at the same time, the same constitutional privileges are denied to people of faith.

These privileges are denied out of fear: fear of lawsuits, fear of ridicule, fear of persecution.

We commonly read in an accused wrongdoer's newspaper biography about his history as a Boy Scout, a missionary, a former Sunday School teacher, active church member, or former bishop or minister.

But seldom, if ever, do we read about the wrongdoer's athiesm or the fact that he either belongs to no religious denomination or has not been an active member of his church for decades?

Religion is under attack.

It's sad that such a statement can be made in this, the shining beacon of Freedom to the world.

Religion is under attack on all sides. Witness the current Presidential race: several candidates have had their religious views questioned and broadcast to the world. Their views--whether you believe the same as they do--have been held up to scrutiny and derision. If you doubt this, take a look at this. If you still doubt, well... I'm afraid I cannot help you there.

The fact that these candidates are active in their religion and hold strong religious beliefs has been cited as criteria under which they should be disqualified from holding national office. All this despite the fact that Article VI of the Constitution of the United States guarantees that "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." But apparently there's an entire segment of the American population that cannot look forward with any hope that they would be taken seriously as a candidate for public office.

Rather than shrinking from this fight, people of faith need to stand up and be counted. They have a responsibility to ensure our God-gifted religious freedom is not taken away from us by Man. They should ignore the fear, cast aside the ridicule, and open their mouths.

They should.

We should.

We who should enjoy Religious Freedom, should uphold our right to Religious Freedom, and should spread the concept of Religious Freedom to the world.

For ourselves. For our brothers and sisters. For God. For Liberty.

I found something interesting watching the Olympic coverage tonight. Whatever you may think of him, President George W. Bush made an interesting comment. He said that he went to Church in Beijing, and spoke several times with President Hu Jin Tao. He said that he told President Hu, "Religion won't hurt you" and pressed, "Why don't you register the underground churches?"

Then there was this very deep comment: "Once religion takes hold in a society, there's no stopping it."

Amen, Mr. President.


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