“When our population included little more than different Christian and Jewish denominational beliefs in a divine being, the meaning of religious freedom was well understood and widely shared. With the increasing diversity of religious beliefs, including non-Abrahamic denominations, the scope of protection under the Free Exercise Clause began to change. When a constitutional right covers more and more, the scope of its protection is likely to become less and less.” — Dallin H. Oaks, March 26, 2016
It sounds like a Donald Trump rally but it is a somber-faced Keynote address to the “Religious Freedom in the 21st Century” Conference at Claremont University (in California of all places). The entirety of the speech is blatant fear-mongering against so-called “pluralistic society” and how diversity of religious opinion and disconformity from “traditional” religious values is hurting religious people who just want a country that reinforces their religious values in lawmaking decisions by discriminating against others’ beliefs.
This is the justification that Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks uses for explaining why Mormons must be allowed to engage in crusades like their push for Prop H8 in California.
There. I have said it and I say again: Dallin H. Oaks is arguing that it is his religious right to petition the American government to discriminate against anyone – especially gays and lesbians – and that is because there are too many religious ideas in America.
Is that quite a radical idea for the leader of a Church whose founder claimed at the turn of the 19th Century to see angels and talk “face-to-face” with God? Not really – because that founder – Joseph Smith, Jr. – claimed that God told him that he must join no other religions “for they are all wrong”. And that rhetoric is alive and well. Mormonism is not just “any other Church”. It is a dangerous cult that is set upon keeping other people from being able to practice or not practice with immunity. They expect an exclusive right to freedom of religion while refusing to acknowledge that religious liberty that doesn’t cover everyone covers no one.
He goes on to say:
“[a point] was made by a law professor who criticized the involvement of the LDS Church and its members on a contested issue here in California. [He] wrote that the popular support for Proposition 8 was the result of ‘a highly successful effort of a particular religious group – you know who he meant by that – to conscript the power of the state. … This is a serious threat to a free society committed to the principle of separation of church and state. … They are not free—not if they are to act as faithful American citizens—to impose their religious views on others. That is, quite simply, un-American.’
How is it “un-American” and a “serious threat to a free society” for a religious organization and its members to participate in a public process of lawmaking?” — Ibid.
Mr. Oaks, meet Thomas Jefferson.
We have lived to see the end of Libertarian Mormonism – if that was ever a thing to begin with. Gone are the days of Mormons who have read Jefferson who said that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Jefferson – who wrote the precursor to the First Amendment: the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom – was greatly concerned about the separation of Church and State. Years before he coined the term “a wall of Separation between Church and State” in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, he recorded in his notes on Virginia that the House of Burgesses had debated adding the words “Jesus Christ” to his proposed Statute for Religious Freedom so that it would be clear that the values being preserved were Christian values. Jefferson records:
“the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”
Gone are the days of Mormons who believe the author of The Federalist Papers – James Madison – when he said that “Religion and government will both remain more pure, the less they are mixed together.”
Perhaps there will never again be a class of American Mormons who believe, as John Adams wrote, that “The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature…It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven…it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.”
Even worse: I am concerned that this kind of Mormon Americanism ever existed, at all.
It is time for us to address the redefinition of religious liberty as specifically a Mormon problem.
In The Korihor Argument, I talk about how Mormons’ perspective of what religious liberty is, is less about Thomas Jefferson or Rousseau or Paine and more about The Book of Mormon. Far more dangerous than any other fictitious work, The Book of Mormon is dangerous because the principles contained within are considered divine and Dallin H. Oaks’ believing that his right to persecute gays and lesbians is protected by religious liberty is a prime example of that hazard.
The Korihor Argument; A Missionary’s Journey Out of Mormonism is my memoir about how I lost my faith in God while working as a Mormon missionary in Peru. I discuss the title character, Korihor, The Book of Mormon‘s most notorious advocate for atheism. In the opening to Alma 30, there is a lot of talk about how Korihor was allowed to go on blaspheming against God because “the law could have no hold upon him” because a man being prosecuted for his belief would “bring him onto unequal grounds”.
Alma certainly talks a good talk for religious liberty. Yet by the end of the chapter Korihor is nonetheless arrested by the Anti-Nephi-Lehi’s and deported by Ammon. He is then arrested again in Gideon and brought to be judged by Giddonah. He is taken, bound, to Zarahemla to be judged by the chief judge and by the head of the Church. But in the course of being placed into custody three times for nothing more than preaching critical thinking, Korihor is never charged with having committed a crime.
Many a rude Mormon usually interjects at this point of the story (the beginning) to remind me that I believe that this whole debate is nothing more than a work of fiction! That I “shouldn’t worry about it”. That is a conceding argument – it admits that I am right in challenging the characters of not abiding by their own standard of religious liberty by arresting Korihor for his beliefs – but it is also a fair challenge.
Here’s why I worry about it: Mormons liken The Book of Mormon to themselves. And when he gets himself into a position of power and authority, a Mormon generally turns to scripture to resolve day-to-day concerns and nowhere is this more the case than in Joseph Smith, himself.
Elder Oaks obviously has likened the Nephites’ misappropriated idea of religious liberty to himself, here when he says in his keynote that Mormons are being persecuted for exercising their constitutional right to discriminate. You read right: that Mormons in America are guaranteed by the Constitution the right to petition the government to discriminate.
“I now speak to those for whom the ideal of nondiscrimination rivals or exceeds religious freedom. As the powerful principle of nondiscrimination has been accommodated in the law, many rank it above the constitutional guarantee of free exercise of religion, contending that religious freedom must be curtailed wherever it conflicts with nondiscrimination. Accordingly, the Supreme Court decision establishing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage throughout the United States is sometimes cited as creating a moral imperative to enact broad laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBT persons in numerous other circumstances.
To those of this persuasion, I say please respect the laws that provide unique protections for believers and religious institutions.”
Wait: when did our advocating for gay and lesbian Americans to be treated equally under the law make us into “the man” who is keeping religious people down?
Religious liberty is not a guarantee of exclusivity of rights. It is exactly the opposite: the freedom to be protected from the religious persecution of others.
That heading is a little “heady”. Let me expound:
You have the right to own a spoon. You do not have the right to go to sleep at night safely believing that other people who want spoons cannot have them.
You have the right to wear your pants inside out. You do not have the right to sleep peacefully knowing that other people want to wear their pants inside out but cannot.
You have the right to marry an adult of the opposite sex. You do not have the right to sleep at night, secure in knowing that other kinds of people want to marry but cannot.
A nation “contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.”
Elder Oaks claims repeatedly in his keynote that religious values like heterosexual monogamy must be protected because they protect the moral fabric of society (never mind that Mormonism has preached against monogamy for almost as long as they have preached for it). That religious values are treasured as hallmarks of human progress and a buffer between the people and their Big Brother government.
So he pleads that there must be some mediation in the law between people who believe in religious freedom and people who believe in nondiscrimination.
But “religious liberty” is “non-discrimination”. Very plainly, we see that the most important framers of this nation did intend “Freedom of Religion” to incorporate and underscore freedom from religion.
We have heard Oaks’ diatribe about religion and fear of God being the foundation of moral principle from voices as diverse as Jewish rabbis and Christian blowhards all the way to Adolf Hitler, who wrote in Mein Kampf that the foundation of his philosophy (including the Final Solution) was to obey God and purify the Aryan race for God’s righteous work.
I could write a 500+ page book on how Oaks speaks against Americanism when he tries to monopolize goodness for God. In fact, I have already done that and so I leave you with a few more words from The Korihor Argument.
Thomas Jefferson weighed in on this very idea, once, in a letter to Thomas Law, who had sent him a recent edition of his work Second Thoughts on Instinctive Impulses and Jefferson, recently retired from public life, sat down to read it in one sitting. Jefferson’s reply to Law proves him to be one of the deepest thinkers on the subject of morality, behavior and the social contract to have ever lived.
“Some have made the love of God the foundation of morality. This, too, is but a branch of our moral duties, which are generally divided into duties to God and duties to man. If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such being exists. We have the same evidence of the fact as of most of those we act on, to-wit: their own affirmations, and their reasonings in support of them.” (Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814)
It is important to observe that the “being” that Jefferson speaks of as “idle to ignore” is not God but the moral atheist. Were one to truncate this statement down to just “whence arises the morality of the atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such being exists” they would grossly misrepresent Jefferson’s intention, as many Believers do.
“I have observed, indeed, generally, that while in protestant countries the defections from the Platonic Christianity of the priests is to Deism, in catholic countries they are to Atheism. Diderot, D’Alembert, D’Holbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.” (Ibid.)
Jefferson had gotten himself into a lot of trouble while in public service for the way that he praised Atheist philosophers like those mentioned above. But while serving as minister to France, Jefferson was well acquainted with Europe’s most elite scholars. He was known as America’s scholar and resident genius and that kind of fame attracted like minds. Note with particular interest the difference of nations whose societies are predominantly Catholic (like France, where he was minister) vs Protestant countries (like England and America).
Jefferson could be said to be biased here – to speak well of friends or of their pupils – but even if he is biased, it is plain that the author of America’s most fundamental principles of law and government makes a compelling argument that to be virtuous is not necessarily to be pious.
Joe Rawlins is the author of The Korihor Argument; A Missionary’s Journey out of Mormonism.