The following is adapted from remarks delivered at the 5th International Interfaith Conference, City Montessori School, Lucknow, India, on 12 August 2014.

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If God did not want people to be free to choose their religion and religious beliefs, God would not allow it. 

But, it happens. God does allow it. 

Therefore, it necessarily follows that God wants people to be free to choose their religion and religious beliefs.

From a religious perspective, freedom of religion, including freedom to change one’s religion, is essential to God’s plan and God’s work. From a secular perspective, religious freedom is essential to social and political stability.

I will first address the religious foundation for religious freedom.

Capacity to choose is an essential characteristic of intelligent existence. 

God created men and women as intelligent beings with both the capacity and freedom to choose. In nothing is our freedom to choose more fundamental to our existence than in matters of belief or disbelief about God and religion.

Everything we have and are is a gift from God. The only gift we can give God that is not already His is our love and obedience as an act of free will. So, if anyone were to attempt to compel me to love and obey God, they would not only be trying to rob me of my free gift to God, but would also be robbing God.

To attempt to destroy the freedom of men and women to choose in matters of religion is to attempt to destroy the work of God, which is rebellion against God, not service to God.

I cannot understand the thinking of those who believe God wants them to force others to accept their understanding of God and of God’s will. From a religious perspective, it makes no sense. 

If God wanted mankind to be forced to submit to His divine will, He would not need the help of any mortal or group of mortals to do it. And God certainly would not have given us the capacity to choose in matters of religion if He did not want us to be free to use that capacity. 

As a corollary, if God wanted us all to be of one religion, He would have made it so. 

Obviously, God knows that most people do not change the religion into which they are born, so if God did not want the great diversity of religions that exist in the world He would not send His children to be born into so many different religions, and He would not provide or at least allow so many diverse choices in matters of religion.

We are all in this together. So, when I defend your freedom of religion I defend the very essence of my own life, and when you defend my freedom of religion you defend the essence of your life. 

So, why is freedom of religion under attack on so many fronts today, on so many levels?

There are a lot of reasons, but one reason is that people in power in governments often (1) view religion as competition or an obstacle in their quest for political primacy, or (2) view religious diversity as undermining social solidarity and impeding social progress. 

Well, the fact is that religion should have primacy over politics, so on the first point they may be right. But on the second point they are wrong. Religion can and should always strengthen, not weaken, social solidarity, and should be a powerful source of inspiration for social progress.

Let us compare and contrast religion and politics. Politics is essentially competitive and is all about achieving primacy, with winners and losers in the quest for political power. Religion is all about achieving harmony—harmony with God and between people—an outcome in which everyone wins.

So I ask, thinking in the most practical terms, does the salvation of mankind depend upon achieving political harmony, or religious harmony? 

Because politics is essentially competitive, if the salvation of mankind depends on achieving political harmony then we are lost—an outcome in which everyone wins is contrary to the nature of politics.

But, with human nature being what it is, how is it possible to achieve religious harmony? Isn’t that contrary to human nature?

Let me answer in part by paraphrasing a statement made by a leader of my church, Ezra Taft Benson: 

[God] works from the inside out.  The world works from the outside in.  The world would take people out of the slums.  [God] takes the slums out of people ….  The world would mold men by changing their environment.  [God] changes men, who then change their environment.  The world would shape human behavior, but [God] can change human nature.

There are those who believe that to believe in the power of God to change human hearts and even human nature—if we let Him—is a fantasy and that such religious fantasies have no rational place in political policymaking and governance. There are also those like me who believe the opposite—that God and His power are the ultimate realities, and the fantasy is to believe that a government that ignores or defies the laws of God can succeed in bringing about human harmony, much less survive.

Some see an irreconcilable difference between religious and secular viewpoints, but I do not. I believe that even unbelievers taking a purely secular view of the relationship between religion and government should defend freedom of religion as a central pillar of good government and of building a strong, progressive civil state.

As one of my former law school professors, Cole Durham, observes, “society is both more stable and culturally enriched if it protects a wide [variety] of different communities of belief— both religious and secular.” [1]

Professor Durham goes on to state:

Modern constitutionalism emerged precisely by learning the very hard lesson that interference with the complex and delicate structures of religious communities is far more threatening to social peace than allowing diversity and respect for different groups. [2]

That is hard-nosed political reality that even the most committed atheist can appreciate.

And yet, Professor Durham warns that in the United States and some other modern democracies, “We have moved from a constitutional paradigm in which rights [are] … protected by limiting state power to a paradigm in which the only limits to state power are rights, and rights can be overcome all too easily by powerful state interests.” [3]

Separation of church and state does not mean separation of religion and state. Separation of religion and state inevitably results in state hostility toward religion and religion-based policies. What separation of church and state means is that religious communities should remain autonomous in their affairs and religious practices, free from government regulation and control. It does not mean that religious thought and values have no place in guiding government decisions and policies.

Allowing space for religious thought, practice, and expression is actually a practical political necessity. Why? Because in the modern world governments cannot be maintained indefinitely by force, only by the consent of the governed as a form of social contract in which governments are to serve the interests of the people, not the other way around. 

And if the government begins to interfere with religious affairs or infringing on freedom of religion more than effected religious communities are willing to tolerate, those communities will withdraw from the social contract and the whole fabric of government will start to unravel.

Governments can get away with placing a lot of burdens on their people, but not for long with interfering with their freedom of conscience.

So, some governments and some political groups attempt to politicize religion to serve their political goals, which corrupts both religion and government.

Politics is poisonous to religion, but politics without religion is also poisonous because it separates politics from the ultimate source of intelligence and from the ultimate realities of existence and good government. Bringing religion down to the level of politics denies politics the creative, harmonizing, problem-solving power of religion.

So, how can religion and government be reconciled? The harmony comes by religion guiding the men and women who govern, not by governments interfering in matters of religion.

As a corollary on the reverse side of that coin, I add the observation that some religious leaders seek to gain the protection of government by politicizing their religious teachings and organizations. But, that is a bargain with the devil. 

Not only does politics corrupt religion, once religion does become political it naturally follows that a politicized religion is subject to political regulation and control, which reduces religious freedom, ironically all in the name of protecting religion. Examples abound.

I will conclude with two observations. 

First, there are many differences in belief among religious communities, but they all stress the essentially spiritual nature of human beings and the human experience. We are all children of the same God, and there is something we all inherit from God within us. Consequently, the spiritual power that binds us is greater than the worldly forces that divide us.

Second, it is the spirit and light of God within us that gives those with the spiritual ears to hear and eyes to see the vision needed to solve the world’s problems, national problems, community problems, family problems, and personal problems. 

Even atheists can see that religion is a source of vision, and that religious institutions have no secular peer in teaching, nurturing, and successfully transmitting the basic values of justice, honesty, work, love, and good citizenship. Consequently, freedom of religion, including freedom of religious thought, belief, practice, and expression is essential to good government and healthy communities.

The protection of religious freedom should be a subject on which all believers and unbelievers alike should reasonably be able to unite for the common good—a true win-win proposition.

Endnotes:

[1] W. Cole Durham Jr., "Religion and the World's Constitutions," in W. Cole Durham et al.,  Law, Religion, Constitution (Surrey: Ashgate, 2013), Kindle edition, 514.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 642