How to Lose the Fight for Religious Freedom

The following op-ed, written by our president Connor Boyack, was published this weekend in the Daily Herald.

Elder Lance B. Wickman, general counsel for the LDS Church, spoke last week to a crowd concerned about religious freedom. In his remarks, he outlined a strategy for winning the fight for religious freedom. While the goal is an important one that I and many Utahns share, I worry that the strategy is unlikely to succeed.

Before explaining why, consider an analogy. Imagine we’re in a war. Some people decide that we need to use soldiers to defend the munitions factory so that the enemy can’t destroy our ability to produce weapons. While a phalanx of guards protect this factory, the enemy destroys the barely-guarded mines from which the factory receives the raw materials necessary to create the weapons. Now all that’s left is a well-guarded shell of a building that isn’t worth much, since the materials are missing.

This is effectively the strategy that Elder Wickman advocated — a narrow focus on, and prioritization of, a “core” of religious freedoms. Outside of that inner circle reside freedoms that deserve less of our attention and effort if religious freedom is to be preserved, he claimed.

But focusing on religious freedom narrowly is like protecting the munitions factory as the key stronghold of defense. We should take a moment to consider what the raw materials are — the things that make religious freedom possible. It is these foundational freedoms that deserve our attention and ardent support. Protecting them will, by extension, guarantee religious freedom.

The “core” of religious freedom that Elder Wickman described includes the right to personal belief and worship, missionary work, and autonomy for churches in their internal affairs. We might add to this list the ability to construct and manage holy buildings for religious rituals and instruction. All of these aspects of religion — and more — are an outgrowth of two foundational rights: property rights and the freedom of association.

An individual’s right to property includes personal autonomy and ownership and control of real property. Protecting this right secures for religious individuals the right to personal belief, construction of religious buildings, and organizational autonomy. With property rights, there is zero question that religious people can use them for their benefit — just as irreligious people can exercise the same right to abstain from such practices and purposes.

An individual’s right to free association includes the right to congregate with fellow worshippers, share the gospel with those interested, hire like-minded people, and excommunicate or exclude those who do not share the same belief system or behavioral standards. With the freedom of association, religious people can affiliate with those who share their values — just as irreligious people can disassociate themselves from these same people.

These two foundational rights are the reason religious freedom exists at all. Without them, it becomes little more than a buzzword. They are the raw materials necessary to build our defensive arsenal; we should protect them at all costs.

To the extent that patriotic people of faith are counseled to focus on religious freedom to the exclusion of or apathy towards other rights — especially the two foundational ones that make religious freedom possible — then we may very well lose the battle. We must guard against becoming too myopic in our self-interested quest for religious self-preservation.

Joseph Smith, founder of the LDS Church, once stated, “I am the greatest advocate of the Constitution of the United States there is on the earth. In my feelings I am always ready to die for the protection of the weak and oppressed in their just rights.” Shouldn’t we similarly advocate for the equal rights for all, rather than the First Amendment rights for people of faith?

If we fail to protect property rights and the freedom of association — the real “core” of religious freedom — then it will only be a matter of time before we find ourselves guarding an empty building that has lost its value and purpose.