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Is secularism a threat to religious freedom?

March 09, 2011

Q. A Mormon leader recently made a speech, in which he claimed religious freedom in America is under assault from secularization and a growing gay rights movement.

In his speech, Elder Dallin H. Oaks warned of “an alarming trajectory of events pointing toward constraining the freedom of religious speech by forcing it to give way to the ‘rights’ of those offended by such speech.” Oaks said he believes that freedom of faith is under attack not by legal means, but cultural changes and the “ascendency of moral relativism.” He stressed that these infringements affect all religions, not just Mormonism: “Christians, Jews and Muslims … should unite more effectively to preserve and strengthen the freedom to advocate and practice our religious beliefs, whatever they are.”

One critic responded to Oaks’ speech by saying, “What a certain stripe of religious adherents are asking for is actually an exemption … from laws that apply generally to everyone else — for example, nondiscrimination protections.” The critic also asked whether Elder Oaks’ words were merely “sour grapes” over criticism of the Mormon Church’s involvement in getting Proposition 8 approved in California.

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Do you believe Elder Oaks is correct in saying that the faithful are “under assault?” And is secularization a real danger in a country where about 85% of the population regards itself as religious?

There are undoubtedly some Americans who truly dislike religion and are engaged in activities that could be viewed as an “assault” against people of faith. However, their numbers are so few and insignificant that they can hardly be considered a serious threat to basic religious freedom. In the same vein, while a strong trend toward secularism could theoretically endanger this country’s religious foundations, this is simply not the case in reality. Most Americans either consider themselves religious or respect religion and understand the importance of spirituality in both personal and communal life.

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