LDS leader Oaks urges retention of religious values in public debate

Dallin H. Oaks, who is an apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a former member of the Utah Supreme Court, spoke last week at Utah Valley University. What’s unique about the address is Oaks spoke as a legal expert, rather than as a theologian.

In the speech, Oaks cited two distinct legal strategies that he maintains are used to diminish religious values and attempt to disqualify it as an argument in public speech. Oaks describes one as the theory of public reason, tagging it as an “incredible claim that laws cannot be based on religious morality” and that “religion is said to be a private matter rather than a public matter.” … “He also described ‘a companion technique‘ of dismissing religious values and arguments as irrational or reflecting ‘impermissible animus (hatred).’” (Deseret News, April 18). (Read)

Oaks further added: “Accusations of bigotry or animus leveled at those who promote an adverse position have a chilling effect on speech and public debate on many important issues.” … “Both freedom of speech and freedom of religion are jeopardized when their advocates are disparaged as being motivated by hatred.”

Oaks argued that “religious leaders and religiously motivated persons should have the same privileges of speech and participation as any other persons or leaders.” (Standard-Examiner, April 21) (Read)

Oaks’ concern is that the legal theory of public reason will have an adverse consequence to free speech, by eliminating religious-based arguments, either by having them dismissed as irrational or hateful. He added that this leads to consequences such as someone losing their livelihood or other positions.

Oaks is correct on how political correctness has chilled free speech of late. In the debate over gay marriage, some supporters have attempted with success to tar opponents of gay marriage as bigots. In their minds, opposition to gay marriage based on religious-based beliefs in traditional marriage is unacceptable, and has been compared to opposition to mixed-race marriages.

That kind of reasoning is demagogic, and when it’s used to try to push someone from their livelihood it has a strong relationship to efforts in totalitarian nations.

My wife is a Hungarian native. Her father supported the 1956 Hungarian revolution. After it failed, he was imprisoned. It’s been explained to me that growing up under communism, if an individual, or family, did not exercise “correct” speech on certain political or social issues, they did not get the most preferred jobs, or they lost jobs they already had, or they were shunned as “bad citizens” and isolated from situations or relationships deemed respectable by the prevailing social and political order. In short, they were accused of being haters, with opinions unworthy of debate.

It would be a real tragedy if the remnants of totalitarianism wormed their way successfully into public debate in the United States. Oaks believes that the strong history of tolerance and diversity in the United States bodes well for the future of religious freedom of speech.

I certainly hope so. If gay marriage rights are secured, I’ll be in accord. Marriage strengthens commitment and families, and that’s a good thing. But I don’t want all religious opposition to gay marriage shoved into a box labeled “hater” or “bigot.” That’s anti-democratic, and reflects badly on the accuser, not the accused.

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6 Responses to LDS leader Oaks urges retention of religious values in public debate

  1. Gregory A. Clark says:

    ‘Tis said that calling theists who oppose equal rights “bigots” “reflects badly on the accuser, not the accused.” An interesting proposition.
    So, let’s see.

    The Mormon church *still today* officially proclaims and promotes Romans 1:24-32 as a “basic belief.” That official scripture states that gays and lesbians are “filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity…and worthy of death.”

    Just wonderin’: Does this blanket characterization reflect badly on the Mormon Church and on its basic beliefs? And is it bigotry, or not? If not, what is?

    Mormon scripture *still today* proclaims that black skin is a curse from God (2 Nephi 5). Does this claim reflect badly on the Mormon Church and on its holy scriptures? And is this claim bigotry, or not? If not, what is?

    Jesus the Christ, the only perfect man ever to walk the earth, proclaimed faithless foreigners and nonbelievers to be “swine” and “dogs.” Does this reflect badly on Christ the accuser, not the accused? And is this bigotry, or not? If not, what is?

    At some point, a person who repeatedly espouses bigotry is rightfully called a bigot.

    And bigotry gets no free pass simply because it’s religious bigotry.

  2. Bob Becker says:


    When someone finds Mr. Oaks’ speech [or yours, or mine] irrational, or even hateful, and says so, free speech has in NO way been limited or endangered. It’s merely been exercised. What Mr. Oaks seems to be arguing is that religous speech [which commonly means Christian speech in the US] be again accorded the privileged place it has often been accorded in American public discourse, simply because it is religous speech. No. Religous speech will have to convince listeners of its rationality and compassion and not be simply assumed a priori to reflect those virtues because it is religious speech. Those critical of religious speech as irrational or hateful, remember, don’t have to be right. Very often, I think they’re not. [For example, I don't think everyone whose faith tells him gay sex is sinful is hateful. Wrong, yes; hateful, no. Though some of course are: Westboro Baptist Church e.g.] From a free speech point of view, though, it doesn’t matter. If we allowed, as a people and nation, only speech which was right [in the judgment of law and government presumably?] we’d truly have resurrected the totalitarianism you [wrongly] seem to think we’re edging toward regarding religious speech in the public square.

    I can understand why Christian spokesmen [and women] are unhappy that their faith seems to be losing the privileged place it has often held in public places in the US [e.g. in public schools for example. No, public school teachers can no longer begin the school day by leading their classes in prayer. And no, religious doctrine can no longer be taught as science in public schools. Just two examples.] But such spokesmen, sadly Oaks among them, are not I think complaining about a potential loss of equality. They’re complaining that they are being treated equally in public discussion, in the public prints, in the media [all kinds], many of them for the first time.

    Throughout most of our history, the gravest threat to religious liberty has come from the pious, from one Christian religious group, locally a majority, using the power of law to suppress those who were of a different Christian confession because they believed it to be god’s will and commandment that they do so. Remember, when Jefferson penned his famous letter talking about the separation of church and state under the Constitution, he was writing to a group of Christians [Baptists] in Connecticut who were worried that other Christians [Congregationalists] there would, under the Constitution, be able to continue discriminating against them legally and perhaps to bend the new national government to that end. Remember, it was the good Puritan Christians of Massachusetts who hanged Quaker missionaries. God’s will, of course. The plain fact is much religious speech in our history has been irrational and hateful. Certainly Mormons aware of their own history should not have to be reminded of that. Those who think religious speech is based on unreason and intolerance are not entirely without reason for so thinking.

    The point is, at no time in our history as British colonies or as a nation has religious liberty been better protected by government and law than it is now. At no time in our history has the probability of a local religious majority being able to suppress or punish a minority faith by law been lower. At no time. I’m afraid Mr. Oaks has succomed to the Christian Right’s persecution complex and given way to irrational and wholly unfounded fears.

    For many Americans, more than ever before, the time during which a clerical collar or the title Reverend or Pastor or Bishop or Prophet or Pope brought with it automatic respect and the presumption of rationality and good will is over. And I think we are a better nation, and a stronger people, for it.

    PS: the Se would do a service for its readers if it would put up on line the whole of Mr. Oaks’ speech, or a link to it. Otherwise all we have to go on is reporters’ takes on what he said, or yours. [You attribute to his speech significantly more optimism regarding the future of free speech in the US than have other reporters of this talk.] Mr. Oaks deserves to have his ideas rejected as unfounded, and perhaps even irrational, if they are to be, after he’s made his best case in his own words.

    • Bob Becker says:

      So would I (with one snall caveat. ) Certainly true that diversity (of opinion) is the natural product of liberty. And should be. And is a good thing. And that the goal of public discussion should always be persuasion, not coercion. I’d have signed the ad.

      Now the small caveat: boycotting a businessman who you think holds (for you) repellant ideas is itself a form of speech. When I first moved to Louisiana and needed a heating/ac repair guy, my neighbors recommended a company called “Confederate Heat and Air.” Big Confederate battle flag on their ads and trucks. I found someone else. To take it to an extreme, if I discovered my plumber was a Klansman, I’d find another plumber. I agree such actions can be taken to extremes, as I think they probably were with the exec who resigned over opposition to his (private) Prop 8 donation. But in the end, boycotting a businessman out of opposition to hs ideas is an exercise of free speeh too, however ill-advised or even unjust I might consider it

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