Freedom of Religion under attack…again.

I recently read the transcript of Elder Bednar’s address on religious freedom.  Several of the things he said were troubling and problematic in my view. He said:


“I believe it is vital for us to recognize that the sweeping governmental restrictions that were placed on religious gatherings at the outset of the COVID-19 crisis truly were extraordinary,” Elder Bednar explained. “No other event in our lifetime—and perhaps no other event since the founding of this nation—has caused quite this kind of widespread disruption of religious gatherings and worship.” 

As a historian I feel bound to note that this is untrue, the Spanish Flu being an obvious example of a previous disruption of religious gatherings.  It is also an America-centric view, as Latter-Day Saints have had their religious services disrupted for far longer periods of times due to authoritarian anti-religious regimes like the Nazis or the Soviets.  It is also incorrect to suggest that the shuttering of our church meetings came from “sweeping governmental restrictions” at the outset.  The Church issued their order to suspend church meetings on March 11th, which was within days of several states (including Oregon, my state) making the same ruling.  Many other states did so much later.  And as we all know, there was no “sweeping governmental” (if by that we mean federal guidelines or assistance) anything.  You can easily look at the state-by-state executive orders to see that there was a great deal of variation.  Some states included banning church gatherings in stay-at-home restrictions (Maine, California, Oregon many others).  Some allowed only gatherings that could maintain social distance and limited the numbers of participants, usually to ten or fewer (Connecticut,  North Carolina, Oklahoma, many others).   Still others deemed religious services to be essential and placed no significant restrictions (Florida, North Dakota, others).   The Church’s own guidelines for re-opening regionally involve local and regional authorization first, so there isn’t any direct confrontation that I can see.  The Church is not trying to do something that States are preventing them from doing.  So from a purely factual standpoint, Elder Bednar’s point was misleading at best.

“Americans and many others throughout the free world learned firsthand what it means for government to directly prohibit the free exercise of religion.”

Freedom of religion, as put forth in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, prohibits the government from encouraging or promoting religion in any way.  The government cannot declare an official religion or give financial support to religion.  The government cannot penalize you for your religious beliefs.  No one has stopped members from reading scriptures, praying, sharing their beliefs online, having zoom meetings, sharing the Gospel, having the Sacrament at home or any other religious expression.  You can’t do it in a large group.  But that is freedom of assembly, not freedom of religion.  

I’m not denying the importance of gathering to religious expression.  But my own experience has been that it is the Church, and not my State, that is denying me that.  Oregon prohibits gatherings, including religious gatherings.  But it is my Area Authority that decided we aren’t allowed to have Sunday devotionals on zoom anymore.  We did for about a month, and then he decided they were wrong, and now I’ve had no spiritual contact with my ward in about two months.  But that isn’t Oregon.  That’s the Area Presidency, for no discernible reason and with no coherency of policy.  Other areas are having meetings.  The Oregon Eugene missionaries have an hour long virtual Sacrament Meeting every Sunday.  So if gathering is so essential to our religion, perhaps we can look within before we start pointing fingers at the deficiencies of our government.

“As we have just experienced, religious freedom can quickly be swept aside in the name of protecting other societal interests. Despite COVID-19 risks, North American jurisdictions declared as essential numerous services related to alcohol, animals, marijuana, and other concerns. But often religious organizations and their services were simply deemed nonessential, even when their activities could be conducted safely. In the name of protecting physical health and security or advancing other social values, government often acted without regard to the importance of protecting spiritual health and security. It often seemed to forget that securing religious freedom is as vital as physical health.”

The fundamental difficulty here lies in the question of whose freedom.  Is it right for me to decide that my religious freedom is more important than your physical health?  The well-known adage goes “my right to swing my fist ends where the other fellow’s nose begins.”  The government’s obligation is to protect everyone’s safety.  If your religion endangers someone else’s life, then your religion is going to get some restrictions slapped on it.  Civil liberties do not give anyone an absolute right to do what they want regardless of endangering other people.  I go to church with my ward, then three days later sneeze when bringing groceries to my non-member father. Suddenly my freedom of religion has become an infringement on his freedom not to die.

I’m not going to argue about whether pets or marijuana are essential.  I will say, however, that it is much easier to carry forward these services with minimal exposure risk than it would be to have a large in-person church service.  Like any other retail or medical field, there are adaptations that allow these businesses to continue in modified conditions.  Just like, I might add, the Church has continued in modified conditions.  The states weren’t authorizing big ol’ pet or pot parties.  

“In the same state, my Church could not perform baptisms even under the safest of conditions.”

I am struggling to imagine what the “safest of conditions” might be – every person would have to be in the same family because of the physical proximity necessary to perform and witness a baptism and confer the gift of the Holy Ghost.  A member of the Bishopric would also need to be present to allow it to happen, as a general rule.  So you’d need a minimum of four people (baptizer, baptizee, two adult witnesses).  Could this theoretically happen for the child of a member of a bishopric with the suitable number of people? Yes.  But that would then beg the question of justice – why should the Bishop’s daughter get to be baptized, but others cannot? Why should you get to be baptized if you belong to a large member family, but if you are an only child quarantining with one parent you could not?  How would you enforce that?  Do you imagine for an instant that Mormons would abide by that restriction if there were even the slimmest loophole? I seriously doubt it.  And so these “safest of conditions” would no longer be met.

I have a lot to object to, clearly.  But I have two much larger concerns.  First, this is a dangerous pronouncement to make in a national environment where disdain for safety is high while the cases continue to skyrocket.  When you start to paint government restrictions as attacks on freedom of religion it gives a powerful justifier to people who didn’t want to wear a mask anyway to go out and endanger other people.  In addition to the many nebulous claims of “freedom” that we hear about why individuals shouldn’t have to keep six feet away or avoid having parties or wear uncomfortable masks or constantly wash themselves you now get to add the very powerful and very persuasive “an Apostle said the government is putting forward restrictions that are an attack on freedom of religion.”  Did Elder Bednar say masks were an attack on freedom of religion? No.  But it provides a very easy justification for rejection of government authority as inherently malevolent and intrusive, an attack on God and God’s people.

Second, the timing of this public complaint of attack is bad.  Right now there are millions of Americans who are calling out very real governmental oppression –oppression that results in death, maiming, wrongful imprisonment, poverty, hunger.  Not the “oppression” of having small gatherings or meeting virtually instead of in person.  Real oppression.  Right now members of the Church should be addressing racism.  Since Church membership is majority white, that means that Church members should be doing the hard work of thinking about the ways that we are complicit in oppression.  It is time to wrestle with the reality that in some important ways, I am the bad guy and I need to try to fix it.  It is not comfortable, or pleasant, or easy.  But it is what God is calling white people to do.  

However, Elder Bednar’s narrative is one of victimhood and oppression.  The ones who are suffering at the hands of government and who deserve relief are us! Well that was a relief! For about two weeks there I was really feeling upset and rotten because of my white privilege.  It sure is nice to go back to believing that I am the real victim here! I am not only a good guy but am in fact a righteous warrior for freedom! My freedom, not someone else’s freedom that might involve me doing some hard thinking and changing.

I agree with Elder Bednar that our government has some serious problems and we need to be awake and alive to them.  I do not agree that temporary restrictions to protect the most vulnerable in a time of pandemic are a form of persecution.  If we could be trusted to put the safety and freedom of other people first with our every thought and deed, governing ourselves with those principles ever in mind then yes, these restrictions would be inappropriate and unnecessary.  That is not who we are as a people right now.

You may also like...

33 Responses

  1. It is interesting that your Area Authority didn’t allow Zoom meetings. The North American Northeast area authorities must be using a different playbook as I know of at least 1 stake in Ontario that has a weekly broadcast conducted by the Stake President.

    • Em says:

      The leadership roulette is really frustrating to me on this. It is especially so because if you happen to have a personal contact who is in an area that allows meetings then it is easy to attend their zoom meeting. But if your church contact consists of your own area, and your area authority decides you’re not allowed to have devotionals, then that’s it. And furthermore even if you’re allowed to meet, your Bishop might not want to organize it or might not have the technological savvy or access to do it. While I wouldn’t want to watch a devotional from Salt Lake every week, some kind of framework or tutorial or guidelines for leaders might help. As it is I’m guessing they wanted to have flexibility across regions because of the variation in state regulations, but the result was policy that was up to the whims of area authorities and bishops

  2. Jason says:

    Jumping on Josh Biggley’s comment, I think there is a bit of leadership roulette happening. Here in Kitchener Ontario Stake we’ve been hosting weekly Sunday School lessons. In the Hamilton Ontario Stake, the wards have been having weekly Sacrament Meetings.

  3. Elisa says:

    Amen, amen, amen. These remarks were intellectually dishonest fear-mongering.

  4. TL says:

    I think there is a very good reason for the government to issue restrictions on gathering. We simply cannot rely on individual churches to do the right thing and protect the citizens. In Eastern Oregon there was an outbreak when a Pentecostal Church ignored restrictions put in place by the Governor and held religious services and a school graduation, and possibly more things such as a wedding. It was reported “ At least 236 coronavirus cases are tied to Lighthouse Pentecostal Church, near La Grande in Union County. The number of cases in Union County increased tenfold, from 22 to 240, in three days after the outbreak came to light.” I have friends in the La Grande area and they are NOT happy about what this church did. Their county has now had to go backward in re-opening. I don’t feel like my religious freedom has been infringed on at all. I’m still able to worship God anyway I choose, just not in a big crowd.
    https://www.oregonlive.com/coronavirus/2020/06/everything-we-know-about-the-eastern-oregon-church-at-the-center-of-states-largest-coronavirus-outbreak.html

    • Em says:

      I completely agree. Many of our hotspots around the nation have been due to worship services. The belief that when you’re serving God, God will protect you is strong. And in a spiritual sense it is true. But God isn’t going to slay a virus for your choir practice, and we obviously cannot trust individuals to act accordingly. And as an Oregonian I’m not thrilled either. I’m too far from La Grande to be directly affected, but it ripples in terms of state-wide regulations and also it jumpstarted our numbers climbing again.

  5. BJH says:

    I no longer believe in Mormonism, but remain interested and hopeful. The current Big 15 — every single one of them — consistently disappoint with their off-topic, banal and tone deaf “messages.” It’s as if they’re engaged in some sort of sick and bizarre race to determine who can be the most disingenuous and the most unlikeable. Right now Elder Bednar holds the lead, but I expect Elder Oaks and President Nelson will continue to give him a run for the money, all 125 billion of it.

  6. Ziff says:

    Great response, Em. I think your very last point about Elder Bednar being determined to frame this moment as one when Mormons are victims is spot on. He’s so very wrong, and so tone deaf, to be complaining about such a relatively small issue (and one that, as you point out, the Church actually chose on its own!) when there are so many larger issues we’re facing!

    • Em says:

      Thank you. The Church needs to do more than issue statements like “racism is bad and we should love each other.” Immediately moving on to “but back to us” suggests there a lack of real soul-searching about racial justice going on.

  7. Caroline says:

    I love everything about this, Em. Yes, indeed. Tone deaf. Misleading. Playing the victim. This talk was an embarrassing moment for the church.

  8. It was SO problematic. I had an enormous issue with his framing–complaining about government control, and then also discussing church in terms of control–the phrase that sticks in my mind was “the flock will scatter”. His concern wasn’t about feeding the sheep or the need for us to join together as the body of Christ in community to strengthen and share our struggles to follow Jesus, they were about the church losing control over their congregants.

    If there really had been concern for the well being of the flock, they could have organized a round-robin of videoed services, recordings, or written messages to distribute online, through email, or even printed on paper and mailed to some locations if that were necessary. Considering the EFFORTS I saw my Twitter pastors undertaking to care for their small congregations, and knowing that local areas were largely prohibited from doing the same, without anything taking it’s place from above is boggling.

    This sheep is definitely looking for green pastures and still waters where the Lord invites us, instead of coercing us.

    • Em says:

      I agree with what we could be doing to feed sheep. Also, working more diligently on that would only increase our ministry when the church reconvened. What if we used this time as an institution to really master the art of ministering to and teaching and meeting needs for people who are housebound, who live far from meeting houses etc.? What if it wasn’t just the deacons bringing you the sacrament in a nursing home once a month if you’re lucky? What if, going forward, we had a mechanism for drawing in sheep with social anxiety, with physical or mental disabilities, with responsibilities that kept them from regular attendance.

      It will be a very strange adjustment to go back to church, that is for sure. This is the most fun Sunday has been in a long time. I miss my ward, I miss having other people bring new ideas and thoughts to the table, I miss having other people do some of the spiritual legwork of preparing lessons and talks. I very much miss singing hymns and hearing the organ. But I think when church starts again I might miss having a Sunday morning that was free of fighting into uncomfortable clothes, free of a giant tote bag of entertainment and snacks. I’ll miss having so much time for the new tradition of the Sunday hike.

  9. Rachel says:

    He listed several COVID-19 “wake up calks”… the deficiencies in our health care system, American dependence on foreign manufacturers, the struggle of living pay check to paycheck and relying on immediate delivery of goods and services etc. As a supposed mouth piece of God, he could have used his power of revelation to help the world figure out these problems. But he chooses to focus on the imaginary attack on religious freedom. I understand how the importance and significance of gathering together to worship. I validate anyone who is missing and grieving church attendance. But these restrictions were not put in place to attack religion.

    Others have already said it, but this is tone deaf. One of the reasons that I became disillusioned with the prophets is because I woke up to real suffering and tragedy in the world. I wanted God’s prophets, seers, and revelators to tell us how to end, or at least alleviate, the suffering in the world. But they always seem to focus on trivial issues.

    • Em says:

      I’d love to hear more about how we can respond to the Covid-19 Wake-up calls we can receive. What are we going to do as an institution, and as Saints, to respond to these divine calls? How are we going to address health care disparities? What should we as saints do to relieve the wealth disparity? Where is the clarion rebuke to the current GOP policies that do little to address health care for the vulnerable or wealth redistribution? We’ve heard the call. How are we going to answer? How is the Church planning to answer?

  10. Anon says:

    Thank you for writing this. I feel the same way. You are spot on.

  11. Di says:

    This was an excellent rebuttal. I haven’t wanted to watch the whole video which means I have only seen snippets of the text here and there. It bothers me to see the ‘faithful’ sharing it on FB. We already see the massive fallout from relaxation of Covid protocols. His rhetoric only gives fuel to all the deniers. I think at least in my community in Canada members are taking a more cautious return to services and many of my generation won’t be attending anytime soon.

  12. Hedwig says:

    I can hear the old question “Are you speaking as Brother Bednar, or are you speaking as the Prophet?” After all, if he’s being Brother Bednar, then he’s just an old white dude with a captive audience (yeah he should do better, but he’s spouting his probably sincerely held political opinions as people do). But if he’s speaking prophetically, as the “prophet, seer and revelator” he is sustained as every general, stake, and ward conference, then this is highly problematic. Also, if he’s speaking as Brother Bednar but letting us believe he’s speaking as a Prophet, that is also problematic (worth a thunderbolt?).

    But, how are we to know? How were we to know when Brigham Young was being his cooky self and when he was being a prophet, back in the day? Only through hindsight, and subsequent prophets saying “Nope, that’s not doctrine.” Big stuff (Adam-God) and little (aliens on the moon). But in the moment all we have is our own judgement and the Holy Ghost, and faith that “God is not a jerk.” Which of course means that there will be as many opinions as there are people. And does HE know when he isn’t speaking prophetically? If so, doesn’t he have an obligation to tell us?

    This is also the problem with current revelation being able to contradict previous revelation. It could go anywhere.

    • Emily says:

      I’ve forgotten specifics of where/how, but I feel like I’ve heard that Bednar is pretty insistent that he should always be treated/interpreted as an apostle…to the point that even his wife is extra-deferential. Take that with a grain of salt, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it.

    • CD says:

      The church posted it in the newsroom, so are we to take it that they endorse the comments?

      https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/bednar-byu-religious-freedom-review-speech

    • Em says:

      The line is super problematic to find. Yes it came from the Church Newsroom which is where I first encountered it (well, from a fbook friend sharing it actually…) but then Brigham Young and subsequent guys said a lot of their stuff in General Conference. And it is an interesting question to ask whether HE knows if he is speaking prophetically. The Spirit can be quite easy to mistake. Think of how often you hear talks saying that they sat in Mass and felt all empty and awful, but then went to a random church building and felt peace. Maybe that comes from the deep sense of comfort of knowing where the bathroom is, knowing what the ritual is, feeling like everyone around you “gets” you and agrees with you, being in a space that looks exactly like home etc. etc. The Comforter is not the same thing as feeling comfortable. And the Spirit of Truth is not the same thing as saying what you firmly believe to be true. We’re all guilty of it — when we feel very, very, right we think that we’re on God’s side. The only difference is that my vehemence has a very small audience and nobody thinks for an instant that I speak for anyone other than myself.

  13. Hedwig says:

    Having looked again at the venue of this talk, I’d say that this is Elder Bednar speaking as Conservative Speaker at Conservative Educational Speaking Venue. He was also being very human in his “the things that are important to me are of course the most important of all the things,” way of looking at things. To be human is to err, and he showed his humanity.

    But as a representative of the church at all times and in all places, he should still have done better, on a factual level if nothing else.

    • Em says:

      And it shouldn’t be reported by the Church Newsroom, because I think a lot of members see that as the nuggets that come forth between conferences. If it isn’t intended as a proclamation to the entire church, don’t promote it to the entire church.

  14. Chiaroscuro says:

    Amen! I was so frustrated by Bednar’s remarks and appreciate your analysis of how this is a dangerous stance he decided to take

  15. CD says:

    Also, he even quoted “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

    And Alma 32:9-11:
    9 Behold thy brother hath said, What shall we do?—for we are cast out of our synagogues, that we cannot worship our God.

    10 Behold I say unto you, do ye suppose that ye cannot worship God save it be in your synagogues only?

    11 And moreover, I would ask, do ye suppose that ye must not worship God only once in a week?

  16. Bam says:

    Yes! Thank you. I read the speech and felt sick to my stomach. Just more fuel to the fire. So over how the church plays victim instead of leading the charge in freeing the truly oppressed.

  17. Allyson Reynolds says:

    (Trying to get the guts to post this on social media while knowing I will be considered on the slippery slope of apostasy for doing so…) Everything here is spot on. I would also add: what happened to to all our praise and self congratulating about how our prophet had prepared us so well for home church and the emphasis on the Sabbath so in the absence of the traditional church gathering we could still carry on?

  18. Robin VanderRoest says:

    Thank you for your well-written response to troubling remarks.

  19. Larry Mann says:

    Religious freedom in the United States applies to individuals – NOT to institutions.
    This is something Elder Bednar doesn’t seem to comprehend, and because he doesn’t understand this, his position is nonsense.
    An individual can join any church she or he wants, and believe whatever she or he wants. That’s freedom of religion. But an institution can’t do whatever its leaders want just because that institution happens to be a church. Otherwise, churches could get away with all kinds of organized crime.
    It’s that simple. Bednar is terribly, terribly confused.

  20. EmilyB says:

    Thank you for this. His remarks felt so tone deaf and privileged while our cities were burning and black mothers mourn children killed by cops with impunity. Also as a Mormon sex abuse survivor whose entire religion completely ignored #MeToo (present company excepted of course), I honestly do not care about his white male first world gripes about cancelled gatherings. When Bednar starts caring about the black lives and raped girls within the congregations whose meetings seem to matter more to him than the people inside them, maybe then I will start caring about the losses to Bednar’s religious empire due to reduced member gatherings.

  21. Harold Thompson says:

    I was frankly shocked at Elder Bednar’s address. Governments around the world shut down ALL gatherings of people. It had nothing to do with religion. Now all I see are semi-literate Church members who are hyper right wing John Birch Society/Illuminati types going on about it.

    I would also point out that it was the PROPHET who shut our meetings down world wide, is he a member of some secret combination?

    Not a very well thought through address at all.

  22. Tanya says:

    Fantastic response. Thank you for very so clearly articulating all the ideas I had while reading that article.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.